COVER STORY: The New Faces of Fusion Music in India
They’re young, restless and unafraid of mixing the traditional with the modern. Meet fusion music’s coolest alchemists
The story about how Pandit Ravi Shankar taught George Harrison to play the sitar is probably one of the most cherished Beatles trivia. The year was 1965 and the Fab Four were filming Help! when Harrison found a sitar on the set. Fascinated by the exotic instrument, the band decided to incorporate it into a jam session.
“We’d recorded the ‘Norwegian Wood’ backing track and it needed something,” Harrison later explained in The Beatles Anthologies. “We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up—it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it.” The result was somewhat garbled but intriguing; certainly unfamiliar to many in the West and it piqued curiosity.
When Shankar heard the track, he was not impressed. “I couldn’t believe it,” he later said in an interview with the BBC in April 2000. “It sounded so strange. Just imagine some Indian villager trying to play the violin when you know what it should sound like.” In 1966, Harrison headed to India to meet Shankar and learn how to play the instrument from the maestro himself.
Who started the fire?
The seeds of Indian fusion as we understand it today were in all likelihood sown at sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan’s 1955 performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was invited to perform there by American composer and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and his concert is said to have not only introduced a whole new audience to Indian classical but also helped build bridges between the musical styles of the East and the West. Khan recorded the first Western LP of Indian classical music the same year, followed by an appearance on broadcaster Allistair Cooke’s variety show Omnibus which became the first television performance of Indian music—all of which set the scene for the next decade.
The Sixties saw fusion music reaching a level of popularity that was truly global; it was very much linked to Shankar and the Beatlemania that had captured the attention of the masses. It was further fueled by the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India, causing a historical exchange of music and culture and pushing Shankar’s stardom in the West enough to bag a slot at Woodstock in 1969. His influence on Harrison resulted in the Beatles experimenting with Indian instruments in the music throughout the Sixties, which eventually also inspired rivals the Rolling Stones to give fusion a shot—1966’s “Paint It Black” being a prime example. It would seem the Sixties were the melting pot for Indian fusion; sitars and tabla instrumentals were splashed everywhere and Shankar went on to make albums with American saxophonist Bud Shank while American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, also bitten by the fusion bug, featured prominent tabla players Bihari Sharma and Badal Roy on several albums.
English guitarist and composer John McLaughlin pushed the movement forward next—in India and abroad. He gained widespread recognition in the Sixties within the jazz-rock and fusion space with his quintet Mahavishnu Orchestra (the original line-up featured Jan Hammer on keyboards, Billy Cobham on drums, violinist Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird on bass guitar) and Shakti, his band that featured tabla player Zakir Hussain among other prominent Indian artists. McLaughlin went on to become an importer of sorts of Indian ragas to the jazz-loving audience in the West.
The tech-savvy Seventies
The Seventies saw technology flooding the world of music, jazz giving way to the rise of synthesizers and keyboards, fuelling sounds that went beyond anything that had been heard before. Disco’s popularity in the West helped its progenation in India—Indian-British producer Biddu (Appaiah) and Pakistani teenage singing sensation Nazia Hassan’s “Disco Deewane” made a splash across the globe in 1981. Around this time, Bollywood producers like Bappi Lahiri and RD Burman were the key minds behind disco fusion flourishing in India. This in turn would inspire and evolve into the electronica space when session guitarist Charanjit Singh combined Indian classical with synth, performing ragas in machine rhythms. His 1982 album Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat is the earliest predecessor to the Goa trance movement that would soon kick off in a few years and give rise to the early strains of acid house.
Whether it is the eventual evolution into Britain’s indie-trance movement in the Nineties or the punk meets-tabla blends from producers like State of Bengal (Sam Zaman), Karsh Kale and Osmani Soundz (Shohid Jolil), Indian fusion’s impressive history is proof of its diversity and ability to evolve. The late Nineties and early Noughties were a glorious time that saw a wave of fusion artists emerge in India who experimented freely with folk and Indian classical. From Indian Ocean and Trilok Gurtu to Niladri Kumar and Advaita among others, each of these artists borrowed from the past to create something new and exciting, something that in a way summarized a new India. And it’s only natural that the new face of Indian fusion—fresh artists who are giving a new meaning to glocal—are taking things a notch higher.
A lot of the time, there is a misconception around what the term ‘fusion music’ entails. “I would say that the word ‘fusion’ has, in a sense, been over-used and may not fit what it set out to describe,” says Pavithra Chari, vocalist of New Delhi-based fusion outfit Shadow and Light. Chari and producer Anindo Bose formed the duo in 2014 and blend electronica, jazz and blues with Hindustani classical vocals.
Bose, who is also part of fusion/world music act Advaita, recalls how Shadow and Light happened completely by chance. It started with him working on a few vocal lines originally intended for a demo. That ended up becoming the duo’s first song. “It then became a studio project, primarily for collaborative songwriting, gradually growing into a performance outfit,” he says. On how he approaches fusion, Bose explains there’s no set rule. “My arrangement style is always evolving, I take the melody line as my main focus and then interpret it instrumentally. For me the two most important pillars of any piece with Shadow and Light are the melody, and the emotions. They hold the song in place,” says the 35-year-old.
