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Frozen Music

Reviving a cross-cultural genre called Hindoostani Airs,Pandit Ravi Shankar’s student,Barry Phillips spearheads a new music album where East and West meet

In eighteenth century Calcutta which was a melting pot of English,Mughal and Hindu cultures,a music scene was brewing. English musicians,playing harpsichords were learning Indian music and performing their renditions of it. Taught by nautch girls who visited British households,they would stay on for music sessions after soirees. In the homes of well-heeled,influential English women,these English artistes would notate Indian music and play it on western instruments. Many famous Persian,Kashmiri and Bengali entertainers too,would have their music transcribed.

Called Hindoostani Airs,it resulted in a melange of north Indian and British musical traditions,a first-of-its-kind,cross-cultural exchange that flourished for some years,until it was eventually forgotten. Now,renowned cellist and Pandit Ravi Shankar’s student Barry Phillips and Linda Burman-Hall,harpsichordist and director of the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival,are bringing this genre to the fore,after poring over the history of this music and its melodic contours and textures. The two along with Lux Musica Ensemble and percussionist Debopriyo Sarkar have recorded an album named Raga & Raj (East Meets West Music),which was heard and approved by Shankar,a few months before he passed away.

“We found this to be pretty amazing and inspiring,so Linda wrote a proposal to The Creative Work Fund in San Francisco and they funded us,” says Phillips,who began writing the music at the Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts (RIMPA) in Delhi in 2010; it took him nine months. “I am so thankful that he (Shankar) had heard this and had several constructive comments for the mockup. He called me after hearing the final recording and said he liked it and was proud of me. It was a great moment for me,more than I ever could have hoped for,” said Phillips,who recorded the album at University of California at Santa Cruz Recital Hall. The CD release of Raga & Raj comes three years after it was recorded.

Featuring compositions by American composer Lou Harrison,18th century conductor and musician William Hamilton Bird and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and arranged by Phillips and Burman-Hall,the music of Raga & Raj is built on the affinities and vibrations between north Indian and British musical traditions of the late 1700s and early 1800s.

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“I imagined creating a 50/50 eastern/western experience,but I ended up with a wide variety of overlaps. You’ll hear melodic and rhythmic ideas inspired by Indian ragas,and harmonic ideas and counterpoint from the west,”says Phillips In one of the sections called Eight Ragas,Phillips takes eight different Indian ragas “for inspiration and to guide the eight movement composition” but treats each one individually. Quiet Hour is based on mysterious ragas such as Lalit and Puriya Dhanashree while Brindavan Forest is inspired by the energetic raag Vrindavani Sarang. Phillips has also taken Paluskar’s famous bhajan Raghupati raghav raja ram and presented it in the album by adding Baroque-inspired harmonies to the devotional track.

Western music has written notes,and the oral legacy of Indian classical music can be difficult. There is always the risk of drawing a raga out of its spiritual frame of reference. “I’ve been horrified by the idea of creating hybrid music that misses the point. For me,to love both western and eastern music is one thing,but to combine them can be risky. What do you come out with,the best of both? Or does one tradition cancel the other? I’m sure a composer could almost insult every culture they are inspired by in combining musical styles,but I do hope that my love of eastern and western music will save me,” says Phillips.

First published on: 28-09-2013 at 05:36 IST
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