This year one of the most prestigious festivals of Indian classical music, Tansen Samaroh, held annually at Gwalior, featured a concert by Swedish guitarist Johannes Moller in western classical guitar.
Winner of the GFA (Guitar Foundation of America) award in 2010, Moller, a self-taught guitarist and prolific composer, has earned popularity across global audiences with his lucid artistry.
Placing Moller amid the stalwarts of Indian classical music, a rarity for Tansen Samaroh, may have surprised a few, but not those who have seen him play. Moller often sits cross-legged, the way sitar artists do, strumming compositions like Rasleela, Ananda, Song to the Mother, Night Flame, Drops of Silk, and Future Hope, all based on Indian sounds and ragas, and written for the classical guitar.
His inclusion at the Samaroh is recognition of Moller’s rare contribution to the vast repertoire of Indian music. It also helps the Indian classical guitarists—who rarely draw large audiences—achieve a share of the limelight. The Tansen Samaroh is attended by thousands of discerning listeners and broadcast live by major television channels.
In the centenary decade of the event (this year is the 93rd edition), the organizers decided to give the festival an international reach. “The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, was of the view that since the world is opening up in so many different ways, why not open it culturally too,” says Rahul Rastogi, deputy director of the Ustad Alauddin Khan Sangeet Academy that organizes Tansen Samaroh.
“The decision to introduce western classical music was also to dispel the myth that it’s noisy. We wanted to introduce our sensitive audience to appreciate rich cultural traditions of other countries. We asked Moller to play here after we came to know about his performances in the Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival (CICGF) for the past several years (Moller has been performing at CICGF since 2010). The audience response to him was tremendous,” Rastogi adds.
Music needs cultural memory
Moller’s Indianization of the classical guitar eases the way for hundreds of classical guitarists in the country who feel at a loss when faced with audiences unfamiliar with western classical music.
Biplav Singh Rajput, a Kolkata-based professional classical guitarist and composer, says, “For years, I’ve been a practitioner of classical guitar but even my parents couldn’t relate to my music till I transcribed (Rabindranath) Tagore’s Bhenge Mor Ghorer Chabi for classical guitar, retaining its folk-ish flavour. They (parents) loved it because they could relate to it.”
An increasing number of Indian classical guitarists have come to realize that music needs a cultural memory to become popular, even for the classical guitar with its gentle appeal of fine tonality.
But Moller’s inspiration was different. Listening to recordings of the sitar and tabla as a child, the music captured his imagination. “I thought it was divine, it came from another planet. There is a constant interplay between rhythm and melody in Indian music, they are like two elements whirling together and each raga has a different evocative tonality,” he says a day after the CICGF in Kolkata.
Moller says he has had an Indian influence since childhood when he, with his mother, would visit Indian families based in Stockholm.
The 36-year-old gave his first public concert when he was 13—since then he has performed over 500 times, at venues spanning Europe, South and North America and Asia.
In 2008, he won the Dutch Vriendenkrans Concours, competing against all instrumental categories. As part of this award, his name has been engraved on a metal plate that can be seen in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
Among his many albums, China (2017), Mertz (2014), When the Wind Dissolves (2011), and Johannes Moller Plays Spanish Music (2011) are perhaps the best known.
It was about 10 years ago when Moller started adapting the classical guitar to play Indian music.
“I changed the tuning of my guitar. I started experimenting with ways to use the guitar. Just as Indian stringed instruments would play melody on one string and the rest of the strings would resonate it, I tried to achieve the same on guitar,” Moller says.
His first composition that imitates Indian musical sounds is Ananda and he plays his Indian compositions with the accompaniment of the tabla. Rasleela is yet another popular composition. “When I came up with this tune, I thought of the legend of Lord Krishna, and I thought of (the name) Rasleela,” he says, smiling.
Why the twain shall meet
There are sizeable communities of classical guitarists in India—Goa, the northeast Kolkata, Pune, Bengaluru and Delhi have emerged as major centres. Yet the gap between the ‘western’ nature of the classical guitar and the ‘Indianness’ that classical audiences expect in India have proven challenging to bridge.
Enthused with the success of Bhenge Mor Ghorer Chabi, Rajput plans to transcribe more Indian music, even popular numbers of Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi. “I am doing more arrangements, as folk-ish as possible. The idea came to me while travelling to Shanti Niketan (in West Bengal). The sounds of Baul music (a rich folk tradition of music that influenced the culture of Bengal, including the poetry of Tagore) and their simple instruments touched my soul because it comes from our roots. The guitar, being exotic, is different.”
Rui Lobo, a professional guitarist based in Panjim, Goa, too has been working to bridge the gap. He has written about 20 Konkani folk songs for classical guitar.
“The local context connects with the Goan audience better, but when these songs are written down, anyone in the world can perform them and give an international exposure to Goan songs. As they are instrumental pieces, language doesn’t become a barrier,” says Lobo.
“I have personally arranged Baul tunes within the parameters of my western classical structured training,” says Aakash Saha, a Kolkata-based classical guitarist and one of the founders of Calcutta Classical Guitar Society (CCGS). “I believe that in the coming years, we shall have a veritable treasure-house of Indian written music for the solo classical guitar and ensembles.”
Then there are the challenges arising from the differences in the two music systems: Indian classical music is all about improvisation, western music is steeped in protocol and written process.
“I’m not an improviser, there are elements of improvisation in my music, but the core is fixed,” says Moller, about the process of composing Indian music for classical guitar. “I write down music. Scores have to be fixed for me to play the music. There could be a contradiction in a way you perform music that’s fixed. Still, you have to put a lot of spontaneity in it even when you play written music. Improvisation brings in a great feeling though.”
Another technicality that is restrictive for the classical guitar to play Indian music is that the later is based on playing glissando, or what is known here as the meend, the slide between notes. “Guitar has frets (fixed notes). What really helped me was listening to ragas played on the santoor because santoor doesn’t have frets,” says Moller.
For Lobo, these limitations didn’t pose a challenge. “A whole range of expressions is possible. The timbre of the classical guitar is soothing and adapts well to the lyrical melodies of most Goan songs,” he says.
With many artistes contributing towards expansion of its repertoire with local musical content, classical guitar in India is set to reach the next level of popularity. The CCGS will launch a book, Indian Songbook, with a new repertoire for the classical guitar by 2018.
The music for the book, to be curated by Moller, will range from indigenous and folk music from various parts of the country, to Indian classical and any music that has Indian influences.
Lobo too is planning to publish his transcription of the Konkani songs to take Konkani folk music to a global audience, conveyed through the form of western classical music.
With initiatives like Indian Songbook, and other experiments in adapting classical guitar—festivals are being organized in places like Pune, Bengaluru, Delhi, Guwahati and Nagaland—not only is the repertoire of Indian music enriched, the classical guitar is getting a pan-Indian audience. With an overwhelming audience response to Moller’s concert in one of the largest classical music festivals of India, the popularity of this western instrument is getting established.
“The composers in the 1970s were writing what they wanted, not what the audience wanted,” says Moller. Now that the guitarists are contextualising their music for greater audience connection, the nylon stringed guitar (classical guitar) will find a place of pride in the pantheon of Indian instruments of classical music.