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Britons court melody of ragas

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on June 10, 2021

Indian classical music has grown in popularity over the years in the UK, with the number of teachers and students — British or of Indian origin — reaching a new high today, reflecting not only continuity with tradition but also enduring change


Some time ago, Adib Ahmad, a visitor from Lucknow, went to the Nehru Centre in Mayfair to see an exhibition of paintings. As he moved around the hall on the ground floor, soothing strains of the sitar played softly in the background, adding a new dimension to experiencing art. Curious about the mellifluous exposition of what seemed like Raga Puriya Kalyan, he inquired about the album, but was told the music was coming from upstairs, where a live performance was on. He hastened upstairs, entered the darkened hall and took a seat in one of the back rows, and enjoyed the detailed unfolding of the evening raga. As the artiste concluded with a delightful Ragamalika (garland of ragas) to much applause, Ahmad was pleasantly surprised to see that the sitar player was not one from the Indian sub-continent, but British: Clem Alford, also known as the ‘Scottish Pandit’, and a guru to generations of musicians.

Alford, 76, is symbolic of the interest and growth of Indian classical music over the years in Britain. He has performed and collaborated with leading musicians in India and in the West, and is among British musicians whose virtuosity is acknowledged in the world of Indian classical music. Accompanied on the tanpura by his student Ben Hazleton and on the tabla by Udit Pankhania, he said after the event: “Indian classical music is safe in the hands of the young generation in India. It is growing here too.” He continues to teach at various institutions in London and elsewhere; several of his students have become teachers, including Jonathan Mayer (sitar), who has performed widely and composed in a variety of genres. Mick Taylor, another sitar exponent and a disciple of Imdad Hussain and Imrat Khan, received rave reviews in India and elsewhere for his gayaki (vocal) style; until he passed away in 2018 aged 69, he was among teachers of Indian classical music increasingly busy with new students. Such teachers have white Britons as students as well as those with origins in the Indian sub-continent, reflecting the cross-cultural permeability of art forms explored by theorists such as Raymond Williams, Homi K Bhabha and Stuart Hall.

Says Swati Natekar, prominent vocalist who has performed and collaborated with several mainstream British and other artistes since moving to London in 1990: “My students have included British as well as French, Portuguese, Somalian, Japanese and Bosnian lovers of our classical music. It is not easy to teach them, can be a challenge since it involves unlearning a lot. Our voice techniques are different. Comfort in two or three saptaks (series of seven notes) is necessary. Also, it can be a challenge for them to learn the harkat (playful embellishment in a melody), which is so much part of our classical music. But I love challenges in teaching; many of my students have gone on to become performers.”

She recalls being anxious about how British audiences would respond during early concerts, but has since been pleasantly surprised to receive acclaim and work as the popularity of Indian classical music grew.

An education in Indian classical music

At the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, executive director NM Nandakumara says classical music has been taught since 1973; around 15 per cent of its 800-plus students are white British. Until recently, the centre ran music degree courses with Trinity College London, while several legends, including Ravi Shankar, Jasraj, Hari Prasad Chaurasia and M Balamuralikrishna, conducted master-classes over the years. As Ravi Shankar said during one of his visits to the centre, “If there is one place in the UK where Indian art and culture is taught and practised in the true traditional sense, it is, without doubt, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.”

Indian classical music has also been included in British schools: a new Model Music Curriculum released this year includes Kishori Amonkar’s classic Sahela Re, among numbers of several leading artistes as symbolic of different genres.

Awareness and interest in Indian classical music is driven by several factors, including regular concerts and festivals in London and across the UK, featuring the most known performers from the sub-continent. It is not uncommon that tickets to such events are snapped up soon after they go on sale. Every major opera and concert hall has hosted Indian classical music-themed festivals and events, including the Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Barbican Centre, and cultural centres in towns such as Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester. There are Britons attracted to the genre during visits to India, and continue their new-found passion on return by enrolling with institutions and teachers in Britain.

Besides individual teachers, institutions such as the Birmingham Conservatoire, Leeds Conservatoire and Trinity College London have been associated with teaching Indian classical music, inspiring many students to take it up as a career. Some students built upon their family links with India, while others discovered the genre while enrolling on short courses at university and stayed with it.

Bristol-based Pete Yelding, 31, noted cellist, sitarist and vocalist, recalls being enchanted when he enrolled on a 6-week course on Indian classical music by Clem Alford while he was studying at the Birmingham Conservatoire; he is now a student of Ustad Irfan Muhammad Khan (sarod). He says: “I grew up among musicians and was a cellist first, but realised that much of mainstream music is Eurocentric. I focus on creating melody and Clem Alford’s course unlocked for me so much potential in the ragas. That has since been the thing that makes me get up in the morning; I now come at all my music from the perspective of the ragas. After university, I immersed myself in the genre, learned from Jonathan Mayer, and for some time performed in restaurants, weddings and other occasions. Definitely Indian classical music is growing in popularity in the UK. In my generation, among white British or Italian musicians, there are many quite serious about using the vast knowledge in ragas to create music. The only caveat I would add is that there is a limited range of styles taught in the UK, a smaller range of ways of playing. It would be nice to see a wider range taught here, as I saw during my visit to Kolkata.”

