Two aspects of music have rung true throughout my life.
One, that there is a right time for the right music to walk into your life. A destined time when your mind is fertile and the music makes a divine connection with you. Any sooner, and the connection is premature. There are times when people introduce you to a musician, and while a faint connection is made, the final connection is made much later.
The second aspect of music is the ability of music to transport you to another time. The oldest and most efficient Time Machine available to us yet, it’s fascinating how a few notes strung together in a particular combination have such a tectonic effect on our senses.
Shakti’s entry into my life was rather innocuous. Not the forceful manner of friends ‘Dude, you haven’t heard XYZ? Dafuq?? Play this song right now, it’ll change your life’. Not like that. It was slipped past me with just the right amount of curiosity, and I went to watch them perform in the Old City.
Organised at the beautiful Chowmahalla Palace, the performance had to face a number of interruptions. A few ministers walking in, much to the chagrin of Zakir Hussain. A baaraat in the adjacent lane throwing up My Name is Sheila as if to challenge these guys. (Read my blog about the show here)
But there was one moment from the concert that stuck with me.
Shankar Mahadevan had started a song. A slow, lilting track, that seemed to envelope the entire night in a glittering blanket of silence. It was a heavenly, haunting track; I remember looking up at the sky, and pigeons who had congregated on the Palace flew away in a cinematic moment.
That moment had remained with me for four years, haunting me everytime I thought of the band. I had tried capturing the moment in any way possible, through my neanderthal Nokia phone, by trying to remember the words. But in the end, the moment, in all its essence, evaded me.
As I discovered later, the time wasn’t right. I had just about met Shakti and flirted for a few moments. The torrid love affair would come later.
Shakti was a superband that was formed in the early 70s by John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain.
Back in the 60s, John McLaughlin was an acid-dropping, Ken-doll lookalike hippie who was introduced to Indian music and spiritualism. But unlike The Beatles who hung around for a bit, had a bad trip, and left, John McLaughlin went on to have a life-altering relationship with Indian music.
Shakti was formed by fusing together the Indian musical school of raga, the Hindustani and Carnatic schools, and garnishing it with western Blues by McLaughlin himself. The original line-up consisted of McLaughlin (Guitar), Zakir Hussain (Tabla), L. Srinivas (Violin), ‘Vikku’ Vinayakam (Ghatam).
The line-up has gone through a number of changes over the years, witnessing a second lease of life in the late 90s with extended tours around the world. While the original band was called Shakti, the later avatars adopted the name Remember Shakti. For much of the last decade, the line-up consisted of McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, U. Srinvas (Mandolin), Shankar Mahadevan (Vocals) and Selvaganesh (Mrudangam/Ghatam/Khanjira).
If you aren’t very fond of classical music, Shakti might not be for you.
However, if you have an inclination for classical music, put your devices on Airplane mode, and join me as I take you through my favourite Shakti moments.
A: ‘INDIA’ by SHAKTI, circa 1975
This video is a throwback to the early days of Shakti. Shot in the peak of the counter-culture movement, when you could listen to great musicians while stretching on the grass after smoking some, with Lakshmi-Shiva-Durga dancing in your brain. The sound of this track is very different from the Shakti sound of today, as there was no vocalist. McLaughlin at the time wielded an acoustic guitar, and the wonderful L. Shankar accompanied him on the violin. The video is grainy, but the sound – solid as oak. Also, look closely and you find two young white girls (groupies?) behind the band, something you wouldn’t dream of finding in Shakti’s concerts today.
‘India’ is a track that is reminiscent of the golden days of world music, a time dipped in spiritualism, hope and psychedelia. The track is also a fine introduction to the sound of Shakti, the black and white images of the time adding a thin layer of exotica to the proceedings.
B. TABLA SOLO BY ZAKIR HUSSAIN
Among the many bootlegged videos of the band across the world, this one is my favourite. Shot on a handycam, with a man whose hand is so steady, you’d think he was Hawkeye himself.
Shakti concerts maintain no strict routine, dipping into the rich jazz tradition of improvisations and syncopation. In this particular concert, the proceedings come to an end with Vikku performing a solo on the Khanjira to a thunderous response by the Russian crowd. As someone who can play the khanjira (albeit the Western, Tambourine-like version), Vikku’s solo is a startling exposition of the gamut of sounds that the khanjira can cough up, when pushed to its boundaries. At once, Vikku transforms the khanjira into the light smattering of rain on a tin foil. And just as suddenly, it becomes a lion, roaring and ripping flesh off its prey.
And just as Vikku draws his symphony to an end, Zakir Hussain takes over on the Tabla.
I have watched Zakir Hussain perform since I was five years old, as he was a regular visitor to the ashram I grew up in. I was used to the long-winding, cocaine-crazed taals he pulled off with aplomb. A much younger, more hirsute Zakir Hussain was accompanied by his father the late Allah Rakha and brother Taufiq Qureshi.
