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Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

New Yorker Lyle Wachovsky came all the way to Dharwad looking for some rare music recordings. DEEPA GANESH meets the man with a passion for Hindustani classical music

Coming back to India for Indian music is gratifying for Lyle — Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

INDIAN CLASSICAL music has seen an explosion beyond the country's boundaries. There has been an overwhelming acceptance for this highly evolved music in the Western countries. It also carries with it a certain mysticism, a spiritual aura, and an exoticism that is associated with everything Indian. And so, musicians such as M.S. Subbulakshmi, Kishori Tai, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and many others are not just global icons, but also carriers of a great musical tradition that exudes spiritualism. Curiously, Indian brand of spiritualism has always fired the Western imagination, and that probably explains why even an untrained occidental listener finds Indian music irresistible.

Lyle Wachovsky is not entirely this brand of a listener, but he is also that. He is enamoured by Hindustani classical music, having introduced to it way back in 1964, when he was just 16. And after that, it has been an intense, unswerving allegiance towards it. Ask this American of Russian extraction about his obsession, he amiably throws back a tricky question at you: "Is it possible for you to say why you like a particular boyfriend?"

This promoter of India Archives Music (IAM), based in New York, has been archiving Hindustani classical Music. And hearteningly, Virgin India has tied up with IAM to make these recordings available in India.

Lyle was here on an exceptional mission. He travelled all the way from New York to the abode of Hindustani music, Dharwad, to pursue some recordings of a saintly musician, Dattatreya Parvatikar, who lived in an ashram on the outskirts of the city. In the process, he met several other senior musicians and has vowed to come back to record their music. On his way back, Lyle had a brief stopover in Bangalore and spoke of his 40-year association with Hindustani music.

He fell in love ever since he listened to that first outstanding piece in Palas Kafi by Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar. His parents very acceptingly bought him an LP of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan that had the rare Gunakali and the much-loved Malkauns. Years later, in 1989, he found himself at a concert of the unparalleled sitarist, Ustad Vilayat Khan Saab, in New York. "I had the vaguest plans in my mind when I met him in the green room. But it culminated in that fantastic Bhairavi, IAM's first release," he says about his first-ever recording with Khan Saab. (See box)

This recording was followed by a trip to India. He was bent upon recording Ustad Munawar

Ali Khan, Mushtaq Ali Khan, and Bahadur Ali Khan, but sadly they were all gone by the time he could make it here. He recorded Samir Chatterjee's tabla and Debu Chaudhuri's vocal, apart from recording some upcoming artistes of Bengal.

Why did he embark on such project? "From my own perspective, never having been to India, I always wondered if we, that is those outside India, were getting the full picture. In the West, in each field of music, there were major and minor stars, and their recordings were available. I was not sure if we were getting the best of India," explains Lyle. But even when one sets out with such concerns isn't there the danger of IAM becoming a forum for the well-known, elite, English speaking, techno-savvy musicians of this country? In fact, most musicians that IAM has so far recorded are those who have made it to the mainstream. Whatever happens to all those unheard voices, musicians who remain insulated in their own world of music, untouched by the glitz of the market, and are thereby doomed to the periphery?

Admitting to the hazard Lyle says: "That's precisely why I'm coming to India. I am on this discovery trip and am willing to travel any distance to record good music."

Reassuringly, Lyle is not one of those businessmen who are out to do some nifty packaging and capture the market. In fact, he has problems with labels that churn out the same old stuff back into the market with a new look. So much so, he is not even interested in figuring out who the target audience of his products will be. What drives him is his passion for good music. And so he does elaborate liner notes for his albums (of course with a team of well-informed, qualified writers) with details about the musician, the form, the instrument, apart from critical approaches to a raga. He believes that "it is his obligation to contemporary society".

In all these decades of his association with music, Lyle has also worked as editor/writer for a magazine in New York and a photographer at the museums, and has spent sufficient time in recording studios, trying to understand the recording process. He now engineers recordings on his own, even outside the recording studio environment.

IAM is Lyle's vision of presenting excellent performances in the finest recording quality with extensively written analytical essays. "It is a personally gratifying experience for me. Coming back to India with Indian music and competing with Indian products," sums up Lyle.

Abba eludes

LYLE WACHOVSKY came to India on February 21 and Vilayat Khan saab was admitted to Jaslok hospital in Mumbai on February 22. The unmatched sitarist (in every sense of the term), who passed away earlier this month, shared a very special relationship with Lyle. He chokes as he talks of Abba.

Lyle grew up on a staple diet of Hindustani music and Vilayat Khan Saab was one of his favourites. He got to meet the legend only in 1989, at a concert in Lincoln Centre, New York. Lyle had always felt that the Ustad had been under-recorded, and so, on an impulse, even before he had made any concrete plans for IAM, went to the green room and said he wanted to do a recording with him.

Scrupulous that Khan Saab was, he glanced at the tall stranger before him and said: "My next concert is at Buffalo. Meet me there."

And so, Lyle followed him to Buffalo. There again, Khan Saab directed him to his next stop. It did mean a lot of time and money to Lyle, but this equally persistent man followed the Ustad till he relented.

"He was probably testing me out. I'm sure the last thing he wanted was to be conned by a stranger," recalls Lyle.

After the first Bhairavi recording, Vilayat Khan Saab grew extremely fond of Lyle. "I did 10 recordings with him and organised six concerts." In these several years of association, Vilayat Khan saab insisted that Lyle call him Abba. "I had no problem with that. He was more than a father figure. But his wife was just about my age and I had to call her Ammi!" says Lyle. Whenever he visited Abba, he would insist that Lyle stay for lunch. And after lunch, he would say: "Lyle, I'm going to have a small nap. Hang around till I'm back. We can have a cup of tea and then you can leave," Abba would order.

Abba, who challenged an institution like All India Radio and refused to accept Padma Bhushan twice over, would take it whenever Lyle told him he didn't think much of what he played at such and such a concert. "I'm glad you told me that," he would say. "People are so scared of me that they seldom tell me the truth," Vilayat Khan Saab would say.

But this last time when Abba played Bhairavi, Lyle couldn't catch him.


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