You had a very successful career as a vocalist when you were young. You were even described as a child prodigy. Why did you decide to switch to sarod? Many people say that the voice is the ultimate instrument for Indian music.
There is no doubt that vocals are at the center of our music. But Ali Akbar Khan is for me the paradigmatic example of excellence. I would say that in his sarod playing there is a kind of impending vocalism. He has a flexibility and versatility to his imagination, all of which have vocal sources. It’s not that he actually plays vocal bandishes. There are sarod players that do that, but he is not one of them. Vocalism is for him an abstract, silent, but immediate storehouse for the movements of the raga.
It’s the thing that makes a raga more than a scale. I can almost say that given two very good instrumentalists, the person who is the better vocalist—in this special metaphorical sense—is the one whose music will have more “juice.” He might not be the fastest, but that’s because he would have no need to be the fastest.
Has Hindustani music changed over the years?
To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to compare music to both language and physics. If you compare the English of Shakespeare’s time to modern English, you can see that it’s essentially the same. There are noticeable differences, but we can still understand Shakespeare. The physics of Shakespeare’s time, however, has been completely replaced by modern science. Throughout the history of Hindustani music, there’s been the same kind of growth and change that you can see in a language. But you don’t have the new completely replacing the old, as is the norm with scientific progress.
For example, Ali Akbar Khan made profound changes in the sarod. Before him, the instrument sounded quick and staccato, with lots of trills. Khansahib still uses those trills, but his innovative use of sustain gives the instrument a new profundity and depth.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in playing Hindustani music?
First, of course, you must practice and study diligently. If you do that, you will become either a competent or an incompetent player, and you will get to know which very soon. But once you have crossed the bar of competence, in about three or four years, what do you do then? You know how to play the raga correctly, but then what? At that point, playing the raga is rather like spreading butter on bread. You’ve got to see how well you can spread it, and how widely you can spread it. You must push at the frontiers of the raga, and yet see that it doesn’t break. If the raga breaks, you are in a kind of melodic anonymity, which ultimately breaks you as a musician.
Have you managed to stretch the borders of any of the ragas you play?
I try. When I play Patdeep, it’s difficult to make it long. You can feel very comfortable playing Yaman long, because it’s quite spacious and flexible. So is Bhairavi. But Patdeep is very brittle, and can’t be stretched easily. The rules for Patdeep are very strict, which is why it makes such an immediate effect. Once you’ve heard the identifying phrases, you know exactly what it is. But that’s a double-edged sword, because the audience is immediately “Patdeeped,” and it seems to be near closing time right away. Then you’re left with the challenge of where to go from there.
For Patdeep, I try to unfold the scale of the raga a little bit at a time, so you can hear every nuance. You have to hold the raga back, stop it from exploding through you. That enables me to stay inside the raga, and not let the raga go, even when I’m playing for a long period of time.
Last month I did a concert in which I played Patdeep for the alap-jor-jhala, and then switched to Madhuvanti for the gat. Madhuvanti has almost the same notes as Patdeep, and many of the same note arrangements. But Madhuvanti has tivra ma (raised fourth) and Patdeep doesn’t. Even though the notes are similar, the mood is very different, and these differences have to be kept. I wanted to create a natural change in mood, while still maintaining a sense of unity in the performance.
When you play two ragas together, how do you decide which ragas to combine?
There’s a kind of dialectic involved between a technical closeness, and yet the need and challenge to keep the moods different while playing in very similar scales. There are also other factors not as capable of tidy articulation. You might combine a raga that has a certain kind of gravitas with something that is not quite so serious—moods that are contrasting, yet still very close.
Do you ever have the experience of being stuck, of not knowing where to go next in the development of a raga?
These days that is not a problem for me. Maybe it has to do with age, or experience, or choice of ragas. There’s a kind of patience that you learn to take with you to the raga. If you’re patient, the raga will speak to you eventually.
Rajeev Taranath’s CD, RASARANG, is available at www.goldenhorn.com
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.