Legend has it that the musician Tansen, better known as one of the nine jewels in emperor Akbar’s court, could light up lamps with his singing. We’re not here to vouch for the authenticity of this tale, but we know for sure that not one but three Indian classical musicians are set to light up Dubai this weekend. Call it a rare alignment of stars on the horizon of music, if you may.
The Indian classical vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty, daughter of the legendary vocalist Ajoy Chakraborty, will be a part of ‘Surtaal 3’.
She will be accompanied on stage by the eminent musicians — the much-feted percussionist Bickram Ghosh, who’s also a regular at the event; and Rajhesh Vaidhya, the Veena exponent from Chennai who’s a legend in experimentation with music styles. The trio are virtuosos in their own right and seeing them on stage can be a treat for aficionados of music in general, and Indian classical music in particular.
The concert, organised by Gem Enterprises on March 4 at the Emirates International School Rashid Auditorium in Dubai from 7.30pm, will be a blend of Indian classical music and classical fusion. The trio will also bring in their unique concepts of Hindustani classical music.
Vaidhya, an exponent of Carnatic classical music, says he’s looking forward to the concert: “The Hindustani and Carnatic styles of Indian classical music definitely make for fantastic fusion,” he told Gulf News in an email interview.
“This is something that everyone is going to witness in ‘Surtaal’. Generally there will be two musicians for a ‘jugalbandi’ (musical duet or twins). But here in ‘Surtaal’, there are many amazing musicians together on stage, which is unique,” Vaidhya, who has collaborated with classical musicians across India and film composers from AR Rahman to Ilayaraja, Harris Jayaraj and Vidhyasagar. In 2019, he performed 60 song snippets in 60 minutes — a feat that fetched him a place in the Asia Book of Records.
The other two maestros, Chakraborty and Ghosh, agree.
The Genesis of ‘Surtaal’
Sudip Saha, director of GEM Enterprises, tells Gulf News that ‘Surtaal’ was organised to promote Indian classical music in Dubai. “In recent years, the event has created a lot of enthusiasm among the patrons of Indian classical music here,” he said. The event, in its first two editions, managed to strike a chord not just with the Indian diaspora in the UAE but fans of music.
“The programme has become popular among the ardent students of Indian classical music residing in Dubai as it provides them an opportunity to interact with the stalwarts,” he said.
As they prepare to ascend the stage on Saturday, the musicians talk about music, fusion, the future of Indian classical music and more.
Meet the virtuosos
Rajhesh Vaidhya, Veena exponent.
On what music means to him:
I grew up listening to music because my whole family is into music and for me music is life, everything.
On his idols in music:
There are many. My father, KM Vaidyanathan, my Guru Sri Chittibabu, who created magic on the Veena — be it the way he would play it or use the strings. The violin maestro L Shenkar is another, I’m learning music from him currently. Apart from that, the King of Pop Michael Jackson is another favourite of mine, owing to the way he delivers and music and his perfection. And Jimi Hendrix. I just love the way the guitarist and songwriter handles his instrument. Plus, I’m so excited and looking forward to performing at the event in Dubai.
His own favourite performances:
There are many. But if I had to shortlist one, it has to be a recent performance at the Phoenix Market City in Chennai, where I launched my new band ‘Srushti’. Here, we got to perform our own compositions, our originals.
On getting support to bolster classical music in India:
Yes, it has definitely grown and continues to grow. I’m witnessing this trend personally. The number of youngsters who are getting into classical music is much more now than before.
On factors that help him perform well on stage:
Several factors are key, but I would shortlist four. Firstly, the coordination on stage between the musicians. Secondly, the sounding and the output which is very important. Thirdly, to give the audience a variety of songs and compositions. And fourthly, the desire and ambition to be perfect on stage.
What kind of music do you like to listen to unwind? Vocal or instrumental?
Kaushiki Chakraborty, vocalist
On what music means to her:
Music basically means a way of life, a way of knowing myself a way of connecting with myself. And I think music is the only way I can experience something beyond my existence. So music has always been all of this to me.
On her idol/s in the world of music:
And starting in the beginning of my journey, of course, my guru, my father (Ajoy Chakraborty) had been my idol to start with. And then later in life, I met many stalwart musicians, legends in their own way, and I grew up with them, knowing them, seeing them, understanding their brilliance, and, you know, artistic excellence. So they have all played an inspiring role in my life. And of course, the ones who I haven’t met, like Begum Akhtar ji, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali ji. All these legends, they’ve had a great impact in my music. Outside of Indian classical music world, Lata ji (Lata Mangeshkar), Asha ji (Asha Bhosle), Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi… they’ve had a huge influence in my thought process, in my idea of perfection, in my idea of connecting through expression, and voice culture.
Thoughts ahead of ‘Surtaal 3’:
It’s the first time I’m doing a collaboration with these musicians. I’ve done collaborations with a few of them separately, but never together. So I’m really looking forward to sharing the stage with these wonderful musicians. And I think the audience is going to have a musical treat. And I’m sure we will have a very, very joyful experience.
Her all-time fave gigs:
My favorite concert performances, I think I would like to mention first, my first professional public concert, when I was 16, was at the Delhi Habitat Centre. That’s a memorable concert for me. And the first time I performed for Survive and Thrive Music Festival in Pune, that one is also very memorable. The first time I performed in Kolkata, for the global music conference, when I was 20, that will be a treasured memory. And concerts where I’ve been blessed by musicians, backstage, sometimes onstage. I think those are really treasured memories for me.
