Confluence of musical traditions
This year's Pablo Casals Festival in Prades saw a musical dialogue between Carnatic music, Western chamber music and a Catalan singer.
Music knows no barriers: The musicians during their unique attempt.
THIS year, for the first time, at the Pablo Casals Festival held in a small picturesque town, Prades, in southern France, three Carnatic musicians dialogued with a versatile western quartet and a Catalan singer in an unforgettable concert.
Nestled among the Pyrennees ranges, Prades is situated in the Catalan Country, an ancient kingdom, today split between France and Spain. The Catalan culture is marked by a special language and music, which bind the people across political barriers. Towering above the range of mountains around Prades is the 2075-metre high Canigou Peak, a sacred centre for Catalan people.
The festival, spread over several places within 10-20 km around Prades, is well known for its choice of venues. All the concerts are set in ancient churches, abbeys and priories, with thick stonewalls, arches and vaulted domes, which provide a uniquely peaceful atmosphere and excellent acoustics. The concerts are free from artificial electric sound systems, microphones and loudspeakers.
The festival is named after the famous Spanish cello player, Pablo Casals, who fled Spain to France under General Franco's autocratic regime. He lived in Prades, close to the Spanish frontier, and continued to play in the Baroque churches. People flocked to hear him play, and continued to visit Prades even after his death, thus paving the way for the Pablo Casals Festival.
The 54th edition of the Festival (July 26-August 13) presented a unique concert of Carnatic, Western Chamber and Catalan music, on August 1, in an unusual setting, a Ninth Century cloister called St. Michael de Cuxa Abbey. This was the initiative of the festival's Artistic Director, Michel Lethiec, a musician himself, and Andre Martin a western classical musician and a student of Carnatic music.
Chitravina N. Ravikiran, vocalist T.M. Krishna, and Satish Kumar Patri on percussion came together with four chamber musicians, David Grimal on the violin, Georges Lambert on the flute, Michel Lethiec on the clarinet and Andre Martin on the oboe. A well-known young musician, Ferran Savall, represented Catalan music. He played an ancient instrument, the Theorbo, as well as the guitar to accompany his singing.
On the evening of August 1, heavy rains poured down and temperature dropped to 15C, very unusual in the South of France at this time of the year. But still the organisers had to add more seats to accommodate the unexpected flow of people.
The concert began with the Carnatic section, first with a deeply moving Varali Raga by T.M. Krishna with the krithi "Eti Janmamu". The sangathis around "O Rama" were poignant, as he rendered the krithi with a mix of strength and subtlety.
When Ravikiran started Reetigowla on the Chitravina, the first few notes tugged at the heartstrings of the audience. He played the krithi "Dvaitamu sukhama" by Thyagaraja and ended it on a fast tempo of Kalpana swarams.
To mark the end of this session, the tamburas were stopped and Satish Kumar broke into a volley of konnakol, which was unexpected and wondrous to the western ear.
Farran Savall glided into the konnakol's music with his soft Catalan song. The third group, the Quartet introduced their characteristic music by playing a short extract from J.S. Bach's "Art of the Fugue".
Their sensitive rendition of the composition showed each one's mastery and excellence within the uniqueness and beauty of his instrument.
With a kanjira solo, Satish Kumar signalled the transition to the second half of the concert where all three styles joined to create a breathtaking finale. The Quartet improvised the notes of the raga Revagupti, each instrument showing its tonal texture. To highlight the basic difference between the Western and Carnatic music, plain notes were first given by the Western musicians and then taken up by T.M. Krishna with Carnatic gamakas. There was a moment of suspense when Andre Martin came out with a few gamakas, first on his own, and then dialoguing with Krishna. Ravikiran ended the Revagupti with a very pertinent fast alapana.
Next, Ravikiran began the main raga, Shanmukhapriya, which Krishna then took over and elaborated with the western musicians creating unequal non-harmonic spaces in the raga for him to explore. Then the Chitravina took up on a pulsating thanam, when Krishna effortlessly rose to the Thara sthayi Panchamam with swara singing. Satish's catchy thani avartanam alternated intricate phrases of the konnakol, the kanjira and the mridangam, with ease and excellence. The Western audience, not used to any such rhythmic interlude, reacted with great enthusiasm. The finale saw all the musicians join together to play a very fast and scintillating korvai.
The audience honoured this first attempt at a dialogue of the cultures with a standing ovation. When the applause would not die down, Ferran Savall started singing a popular Catalan song called "Song of the Birds" and walked up to the middle of the stage where the other musicians joined him softly humming the notes of the raga Sindhubhairavi (which matched the basic notes of the song).
Both, the artists and the audience seemed equally pleased to share such a rare moment of brilliance and sharing. The French news paper, L' Independent, reported of the concert, "This was one of those evenings where the audience go back home with bright eyes, a smile on their face, and a quiet peaceful mind. Traditional Indian music, with extraordinary instruments and the singer with his voice full of mystery create this impact."
The writer is a dancer and musician based in Paris. For more details about the festival see www.prades-festival-casals.com
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