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Despite stereotypes, India, like America, is a country that feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the cowboy who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the yogi who wanders inner spaces in search of realization. To see the parallel with America, consider the scene in Huckleberry Finn, where Huck is trying to decide between what his elders have told him is right (returning Jim to slavery) and what he feels is right. He eventually decides on the latter, saying “O.K., then I’ll go to hell.” Variations of this scene have been acted out by Indians throughout history. Indians always speak as if obedience to tradition was their highest priority. But when push comes to shove, it is always the inner voice of intuition that wins out.

This individualistic ideal is embodied especially vividly in the person of the Hindustani musician, who creates a single melody on the spot as it reveals itself. Traditionally, the creator of this single line interacted with no other musicians. Like Krishna with his flute, or Saraswati with her veena, he or she enjoyed complete and solitary fulfillment. The other musicians who played with these soloists were supposed to add support, but keep creative input to a minimum. The tanpura played the same notes over and over. The tabla player usually marked the rhythm cycle by repeating the same theka pattern, unless given permission to take a solo. And although vocal music has long been accompanied by a bowed instrument or harmonium, this accompanist traditionally was required to copy what the singer had just sung.

Like most Indian traditions, however, this one eventually yielded to the pressure of individual creativity. The modern tabla player rarely plays an unornamented theka pattern. The only way that one can now identify the taal cycle is to listen for the khali section, where the tabla player muffles the bass drum by playing with the flat of his hand. Within this relatively free format, however, the best modern tabla players now interact with the melody instrument in complex cross-rhythmic patterns. Vocal accompanists, like the great sarangi player Sultan Khan, are playing beautifully ornamented parts that are more like counterpoint than accompaniment, and are taking solos of their own. And with the creation of the jugalbandi form, it is now common for two melody instruments to play together, which creates a situation where neither can be seen as “the soloist.”

The question of what exactly they both ought to play, however, is not as simple as it may seem. Hindustani music is still essentially the expression of creative individuals, even if now they are interacting with each other. How is it possible for two musicians to play together meaningfully in a tradition that is essentially monophonic and improvised? One possibility is to borrow a technique from Karnatik music, and alternate between two musicians playing pre composed melodies in unison, and then each one soloing. Ravi and Anoushka Shankar have recently started incorporating something like this format into their jugalbandi performances, although they go beyond it by occasionally even (gasp!) playing harmonies. Of course harmonies are very beautiful, and Western music would be thin gruel without them. But there is a very real danger that the essence of improvised music can be lost if one assumes that this is the only possible direction for progress.

Jazz made this assumption in the 1930s, and the resulting Big Band Swing arrangements stifled the soloist’s creativity. This was why the best jazz improvisers of the ’40s left the big bands to start small bebop combos. And the European rationalist assumption that the pen was mightier than any other tool or instrument turned the musician into the obedient menial of the composer. Improvisation was completely lost with the rise of the symphony orchestra. Jugalbandi cannot be seen as one small step in the direction of a band or orchestra, it is a completely different perspective altogether: two soloists in interactive conversation with each other not fused together as a single ensemble.

Vocal jugalbandi often comes close to resembling counterpoint, with the two singers frequently overlapping with each other. This works especially well in Dhrupad, where the long held notes form something almost like harmonies in widely spaced Pentatonic ragas. But the Salamat Ali Khan family transplanted this style to Khayal when they switched from Dhrupad, and sometimes even include three singers at once.

Pandit Jasraj developed an ingenious and profound style which is now called Jasrangi Jugalbandi, and which is firmly rooted in Indian tradition. It is based on an ancient method called Moorchana Paddhati, which creates different ragas from the same sequence of notes by changing the note that is designated as Sa. This is analogous to the modal system in Western music, which creates modes such as Phrygian and Dorian by playing a major scale (such as C) and designating some note other than C as the tonic. If a male singer and a female singer perform two ragas together which are related in this manner, the Ma note of the man’s raga could be the Sa note of the woman’s raga (or vice versa). However, all of the pitches that they sing would be the same, except for the fact that the man would be singing the lower notes of the scale, and the woman would be singing the upper notes. The result is that two very different ragas, with different tonal centers, ornaments, and performance histories can be performed at the same time, and are thus revealed to be both fundamentally related and significantly different.

All of these vocal forms of jugalbandi are usually restricted to players who have studied with the same guru and thus have a close affinity with each other. In fact, in most cases the performers are blood relatives, whose vocal blend is enhanced by the shared speech patterns that emerge when a family grows up together in the same household. Instrumental jugalbandis are usually structured as alternating solos rather than as counterpoint; the interaction is thus successive rather than simultaneous. But these instrumental jug-albandis are also assumed to work best when players share a guru. Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar were perhaps the most famous jugalbandi duo of the 20th century, and their common roots in the teachings of Allaudin Khan were what made their performances together so unforgettable.

