Utpal Borpujari

April 11, 2010

Leaving Home: Sailing on the Indian Ocean

By Utpal Borpujari

Acclaimed Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi last year made a film called No One Knows About Persian Cats. Premiered at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, the docu-fiction is a fantastic treatise on the underground music scene in Tehran, where probably hundreds of passionate music groups practice all kinds of music, all away from the prying eyes of the government’s moral policing against particularly Western music. With a wafer thin plot of a young couple in love’s efforts to get out of Iran so that they can practice music the way they want, the film is a fantastic documentation of some great musical styles practised by the eclectic bands.

Jaideep Varma’s Leaving Home: : The Life and Music of Indian Ocean is nothing like Ghobadi’s film in its scale and scope, but both have one thing in common – they elevate your soul, powerfully showcasing how believers in cultural practices will go to all possible lengths to do what they love to do, against all odds. Ghobadi’s film is highly political, unlike Varma’s focus on the very personal journey of Indian Ocean, one of India’s most popular and creative bands. But “Leaving Home” scores for this very reason – for being able to go beyond the label of a “rockumentary” and recreate the images of the blood, sweat and much more shed by the band members to reach an iconic status.

And yes, it has also entered the documentary hall of fame in India, for being the first Indian film of this genre to get a multi-city commercial release, after the earlier single city releases of Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace in Mumbai and Supriyo Sen’s Way Back Home in Kolkata.

Be it Bandeh from Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, Jhini that was used in Anwar Jamal’s National Award-winning Swaraaj – the Little Republic and many other gems, the 115-minute film is full of music, be it in the form of recordings of live performances, or of jamming and practice sessions at the 100-year-old house in Delhi’s Karol Bagh that has been the layer of the group comprising Susmit Sen, Rahul Ram, Amit Kilam and the late Asheem Chakravarty. In fact, the music part of the film is what will drag any uninitiated viewer into the subject, that traces the band’s history and evolution in ways that are sometimes fun and sometimes melancholic. Two aspects of the film particularly make it really melancholic for anyone who loves Indian Ocean’s music – the fact that the multi-talented Asheem Chakravarty, who would play the tabla and sing simultaneously, is there (he passed away towards the end of 2009) as part of the whole journey, and also the part in which former band member bass guitarist Indrajit Dutta regrets his choosing a “safer” career than music (two other band members, drummer Shaleen Sharma and bass guitarist Anirban Roy too have parted ways in the initial years).

Varma, who has made a feature film called Hulla in 2008, lends dignity to the subject by not resorting to sentimentality, and lets the band’s story roll by itself with all its intrinsic dramatic elements. And the mercurial Rahul Ram, the serene Susmit Sen, the eternally optimistic Asheem Chakravarty and the energetic Kilam create provide ample amounts of that to keep the story moving forward towards an end which does not really end with the film’s screening, as the music stays on in your mind. There might have been a niche, limited audience that has seen the film in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune, Ahmedabad and Jaipur where it has been released in the first phase – and that is likely to be picture in all other places where it gets releases – but one thing is almost sure, and that is that once the film gets released in home video, it will be an immediate bestseller, just as most of Indian Ocean’s albums have been. According to Varma, the mixed response to the film has got to do to a great extent on the problem of awareness about such films. “It was always fighting the odds anyway – the inertia of these times is the toughest thing to break,” he says philosophically, as he is looking forward to the second phase of release in more cities.

Varma is quite aware about the realities of the documentary scenario in India to call the commercial release of his film as an aberration. “I don’t see this as a sign of great change yet. Unless people go and see the film in reasonable numbers, it will not change anything. In fact, it will vindicate conventional ways of thinking,” he says, obliquely referring to the widespread notion that documentaries have no viewership in India. He is also quite realistic enough to say that “Leaving Home” was picked for theatrical release because it does not have a controversial subject but is filled with “accessible and vibrant” music. “Half the film is just that. The other half is a vibrant narrative about a larger than life theme – holding on to one’s integrity. Together, they make it a very accessible and non-esoteric film. So, it feels less like a docu and more like a narrative film,” he says.

But going beyond all that, for Varma, memories of the making of the film will be something that he will hold on to for times to come. “The most poignant of them was the first minute of recording, when, deciding to do the interviews chronologically, I asked Asheem about his childhood. He was instantly in tears. The very first minute. It set the tone for how much he was willing to put himself out for the film. It was very moving and inspiring for me and my team,” he says. That is what actually is the film all about – as you walk out of the theatre, you have a zing in your feet and a lump in your throat. After all, the film, like the band itself, is purely an affair of the heart.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 11-04-2010)



February 23, 2010

Trilok Gurtu: The ‘Massical’ musician

Filed under: Deccan Herald,Media,Music,Non-film Music,World Music — Utpal Borpujari @ 6:33 pm
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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 dêtre 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.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 21-02-2010)


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