A project that connects Indian music to Cantonese poetry comes to Bengaluru
A dadra in Khamaj, a khayal in Madhumad Sarang or a Bhairavi exploration — imagine these Hindustani musical pieces set to a famed Cantonese poem that talks about the angst surrounding the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. That’s cross-cultural collaboration for you.
Come June 15, Bengaluru will see three vocalists of the Hindustani music tradition — Omkarnath Havaldar, Rutuja Lad and Bindumalini Narayanswamy — interpret the famed song written by Chow Yiu-Fai, an award-winning lyricist in Hong Kong, among other compositions. The experiment has already been performed to thunderous applause at the Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong in December last year.
Tejaswini Niranjana, the brain behind ‘Saath-Saath — Music Across the Waters’
Why China and Hong Kong?
The project, called ‘Saath-Saath — Music Across the Waters’, has been curated by cultural theorist and author Tejaswini Niranjana. Supported by Moonchu Foundation and Lingnan University, the project explores collaborations between scholars and musicians. Why China or Hong Kong, we ask Niranjana, who is also a student of Hindustani music. “This idea was aimed at finding a way of thinking about interconnected histories,” she says. Niranjana, professor and head, department of cultural studies at Lingnan University is also chair, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society (IACS). Her involvement with the IACS Society has meant that she seeks ways to think of Asia within Asia, and India’s place in Asia. This thinking questions placing India or Asia vis-à-vis the West. Music is a cultural practice that allows her to dig into past connections between say, Mumbai and Shanghai or Hong Kong (the city she currently calls home).
Linked histories: Bombay to Shanghai
Is this project a continuation of Niranjana’s earlier research on Mumbai’s role in the growth of Hindustani music? In a way, it is, because the histories of Mumbai and the history of Hong Kong (and China) are connected 18th century onwards, she points out. The connection is somehow obscure now, she adds, and explains that one of the reasons she has brought these cultural practitioners together is “to gesture at the older connection” without necessarily claiming that it still exists.
Matching the tones
So, how challenging was it to start these new conversations? For vocalist Havaldar, the challenge was in trying to understand the tonal complexity of Cantonese and Mandarin. He gives the example of ma, where it could mean mother or horse, depending on the tone. It could also mean hemp or ‘to scold’ in other tones. Lad, a singer of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, explains that her biggest worry was also about whether she would be able to do justice to the Cantonese poem in her rendition. She chose the dadra form to interpret the lyrics because she sensed that the meter matched. Narayanaswamy, who has trained in both Hindustani and Carnatic music, explains that she made a conscious effort to see if it was possible to understand the forms of Chinese music and the aspect of their culture the music reflected without the “lens of the familiar [Indian classical music].”
Are there similarities between the Chinese and the Indian forms of music? An average listener may find it difficult to identify the same, says Niranjana. Havaldar explains that the Chinese may be able to relate to Raga Bhupali because of its pentatonic scale. Narayanaswamy says that “although we assume that Chinese music is predominantly pentatonic, in the past they have had many more identifiable microtones than in Indian classical.”
The Indian team sought the help of voice coach Natalie Yuen ahead of their Hong Kong concert in 2017. They also held discussions with musicologist Professor Yu Siu Wah and Hong Kong composer Ip Kimho to get a sense of Chinese yanqing, a musical instrument resembling the santoor. In Shanghai, they collaborated with pipa (Chinese lute) player Zhangi Yi, while in Jinze, they collaborated with Kunqu performers. The Kunqu is an ancient musical theatre form in China.
In the next phase of collaborations, the Indian team, post their performance in Bengaluru, will head to China again. This time, lyricist Chow Yiu-Fai has promised to write three different pieces for us, Havaldar says.
What’s next on Niranjana’s mind? Working on the opium trade and its routes, and the dots that linked Shanghai, Hong Kong and Mumbai, although she cannot say what form the idea will take. More connections, and more ways of looking at the past to understand our place in the world today, for sure.
(The India-China collaboration will be held on June 15, at Shoonya – Centre for Art and Somatic Practices, Lalbagh Road, Bengaluru, between 7 and 8.30 pm)
Savitha Karthik is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru