Every instrument has a history in a particular genre and evokes an immediate association when you hear it. Thus you have the guitar that instantly conjures an image of rock music, the violin of concert halls, the drums of heavy metal. Jazz has always been associated with wind instruments such as the saxophone, more recently the piano too, but that may change—the Indian veena may emerge as an equal contender to a jazz association.
In June 2011, Charanams, a New York-based band, won the “Ultimate Battle of the Boroughs” contest organized by the radio station WNYC. About 100 contestants, representing bands, ensembles, instrumentalists, vocalists, DJs, and spoken word artists from the five New York City boroughs (Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and The Bronx) participated in various rounds.
Charanams comprises veena player Nivedita ShivRaj, among others. The band performs original compositions of ShivRaj based on Indian ragas and traditional Karnatik compositions blended with jazz styles and contemporary rhythms. ShivRaj has worked on several cross-genre projects, and recorded with saxophonist Andrew Sterman of The Ocean Band. She has created music productions combining the Karnatik style with electro acoustic music, literally taking the veena to where it hasn’t been seen before.
“Karnatic-jazz” is also the genre of music of Megha, a band whose members include Dr. Suma Sudhindra, a veena exponent based in Bangalore and guitar player Gerard Machado. In an online interview, Machado has opined, “The similarities between Karnatik [music] and jazz are remarkable. Both are systematic, and have a lot of scope for improvisation.” The two musicians have collaborated on two albums—Clean Licks and Touch Another Life.
Sudhindra has also collaborated with the Dutch band Spinifex, in Spinifex Indian Spin earlier in 2011. With the proliferation of veena sounds in genres the world over, the instrument is poised to soon attain the same status as the much sought-after tabla in fusion music.
Veena exponent Jayanthi Kumaresh’s album Mysterious Duality—Just Me is among the latest in the Karnatik-Jazz category. The album stays true to the classical rendition, at the same time welcomes non-Indian sensibilities to keep pace. The first track, “Mysterious Duality,” begins with the octave-tethering ascending-three-two-descending-three notes. The repetition of these eight notes is refreshing; they provide continuity, while lending an interesting backdrop to the musical exploration. “Mysterious Duality” is over eight minutes long, and opens up the vista of the Karnatik improvisational technique. Kumaresh clearly thinks in a musical language, and one can almost visualize the riveting narrative.
“Strings With No Ends” has a quieter treatment, and feels introspective for the most part. In the last four minutes of the 12 minute track, Kumaresh makes up her mind and picks up the pace. Finally at peace, the last 2 minutes are joyful. “Wandering in Dimensions” lays out the boundaries of the musical map by hitting extreme notes straight away. The repetitive background pattern of notes resurfaces here, and the composition mirrors itself constantly, each note following the other in octave or sequence. Every once in a while, Kumaresh teases out the far-reaching sounds of the pattern to create vibrancy. “Waiting at Dusk” comes across as such—the routine rhythms of the day are laid out first, leading up to an expectancy, a quiet looking out for the next verse. Halfway through, the track changes tone, almost as if the person waiting is getting anxious, before again settling down to the old rhythms. It is a relief that each track is over eight minutes; one cannot really expect to unveil a mysterious duality in less. Kumaresh is clearly functioning in an instinctive communion with her instrument and her music.
An online Flipswitch PR article captures a comment that further suggests a multi-genre future for the veena and Kumaresh, “Before this album, I would wonder when I played the bass strings in a particular way if I was sounding too much like an electric guitar. I always felt a bit shy. After making this album, though, I found it was very cool. Now I love it.”
Very cognizant of placing Indian music on the world map, Kumaresh has founded the Indian National Orchestra. In her blog,http://veenaijayanthi.blogspot.com/, she writes, “there is no comprehensive team consisting of performing musicians in their prime, from both North and South India, who can jointly perform Indian music together and represent India in a national or international event. The music presented by INO will truly reflect India, as it is today—diverse in texture and variety, but united in spirit and purpose.” Its charter includes performances in all the major cities of India and abroad.
More power to this initiative: Presenting the veena as part of a formal orchestra with a multi-genre setting will further expand the reach of this versatile instrument.
Priya Das is an avid follower of world music.