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Japanese santoor player Takahiro Arai at a concert in Chennai.
Japanese santoor player Takahiro Arai at a concert in Chennai.

Japanese inspiration

Musicians from Japan are keen to explore the diverse and magical world of Indian music.But is the desire to learn about another system of music reciprocated by their Indian counterparts?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan is said to mark the beginning of a new chapter in collaboration and cooperation between the two countries. India, it is said, hopes to learn and borrow from, and partner with, the Japanese in many ways, particularly in matters related to preserving its great heritage and cultural wealth. As video clips of the Indian Prime Minister sportingly but tunelessly playing a recorder, along with a chorus of Japanese schoolchildren, at a 136-year-old school start doing the rounds in the Indian media, can we hope to see some music emerge from possible collaborations between the two great nations?

Thus far, collaborations between Indian and non-Indian musicians have focused largely on the Western world. In comparison, collaborations between Indian musicians and their Asian and South-East Asian neighbours have been relatively few. At the same time, there has been a steady trickle of Japanese students making their way to India, seeking to study Indian music and dance. Bansuri player Hiros Nakagawa has been a disciple of maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia for 26 years. More recently, former rock drummer Takahiro Arai ( )moved to India to learn the santoor from maestro Shivkumar Sharma. Yuji Nakagawa ( , a sarangi player, is a disciple of Dhruba Ghosh.

The examples are many and varied. It is amply evident that musicians from Japan are keen to explore the diverse and magical world of Indian music. From the sarangi to the sitar, sarod, tabla, Kathak (, Bharatanatyam and Odissi (, Japanese students have sought to learn and master Indian performing arts. Some prefer to experiment and adapt Indian ragas for Japanese instruments like the shamisen ( Not only do they travel to India to learn at the feet of great masters, they also contribute substantially to the propagation and promotion of Indian music once they return to Japan.

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‘Prologue To Kuruyada Nandana’ by Masako Ono, a Japanese Odissi artiste.

Whatever the reasons, now that efforts are on to collaborate and partner, it would be a welcome change if schools teaching music in India also start offering courses and lectures on Japanese traditional music. And if heritage is to be the point of convergence and cooperation, then we must be smart not only about making smart cities; we need to be smart about our traditional music too, and not permit it to dwindle into extinction.

Japan too has had to grapple with the preservation and revival of traditional art forms like the Kabuki theatre, and it would be beneficial for India to discuss the strategies Japan employed to nurture its traditional performing arts. Perhaps these are areas that were discussed in the many meetings and discussions during the Prime Minister’s visit. But if they were, we will probably not know, because the photo-ops ruled, and the bites by corporate bigwigs in the Prime Minister’s retinue sang of opportunity and plenty.

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