Her thoughts about Carnatic classical music
It’s an immensely well organised, structured and scientific way of developing and experimenting with music. It’s a tradition that is so well designed for someone to learn. It’s immensely diverse, and I think some of the most exclusive compositions from the Indian music diaspora comes from Carnatic music. The Hindustani and Carnatic classical music forms are amazingly complementary to each other, if they can be brought together with the understanding, care and sincerity that they deserve. I think beautiful collaborations can happen between Hindustani and Carnatic classical music.
On support for classical music growing in India or not:
I think love for Indian classical music has grown across the world. And I think starting from Pt. Ravi Shankar (the sitar maestro) to Zakir Hussain have done great service by propagating Indian music outside our shores. I think they have connected with hearts, in a way with this music that every single person who has who has been exposed to Indian classical music have resonated to it. And I think the journey has been, you know, unbelievably fantastic. And I think the entire world connects with Indian music at the moment. And what is even better is that the youngsters of India, are connecting with Indian classical music like never before. I think that’s very, very inspiring. I’m really grateful to the audience and to, practicing musicians and youngsters who shower all their love to this music. I don’t think there’s a challenge to Indian classical music from Bollywood, because I think Bollywood music exists and grows in the power of Indian classical music. And still, the songs that rests in the power of Indian-ness, I think they always have to rest on the power of Indian classical music and Indian folk music. So something that is dependent on Indian classical music cannot be a threat to it.
On her focus on stage:
First of all, my honest intention is to connect with myself. My other honest intention is to connect with the audience through my music. When I’m on stage, I try to connect with my innermost self, from where I think, my music emerges. I think the honesty and the truth of that connection resonates in the music, and with the audience.
What kind of music do I listen, to unwind?
It’s difficult for me to listen to music and unwind. Because as a student of music, it’s (listening) always a conscious process. It’s always something that I want to learn, want to find. Want to hear want to do. Music is always something that energises me and keeps me rejuvenated keeps me feel alive.
Your thought and other two performers
Ghosh and Vaidhya are unbelievably excellent musicians. I admire their music a great lot.
On what music means to him:
Music isn’t separate from me. Music is me. When I was one-and-a-half or two years old, my father Pandit Shankar Ghosh saw to it that I was surrounded by tablas in what he called the ‘chakra’ view. And he hoped that I would go on strike the tablas and get attracted to the instrument. My orientation has been to become a musician. I don’t have an existence outside of music.
His idols in music:
Well, of course, first and foremost, my father Pandit Shankar Ghosh. If he wasn’t there, I don’t think I would have been a musician. He is my primary source of inspiration and information, my guru, everything. From the age of 13 or 14, there was Pandit Sekhar, who taught me the South Indian style of percussion. In my career as a composer, I have to mention the Bollywood music director RD Burman, whom I never met, but has been a huge influence on my compositional firmament right from my childhood because I’d constantly listen to his work. I admired a lot many others, there was Zakir Hussain, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley.
Thoughts on performing in ‘Surtaal 3’:
Well, I’ve performed in here three times and each time has been a fantastic experience. The audience in Dubai has been nothing short of phenomenal. This time round, it’s even more special, because I’m presenting this concert with two amazing artistes. Kaushiki Chakraborty, who I know from very well from her childhood. Our families are very close. And she’s a phenomenal singer. She’s blossomed into a wonderful artiste today.
There is Rajhesh Vaidhya who has collaborated with me for about 20 years now. Vaidhya has brought brought about a sea change to the world of Veena in many ways. His approach is very avant garde, very, very modern, yet rooted in tradition. I think the audience is in for a great treat with this particular style. It’s a very unique collaboration.
Your favourite gig:
I will select two. One is my first concert, with Pandit Ravi Shanker, on November 16, 1993. I met him at a chance encounter in Brussels, when he listened to a performance of mine and later invited me to perform at his concert. I played with him for over 800 concerts over 11-12 years, becoming his main tabla player. That changed my life.
Second is my first fusion concert or for Rythmscape, happened in January 2002. Its success validated the sound that I had come up with, which had been in my head and heart for years, had come to fruition.
His thoughts on Hindustani and carnatic music and whether support has grown in India:
Well, I am a product of both. I believe my music is an amalgamation of both schools of music, and they sit wonderfully well together.
Yes, of late. And strangely after the pandemic, especially. There’s a huge amount of classical music that’s happening. I think the reason is people after the pandemic needed a reaffirmation of the souls. There’s something deep down that needed to be fixed. And classical music is like a balm to the soul. And I think that is why it’s suddenly become even more popular. So I’m doing a huge amount of classical concerts now.
On classic music being challenged by Bollywood:
No, no, no, there is no challenge because classical has been around for centuries. And Bollywood in comparison is a new entrant. But even after Bollywood has been there for so many years, classical music has been fine. The greatness of classical music is internationally acclaimed. And there’s a huge audience across the globe for classical music, and even today, today.
On factors that guarantee a good gig:
One of the most important things is how well you’ve learned your craft, how much you’ve practiced, then comes the all-important how do you delve into your soul while performing. How do you go deep down into yourself and bring out something in every performance that your audience simply loves. And that’s what I focus on in every single concert. And after that, there is the paraphernalia of stagecraft. But yes, the core qualities are ‘talim’ and practice.
On music that he unwinds to:
I listen avidly to Western classical music, jazz, Latin, pop music, Bollywood — RD Burman, Madan Mohan, Shankar Jaikishan, Laxmikant Pyarelal — and ghazals. I listen to everything and I’ve done 50 feature films as a composer. Otherwise you can’t be a good composer, especially for films because you need to know different genres. Now, I’m listening to this wonderful artiste called Diana Krall, I love her style of slow, soft, melodious jazz.