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PROM 41 - Indian Voices I - Khyal and Kerala:  Royal Albert Hall, London, 1030am, Sunday 16.8. 2009 (CC)



Pandit Ram Narayan, Aruna Narayan (sarangis);Akbar Latif (tabla)
Manjiri Asnare Kelkar (khyal singer); Akbar Latif (tabla); Sudhir Nayak (harmonium).
Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra (khyal singers) with Babar Latif (tabla); Sudhir Nayak (harmonium)

The first of two Proms in “Indian Voices Day” began with a concert entitled “Khyal and Krrala”, in which the Classical traditions of India were explored. This is the very heart of Indian music – many Bollywood films (especially in the early days) make both explicit and implicit references to these musics in their magnificent soundtracks One of the strengths of Bollywood’s music is its ability to embrace the country’s ancient history while remaining absolutely of and in the present. “Khyal” (sometimes seen as “khayal”) is North Indian classical singing. Its name derives from an Arabic word meaning “imagination”. The Kerala part of the title refers to the South Indian, Carnatic tradition.

The Albert Hall boasted a display of 24 green illuminated bars across the back of the stage, with the bust of Sir Henry proudly in the middle. A huge array of electronica was controlled from the back of the arena (it was used in both of the day’s concerts housed in the Albert Hall).

The group Asima is from Kerala but claims to mix traditional Indian music with Western. It takes its ethnic music from Vedic scriptures, Hindustani and Carnatic traditions and Indian folk music. Their entrance, from one side of the auditorium, was a rowdy affair, initiating a piece called “Ganesh Vandana” – Ganesh is the elephant god of wisdom and success, the remover of obstacles invoked at the beginning of all new ventures. The BBC recording, by the way, goes no way at all to convey the effect that was felt in the hall; neither do radio listeners get the visual effect of the wafting incense, of course. The music gradually gained in speed (a typical trait of traditional Indian music is to start from near-stasis and to accelerate ever so gradually to feats of high virtuosity).

Actually this first set by the group was the better of the two. The noisy, festive entrance was raw and full of promise. When suddenly they moved into song, plainchant against a drone and percussion, it was a most effective move, and repetitions of “Sri Ganesha” invited in ritual (Ganesha is a Hindu God who most often manifests as an elephant and is seen as the God of wisdom and success). Tining was not always perfect, though.

Pandit Ram Narayan is one of the greatest living sarangi players (a sarangi is an Indian bowed lute). “Sorangi” is the original name, which means “a hundred colours”. Narayan says he “is no great master” in BBC interview, but this surely is a masterpiece of self-deprecation. His title, “Pandit” means scholar or teacher and is meant as an acknowledgement of his status. He was joined by his daughter, the talented Aruna Narayan.

The 81-year old Ram Narayan played two Morning Rāgas. His playing was intensely beautiful. Expressive, restful and markedly plaintive, the atmosphere was complemented by a change in projected colours at the back of the hall, a beautiful red against the blue illuminated bars. There was something of a Felmanesque stasis about the vast opening section, especially given the obsessive accompanimental repetition of a simple three-note motif. He was joined on stage by his daughter Aruna, and there was something natural, and magnificent, in the way that Ram handed over the solo spot to his daughter with a simple wave of the hand. The very sound of the sarangi is unbearably telling – it reverberates like a long-lost soul memory suddenly come to life in sound.

The second Morning Rāg was initially noticeably more dolorous. Here, it became clear that Ram was actually the more expressive of the two sarangi players, clearly the true master. It really was a case of his instrument “speaking” in the way that a cello can in the hands of a Rostropovich or a Tortelier. Rhythms were more complex here, too – this piece was no simple accelerando over an extended time, rather it seemed to move in waves. Only when percussion entered was movement felt and articulated. Simply tremendous.

A difficult act to follow, then, but the Proms seems to have secured some of the finest artists for this event. The khyal singer Manjiri Asnare Kelkar is an exemplar of the complex gayaki (style) of the Jaipur school, a music that is both spiritual and exciting. She performed two pieces in Rāg Lalita Gouri and a song by Krish Naral, accompanied by tabla and harmonium. The jangly, silvery sounds that accompanied her (the broadcast simply does not do them justice) provided an exquisite background to her full toned voice. Kelkar is capable of the most amazing feats of virtuosity – she was, in fact, simply amazing. What we Westerners might identify as neighbour-note figures were despatched at massive velocity but with total and utter pitch definition. Alas when the harmonium got a “break” the delivery (Sudhir Nayak) was not as clean as hers. Kelkar also seemed to dictate matters with gestures and, at one point, a definite tactus. A particular moment of magic was a very long, legato melody from Kelar surrounded by very active contributions from the other musicians. The whole was mesmeric from first to last.

The first part of the concert was 90 minutes long; the second, a mere hour. The brothers Rajan and Sajan Mishra hail from Benares. Their voices are perfectly matched, and both exhibit supreme vocal virtuosity. They sing mainly about God, “because music is about worship and music is divine”, as they put it. First, they played a piece about Lord Krishna, then one on Krishna’s flute playing, then on the Goddess Durga.

Initially, Rajan Mishra introduced his players, then his brother Sajan. The Mishras’ singing comes from right down at navel level, and it shows. This is intensely coloured vocal art, intensely restful yet at the same time elevating. One just wished it would never end. It is a wonder how such tonally rich voices can be so mobile, but mobile they are.

After such deep experiences, the final set (by Asima) was a disappointment, verging at times on a Karl Jenkins Indian parody (and I hardly count myself amongst Jenkins’ greatest fans). Ideally, fusion should bring out the best in the world it seeks to unite, or at the very least should shed some illumination, but this just compromised the beauty of the original. It veered dangerously close to Easy Listening. The group seeks to explore chromaticism by combining the Indian way with this technique into Western music. Polyphony also plays a heightened part in their music (Indian music is primarily monophonic). The problem is that in comparison with the three previous sets, this appeared as very shallow indeed. The performers had fun, anyway, but the real treasures of this concert lay elsewhere.

Colin Clarke


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