Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 22nd May 2010
It was in the more intimate surrounding of the smaller venue at the Bridgewater Hall on a roasting hot summer’s afternoon that Rakesh Chaurassia, nephew of the great master Hariprasad, serenely took to the specially constructed stage with luxurious Indian carpet and pastel coloured cushions to create a relaxed ambience, partnered by percussionist Bhavani Shankar. Greatly aiding the audience’s ability to follow proceedings and the musicians playing more closely was the use of a video screen on the wall. One of the great virtues of Indian classical music is the way in which a piece, or raga can convey the mood of a particular time of day and so it was that Rakesh introduced the opening number as an afternoon raga. With the alap, or first introductory part, one is immediately transported into a different world where all sense of time is lost. As is the normally the case in the alap, Chaurassia began with a slow rhythm aided only by a drone beat in order to provide a full exposition of the raga. He is indeed an exponent of the bansuri flute (like his uncle), a long wooden instrument that gives it an altogether meatier sound than a conventional western flute. Here the sheer ability of the musician to improvise on a simple riff and go off onto another tangent is simply breathtaking. It was a full fifteen minutes before Shankar entered proceedings. We then entered into the jorh, or second part, where some elements of rhythm are introduced. Shankar plays on the pakhawaj, a drum where the right hand is used to produce a heavier sound whereas the left places emphasis on the end of the fingers to create a tinnier sound. A drum solo elicits spontaneous applause and is testimony to the virtuosity of the musician. Chaurassia finally begins to accompany and plays a frenzied improvised passage ati-drut (at a very fast tempo), creating in the process a high-pitched sound on the bansuri. The role of the percussionist seems to be to play off the flautist and thereby enrichen the overall sound. As the intensity builds at drut, or medium tempo, the two delight in trading licks, listening to one another intently in the process. This is a musical genre where a split-second reaction is required and they are not dissimilar in this respect to a master jazz musician. During quieter passages the percussionist retunes his drum, encouraging the flautist to comment, ‘You shouldn’t play so loudly!’, much to the amusement of the appreciative audience.
After a brief interval, tabla player Vijay Ghate entered the stage, introduced by Chaurassia. Ghate is, perhaps, best known in the UK for his presence in the Indo-Jazz fusion band Bombay Jazz that included guitarist Larry Coryell and assorted musicians on saxophone, flute and tabla among its alumni and toured this country in the autumn of 2007. Clearly there is a friendly camaraderie between Ghate and Chaurassia, doubtless due in part to the fact that they both hail from the same part of India, and share a similar outlook on music. After a couple of passages of flute, the tabla player begins to improvise with his left hand, keeping time with his right. The two instruments contrast, yet at the same time compliment one another beautifully, the flautist engaging in a lilting melodic solo while Ghate plays off him, and as a result the music takes on a looser feel. They manifestly delight in each other’s presence and after a relatively short piece, it is finally time for the other percussionist to return to stage and they now become a trio. Both percussionists sit at either end of the stage to view one another. Chaurassia starts to play a flute vamp and Ghate responds by soloing, then Shankar in turn plays a riff, all to great applause from an audience really digging the interplay between the three. In general the musicians are adept at shifting roles in the trio while playing sometimes at breakneck speed and this is a true reflection of their craftsmanship. When the piece ends suddenly, the musicians burst into spontaneous laughter. For the final six minute piece, Rakesh Chaurassia opts for a smaller bamboo flute that has a true storytelling quality (almost akin to a nursery rhyme) and Shankar this time uses a smaller hand drum that looks similar to a castanet, but has several small cymbals inside. With the number complete, the audience stand to applaud in unison at the end of what was a unique and intoxicating musical experience.