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Indian film music has always been heavily flavored with Western instruments, but two traditional instruments continue to make cameo appearances in every Bollywood score: the santoor (hammer dulcimer) and the bansuri (bamboo flute). Neither instrument is especially suitable for Indian classical music. The bansuri can only do sruti (microtones) of approximately a whole step, and the santoor cannot do sruti at all. But because they are so beloved by so many Indians, it was probably inevitable that these two instruments would eventually leave the film studio and enter the classical concert hall. It is doubtful, however, that anyone else could have finessed the transition with as much imagination and artistry, and mutual support, as Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma.
These two maestros could not be more different in temperament. Chaurasia is burly and jovial, and fell in love with his instrument from the start. “I was always fascinated by the images of Krishna playing the bansuri,” says Chaurasia, “and once I heard it, there was no question in my mind that this was what I wanted to play.” The thin and introspective Sharma had his great musical career thrust upon him. “When I was 13, I had already begun performing as a tabla player and a vocalist,” says Sharma. “But my father discovered a santoor in a shop, and decided that I would be the first person to play classical music on this instrument. Some people say that when they first saw their instrument they were immediately drawn to it. That was not the case with me. I thought the instrument was very limited, and I had to spend years practicing and redesigning it.” Despite these differences in temperament, the two men have long been close friends and musical partners. “I sometimes pray that Shivkumarji will be reborn as my older brother in my next life,” says Chaurasia.
Chaurasia’s fondness for the bansuri, and Sharma’s discontented determination to push the santoor beyond its limitations, paradoxically produced very similar results. Both men created styles that utilized every possible nuance of their instruments, and thus created classical music that was as subtle and expressive as the traditional musical lineages of the sitar and the sarod. Chaurasia’s long powerful whole notes and fast liquid runs could never be played the same way on any stringed instrument. And Sharma’s many different hammering techniques create a range of subtle tone colors that are as expressive in their own way as the bowing techniques of the sarangi or the violin.
Indeed, for millions of people, Chaurasia’s and Sharma’s music is their first, and perhaps only, experience of classical music, thanks to the popularity of their classic 1967 album Call of the Valley. This multiplatinum recording remains the bestselling Indian classical album of all time, but this success was not achieved by simplified popularization. On the contrary, the album challenged the expectations of both filmi music fans and classical music devotees. There were no slick Bollywood arrangements, only an intimate ensemble of improvising instrumentalists. Hindustani classical melody instruments usually play solo with tabla, with an occasional jugalbandi that permits two melody instruments. Call of the Valley had three melody instruments, none of which were traditionally seen as Hindustani classical: The “folk” bansuri, the (originally Persian) santoor, and the American slide guitar of Brijbhushan Kabra. Even though their “chops” were impeccably classical, these three musicians were not improvising in the traditional raga structure. Instead, there was a series of “movements” not unlike those of the European symphonic form, each of which used a different raga to evoke a different aspect of the Kashmir valley referred to in the album title. However, all this risk-taking paid off handsomely for everyone involved. Both classical and filmi fans loved the album, and it made musical stars of all three melody musicians.
Chaurasia and Sharma built on this success with a variety of solo tours and albums, and by collaborating on film scores and other musical projects. But despite the success of Call of the Valley, it was 30 years before this album was recreated in a live concert. This concert has now been released by Navras Records as two DVDs, which are really evocations, rather than recreations, of the original studio album. The stage has a backdrop that reproduces the cover of that album, and the opening speech describes it as a milestone in musical history. But guitarist Brijbhusan Kabra was unable to perform due to illness, and the original tabla player was replaced by Anindo Chatterjee. (No complaints there; he is fabulous, as always.)
The first DVD features a relatively orthodox jugalbandi of raga Bhoopali, which expands the Bhoopali gat from the original album into a 90-minute improvisation. This should be a good experience for those who were introduced to classical music by the original album, for it shows how much true classical virtuosos can create within a single raga. Sharma in particular has grown tremendously in the 30 intervening years, and his fiery virtuosity is a constant delight.
The second DVD echoes the thematic structure of the original album with a suite called Peace, Love and Harmony, which uses three different ragas. There are accompanying acoustic guitar arpeggios, along with two tablas and a pakhavaj. The guitar does not play a preset chord progression, but instead changes chords to follow the melody, rather like a sarangi or harmonium “ghosting” a khyal vocalist. The three drummers drop in and out to create rich rolling waves of percussion. These richer textures do evoke the orchestral quality of the original album, even though there are almost no actual melodies from it. But in an improvised musical tradition, music is not preserved, but rather reborn with each performance. Call of the Valley is reborn with the release of The Valley Recalls, and mother and baby are both doing fine.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.