By Don Heckman
Indian culture has created one of the world’s most sophisticated forms of musical expression. The raga/tala system, with its juxtaposition of ragas (similar to, but far more complex, than Western modes) and talas (rhythmic cycles) is a unique combining of melody, rhythm, composition, improvisation, spirituality and history. Beyond a few similarities in some Middle Eastern musics, there’s nothing quite like it.
The “India Calling!” concert at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night promised to present the broader outlines of that music via a program nominally reaching from traditional and classical to Bollywood and pop. In doing so, it displayed both the beauty of Indian music as well as the distractions that have been caused by the infusion of international pop styles.
The first half of the program was far and away the most intriguing, despite its virtual absence of any purely classical offerings. A thirty minute piece, composed by the great Indian master Ravi Shankar, (who was in the audience), performed by members of the Ravi Shankar Centre Ensemble and conducted by his daughter Anoushka Shankar, was a splendid example of Shankar’s capacity to marry Indian and Western forms without sacrificing the integrity of either. Although the piece did not rove into the more complex rhythmic areas of Indian classical music, its composed accents inferred those complexities while still remaining accessible to Western ears. The roving melodies, performed superbly by a large group of singers, soloists and instrumentalists, were rich in lyricism and emotional intensity.
The Rhythm of Rajasthan, a six member ensemble consisting of five musicians and a dancer, fused traditional music reaching across Hindu and Muslim cultures in a performance that offered the evening’s most convincing connection with the roots of Indian music. Among the highlights — the remarkable double flute playing of Habib Khan Langa and Sesh Nath and the spinning, dervish-like dancing of Suva Devi.
Anousha Shankar’s set, closing the program’s first half, for the most part concentrated upon the fusion music that has occupied her thinking over the past few years. To her credit, she has found ways to believably synchronize seemingly contradictory musical forms, matching her own skills with equally adept performers from other genres. Even within this blended conceptual package, however, Shankar’s virtuosic sitar playing, combined with her lifelong immersion in the subtleties of Indian classical playing, invested her every note with layers of musical substance. The most memorable moment in her set was a brief passage in which the other players laid out, while Shankar’s sitar and Ravichandra Kulur’s tabla playing engaged in a too-brief exchange in the classic style.
The second half of the program was an animal of an entirely different stripe. The opening entry — a performance by Yogen’s Bollywood Step Dance Troupe — was an entertaining example of the sort of Busby Berkeley-revisited choreography typical of Indian musical films.
Kailash Kher, one of the most popular singers on Indian soundtracks, offered a dynamic set, backed by his group Kailasa (led by his two brothers, Naresh and Paresh). By this point in the program, however, the connection with Indian classical and traditional musics had largely disappeared, despite the presence of some Indian and Middle Eastern percussion and stringed instruments in Kailasa. Kher’s voice, rich with warm timbres, arching across a rumbling, rhythmic undercurrent, affirmed his success as an international pop act.
Punjabi singer Malkit Singh, a star of Bhangra music for more than two decades, closed the show with a collection of the genre’s current rock-infused qualities. Despite his popularity, the music — for the casual Western listener — was filled with endless repetitions of short phrases, a characteristic of the style’s tendency to employ short couplets in the lyrics. A few segments of male Bhangra dancing added some visual interest. But for the most part, the lack of variation in Singh’s set pretty much gave it the character of a one-trick pony.
“India Calling!” was preceded by an extensive set up of Indian craft booths from different parts of the country, as well as areas featuring Indian dancers and musicians. The stage lighting (despite a caustically critical remark from Kailash Kher at the close of his set) was richly atmospheric, showcasing the Bowl itself at one point with an illumination suggesting the sculptures and textures of a Hindu temple.
So give credit to KCRW’s World Festival for having created a rare opportunity to experience many aspects of Indian culture. Too bad that — as KCRW has done with much of its world music coverage — more emphasis was placed upon contemporary pop elements than the vital heritage of a great creative culture.