Before to leaving Japan, Taro & his wife Yuriko moved house. Literally just before - after moving the last items into his new place he had 30 minutes to pack before leaving for the airport. It was quite cold in Japan and he had a cough when he arrived, so I requested him to take care of his health because Varanasi is a strong place. I got him a simple room with beautiful Ganga view and the first week was spent settling in, practising and being inspired by sitar master Shahid Parvez who gave a rare performance here. The weather was lovely and Taro became a bit of a celebrity with his impromptu Ganges-side flute sessions.
Shortly after Taro's arrival we had a small concert at Munna House to warm up. In a couple of days we managed to russle up about 60 people to listen, largely due to the fact that Taro is quite well known in Japan but this was his first ever performance in Varanasi. Taro & I played first, with Raga Puriya Dhanashree in char taal ki sawari (11 beats) and teentaal (16 beats). I had requested Taro that we play in char taal ki sawari because it is a taal in which I received a lot of material from Guru-ji, and Taro being the rare kind of musician up for the challenge of 11 beats, this would be my first chance to perform it at Guru-ji's Memorial Concert. We played quite nicely, pretty much as usual for us after playing so much together on our Australian tour last year, but we were aware we needed to improve our standard before the big gig 9 days later.
After our set there was a sitar performance by Nick Proctor from England, accompanied by Bengali Tola tabla player Nirmal Goswami. They played very nicely and did a few encores. I first encountered Nick through the chandrakantha.com Indian music forums, where he is one of the most active contributors. We have both taken part in heated discussions about non-Indians playing Indian classical music and the attitudes and prejudices to be found in the Indian music scene. He is very knowledgeable about ragas and boy does he love to chat about Indian music! Lovely fellow.
So... after the concert we were reheating some dal for dinner, and what does Taro get? The hottest kiss in his life... in blowing out a match his arm slipped and he ended up with burning phosphorus adhering to the exact middle of his lower lip! A flute player, injuring his lip 9 days before an important concert... He couldn't control his sound at all for a couple of days and then the clarity of high notes continued to evade him for several more days.
We had some more practice concerts at local tourist music shops the following week, when his lip had healed 98%. At the first one in Triveni Music Centre he was still not getting the sound he wanted, and seemed pretty down. At the second one at Kashika Music Centre the following night, he finally got his high notes coming and was ecstatic. It was a very special little concert actually, with Nick and a few other knowledgeable students in attendance. So everything was on track for success. The next day Taro came down with a fever! We played that night at International Music Ashram - again we played char taal ki sawari which was good practise for me, and Taro tested his limits. But he told me "fever is no problem once I'm on the stage".
On the afternoon of the big concert while we were practising in my room, a bee started hovering around Taro's face. Panic!!! But I managed to shoo it away quickly enough. How many more travails would Taro encounter, we wondered? This was a very challenging concert!
ASHU-BABU MEMORIAL CONCERT 2007
Take a look here (scroll down the page - there are a few posts about Nick's time in Varanasi there) for sitar-Nick's review of the concert, and on-going discussion...
This was the third annual concert in memory of Late Pandit Kaviraj Ashutosh Bhattacharya - my guru-ji of tabla - and the biggest program yet. After the opening speeches and ceremonies, the musical programme opened with devotional mantras and bhajans by a 13 member group directed and led by Dr. Debashish Dey, a prominent vocalist in Varanasi. The group included Debashish-ji, his son and 6 female students along with pakhawaj, tabla, harmonium, violin (Sukhdev Mishra) and keyboard (ugh). I didn't focus too much on this set as I was tuning and relaxing in the green room with Taro and our stand-in tamboura player, David (a dhrupad student of Dr. Ritwik Sanyal). There was a mixed response with many people saying a classical programme should be purely classical, however a devotional atmosphere was certainly set.
Taro & I performed second, after the mantras. Taro was dripping in sweat after only a minute of alap, and I have to say his complete effort over the 2 weeks in Varanasi culminating in this concert was absolutely heroic. We received many compliments on the performance - it was very beautiful, I thought, although I knew that it was a bit flat compared with Taro's usual energy-levels. Brother Nick commented that Taro "was on form", and the head priest of the Vishwanath (Golden) Temple, a wise toothless 90 year old man, told me "Bahut sundar. Aisa hona chahiye" ("Very beautiful. That's how it should be.") However Taro appeared to be both disappointed and exhausted and wasn't able to appreciate much of the rest of the two-night concert, missing the second night altogether. He said the main problem was that after burning his lip, he had had a week of trying to rediscover his sound. When he came to play through the microphone, he was uncertain of his sound again and could not go as deeply into the music as he normally would. But I can say that his talent was appreciated in Varanasi, and I'm reminded of his guru's guru, Pt. Nikhil Banerjee, who despite being one of the greatest artistic geniuses was never satisfied with his music.
