Unless it receives the patronage of kings and maharajas, serious art has a diffi-cult time surviving in the marketplace. All of the attention usually falls on a few stars, whose work is admired but rarely understood by the adoring crowds that pack their concert halls: stars like Ravi Shankar in Hindustani music, or Van Cliburn in European classical music, or Marcel Marceau in the world of mime. Unfortunately, numerous other equally gifted artists either barely survive on their music or get day jobs. This either-or division between stars and unknowns is not only inaccurate and unjust, it also makes it extremely difficult for new stars to develop their talent, or be recognized once they do develop talent.
Fortunately, there does exist a special kind of hero who actively fights against this state of affairs, who is best described by the oxymoron “underground impresario.” These people know good art when they see it, and also know enough about business, recording, and printing to successfully take on the challenges of first discovering new artists, and then marketing what most businessmen would consider to be unmarketable. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (of City Lights Books) performed this function for the Beat Poets. John Hammond played this role for the great jazz musicians. And now we have Parag Chordia’s Bol Records to work on behalf of a new generation of gifted Indian classical musicians.
Chordia’s commitment to Indian classical music manifests in many ways. He hosts a radio program on Stanford Station KZSU that plays nothing but Hindustani and Karnatik music from 12 to 3 p.m. every Friday. He produces concerts and teaches classes in Indian music on the Stanford University campus. And when he finds time, he plays the sarod himself. Bol Records, however, is his most ambitious project, and the one that will clearly have the most enduring effect.
There are no compromises or hedging of bets in the Bol Records catalog: neither fusion albums with well-known jazz musicians, nor tried and true classical big names bedecked with honors and hordes of fans. The focus is on young performers who play pure classical music, but who do not merely repeat what they have learned from their great masters. On the contrary, they can take Indian classical music in new directions—without combining it with anything else—precisely because they are so deeply steeped in the tradition. However, only someone who is familiar with the traditions will be able to hear just how innovative these new performers are. And so Chordia has taken on the heroic task of teaching his listeners the essential structures of classical music, so that they can appreciate how the Bol Records artists have developed and extended those structures.
Most people who listened to the Bol Records album of Tanmoy Bose’s tabla solos would hear a flurry of virtuoso drumming played against a repeating melody. Those who like heavy metal or jazz drumming would find this album invigorating and impressive. Those who are looking for something to play behind their yoga classes would probably put it aside and look for something with bansuri or sitar. But neither group would be able to hear that Bose’s playing combines the six major tabla traditions of Farrukhabad, Punjab, Banaras, Delhi, Lucknow, and Arjada into a new style that Bose feels should be called the Calcutta gharana.
However, thanks to the 32 pages of liner notes that come with the album, it becomes possible for anyone to train their ears to retrace these roots, if they are willing to do some careful studying. After the usual biographical introductions to Bose and his accompanist (sarangi player Ramesh Mishra), there is a detailed interview with Bose, in which he explains the differences between the different gharanas. This interview also includes references to 45 different sound samples (available on the Bol Records Web site) in which Bose both recites and plays typical examples of each style of tabla playing. This is followed by detailed descriptions and diagrams showing where the tabla must be struck to make each distinctive sound, and then some abstract discussions of aesthetics and the perceptual structures that shape our experience of music. Finally, there is an analysis of the performances themselves with transcriptions of the qaidas—the rhythmic themes which provide the foundation for Bose’s improvised variations.
Like all Hindustani music, a tabla solo is an improvisation within a strict framework. Knowing the qaidas, and how the patterns that make up the qaidas are divided, expanded and recombined, makes one aware that a tabla solo is a profound and complex creation, not a mere explosion of rhythmic energy.
One might be tempted to ask: is all this work really necessary? Why not let the rhythm of Bose’s playing carry you away, and not worry about the details? Many people who enjoy tabla solos wouldn’t know a dhin-dha-ge-tere-kita from a hole in the ground. Furthermore, many such people are sensitive to musical quality even if they “know” nothing about music. They can accurately distinguish good music from bad, even if they can’t say why. I certainly enjoyed this album the first several times I heard it, before I got a chance to look at the liner notes. But once I had taken the trouble to read the interview and listen to the accompanying sound samples, and learned how to decipher the tabla notation that was especially designed for this album, my whole experience of the music changed.
Of course, it is not possible to be aware of every single detail in the album with the explicit attention that Chordia gives to certain key passages. In fact, I still can’t fully hear all of the patterns described in the liner notes. But I can hear the shifts from one gharana to another at certain key moments, and usually tell when a new qaida is introduced. Each of these moments of explicit verbalizable insight triggers a horizon of radiating awareness, which is deeper and richer than the preverbal intuitions that preceded it. Thanks to these detailed descriptions, and to the superb quality of the sound engineering, I can hear that Bose’s playing is not only rhythmically exciting, but has a precision and clarity of tone that is rare even amongst the finest tabla players living today.
Chordia is aware that more than purely intellectual awareness is needed to appreciate depth and profundity of a great tabla solo. But as he points out in the liner notes, this intellectual understanding can open the door to “emotions that are abstract, sweet, profound, ecstatic and poignant.”
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.