A growing critical mass of connoisseurs, supporters and students sustains a busy calendar of performances and courses organised by groups focused on Indian arts and music, such as Sama Arts, Darbar, Milapfest, ShruthiUK, Asian Music Circuit, South Asian Arts-UK and the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangeet Vidyalaya. Besides, music appreciation courses and performances are held at various cultural centres and universities. In 2015, the Solihull-based ShruthiUK launched the first-of-its-kind Carnatic Choir Group with the aim of creating and exploring choral singing in the South Indian classical music genre.

For Leeds-based saxophonist and composer Jesse Bannister, 49, growing up in a family with Indian influences and meditation/spiritual practices, taking to classical music came naturally. He has been using knowledge from the ragas to create a body of compositions for sound-based healing. For centuries, he says, the resonance of shruti has been known to heal and spark meditative states, returning human cells to their natural frequency and restoring harmony. Inspired by the concept, he writes and performs a series of introspective piano pieces that shift through diverse colours and textures, from raga to the sound worlds of French composer Erik Satie and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, to bring about a tuning of mind and body.

Bannister studied music at the Leeds College of Music (now Leeds Conservatoire), particularly under the guidance of noted sitar player and educator Dharambir Singh, often accompanying him on stage. He has since benefited from interaction with several legends from India: “I had a role in the growth of Indian classical music here. I taught for 17 years, as a lecturer in Indian classical music in Leeds, teaching nearly 1,000 students, many of who are now busy performers in their own right. They already had the techniques in guitar, drums and other instruments; I would teach them to apply concepts in the raga system. At some point in future I hope to set up my own institution to teach Indian classical music.” He is currently working on a PhD at York University under the supervision of ethnomusicologist Neil Sorrell.

The popularity stakes

Prominent British artistes include Nicolas Magriel (sarangi), Clive Bell (flute), John Jhalib Millar (tabla), Pete Lockett (tabla/percussion), Ricky Romain (sitar) and Chris Doddridge (restorer of ancient instruments/rudra veena, surbahar and sur sringar). Lisa Mallett (flute), who earned her music degree from the Birmingham Conservatoire and now teaches in Thailand, says: “I studied in Birmingham where I worked as a musician, often freelance with bands but also a peripatetic teacher. I would go into different schools to teach music, mainly primary at that point. I was working with a lot of theatre and dance companies. I went to India for a holiday and discovered music there and decided to go back and study the Indian flute, the bansuri. I went India twice as I really wanted to immerse myself in Indian music.

That experience opened doors for me to do different performances, working as a musician with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Indian dance companies and contemporary British Indian musicians. I worked with orchestral musicians to put together projects at schools — especially for kids with special needs. I was also a specialist teacher going into schools around Birmingham and the Midlands.”

The general attitude of the British toward Indian music during the days of the empire was negative, but the situation in Britain gradually changed after independence. The contemporary popularity of Indian classical music in Britain builds on decades of promotion by Indian migrants, Britons and others; spanning the pre-independence period, the ‘flower power’ generation of the 1960s; increasing migration from the Indian sub-continent and east Africa; and being catapulted into the mainstream by The Beatles’ links with Ravi Shankar and the iconic group’s visit to India in 1968. But Jay Visvadeva, leading London-based music promoter, says: “Indian classical music was becoming popular before the Ravi Shankar-Beatles association. For example, there were the efforts of the pioneering Asian Music Circle founded in 1948 by Ayana Deva Angadi, who arrived in London from colonial Bombay in 1924; Vilayat Khan performed in London in the same year. Indian classical music was part of various elements of Indian culture that increasingly gained acceptance and popularity over the decades, including food, art, dance forms and yoga.” Angadi hosted yoga guru BKS Iyengar’s demonstration in the 1950s – one of the first such in London.

The Asian Music Circle involved leading lights such as violin legend Yehudi Menuhin, who played his part in popularising Indian classical music in the west; he became the group’s president in 1953. But historians credit Angadi for the initial impetus. He arrived to study and prepare for the Indian Civil Service exam but instead became involved in political activism, writing, and lecturing about imperialism and India. The group he founded introduced Indian music, dance and yoga to the British public, paving the way for musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. According to the Open University’s Making Britain research, “Arguably, Angadi’s most significant achievement while in Britain was the establishment with his wife Patricia Fell-Clarke of the Asian Music Circle in 1946.” The group is also credited with hosting Ravi Shankar’s first Western concert in October 1956 with a performance at London’s Friends House.

The Angadi couple hosted and presented several legends to the British public, including Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, Alla Rakha and Chatur Lal. A wider membership of the group’s board ensured increasing mainstream attention and respectability; it included Menuhin, composer Benjamin Britten, ballet dancer Beryl Grey. But it was the link with The Beatles midwifed by the Angadis during a dinner at their house in 1966, attended by Ravi Shankar, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, that proved a catalyst. The rest is history, normalising classical performances by artistes such as Clem Alford in Britain’s usually busy cultural calendar.

(Prasun a journalist based in London)





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