Nevertheless, there is one dramatic example of great jugalbandis created by two artists from different traditions. Vocalist Pandit Jasraj and bansuri maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia come from radically different musical backgrounds, and are the only jugalbandi duo that combines instrumental and vocal. But they have been performing together for almost a decade. One of these performances was recorded on a wonderful CD by tablist and record producer Eman, and this recording shows the many affinities that enable these two great artists to co-create.

Chaurasia once said that he played the bansuri because “the flute is an instrument you can sing through.” Like a singer he has superb breath control, perhaps because of his youthful training as a wrestler. His tone is strong, sweet, and unwavering, and he plays sruti patterns that were once thought to be impossible for the bansuri. The speed with which he can play the most dazzling rhythmic and melodic patterns has justly made him a great favorite with musicians all over, especially in the jazz world.

Jasraj’s amazing command of his three-and-a-half octave range makes it hard to believe that his voice is not an instrument of some sort. He can sing every possible sitar bend, sarod slide, and tabla rhythm, reminding us that the voice is where all music began. Usually with vocalists one has to choose between an experienced older singer whose voice is not as powerful as it was, or a strong young voice that still has more to learn. With Jasraj you get it all, for his 72 years of musical experience have given him artistic wisdom, and yet miraculously left his voice as young as an enchanted prince.

Although Jasraj and Chaurasia came to music from very different starting points, their turbulent early histories revealed in each an overwhelming desire to play the best possible music, regardless of the obstacles that were thrown in their way.

Chaurasia was born into a family of wrestlers with no interest in music. The only way he was able to get access to his first flute was by stealing it. He approached his first teacher, Pt. Rajaram, when he was only 10 years old, and had to learn to play in secret. When Chaurasia told his father that he was leaving home to accept his first job at All India Radio, his father asked him how he could have been hired as a flute player when he couldn’t play the flute! The exposure he received on All India Radio got him numerous offers from film composers, but success in this new career did not satisfy him. He wanted more classical training, and he remembered that Allaudin Khan had once said to him “if you can’t study with me, you should study with my daughter.” Chaurasia had never heard Annapurna Devi play before. Almost no one had, for there are no recordings of her, and she had not played in public since her divorce from Ravi Shankar. But she lived nearby in Mumbai, and Allaudin Khan was miles away in Maihar, so Ch
aurasia knocked on her door and asked to study with her. She told him to get out, calling him a “film wallah.” But he persisted for three years, until she finally agreed to even listen to him. When she heard him she said, “If I am to teach you, you must start completely over. How can you do that now?” He said that he would switch over to playing his flute on the opposite side, so that he would have to relearn all of his fingering. She agreed to this, and remains his guru to this day.

Although Pandit Jasraj was born into a family that had been singers for generations, his father’s early death forced his family to decide that he would never become a musician himself. He was sent to school, in hopes that he would master some lucrative middle-class profession. But one day he heard an old gramophone record of a ghazal in a café and knew immediately that he wanted to become a singer. He cut classes so he could come to that café and listen to that same record over and over, for there was no other music anywhere nearby. Finally, his family decided to let him become a tabla player, for there was a greater demand for accompanists than for soloists. He became accepted as prodigy before he was teenager, but resolved to become a singer instead when a promoter insulted him, and then refused to let him sit on the same level as the soloist. At 14 he began studying vocal music with his older brother Sangeet Mahamahopadhyaya Pandit Maniram, and thus began his life of devotion to singing. “I still play tabla for myself, but no longer perform,” says Jasraj, “but my tabla experience helps me hear what the tabla players are doing, and that means I can interact with them more effectively. Today of course the tabla players are treated with more respect, and that’s a good thing. With someone like Zakir Hussain, how could you do otherwise?”

Today both Jasraj and Chaurasia have been showered with honors. Both men have received the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan, the Sangeet Natak Academy award, and the Rajeev Gandhi award. Chaurasia has received the best musician award from the Cine Musician Association, and has produced two platinum albums. Jasraj has auditoriums named after him in two North American cities, and the Jasraj Award was created by the government of Canada to honor and aide students of Indian music. Both men have also created schools of Indian music. Chaurasia’s Brindavan Gurukul gives free instruction to poor children in Mumbai, and is in the process of establishing a branch in California. Pandit Jasraj has schools run by his disciples in Atlanta, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and Jersey City. When they come together again to perform a jugalbandi, it will undoubtedly be a creation of three extraordinary individuals that will be both spontaneous and spiritual.

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.