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Upaj

Part 11/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

After Matheran, we returned to Mumbai, for a few days of music, and of talking about music.

I am lucky to have a couple of good friends living in Mumbai — it made it far easier for me to learn about all the festivals and concerts that I was about to miss. “You are leaving right before the prime music season here,” one friend told me enthusiastically over chai at Café Universal, a small semi-open café owned by an Iranian family. All the posters of Persian archeological sites and of modern Tehran seemed to be looking down and laughing at me as I made mental notes of all of the events that I will time my next trip by. “There are a lot of opportunities to see popular and folk music in the city,” she told me, “Next time you must visit them.”

My two friends in Mumbai do not know each other, but it seemed as though they had conspired behind me to prepare a cocktail of sadness for what I will miss. “There is so much happening this time of year,” my other friend told me over a different cup of chai, “Next time.”

Despite all of the missed opportunities that it implied, the concept of “next time” filled me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. I don’t know how or when, I thought to myself, but I will be coming back here.

But if traveling teaches us anything, it is that every day counts. It teaches us that paying attention to your present surroundings matters far more than contemplating where to go next time around. And besides, there was a great deal to experience in the present. For our last night in Mumbai — (I write with total nonchalance) — we had plans to see Zakir Hussain, live in concert, at Shanmukhananda Hall.

For those who don’t know of Zakir Hussain, I envy you for the joy you will experience upon first encounter with his music. My favorite album of his is Making Music, recorded in 1986. AllMusic neatly summed up the project as so: “world fusion/jazz group falls short of its great potential.” I’m not sure what great potential the reviewer had in mind, but quite frankly, I do not really care. In spite of the fact that it was given this meager review, I rather worship the album.

Making Music opened several horizons for me. It introduced me to the tabla, a percussive instrument that is used throughout South Asia in classical, popular and folk music alike. It also introduced me to a confluence (so to speak) of water and music — the potential of instruments (and perhaps too, of voice) to evoke this life-giving medium. So the prospect of seeing Zakir Hussain perform in person — perhaps playing some of the songs from Making Music! — thrilled me to no end. I prepared by not doing any preliminary research into the performance, lest doing so would remove some of its luster.

The trip from the Grand Hotel — the friendly place where we were staying — to Shanmukhananda Hall took us through areas of Mumbai that I had not seen before. Our vociferous cab driver told us about some of the places we passed — their histories, their tragedies and their merits. Shanmukhananda Hall itself was located in a bustling thoroughfare, where both cars and people jostled up against each other, though only a small percentage of them were seeking admission into the Hall. Passing through the Hall’s outer gates, and through security, was a tad stressful, but the hullabaloo dissipated immediately once our tickets were approved and we were granted entry.

Shanmukhananda Hall is held in high esteem in Mumbai, for being a keystone in the city’s art scene. It hosts a wide array of performers, who present musical and dance traditions from throughout the subcontinent. It has been praised for upholding the dignity of India’s diverse forms of art, and upholding artistic programming that affirms a multi-faceted nation — an alternative to the politics of hierarchy and division which, as everywhere, touch modern India.

In many regards, the foyer looked like the reception area of other performing arts centers I’d seen: tall ceilings and wide avenues, and the hush that prefaces the voices of attendees after a show. However, unlike other venues that I have seen in the past, the foyer at Shanmukhananda Hall pays tribute at every turn to one artist in particular: the legendary Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi. Her presence in the Hall led me to wonder — is this a “secular” performance center, or a temple devoted to a particular manifestation of the divine?

M.S. Subbulakshmi was born in Madurai, a city in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She was introduced to music at an early age and become known throughout India as an embodiment of the highest qualities of vocal music, and artistic practice in general. She was trained in Carnatic music, which is one of the two major genres of classical Indian music that evolved from ancient Hindu traditions. The other subgenre is Hindustani, and while strong parallels exist between the two, Carnatic is immediately discernible to anyone familiar with Indian music. Ever since M.S. acquired prominence, her voice has become equally unmistakable. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine modern Carnatic music without her.

It is hard to imagine Shanmukhananda Hall without her, either. Everywhere I looked, I saw some gesture of respect — indeed, reverance — for Srimati Subbulakshmi. Poster-sized photographs of her lined the Hall itself. Directly outside was a large glass case which contained everything that a novice would need, in order to understand who she was, and why she is held in such high esteem.

A painted sculpture of Srimati Subbulakshmi, holding a veena and smiling slightly behind large, thick-rimmed glasses, rested adjacent to a large, slender ceremonial lamp. The lamp was unlit, but its absence of light was more than compensated for by the words that had been printed behind it. The legend had passed away fourteen years ago, but this tribute to her stood as glistening evidence that through words, legend can live on.

People took their time entering the concert hall. They were dressed in varied levels of formality, from saris and gems to jeans and sneakers. Who do these people think they are? I wondered about the latter. Do they not realize who they are about to see? In all of my ignorance about the codes of propriety for performances such as this, I assumed that to wear jeans to a Zakir Hussain concert was the height of indiscretion. After all, he will not be wearing jeans, I thought with self-satisfied triumph.

But when Mohini Dey, the bassist, walked onstage, wearing a tight dress and high-top sneakers, I had to quickly revise my hastily formed judgments.

On the surface, Upaj (as the ensemble was named) was not at all how I expected it to be. Rather than a set that had been performed and recorded countless times over the course of many decades, the work that Ustad Hussain and the other musicians presented was brand new.

The ensemble consisted of a keybordist named Zubin Balaporia, a young sitarist named Nilandri Kumar, and Mohini Dey — a 22-year-old bassist who, at a young age, had developed the dexterity and artistic intuition of a world-class musician. Though the group had played together before, that evening was their first ever performance in front of a live audience. The vast majority of the concert was pure improvisation, and it was in the unrehearsed interactions between their instruments that their extraordinary talent became abundantly clear. To my ear, funk pervaded the concert. On the tabla and sitar, respectively, Hussain and Kumar worked magic with sound, transforming space by infusing it with new technical and emotive options. Dey (or “Lady Day,” as Hussain called her, invoking the name given to the jazz singer Billie Holiday) brought an intricate and gutsy bassline into the mix. For a little while, this performance took me by surprise — until I remembered that this is not the first time that Zakir Hussain has brought his music to the so-called “margins.”

While Hussain has distinguished himself as a master of Indian classical music, he has also been involved in a number of projects that question the limits of diverse musical geographies, by bringing them into collaboration with each other. To name one of many: In 1999, he co-founded the musical group Tabla Beat Science, which has been celebrated for being on the cutting-edge of “tabla fusion,” and which perhaps for this reason, rather deviates from the artistic parameters that define classical Hindustani music. In 2007, he played a key role in the Global Drum Project, another fusion initiative which blended traditional percussive styles from around the world, to form something that spoke to the evolving tastes and needs of our time.

Opinions might diverge about what genres of music are most sophisticated, and/or most in need of care and sustenance. Yet whatever one’s stance may be, it is impossible to deny the resounding importance of the world’s most dedicated musicians. In the coming years, what will they choose to focus their attention on?

Possible answers to that question beat within me — as quickly, though certainly not as elegantly — as the riffs of tabla, sitar, keys and bass that I heard at Shanmukhananda Hall.

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