An Evening of Magical Empathy

Annual Show at the MGI

On Friday last the students of the School of Performing Arts (SPA) of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute presented their Annual Show, Sangeet Sadhana, under the guidance of their gurus and in a number of items accompanied by them.

The students were drawn from the certificate/advanced certificate to the diploma and degree course levels. A large gathering of parents and relatives, friends and well-wishers, as well as ‘emeritus’ retiree gurus were present to encourage and applaud the performers, who delighted their audience, lovers of Indian classical music.

For indeed Sangeet refers to Indian classical music, and those who decide to take it up know that they are henceforth set on a path of sadhana – spiritual discipline. That’s an important qualification, which makes Indian classical music distinct, for it is considered to be of divine origin. Music is sound, Naad, and to quote from the book of Shri Mohurlall Chummun on Hindustani Music, ‘Naad is the source of all sounds… considered to be the manifested form of God, the source of everything and the primordial sound, Naad Brahma.’ Another way of putting it is that ‘Like all art forms in Indian culture, Indian classical music is believed to be a divine art form which originated from the Devas and Devis (Hindu Gods and Goddesses), and is venerated as symbolic of nāda brāhman.’

The implication therefore is that performing or enjoying such music brings us closer to the divine, such is the intense feeling evoked and the elevated atmosphere generated when the music is played. This was certainly the case on that wonderful evening, and if only more people would care to partake of, learn to appreciate and enjoy this universal art form, there would be less chaos and more harmony all around. One cannot listen to such music and be left unmoved, with a sense of inner peace. And we know that all round peace, of which we cannot deny that the world is in critical need, begins in the heart of man as Mahatma Gandhi said.

All sounds can be either musical, or unmusical: noise, which irritates the ears and mind. Musical sounds are known as Swaras in Indian music and there is a complex variety of arrangements of swaras that make up the sublime edifice of Indian classical music. In fact, it must be pointed out that the term sangeet refers to the three arts combined, namely those of singing, playing musical instruments and dancing. Invariably, therefore, most performances include these three art forms, as happened at the Annual Show.

It started with the item ‘Ganga Kaveri’, performed by students of Diploma and Degree programmes of studies of the Department of Vocal Music. So it was a vocal rendering that combined Hindustani and Carnatic styles, respectively from the north and the south of India. Hence Ganga Kaveri: the river Ganga is in the north and river Kaveri is in the south of India respectively. Whatever be the geographical or political landscape of these two regions, the undeniable reality is that there is a fundamental unity that underlies Indian culture, especially Indian classical music, a reflection of its divine origin which knows no boundaries. No doubt there is a demarcation of form between Hindustani and Carnatic music, but what resonates in one’s inner being on hearing either is one and the same: the divine sound, nāda brāhman.

This resonance is even stronger when the mridangam is played: this was the item Madhura Tarangam, and the performance was faithful to the description ‘scintillating sounds… depicting the exuberant and gracious flow of waves of rhythm’ featured in the programme booklet. As exuberant and gracious too were the dancers who executed Kathak and Bharatnatyam in their respective items, what with their colourful and dazzling costumes, their footworks and hand gestures, and their facial expressions – truly a kaleidoscope of magnificent articulations.

Tat Vadya Sangam was an instrumental item based on a late night melody Raag, the Raag Bihaag which was played in Teentaal, a rhythmic cycle of sixteen beats. A raag is ‘a musical idiom which expresses and emotion’ in which the Swaras must be used ‘in such a way that they are capable of pleasing the human mind and soul.’ This was essentially an execution of stringed instruments – sitar and violin – and, what with over forty participants including those on tabla, tanpuri and swar mandal, it assumed an orchestral dimension.

I was very happy to notice the presence of several young children among the performers, especially on the violin, and I only pray and hope that more and more of their age group will join the courses, for there is nothing like starting early where music is concerned. Not only is it an enjoyable activity; it also helps one to develop an all-rounded, beautiful personality and pleasant character, besides other skills that one may benefit from and that have been documented – for example, in mathematics.

In all, eleven items were presented, and although I enjoyed all of them, I have a weakness for the tabla, and so the Tabla Vaadan and the Tabla Ensemble in Jhaptaal touched me very profoundly. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Tabla Ensemble in particular left me spellbound and since it was the last item, ‘the music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more,’ – reminding me of these concluding lines from the poem The Reaper by William Wordsworth.

Courtesy my professional (medical) bias, I could not help noting that one of the six tabla players in the Tabla Ensemble was left-handed – he was playing the tabla with the left hand and the daga with the right hand, which is the opposite of what is done by a right-handed person. Left-handedness is a condition which is present in about 15% of people, and normally one would come across it in one person doing something or the other, like writing, alone. But here the player was part of an Ensemble, and I was practically mesmerized to see the perfect synchronization he had with his right-handed partners. To me this showed the remarkable versatility of the human brain, and added to the aesthetics of the performance.

It would be amiss for me not to mention the Saraswati Vandana, which was performed by the students of my guru Shri Mohurlall Chummun, who accompanied the vocalists on the harmonium. We had a little chat before the show started, and we agreed that it was a small matter that this item did not begin the programme. Phirbhi, koi baat nahin… What was important was that the show was on, but very especially when we sing or hear the first line Vandna karoun sharda Saraswati there are no words to describe how our hearts melt…

Were there some weaknesses? Yes, there were, like in some introductions of the items by the students, and a slight lack of coordination between the master of ceremonies and the others during the protocol part of the programme. As to the performances, the tans did present a little difficulty – but then we know that learning to do tans is one of the toughest parts of sangeet for beginners. Further, of course much more maturity is still to come in the vocal renderings, and it’s only practice, practice and more practice that can get one there.

Sangeet sadhana is a lifelong affair, and the two or three years of formal study are nothing in terms of the learning process, which has to continue for the rest of one’s career or life if one is genuinely interested. When we think that it can take almost a full year to be reasonably good at Alankaar practice, this gives an idea of how demanding, painstaking and time-consuming the art is.

And this is why we must laud and commend the efforts put in by the organizers and staff at MGI and in particular those of the students, because it is only through such support and cooperation that the cause of Indian classical music will be advanced further locally. As it is, going beyond the confines of MGI to different regions of the island has already shown the results that gladdened our ears and hearts last Friday, and this outreach and spread — let’s safely leave out the cliché ‘democratisation! – would enhance the cultural quasi-desert that we are in as far as Indian classical music is concerned. Further, while polishing and perfection will always be a work in progress, a small suggestion is to have this kind of show somewhat more regularly, perhaps starting with twice a year, precisely so as to give a boost to the scene.

Overall, therefore, thanks a ton to the students for their marvellous performance and best wishes for the future. It was a lovely evening of ‘magical empathy,’ in the words of an accomplished artist who thus qualified the unique connect that is established between performer and audience. Perhaps with the help of the Ministry of Arts and Culture, we may look forward to more such ‘decentralised’ evenings of magical empathy put up by the MGI…


* Published in print edition on 17 April  2015

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