India Music Summit: Seeking the lost note
In an atmosphere reminiscent of the early days of the Jaipur Literature Festival, aficionados and performers of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, ghazal, folk and jazz came together last weekend (27-29 October) at the MTV India Music Summit, to jam and hobnob against the backdrop of the stark Aravalli hills and the princely hotel interiors of the Fairmont Jaipur.
A few days before the music summit began, it lost its opening act: Renowned thumri singer Girija Devi, 88, died just three days before she was to take the stage at the event alongside Pandit Jasraj. When the summit opened with its anthem Ek Saccha Sur (one true note), composed by lyricist Prasoon Joshi and singer-music director Shankar Mahadevan, the screen exploded with images of performers who had passed on: among others, Indian classical exponents Gangubai Hangal, Kishori Amonkar and M.S. Subbulakshmi. It’s not surprising, then, that the conversations that unfolded over the next three days explored the themes of loss, mourning, transformation and change in Indian music.
Performance and conversation did not compete for attention as much as they sat harmoniously together. Grieving the passing of his would-have-been co-performer, Pandit Jasraj’s opening performance led to a talk with Joshi about the changing nature of the classical Hindustani form in this age of technology. During the discussion on music lyrics between folk musician Jasbir Jassi, Joshi and Hindustani classical singer Sunanda Sharma, there emerged a spontaneously composed ode to Girija Devi. The singers were accompanied on the keyboard by five-time Grammy award-winning producer Jeff Bhasker.
Joining in the conversation, Bhasker commented that music was not at all a universal language, and that he had had great difficulty understanding the language of the Hindustani singers he had worked with. Jassi added that to most Indian musicians, the hip hop genre (in which Bhasker works) came across as individualistic and ego-centric. Bhasker argued that hip hop’s individualism was a small testimonial to the collective oppression experienced by African-Americans.
Contributing to the conversations on myriad cultures within music, the “Women In Music” panel featured thumri and khayal performer Kaushiki Chakraborty and folk music vocalist and Bollywood singer Sona Mohapatra, among others, and chronicled the progress women have made in the performing arts. Later, jazz and soul singer Vasundhara Vee and Chakraborty celebrated women musicians, who always seemed to be “talking back” to the stereotypes in which female performers in the Indian languages were associated with courtesans, and those who sang in English, with cultural betrayal.
Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna continued the theme of “talking back”, elaborating on the historical boundaries of class and caste and the way in which these limit people’s capacity to enjoy music. Arguing that it should be part of the musician’s ethic to break such boundaries, Krishna suggested questioning traditional structures while performing and choosing performance spaces that would allow crossing the boundaries of caste and class.
In the evening, the music spilled on to the lawns and into the magnificent tea lounge of the Fairmont, where classic and folk instruments and voices had their own conversations with saxophone and jazz piano.