By Utpal Borpujari
Trilok Gurtu is an enigma in India’s creative sky. He has steadfastly refused to play to the gallery, but despite not bowing to market dictates unlike many of his contemporaries, this percussionist son of legendary vocalist Shobha Gurtu has been able carve a highly-respected world of jazz, rock, classical, ethnic and world music.
To get a peek into his mind, just go through a few of his quotes, posted on his website: “It’s really the fault of such people that pure musical sounds are stagnating,” he says with reference to the “purists” who are critical of him for “straying” for pure music and going for experimentation. “I don’t want to be called pandit, maharaj or ustad. I’m neither classical nor massical. These are just tags,” he says cocking a snook at the title-obsessed world of music. And the best one reflecting his individualist trait: “Mother told me I’d have problems with my attitude, but she also said not to settle for anything I didn’t believe in.”
Gurtu can afford to make such comments. After all, if he is regarded the world over today, it is because of the path he has chosen, constantly experimenting with music, playing with sounds, collaborating with diverse musicians. “What I did way back in the 1970s and 1980s was criticised by the purists who could not stomach my improvisations. My debut solo album Usfret in 1987 faced strong criticism for this. Unfortunately, then the term ‘world music’did not exist. But now everybody is experimenting,” he says.
Proof of this legenday percussonist’s talent comes once again through his latest album Massical, the title firmly reflecting his thougth process that refuses to adhere to a particular tagline, whether of “classical” or of making “mass” music. Recorded in various studios in Italy, Germany and India, Massical is what one can describe as a true internatioal album, participated in by artistes of various nationalities, playing compositons influenced by many cultures and instruments that come from various continents.
Gurtu, in a sense, creates an autobiographical musical journey in this album, giving samples of various musical traditions that he has imbibed in his journey that started amidst music of his mother and her contemporary classical giants, and then moved on to the universe of jazz and world music via a short but “very exciting” stint as a percussionist with a genius in the Hindi film music arena, called R D Burman.
So, is this a signature album for Trilok Gurtu the musical album? The man replies to that emphatically, “I alone cannot rebel. I do what I think. But it is also about changing myself – I don’t have to change the world.” In the specific context of India, whose music scene he passionately observes from the distance of Germany, where he has been based for long now, he says, “India is full of names, glamour. You have to do a lot of media work, and music has become like a side dish, not the main dish. We have forgotten the main idea of music. I have been rebelling against this since a long time.” Gurtu’s musical raison d‘être has been to make music sans any label, particularly sans an elitist tag. “Music is not only for elite, it should be for everybody. If you give a bombastic name to your music, you take it away from people, as they don’t know what it is. Massical probably would make it easy for them, unlike classical which is only for the intellectual sorts. That’s why I am against the titles of Pandit or Ustad,” he says explaining his philosophy.
Gurtu, who has collaborated with legendary jazz musicians like Don Cherry, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul and Pat Metheny as well as his mother Shobha Gurtu and percussionist Talvin Singh, has come a long way since “Usfret”, which was ripped apart by purists. But the anger in him over that reception has also cooled down with time. “Now everybody is playing like this. Looking back, I think it was too advanced for its times,” says Gurtu, who describes music as something very spiritual to him. “I feel confident in doing it simple. I am trying to bridge the gap, but sometimes things turn out too ahead of time musicians are creating, improvising all the time,” he says.
Gurtu, for whom German musician Ferdinand Forsch has specially developed an instrument that has been named “Trilok Gurtu Basic I” and used extensively in “Massical” as well as the Australian movie “Lucky Miles” which he composed music for, is not averse to composing for Indian movies too. “I think people here have this image of mine that I would be too busy or unavailable. But that is not true, I am open to doing interesting projects,” he says. Gurtu, in fact, was highly influenced by his brother Ravi, who was one of the most admired percussionists in the Hindi film industry. “I had a nice time with Pancham-da, and I have done a few movies (the most recent being Siddharth Srinivasan’s “Amavas”). I have been approached by Aparna Sen and Mira Nair, but since I am travelling all the time, they feel I might not deliver on time. I would like to clear this misconception. I am booked till December end already, but if I am approached much in advance, I would like to compose for movies too,” he says.
Massical has come after a gap of two years since his last album, and he did not even get his last album released in India as he felt it won’t work here. “No point in putting out an album just for the sake of it,” he explains, critiquing the Indian audio scape as one in which people now listen to all kinds of music but are largely “full of cliches”. “They still follow the Grammy as if it is the ultimate in music. It’s an American ‘purashkar’, and is not worth very much in Europe. How can an American decide which Indian classical musician should get a prize? I don’t think music relates to the prize. Sometimes Grammy award winning music is shocking, but people in India think ‘wow, a Grammy’,” he says.
Gurtu is already preparing for his next album, which he will do with a big band from Hamburg. “In the 55 minutes of Massical, I have put my entire journey from the age of five till now. I went through a lot of hardships, I had to come up with new way of playing even as people didn’t understand the way I play. I find music of all places as one, and only their names are different. We have a great musical tradition in India, I am against bowing down to any particular market, which is why I am against labels, and the Grammies of the world,” he says. Quite appropriately, Gurtu has developed his own rhythm in the musical world, and the world has bowed to him.