Let me say at the outset that I don’t possess any kind of training in either Western or Indian Classical music. I’ve been smitten, however, by Western Classical music ever since I attended a concert in Japan almost 17 years back and over the years, I’ve developed a taste for it, mostly by actually listening to music rather than on the basis of any kind of theoretical understanding. I have to confess, though, that I’m pretty ignorant on the Indian Classical arts and music front. So the Keys and Conversations event that I attended on New Year’s Eve in which pianist and composer Anil Srinivasan was in conversation with the Legendary Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam was quite an enlightening experience.
During the course of the conversation, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam (known affectionately among her friends, family, and students as ‘Padukka’), renowned both as an erudite scholar and as a creative and innovative practitioner of classical dance, came across as a person possessed of a truly renaissance spirit. This was evident in her insistence that popular music (whether in the form of film songs or folk songs) is an integral part of the classical tradition and from the fact that she had once choreographed an episode from the Ramayana (Jatayu Moksham) set to Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s music (the Overture Fantasia, Romeo and Juliet).
A book is unique to its reader; so too, a conversation is unique to its listener. The words, sentences, and ideas that leave a lasting impression vary from person to person. At some point during the conversation Anil said, “Dance has to be heard and music has to be seen.” And that is the one idea, image rather, that I could most definitely relate to. Whether it’s the thundering, goosebumps inducing first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, the monumental opening strains of his Ninth or the energetic First Movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, I’ve always perceived music as images; I’ve seen notes as much as heard them. The fugue and the canon are Western Classical music techniques that provide a more compelling image of the connection between music and dance. Both involve multiple melodic voices that need to be almost choreographed on the page by the composer. J. S. Bach was famous (infamous?) for coding musical puzzles into his canons. The unfinished Art of Fugue has his own name coded into it.
The percolation of folk tunes and melodies into classical music was something that came up during the discussion and immediately struck a chord in my mind. Many western composers — most popularly, Chopin, Grieg, and Brahms — have incorporated folk musical elements into their compositions. My own favourites in this regard are Brahms’ Hungarian Dances (No.1 and No.5 in G minor), supposedly inspired by the music of the Hungarian Gypsies.
Overall, the Keys and Conversations experience was, as I said, enlightening and as much a walk down my own memory lanes, as those of Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam’s. I’m keenly looking forward to the next conversation this Friday.