FLOWERING BUDS. Abhijit Pohankar, Keyboard. Available at www.legendarylegacy.com
TRANQUILLITY. Composed and arranged by Abhijit Pohankar. Available at www.sonarupa.co.uk
The keyboard is arguably the instrument least suited for Indian music because it cannot produce the essential micro-tones and other nuances of color. A keyboard player can choose from many different sound sources, such as a piano string, an organ pipe, or an electronic sample. But once the choice has been made, the isolation from that source requires the keyboard player to produce exactly the same tone color for every note. String players can give a different tone color to each note in numerous ways, such as bending or sliding the strings, or plucking them in different places or from different angles. Wind players can similarly change their tone by reshaping their mouths or partially covering sound holes. And the human voice is free to change pitch and tone in more ways than can possibly be described. But there is nothing like these expressive possibilities on the standard keyboard because there is a key between the musician’s fingers and the sound source. For European music this sacrifice was worth it because it enables one musician to play harmonies that would otherwise require an entire orchestra. But because pure Indian music doesn’t use harmony or orchestral arrangements, the Indian musician who plays keyboard is in effect paying for something he can’t use.
Despite these limitations, the keyboard has been widely incorporated into Indian music. The harmonium is now used to accompany vocals at least as often as the sarangi or violin, although the reasons for that may not be purely musical. “It’s relatively easy to play the harmonium adequately,” a khayal vocalist once confided to me, “and I’d rather sing with an in-tune harmonium than an out-of-tune sarangi.” And the current generation of Bollywood composers, led by A.R. Rahman, are often keyboard players with training in both synthesizer programming and European classical music. However, Abhijit Pohankar is trying to create a place for the Indian keyboard player that is significantly different from either of these roles.
Pohankar first learned music from his grandmother, Susheela Pohankar, who was a musicologist and composer at Jabalpur University. This extraordinary woman not only trained her son Ajay (Abhijit’s father) to become a great Hindustani vocalist, but also encouraged her grandson to play Hindustani music on the electronic keyboard.
The best electronic keyboards have two main advantages over the harmonium, which greatly increase Pohankar’s ability to incorporate uniquely Indian elements. First of all, they are touch-sensitive, like a piano, which enables him to use dynamic volume changes. And secondly, they often have a “pitch wheel,” which makes it possible to play sruti (micro-tonal ornaments).
At a recent interview after a concert, Pohankar told me that the pitch wheel was an essential part of his sound, and that it would be impossible to play authentic Indian music without it. But Pohankar’s actual playing, both in the concert and on his classical album Flowering Buds, showed a much greater command of dynamics than sruti. Pohankar’s main instrumental guru is Shivkumar Sharma, and Pohankar has consequently focused on duplicating the expressive nuances of the santoor. Pohankar’s dynamics are both subtle and emotionally heartfelt. He also plays dazzlingly fast scales, and rich rolling arpeggios with exciting rhythmic accents. But the santoor is incapable of playing sruti, and perhaps for that reason Pohankar’s use of the pitch wheel seems perfunctory and lacking in nuance. He relies on a few stock phrases, and seems to be using them only because he feels they ought to be there. In my opinion, he should study with a guru who could teach him the uniquely Indian nuances of sruti, such as a sarod player, a violinist, or a vocalist. His father, vocalist Ajay Pohankar, has an admirable command of sruti, and could certainly teach Abhijit what he needs to know. Abhijit frequently says that he did not become a vocalist because he did not want to be compared to his father. But Abhijit clearly does have a good working relationship with his father, which could provide the input that he needs to transform the electronic keyboard into an effective classical Indian instrument.
So far this father-son relationship has manifested itself in several albums in which Abihijit has provided keyboard and orchestral arrangements for his father’s singing. These albums are a bit slick for my tastes, but they do provide an effective popular showcase for some fine classical singing. They also show that Abhijit’s muse may not lead him in the direction I am suggesting because he is strongly attracted by the harmonic and chordal possibilities of the keyboard. He has already achieved a fair amount of success (both artistic and commercial) with his own version of New Age fusion music. Tranquillity, one of the most popular of these albums, uses large ensembles of Indian and Western instruments to create rich chordal textures. Some of his descriptions of these albums make them sound more commercial than they actually are. In one interview he says, “To make progress in music implies adding appeal to it so it can reach the common man. … I decided to package classical music in a form that is simpler and easier to understand.”
It’s true that Tranquillity keeps everything at a fairly moderate tempo, which narrows its emotional range. But it features first-rate Hindustani musicians, who improvise on traditional ragas in large ensembles, and create surprisingly rich harmonic and contrapuntal textures in a single take. The result is several cuts above most New Age music, and an intriguing new direction for Hindustani music. Will it be possible to bring this harmonic element into Indian classical music, without diluting its melodic complexity? Perhaps the answer will be found as Abhijit Pohankar continues to search for a home in the Indian musical landscape for this most Western of instruments.
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.