The current generation of rising fusion artists dabbles in everything from metal to jazz, folk, soul and R&B. Most cite their parents as those who introduced them to Hindustani classical whereas the urge to blend it with other genres comes from the influence of Western pop-culture and an Internet-fuelled upbringing. Says Chari, “I have had varied influences in terms of genre, I trained in Carnatic and Hindustani classical, listened to pop, soul, R&B; I think and speak in English… All of this led to fusion being something that seemed like a very natural step to take.” The 23-year-old singer fell in love with Hindustani classical because of her mother’s passion for it. “Classical training defines me and the way I think. The process, the riyaaz (practice) and the idea of concentration have all influenced my compositions and my personality.” Shadow and Light recently released their third full-length album Sabar to critical acclaim, and after playing a multi-city tour across India, they’re currently on the road in the U.S.
Best when East meets West
Nirali Kartik, one half of world music duo Maati Baani (also comprising producer/guitarist Kartik Shah) calls herself “an Indian classical soul.” She was a young child when she began going for Hindustani vocal lessons. “I found the notes and improvisations like a game. I loved the idea of making my own patterns which classical music allows you to do. It allowed me to make my music in a given frame of a raga,” says the 34-year-old. There is a complexity in Indian classical music that, according to Kartik, allows artists a freedom to experiment through permutations and combinations. Apply these rules to Western arrangements and the possibilities are literally endless.
To make an impact on their audience, fusion artists today, much like their predecessors, turn to reinvention. Sitarist Rishabh Seen, best-known for doing the unimaginable—playing metal on the sitar—swears by adapting to modern times. “My sole reason of bringing sitar metal to life was to basically show people how rich, versatile, modern, ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ Indian classical instruments are,” says the 21-year-old. In the past couple of years, Seen has gained global recognition for his sitar renditions of songs by metal artists like Animals As Leaders and Meshuggah as well as his own work with his band Mute the Saint. He might be a third-generation classical musician in his family but when it comes to experimentation, nothing is off limits . “I think just as humanity’s dressing, eating habits, transport, housing, way of speaking, walking are not the same as 500 years ago, change is not only a constant but a must. In order for things to survive over time, change has to to be brought at least in small doses so that this kind of music and these instruments can survive the test of time and stay relevant.”
Working around challenges
If independent musicians have it tough already, fusion artists have it even tougher. It’s no mean feat winning over two entirely different crowds: classical music purists that scoff at any attempt to interpret and experiment on the one hand, and the hip gig-hopping crowd that isn’t too sure about a ‘fusion’ music concert. Says Bose, “For me, the biggest challenge has been to preserve the authenticity or essence of a certain raga/mode while experimenting with it in a contemporary way. There is always a desire to present something truly unique… We take a lot of time to attain that balance and we don’t release a piece till we are completely convinced, no matter how long it takes to create it.”
When you represent more than one genre, the chances of slip-ups may also increase and the real fight is to ensure “there is room for mistakes,” according to Chari. “I spend a lot of time and effort to ensure I know enough about the different genres I compose/perform. I find it necessary to feel authentic to myself, and not fake something for the sake of performance. I also rely heavily on the narrative of the composition, to guide my creativity. That makes the entire process effortless.”
Tanishque Jarial, the 22-year-old frontman of New Delhi-based world music ensemble Pakshee, feels the general indifference among the youth towards fusion has a lot to do with the perception of a modern-day band—a bunch of young people with guitars. “The younger generation is usually always receiving what is being fed to them by the media and the people around them,” he says. “Also, it’s very hard to compete with Bollywood music’s increasing demand and aggressive marketing.”
So the key lies in the way it’s all presented to the new generation. Seen, Pakshee and Maati Baani have all used social media to their advantage, racking in hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and spreading their interpretations of classical vocals and instruments to the entire world. Seen’s appeal lies in the alien idea of sitar-meets-metal while Pakshee use stunning videography to complement their stellar musicianship. Maati Baani take a combination of the two, uniting unique musicians from around the globe to create culturally diverse content. It is all, in a way, strangely reminiscent of the way the world first perceived the sitar when George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar brought it into ‘mainstream’ light. It changes people’s ideas of what music can be. Chari, however, feels that the spotlight of the Internet is a double-edged sword. “It has helped in getting the music to many people in the world,” she agrees. “But it also stands the risk of getting lost amongst millions of musicians who may value the appeal of the visual content more than that of the music.”
Glocal is the flavor
While some may argue that the term ‘fusion’ music can imply an exoticisation of Indian culture, Chari and Jarial feel that it’s a label that can allow their artistry to stand out globally. “When practiced by artists who have deeply studied the crafts they fuse, and who respect the art forms for their uniqueness and value, fusion doesn’t have to mean exocitization of Indian culture,” says Chari, adding, “It can be a direct representation of a globalized Indian culture, one that has deep roots in the past as well as a strong foothold and perspective to the future.”
Jarial points out that all the members of Pakshee (also comprising Carnatic vocalist Sree Rag, guitarist, Satyam Sah, bassist, Akshat Pradhan, keyboardist Pranay Parti and drummer Dan Thomas) have very different cultural backgrounds that defy the idea that ‘fusion music’ means just one kind of sound. “The aim now is just to make music together that blends well using our various influences,” he says.
Amassing a dedicated audience is also a challenge. “I think the most important thing is that musicians themselves drop this idea that ‘people don’t want to listen to classical or fusion’ because that is completely ignorant and baseless,” says Seen. “As an artist, you are responsible for marketing yourself a certain way.” Kartik and Chari’s advice to keep the music as well-defined as the visual content rings true within Seen’s words—grab eyeballs, but have quality content to present. “Trust me, if something is really, really good, people don’t give a damn what it is,” he says. “If it is something that can touch them, astonish them, they will listen.”