One of the few truths about music that holds almost everywhere is that vocal music appeals to more people than instrumental music. Perhaps this is because almost everyone can sing at least a little bit, and it’s much easier to appreciate music that you can perform yourself. But I think it is also because vocal music usually has words, whose poetic structure gives a foundation for whatever variations occur in the music. The poetic structure of verse and chorus is present even in purely instrumental Hindustani music (it roughly corresponds to the Sthai and Antara). But usually instrumental musicians pride themselves on going as far from this structure as possible, returning to it only briefly to remind the audience how far they’ve traveled since the melody first appeared. There are exceptions to this, of course, but they actually clarify why the rule came into existence. As Niranjan Jhaveri has pointed out, the taans sung by classical vocalists are designed to enable them to delight in the purely abstract variations that are usually the province of instrumentalists. And G.S. Sachdev’s bansuri playing almost always gives one the sense that he is playing singable melodies, rather than taans.
This may partly explain why Sachdev has such a broad following in the West amongst people who have not formally studied Indian music. He is temperamentally the opposite of fellow bansuri player Hariprasad Chaurasia, whose athletic exuberance prompts him to wear his virtuosity on his sleeve, and has made him a favorite of jazz musicians. But Chaurasia was trained primarily by an instrumentalist (Ali Akbar Khan’s sister Annapurna Devi), and he approaches melodies the way instrumentalists usually do: as gats that provide jumping off points for flights of imagination. Sachdev dwells within the melody itself: his variations always evoke the original theme, and are not just different melodies in the same raga. Because his virtuosity is always subservient to the demands of the emotional content of the melody he is playing, his music often appears more simple and straightforward than it actually is. But careful listening reveals that Sachdev’s music has as much technical sophistication as emotional depths.
Sachdev’s most recent release, Aradhana, is a double CD, which shows his deep roots in vocal music. The first CD begins with a performance of Raga Purya, which follows the rhythmic structure used by Hindustani vocal music. The Vilambit (slow) section is played in the primarily vocal tal of Ektal rather than the Teental favored by most instrumentalists. One of the essential elements of playing slow Ektal properly is to leave frequent spaces with no beats at all, which are frequently of irregular syncopated lengths. Also, because it has very long passages that must be played with closed baya (bass drum muted by the palm) the sounds that are played are often sparse and staccato. Many excellent tabla players are only moderately comfortable in slow Ektal, because so few instrumentalists use it. But Jnan Ghosh plays with both creativity and authority in this tal, and also shows a sensitivity that never overwhelms Sachdev’s lyrical gentleness.
There are plenty of long held notes in Sachdev’s music, and clear melodic lines that seem almost like folk melodies on first hearing. But try singing or playing them, and you will be in for a variety of surprises. For example, the performance of Des that follows Purya is in a very slow Rupak, a seven beat tal very popular with vocalists. Because the melody lasts for two cycles of Rupak, it sounds very similar to the 14 beat Dhrupad tal Dhamar. Dhrupad was designed to be sung in temples, and although Dhrupad tals are frequently in odd meters, they do not have the jagged emphasis on the surprising corners of those odd meters that you would find in Balkan music or fusion jazz. The fast repetitions of odd time signatures in those kinds of music feel like syncopations, and thus naturally create an awareness of the body which inspires dancing even if the rhythms are too complicated to make that inspiration a reality.
But to sing or play in slow seven or 14 requires a broadening of time awareness that increases mental concentration, and naturally inclines one towards a focused meditative state. Because Sachdev’s Des melody floats over two complete cycles of seven without marking any single beat strongly, it gives a meditative sense, almost like an alap, even though the underlying tempo never changes. And although he repeats the melody frequently, he never ornaments it exactly the same way twice. Nevertheless, the ornaments never obscure the original melody, but instead highlight it with trills and scales that underscore different crucially expressive notes, and thus change the mood with each new “repetition.”
Many of these trills, scales, and grace notes are actually quite fast, with imaginative turns of phrase that make them little melodies in miniature. However, they don’t sound fast because the ear hears primarily the broad outlines of the melody rather than the ornaments. But they are subtle and surprising, with many different forms of accent and slight shifts in tempo that are experienced as flutters and swells rather than separate notes. These are just the right sort of ornaments for the tone of the bansuri, for they evoke not only a sense of yearning emotion, but the actual sound of a bird in song and flight. There is, in other words, a mood produced by all of these elements, which cannot be fully expressed by analyzing them, although hopefully this sort of analysis will make the experience richer when we return to the music itself.
Every musician acknowledges when asked that, of course, technique is only a means to an end. But a corollary that is easily forgotten is that when technique is completely successful it frequently disappears from view, invisibly doing its magic to help the musician in calling up the gods and demons that make music worth playing and life worth living. In this sense, Sachdev has mastered his technique, for it always obeys the higher powers that use his music as a vehicle.
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.