And yet, it is when I see the performance through the eyes (lens) of the foreigner, when I hear the raptures of surprise and the moans of joy, that the real relevance of Shakti struck me. They were taking Indian music beyond the niche, connoisseurs of Arts. They were taking it to universities and colleges, introducing impressionable young minds from across the world to the enigmatic world of Indian classical music.
Zakir begins slowly, his fingers skirting the surface of the tabla in soft, measured steps. And then they slowly grow. One moment, they are anklets tied to dainty feet, and in the next, they are the feet of Shiva in the midst of the Taandav, trampling the earth under them. The hands holding the camera begin to shake, the hands playing the Tabla begin to blur, but the beats keep going, like a million tiny beads stringing together a gigantic necklace, until the end, when every member of the family pitches in to make the flame grow higher.
Perhaps the greatest proof of the performance can be seen in the reactions of U. Srinivas, who was quite close to his death at the time. He sits slouched and lifeless throughout the performance, but can’t resist claps and sighs when Zakir Hussain launches into the tirade of taal and theka.
C. GIRIRAJ SUTA by composed by Thyagaraja, sung by Shankar Mahadevan
Another of Shakti’s staples, Giriraj Suta (wrongly spelt as Giriraj ‘Sudha’ in all Shakti albums for some reason) was composed by Thyagaraja, in praise of Ganesha. This version was adapted and written by Zakir Hussain. While the band prefers to open their performances with this number these days, my favourite rendition of the song is from the same performance in Russia.
In the video, John and Srinivas have just finished a powerful song, when Zakir Hussain welcomes Shankar Mahadevan on to the stage. In slow, halting English and using his hands to draw symbols and shapes, Zakir Hussain proceeds to explain to the largely Russian crowd about Guru Poornima, and the relevance of the festival.
What follows is one of the sparkiest renditions of the song I’ve seen. The audience is shocked and exasperated at the same time. And everytime they assume the song has ended, they launch into a thunderous applause…only to have Shankar switch gears and take it one notch higher. It happens again and again; Mahadevan slows down, teasing the audience – and quickly shoots out another magazine of sargam to the bedazzled crowd. When the song finally ends in a crescendo, the audience is too stunned to react!
D. ‘SAKHI’, traditional Thumri rearranged and rewritten by Zakir Hussain
‘Thumri’ is a form of vocals in Hindustani music, in which the singer extols the virtues of a lover. The lyrics most often denote love and pining; the form finding its origins in the Hindustani culture of Uttar Pradesh.
‘Sakhi’ is a beautiful thumri that sings about a lover waiting for her beloved. It has begun raining, she says, but you aren’t here yet. The song is stirring, sensual, and utterly captivating.
Shakti has performed the song numerous times, and there are a variety of versions on the internet. It is a tribute to the beauty of classical music,that no two renditions are similar. There is a version where Srinivas’ mandolin holds Mahadevan’s vocals and takes the song firmly into the domain of the Qawwali, and another where he turns it into a Carnatic keerthana, only to smile and let it flow onto Jazz later. In another version, there is a thin, unrecognisable voice that is just about holding the fort with the vocals.
And yet, it is not the song itself that fascinates me.
Remember ‘the moment’ I was talking about in the beginning of the post?
I had a small recording of the aalap on my phone, and would listen to it on and off. But the old phone vanished in the quick, untraceable manner that all Nokia phones began to vanish a few years ago, and soon, the tune was lost to me forever.
It was only years later, when I watched a clip of the Shakti concert at Hyderabad, that the moment came rushing back to me. The beginning of the song, the pigeons fluttering away in an asynchronous symphony. In the magical manner that only music can, I was transported back to the time. When the heart was lighter, the lungs clearer, when dreams were more lucid, and the soul less ridden with guilt.
This version of Sakhi is probably not the best version, musically. There are better versions of this song, but there is something about the video.
This particular performance was held in France, and a fantastic crew of French filmmakers captured the concert in the beautiful aesthetic style that seems to come naturally to the French.
Using montages, slow-motions, and weaving the audio with the video in the most symmetric, congruent manner possible, they create an output that gives me goosebumps every single time. It is a beautiful amalgamation of the rich musical traditions of North and South India, mixed with Western Jazz, seen through the prism of French cinematic aesthetics.
The other versions of the song do not capture the intricate, spiritual rapport that the musicians share among themselves. They way John smiles at Srinivas when he extends Shankar’s aalap. The minor frown that Shankar wears when John ventures into the deep jazzy solo. The racy interlude between the percussionists, like two friends running for their lives inside a hilly tunnel. The slow, assured beauty of the vocals that seem to sew everything up, like ambrosia after a heavenly meal.
Sakhi for me is music at its most perfect, most sublime state.
They say that Time is a healer, but I doubt Time could ever compete with Music as a healer.
Sakhi, this particular song, helped me to wash myself of albatrosses around my neck. It taught me to let go, to smile and reminisce. May be life is like classical music. There is no single, perfect version, no ideal. That the joy lies in stringing together newer versions. Sakhi taught me to close my eyes. To listen. To take in a deep breath and blow out.
(Featured Image Courtesy of Paul Bourdrel. Taken from http://www.night-groove.net)