Asian Music and Dance

Transposed Rhythm And The Saraswati Veena

Transposed Rhythm And The Saraswati Veena was the inaugural double bill of the 2013 Darbar Festival. This Indian classical music festival, its artistic director Sandeep Virdee explained from the stage, was first held in 2006 in Leicester to commemorate the tabla guru Gurmit Singh Virdee (1937-2005). It transferred to London in 2009. That year Aruna Sairam sang and her performance is seared into my brain. She revealed how music can render the historic and the modern one and the same. 

Bernhard Schimpelsberger and Sukhad Munde were the festival’s opening act. Schimpelsberger, a fine rhythmist, was credited with ‘cajun and drums’ in the Festival at a Glance mini-guide, although what he played in the opening ‘invocation’ was not a settler of French extraction from Louisiana (Cajun), but a cajón, a box drum upon which the drummer sits. Munde, son of the percussionist Manik Munde, was credited with pakhawaj, the double-headed barrel drum played with the hands that nowadays is closely associated with dhrupad, the jewel of jewels in the crown of Hindustani song forms. Behind Schimpelsberger, waiting mutely, was a very imposing kit drum, with an impressive drum he later described as a ‘bayan bass drum’ (after the bayan, the left-hand bass tabla drum).

What unfolded over the course of the set was proof that concerts can turn out to be turbulent or smooth flights…and bumpy as well as smooth landings may occur. The Austrian-born Schimpelsberger introduced as a surprise guest a regular working partner, the UK-based sarodist Soumik Datta. They set about a series of exchanges with Schimpelsberger using his kit drum arsenal and Hindustani verbal percussion mnemonic compositions, with Datta on the sarod. Unfortunately, it went on for far too long. Meanwhile, Sukhad Munde sat patiently on stage with his pakhawaj, counting tāl, counting matras. When Schimpelsberger at last announced him, Munde showed great professionalism and at 24 is already playing with a clarity and finesse of stroke that does his dhrupad accompanist lineage proud. Nevertheless, surely nobody needs added pressure like this on their major UK debut. For me, the duo’s following solos and sawal-jawab (literally ‘question-answer’) call-and-response passages were too little too late to entirely rescue this concert. 

After listening to Jayanthi Kumaresh’s Mysterious Duality (2010), nobody is likely to forget her. Even on disc she is eye-popping in her shaping of sonorities on the saraswati veena. The instrument is named after Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science, and Jayanthi Kumaresh combines the music and science aspects brilliantly. She uses technology most innovatively to project Carnatic rāgam on what historically has been a quietly-spoken instrument. Played with picks and nails and close mic’d, the instrument in Kumaresh’s hands is big-voiced and capable of projecting the way U. Srinivas and his solid-body mandolin does. Srinivas’s mandolin, it should be said, is Tiny Moore’s solid body to Jethro Burns’ flatback mandolin. I know of nobody else doing what Jayanthi Kumaresh is doing with the saraswati veena. She is indeed blazing a trail.

Kumaresh ran though a repertoire that included compositions by Tyagaraja and Sastri beautifully. Nevertheless, two things diminished the concert’s impact. On call she had two accomplished percussionists, both of whom, incidentally, had accompanied Aruna Sairam in 2009. Patri Satish Kumar was playing mrdangam – the South Indian barrel drum counterpart to pakhawaj – and R.N. Prakash the tuned clay pot ghatam. As happens on a democratic stage, their time duly came to solo and duet in the time-honoured call-and-response manner. This they did but sometimes in percussion sawal-jawab exchanges less democracy is more. They should be a feature to be deployed judiciously. That said, after the conclusion of the ragam tanam pallavi she phewed: “We landed safely.” Another factor may have been getting a bit sawal-jawabed out by the opening act.

A worse aspect was that technology showed the ugly side of its face with excessive decibel levels. Compounding this, the sound was ricocheting round the auditorium. It must be noted, though, that Jayanthi Kumaresh runs a most happy stage.

Reviewing has a number of purposes. The critic’s role is to add insights and observations, maybe unasked for. A combination of stagecraft issues and on-stage manners, decibels and acoustics marred this concert. They reminded how such non-musical elements can colour the reception and perception of a performance and music’s enjoyment. Hours later, these ears were still wincing from the volume.



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