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Grammy Winners pay tribute to Shakti at NCPA’s ‘Masters of Music’

When Fazal Qureshi and V. Selvaganesh bantered in Jamshed Bhabha theatre, over which taal they would be playing in for their next song, they conversed exclusively in Dha‘s and Dhin‘s. “He is very upset with me.” Qureshi told the audience after Selvaganesh had yelled at him in intonated percussion beats. The audience enjoyed a laugh, as they had been doing throughout the show at all the tongue-and-cheek comments from each of the performers.

I didn’t walk into the NCPA that evening believing I was a novice to the Indian classical performance arts space. In fact, I have spent a fair share of my adolescence watching shows by SPIC MACAY and various other culture groups, slowly familiarising myself with the range of crafts that the subcontinent has to offer. Back then, discussions about Indian art forms were largely centred around the preservation and protection of these forms, their purity, and their traditional integrity. What took place on stage on last Sunday was something else entirely.

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At ‘Masters of Music’ organised by the Aditya Birla Group on June 16th, mainstream discourse around Indian art and music fell decidedly short and to say it was unlike any other classical concert I had ever witnessed live would be a gross understatement. There was a kind of palpable rock-concert energy that found its rightful place in ‘Masters of Music’ and rebranded these instruments and formats to be as gripping and invigorating vis a vis their more popular counterparts. The conversation between Qureshi and Selvaganesh in tabla beats was a prime example. As soon as the audience burst into laughter, all five performers dramatically launched into a composition, forcing the audience to abruptly halt their applause and pay attention again. The drama and thespianism unfolding stage, offered as much tension, suspense and climactic reveals as an elaborate Indian naatak.

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At many points, the musicians also called on the audience to become a part of the musical discussion by clapping to the beat and in doing so, eliminated the distance between performer and spectator. “Every human is a percussionist,” S. Selvaganesh had explained, “our heart beats to a rhythm; we walk with a rhythm…”.  This sentiment showed itself magnificiently as the audience’s claps reverberated seamlessly with the beats of the tabla, ghatam, kanjira, and mridangam, challenging the staunch discipline and seriousness often associated with classical music.

As if these theatrics weren’t enough, L. Shankar, with his hair as blonde and poker-straight as the bow of his double violin, became quite a sight to behold, his mane erupting into a frenzy when he was playing passionately, especially during ‘Joy’, a song from Shankar’s Shakti days. All 100 minutes of the concert felt like a tribute to the band Shakti, and therefore a tribute to fusion music at large. Shakti, which was a Grammy-winning musical group with Shankar, Vikku, Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin, had pioneered the blending of Indian classical styles with Western ones, to create a sound that was both refreshing and influential in equal parts. All of the musicians on stage nursed a deeply personal connect with the band as either Shakti members or related to members – and thus, a discernibly meaningful dynamic with one another.

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Though the five had chosen pre-existing Shakti hits and compositions from the 70’s to perform, I later learned that most of their performance was improvised. “We had agreed on a set list beforehand. But the solos, the jugalbandis? All of that happened on stage.” Qureshi told me when asked about their process. “You see, 95% of Indian classical music is improvised and that is precisely what makes it exciting!”. What your partner might try to tell you through their music or how you want to respond through your own is a matter of the heart and gut, more than that of the brain. Manodharma, as in the ‘impromtu’ becomes an integral element that musicians take delight in.

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All this to say that the five gentlemen on stage that evening had cultivated a kind of synergy with one another that was based not just on their individual knowledge of music, but on their collective reverence for Shakti’s ethos within which musical dialogue becomes a universal language, a way of understanding and connecting beyond words. The concept of music as a language also echoes in the way that musicians in and around Shakti have recurrently played alongside jazz artists, finding comfort and excitement in its similar improvisational style. Almost 25 years after its conception, older generations of musicians passed on the legacy of Shakti to younger ones and the band took on newer faces with the likes of Shankar Mahadevan, V. Selvaganesh, U. Shrinivas, and Ganesh Rajgopalan. The hope, I suppose, is to continue nurturing younger musicians who can grasp the profound value embedded in Shakti’s crux marked by spontaneous musical expression and cross-cultural dialogue.

Zara Flavia Dmello

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