As for my own tabla I was quite happy - only 1 or 2 big slip-ups (had to break off a long chakardar because I screwed it up), and I'm now reaching the stage where I can smile when I fluff - no big deal and much more important to get on with the music. So the photos where I'm smiling are where I've made a mistake. Funnily enough, although Guru-ji had taught me lots in char taal ki sawari, I used none of it because Taro's speed was much slower than I had learnt. So in the last week I developed a lot of new material which was a fantastic learning experience in itself.
Back to the concert... Following Taro & myself, senior Varanasi sitar player Dr. Ravindra Narayan Goswami gave a beautiful performance of Raga Rageshree, accompanied on tabla by Vinod Lele. Vinod-ji is a good tabla player but I prefer his vocal accompaniment, and would have preferred to see a more dynamic tabla player with instrumental. In any case (due, I'm told, to some political maneuvering), Vinod Lele was back to accompany the next artist, vocalist Arati Ankalikar from Pune. How boring to have the same tabla player twice in a row! Oh well... Srimati Ankalikar was a very powerful and adept singer, and probably my favourite performance of the night. It was a shame the sound system was so loud though.
The final act of the night was a sitar-violin jugalbandi between Sujay Basu and Indradeep Ghosh, accompanied on tabla by Guru-ji's son, Dr. Debabrata Bhattacharya. The alap was very beautiful, however as the concert went on I felt that these were two quite average artists banding together to become more interesting. Their taans were quite linear and their tihais very basic. But they had their moments.
On to the second night which like last year was the stronger night... First up was Kathak dancer Malavika Mitra, who was always in complete control of her movements - very accomplished and well-practised. I just wish Kathak wouldn't go on so long... I'm not the best person to review Kathak. I love to play with it, as rhythmically it is very interesting and exciting, but the visual side just doesn't appeal like Odissi dance, for example.
Second item, a far better jugalbandi by Kedia Brothers on sitar and sarod, accompanied by two of Guru-ji's best students, Govinda Chakraborty and Manishankar Tripathi. Unlike the previous evening's jugalbandi, these two musicians presented a far wider variety in their music. Govinda-da & Manishankar's accompaniment was lovely and their distinctive sounds complimented the pairing of sitar and sarod. Govinda-da often plays with kathak and his playing has a strong beautiful sound with many interesting and spacey tihais, while Manishankar plays very softly and sweetly.
The third item was a tabla solo by Varanasi tabla player, Pundleek Krishna Bhagwat. His performance was a very interesting study for me - he used many interesting tihais including anagat tihais (coming before 1), which is something I am working on at the moment. (For the uninitiated, tihais are triply played phrases whose final note usually occurs on 1, but they can finish at another point, eg an accented - possibly upbeat - note of the melody.) I got quite a few ideas for my practice.
I can't comment too much about Vidushri Sulochana Brihaspati, a vocalist from Delhi. I heard she was very devotional and humble. During her performance I was sitting in the Green Room waiting to introduce myself to Purbayan Chatterjee who is soon touring Australia with my friend, Sydney tabla player Bobby Singh.
Purbayan Chatterjee, as expected, was quite fantastic. Young and very well-practised, I hope if you're in Australia you will catch his concerts in April. At this concert he was ably accompanied on tabla by Shubhshankar, grand-nephew of Pt. Kishan Maharaj and rising star in Varanasi.
Overall I thought the programme was more consistent than the previous years in that generally every act was quite OK if not excellent. However everyone agreed that it was too long and next year is expected to be a much shorter and higher quality event. So see if you can make it to Varanasi for 17 March 2008!
As for myself, I will not be performing next year. I had a very strong feeling this year that I am missing a Guru and I am without direction and guidance. I have a lot of material but have a lot of questions with regard to style, development of solos, control of accents. I need to pursue study with more focus and not be distracted by concerts in India for a while yet. With this in mind I had a very important conversation with my senior guru-brother, Govinda Chakraborty. Not spilling any details for now except that I'll be visiting him in Delhi for some lessons in early April, and next year could be the start of something completely new for me.
TARO TURNS SPOTTY
A couple of nights later, Taro, in a weakened state due to 3 weeks' cough, 5 days' fever and a fair bit of stress, had an allergic reaction to some sweets and went completely spotty and swollen all over with violently bloodshot eyes. His fever had increased and he was basically really really sick. He had a few more days in Varanasi in which we'd hoped to relax and meet some people, but instead he was confined to his room to rest!
What does it mean? I had really hoped that Taro would come to Varanasi and shine, but obviously this was not his moment. Actually the main benefit of us playing this kind of big concert is in the preparation, so for that we both gained a lot. But there were certainly some unexpected lessons this year. I hope Taro won't be scared away from Varanasi!
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