Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gundecha gurukul goes global

One the most distinctive educational institutions in traditional Indian culture is the gurukul, in which students come to live with their teacher (guru), studying on a regular basis, and contributing to the domestic functioning of the household by performing both regular and extraordinary duties as required.

I am currently on leave in India, where I am staying in the historic city of Bhopal at the gurukul of the Gundecha Brothers, who are among the leading practitioners of dhrupad, the most ancient form of Indian classical vocal music. Known as the Dhrupad Sansthan, this is one of the very few contemporary manifestations of the gurukul system currently functioning in the realm of Indian music.

Yet as events here in the last 24 hours demonstrate, the concept has been expanded to assume an international dimension. Last night marked the departure eve of Deborah, a student from Belgium who has been studying here for the past year, with a farewell dinner cooked by her father, an artist who designs furniture and paints in oils and acrylics. Following the tradition of the bricoleur, he used various “foreign” ingredients he was able to track down in the local market—olive oil, cheddar cheese, mushrooms, cream, and spaghetti—to cook a fresh Indian version of pasta primavera, with tomatoes being the primary local ingredient. For dessert, he used apples, halved and sauteed in butter, with the cavity filled with a local sweet and drizzled with chocolate sauce in an ingenious multinational presentation.

Early this morning, when my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I visited the kitchen, we found a large karahi (wok-like cooking vessel) of plain left-over spaghetti, though almost all of the sauce from the previous night was finished. At the request of Akhilesh, the youngest Gundecha brother, the pasta was reprocessed by Shubha and my sister Judith (visiting India with her husband Peter for the first ime), who working with several students cooked an unplanned mid-morning meal featuring a desi (Indian) version of the pasta, with a sauce of ginger, onions, peas, and cauliflower sautéed in local soybean oil, with a sprinkling of dhanya leaves (cilantro) when the food was served and eagerly consumed. It is probably worth noting here that most Indian musicians take the art of cooking--as well as the pleasures of eating--very seriously.

Then Akhilesh, himself a master of the pakhawaj, the double-headed barrel drum which is used to accompany the vocal dhrupad performance, performed with Madhyalaya, his ensemble, to bid farewell to Deborah, with the gurukul audience including students from Austria, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and the U.S., as well as from several Indian states. The international students have come to know of the gurukul through the performances of the Gundecha Brothers, who are the most active of the current practitioners of dhrupad on the world concert circuit, as well as the most widely recorded.

The students live in a recently completed hostel (the Indian term for a dormitory) adjacent to the main educational building, and in the spirit of the traditional gurukul, most of the Indian students not only do not pay, but rather are given free room and board and an expense allowance, along with the daily music lessons from the brothers, all in the expectation of serious and arduous practice. The international students are usually charged a modest fee for their living and education.

The next highlight of the week will be a Thursday night concert at a local hotel featuring two of the more advanced students, in a semi-public performance, as part of their preparation for professional careers. The Sansthan, which has been fully functional for a little over four years, already has two graduates--including Aliya Rasheed, a young woman from Pakistan--who have completed the full course (which generally runs for four years), and have themselves embarked upon professional careers. Finally, on Friday night, Amita Sinha, the other graduate of the gurukul, will have a full-fledged concert performance at Bhopal's Andhra Bhavan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Silent Night . . . . .

It was late afternoon in Washington, cold and dark, and as the flow of evening commuters converged onto the the escalators descending into the bowels of the Washington Metro, a lone trumpet player was seated on a plastic milk carton with his trumpet case open in front of him, and a few coins and bills inside. He was playing the Christmas carol, "Silent Night, in a slow, dirge-like fashion, one fragment at a time, with pauses of varying length between the familiar phrases of the song, and occasional changes to the usual melodic contour. Unlike the recorded Christmas music that plays incessantly throughout America in stores and shopping malls, and on radio and television, beginning on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and running up to Christmas Day, the solitary musician's offering was anything but upbeat and commercial. His soulful interpretation reminded me of the alap of Indian music, or the awaz of Persian music, or the taqsim of Arabic music--in which there is no rhythm, no pulse, only a unique, timeless, melodic improvisation that will never again be repeated in just that manner. This "Silent Night" was meditative, and to my ears melancholy, and yet terribly moving--a veritable cri de coeur in response to the human condition--or at least, the state of affairs that I was projecting upon the species at the time.

In my last entry, I noted that the first news on Thanksgiving Eve of the tragic and disturbing events unfolding in Mumbai, India effectively removed me from the holiday spirit. And so it was the pensive trumpet solo yesterday evening that enabled me to begin my own reluctant entry into the experience of the American "holiday season", which customarily begins with Thanksgiving and runs through New Year's Day.

As noted above, holiday music, and Christmas music in particular, is an essential part of the marketing strategy of the American consumer economy. The variety of such music is enormous, ranging from the sacred to the profane. Such songs as "Silent Night," "We Three Kings of Orient Are," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", and "O Holy Night" are among my earliest musical memories (see my previous entry), and inevitably awaken in me, as in countless others, remembrances of Christmases past, as do the Hanukkah songs ("I have a little Dreydl, I made it out of clay . . . ") that were part of the holiday pageantry in Steck Elementary School as I was growing up in Denver, Colorado. For me the superb arrangements of the Robert Shah Chorale are the high watermark of Christmas music, and if I still had those recordings from my earlier years, I believe I could listen without my usual ambivalence to holiday music.

These conflicted feelings result, among other causes, from my adverse reaction to the extreme shopping mentality of the holidays, and it is with some comfort that I look forward to my departure for a month in India on Friday, so as to avoid the relentless onslaught of holiday music. Nonetheless, in the coming days, I'll try to share some personal reflections on holiday music in all its wonderful--or awful--diversity.