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Music in his jeans

Abhay Rustom Sopori, son of maestro Bhajan Sopori, combines his classical heritage with the modern Indian’s straight talk, finds Anjana Rajan

Photo: Sandeep Saxena

His father’s son Pandit Bhajan Sopori (in front) and son Abhay Rustum Sopori in New Delhi

Music and anger ought to be mutually exclusive. Classical music, at least, has a reputation for taking one towards inner peace and an emotional equilibrium that helps face life’s turbulence.

Yet santoor exponent Abhay Rustum Sopori comes across as the angry young man of the music world. Actually, Abhay, son and disciple of veteran santoor player Pandit Bhajan Sopori, epitomises the current breed of young classical musicians who speak their mind and are unafraid to experiment, whether in dress or in music. Though steeped in Hindustani music since he was a baby, Abhay looks like any young Delhiite in the summer heat, with his blue jeans and blue shirt, his long hair held in a ponytail.

Flawed system

Finding rampant flaws in the system of promoting artistes and propagating classical music in general, Abhay sounds impatient. Whether it is in criticising the role of organisers — “There are so many established organisations. Check their records: How many young musicians have they invited?” — or in musical innovation — “If we want our music to be popular we need to introduce innovations” — Abhay takes the bull by the horns.

He has put together an orchestral ensemble, Haft Rang, combining traditional instruments of Kashmir with other Indian and Western instruments. “It’s a folk music ensemble, but with other elements introduced,” he explains. In a sense he is carrying on his father’s work from the 1970s, when he put together one of the country’s first folk ensembles focusing on Kashmiri instruments.

Haft Rang, whose name means ‘Seven Colours’ and connotes the seven musical notes, seven chakras and other philosophical reflections, performed to acclaim not long ago at the Jammu & Kashmir Festival at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi.

It is a 40-member ensemble, and the music is all written, says Abhay, who created seven pieces for the performance. While some feature the santoor as the central instrument, others feature the rabab or the sarangi. With 18 to 20 melodic instruments and an array of percussions, he says, “I tried to bring out the colour of each percussion instrument.”

Part of his mission is to “show how much variation can be introduced in Kashmiri folk music”. Thus, the versatility of Ladakhi drums is highlighted, the matka performs a jugalbandi with the tabla, and so on.

“We are not saying folk music is weak, but how it can flower when it is introduced with such elements,” he points out. He would also like to incorporate folk music from various other regions of India, but for now wants this ensemble to establish its Kashmiri identity.

“The folk musicians are not literate. They don’t easily remember the work either,” he says, noting the difficulties of working with artistes not used to stepping outside traditional parameters. However, Abhay taught staff notation to the percussionists, who have been exposed to other kinds of music before, and this helped maintain structure.

The concept of embellishing folk traditions is not free of controversy.

“Those who worry only worry, and don’t do any work,” counters Abhay. “It’s true that nothing should be distorted. But if you don’t innovate at all, it will die out.”

Besides, “Distortion is in fusion,” he offers. “As for my work, I’m not saying I’m presenting folk, I’m presenting an ensemble.”

This is the only way to propagate folk music among today’s audiences, he feels. “Like if you hear ‘Nimbuda Nimbuda’, then hear the original (folk tune), you will like that too.” With today’s youngsters, the process cannot go in the opposite direction, he is sure.

The Soporis have been settled in the Capital for the past few decades. The turmoil in their native State would have snuffed out any other culture, but “the strength of the musical culture is such in Jammu and Kashmir, it has survived despite the violence,” notes Abhay, who credits his father and grandfather with helping reinstate music in social life.

For troubled regions

Under the aegis of Sa Ma Pa, founded by Bhajan and Abhay Sopori, troubled areas of the region have seen performances regularly. Audiences have increased, and “even the level of reporting has gone up,” states Abhay.

In its Delhi festivals, Sa Ma Pa has introduced a number of new faces.

“I understand the pain of musicians. There are so many talented musicians who don’t get a chance,” says Abhay. “We believe Sa Ma Pa is a mass movement, not a mere academy.”

He adds, “There is something I’ve seen, though it doesn’t bother me because I had Papa’s support. All the big festival organisers — their eyes and ears are closed.”

Enough to turn anyone’s melody into malady!

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