Musical Conversations Virtually Live: Narendra Kusnur

The interviews focused primarily on their instrument or genre, with plenty of demonstrations played in between.


On November 8, percussion fans were in for a supreme treat, as Tabla maestro Ustad Fazal Qureshi came online to describe the ‘Legacy Of The Tabla’. He was one of the 13 artistes who participated in the In Conversation series presented by ShowCase Studio every Sunday evening from September 13 to December 20. Highlights were his display of how the Tabla was played in the Delhi and Benaras gharanas, besides his own Punjab gharana, and the demonstration of traditional compositions like the rela and modern pieces used in fusion. He also described incidents involving his father Ustad Allarakha and brother Ustad Zakir Hussain, keeping the audience engrossed.

I consider myself fortunate to have been invited by Nanni Singh, Chief Executive of ShowCase Events, to host 11 of the 13 episodes of the show. The basic plan seemed exciting. The artists chosen would be those who stayed pure to their art forms without any dilution. The interviews would focus primarily on their instrument or genre, with plenty of demonstrations played in between. Importantly, the shows would be shown Live, and not be pre-recorded, to make for audience interaction with the artist.

Singh curated the show, drawing a balance between instruments and genres, while her team worked on creating awareness, technical set-up and recording. Besides the Tabla, the percussion section was represented by the Nagara, a folk drum used in Rajasthan. The melody instruments comprised the Flute, the Carnatic Violin, the Hindustani violin and the piano. The genres featured were the Thumri, Folk Music from Nagaland, English Musical Theatre and the popular dance form of Bharatnatyam, besides Qawwali and Sufi-Gospel music. 

As the interviewer, I tried to maintain a balance between spoken conversation and musical performance. We would normally have three fixed musical pieces – one after Singh introduced the artiste, one in the middle and one towards the end. As an encore, the artiste would play a piece of his or her choice. However, throughout the conversation, there would be short demonstration snippets. Thus, the effort was to make it both educational and entertaining.

A fair amount of preparation naturally went into each show. There would be a couple of tech-checks and the rough content would be discussed a few days before the actual live streaming. The talk would, of course, be impromptu. While most artistes performed live or sang against tracks, Sohini Roychowdhury used some wonderful clips, specially recorded, in her session on Bharatnatyam. 

The following are brief descriptions of each show.

Episode 1: 

The opening show featured nagara maestro Nathulal Solanki, who explained the basic technique of the drum, and how it was used to convey messages during war. He talked of how he began by playing in his home-town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, how he was invited to play in Jaipur and how that led to shows in various foreign cities.

Episode 2: 

Delhi-based singer Sonam Kalra talked about how her musical upbringing led her to create a blend of Sufi and Gospel music, and how she chose poetry to convey messages. She began with Hazrat Shah Niazi Barelvi’s ‘Man Manam’ and her rendition of Baba Bulleh Shah’s ‘Alfat’ was a perfect example of her style.

Episode 3: 

After playing Narsimh Mehta’s ‘Vaishnav Jan To’, Violinist Sunita Bhuyan explained how the instrument is used in Assamese folk music, with a demonstration. She talked of her training in Hindustani music and her collaboration with Scottish musicians. She concluded with a short piece paying tribute to India.

Episode 4: 

This focused on traditional Qawwali by the Niazi Nizami Brothers, who are from the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Live streaming from the newly-built RRE Studios on Suraj Kund Road, Faridabad, their rendition of Hazrat Amir Khusro’s ‘Chaap Tilak’ and ‘Sakal Ban Phool Rahi’ was outstanding.

Episode 5: 

In her session, famed Thumri singer Dhanashree Pandit-Rai spoke about the evolution of Thumri, besides different forms like baithe bhav and bol banaav thumri, and the role of language and expression. Her renditions included ‘Saiyyan Rooth Gaye’ and the Begum Akhtar-popularised ‘Hamri Atariya’.

