Jugalbandis, or a meeting of two genres, have always intrigued me. Jugalbandis between Hindustani and Carnatic traditions have been around for decades, but many end up not so much a shared space between two traditions but a musical ping-pong between two great artists. Promoter Milapfest brought these two leading artists from India, both recognised in their own right. Shubha Ji for her Padma Shri from the Government of India 2000 and Bombay Jayashri for the prestigious awards such as the Sangeetha Choodamani and Nadabhooshanam. As I approached the Southbank Centre, I wondered if this performance would be marred by personal egos and musical compromise?
Carnatic and Hindustani traditions are similar but there are also differences. Both traditions have their own raags but some are very similar. Differences exist in their rhythmic development and form of rhythm accompaniment to the development of the raag. In Hindustani, the vocalist develops the alaap outside of any time cycle before a slow percussion (valambit laya) accompanies the music. Then as the composition begins, the tempo slowly builds up to a climax. With the Carnatic traditions it is normal to start with songs composed by various saints. The main piece is called Ragam Tanam Pallavi which is a solo portion accompanied only by violin without any percussion, similar to Hindustani Dhrupad that only uses the tanpura.
As one settled down inside the auditorium, I was struck by the stage and microphone arrangement. From left to right we had the mridangam, tabla, Bombay Jayashri Ji, Shubha Mudgal Ji, harmonium and violin! Obviously a pre-planned thought to keep the percussion on left and accompanying artist to the right. Normally, one would expect each tradition to keep their own accompanists together.
Shubha Ji began the concert with a humble and excellent explanation that such Jugalbandis are not a new concept and that this is not the first time the two vocalists were coming together. It was evident from the very first notes sung by each artist, that their voices complimented each other beautifully. Shubha Ji started the concert with Raag Pooria Dhanashree (Hamsanandi-Kamavardini) and a short alaap. Her strong seasoned voice, with long sweeping and penetrating notes, contrasted beautifully with Bombay Jayashri Ji’s fine detailed controlled tones. The enjoyment was short-lived when they moved with a jolt from a slow alaap into a fast paced rhythm (drut gat) for the remaining duration of the piece.
Technically, the imbalance of the volume between the percussion vis-à-vis the vocalists and even between the vocalists made uncomfortable listening. This was exacerbated by the choice of microphone! I have yet in my years seen a western classical soprano vocalist using a Sure SM58 microphone (normally used by rock bands) which all Indian artists somehow simply love with lots of reverb for good measure.
The performance did have moments of magic. This Jugalbandi had something unusual about it; ego was absent between the divas! Their mannerisms and similarities were apparent from the way they sat and held their own tanpuras and wore exquisite pink sarees. Eye-to-eye contact was minimal but their contact through music was complete. Both showed utmost respect to each other’s musical talents. Neither tried to overpower each other. There were sporadic examples of the sheer brilliance of both artists through their own free-flowing taans and the power of the voices demonstrated through other ragas including Khamaj and Bhairavi.
But these moments were marred by the regular, unnecessary interruptions by the percussionists who took it upon themselves to go into their own inappropriate cameo short solos, as if to say ‘look we are on stage too’.
One felt that both the ladies were singing well within their capacities throughout the evening. There was also some compromise. Jayashri Ji, was on several occasions, singing more in the Hindustani style rather than her own Carnatic traditions. And there was the usual ping-pong between the artists to make the pieces work. Talking to Shubha Ji the next day, I asked her why they had to compromise the main piece in drut gat and why they didn’t use the Carnatic Ragaam Tanam Palavi as a basis and then use the Hindustani tradition in similar way but without the percussion. The reply was revealing: “Well we have done that in the past but we have to go along with the promoter ideas too.”
In the latter part of the second half of the concert, Shubha Ji sang Dheere Dheere Jhoolao Sukumari, a Jhoola which was simply awesome. Jayashri Ji and the accompanist took a back seat while the Hindustani diva went into overdrive of exploring the lilting melody through the crystal clear bandish.
The finale came with the much-expected Raag Bhairvi without percussion but backed beautifully by the violinist. Here the divas were able explore without compromise as they developed the raga together in harmony without any ego. Singing together to enhance each other, which what a real Jugalbandi is. Perhaps, this is how the concert should have started!