Episode 6: 

Flautist Rasika Shekhar described how a Bansuri is played, the importance of breath control, and the use of the Flute in global styles like Celtic music and jazz. She described her interactions with Shankar Mahadevan and guitarist John McLaughlin. Highlights were the presentation of her own composition ‘Uproar’ and her conclusion with the Sufiana piece ‘Damadam Mast Kalandar’.

Episode 7: 

The young Utsav Lal explained how he used his training in Dhrupad to adapt classical raags on the piano, and how he approached certain nuances typical to Indian music, creating the illusion of playing forms like the meend Besides film songs based on classical raags ‘Poocho Na Kaise’ from Meri Surat Teri Ankhen and ‘Waqt Ne Kiya’ from Kagaz Ke Phool, he played the traditional composition ‘Lath Uljhi Suljha Ja Balam’ in raag Bihag.

Episode 8: 

This session on classical dance, hosted by Nanni Singh, featured Bharatnatyam exponent Sohini Roychowdhury, who talked about the evolution of the art form, how it was nurtured in the temples of Tamil Nadu and the importance of gestures and expression. She described what varnam is and spoke about her role in taking Bharatnatyam to the international stage.

Episode 9: 

Ustad Fazal Qureshi’s episode has already been described in the opening paragraph. Let’s suffice it to say that it provided some wonderful information and demonstrations for students of Tabla. 

Episode 10: 

In her session on Musical Theatre, Delna Mody explained the evolution of the art form, the role of a performer from emoting to singing and moving, and the importance of the lyricist and script, besides demonstrating through songs how belting is done and different emotions are expressed. Her presentation included songs from the musicals Gypsy, The King And I and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Episode 11: 

Violinist Ambi Subramaniam talked about basic compositions in Carnatic music, like the varnam, kriti and ragam-tanam-pallavi, and played a thillana, a Bach prelude and the song ‘Tu Hi Re’ from Bombay. He also described how he grew up meeting different jazz legends who played with his father Dr. L. Subramaniam and the role his mother Kavita Krishnamurthy played in guiding him.

Episode 12: 

The Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland had a wonderful appearance, hosted by Singh. They explained how folk compositions were created, and displayed instruments like the tati, khrokhro shakers, shoo shakers and bamhum. They performed some traditional compositions including the popular ‘O Rhosi’ and ‘Hiyo! Hiyo!’.

Episode 13: 

Finally, singer Dhruv Sangari spoke about the evolution of Qawwali, the concept of tareeqa, the role of Hazrat Amir Khusro, his own learning under Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his brother Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, and the state of filmi qawwali. His presentation of Nusrat’s ‘Akhiyan Udeek Diyan’ and Alam Lohar’s ‘Jugni’ was marvellous.

By featuring 13 artistes over 13 art forms, ShowCase Studio brought about the vast variety prevalent in Indian music, covering genres as diverse as Sufiana, Folk, Carnatic, Hindustani and semi-classical. Each genre and instrument had its own technique, specialty and charm, and all the artistes did well to explain the nuances in a simple manner.

The Season One Finale, held on December 20, featured appearances by each artiste. While Ambi Subramaniam, Sunita Bhuyan, Dhruv Sangari and Dhanashree Pandit-Rai performed live, Sonam Kalra and Sohini Roychowdhury came in to describe the programme. The others sent in recorded clips.

Throughout the season, the narration of anecdotes and the impromptu musical demos added to the magic. The audience feedback was fantastic too. Some of the comments were: “Enjoying the engaging and informative conversation”, “I’m not into classical music but enjoyed the way Utsav Lal played and the conversation made it so much easier to understand”, “Learnt so much about musical theatre”, “Ambi Subramaniam left us wanting for more”, “Ustadji (Fazal Qureshi) is a reservoir of knowledge”, “Have sat with a pen and notebook for all the sessions”.

Naturally, many other exciting things are promised for Season Two. We’re sure will be more genres, more instruments and more knowledge to be gained from some really talented artistes. One is looking forward to its start.

Those wishing to purchase the recorded episodes of Season One may write to Naina Kukreja at [email protected]

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