Ingenuity comes best to those who thoroughly know a tradition. So it is with the present generation of our classical Hindustani music gharanas who were born, literally, in the lap of music but find few takers for the kind of music their ancestors were known for.
Tastes have changed along with lifestyles and most people don't have the patience today to appreciate the slow-paced nuances of classical music played the old fashioned way. Cleverly, these scions of musical gharanas have turned to innovation, embracing the diverse and exciting new sounds that technology and greater mobility have opened up to them. Fusion, in other words.
To be sure, our scions of musical gharanas are not the first, or only ones to have turned to fusion -- that tradition goes back to Ravi Shankar, Alauddin Khan and Vilayat Khan. But despite these much-celebrated examples, it hasn't been easy for our musical families to compromise on the purity of tradition.
So the young generation has had a hard time balancing the rigours of the old way of making music with the fun, free new way of pop. But they've succeeded, and gained an audience and continued relevance for their music.
Suhail Yusuf Khan
The grandson of sarangi legend Ustad Sabri Khan shattered traditional norms when he established himself as the core member of rock fusion band Advaita.
He sings and plays the sarangi in the 10-year-old band and is also part of musical duo 'Adi and Suhail' with old friend Aditya Balani, a jazz musician who heads the Aditya Balani Group, a motley group of jazz musicians from around the world. The duo have just come out with a new album, Culture Code Landscape, an electro-folk-rock offering with Sufi influences alongside trip-hop, drum n' bass and jazz. The album has opened to accolades and the duo is just back from a five-city promotional tour.
Suhail, 26, an eighth generation sarangi player of the Moradabad Senia gharana, began formally learning the instrument from his grandfather when he was seven.
Growing up in the capital and exposed to all kinds of cultural influences, he remembers the dilemma between the international music he heard outside and the rigorous classical training back home. Open to learning, he took inspiration and decide to combine the two. Venturing out to make music with a rock band was not easy. "I secretly used to get the sarangi out of the house, and using tuition as an excuse, go for jam sessions. I was in the ninth standard and jamming with musicians much older than me -- that was very exciting. We were all intrigued by each other's work." says the affable Suhail.
However, he confesses, he has often faced allegations that the sarangi has become 'impure' by being used in modern rock music.
Apart from his band, Suhail has collaborated with several renowned international musicians such as American guitar legend Steve Vai, music producer Talvin Singh, Scottish singer James Yorkston and violinist Patsy Reid.
He has also faced many technical challenges in adapting the sarangi to electro-pop. The melodious notes of the sarangi would get overpowered by the other instruments. But following the advice of Anindo Bose, sound engineer and Advaita band mate, he started using the finer cello strings instead of the traditional gat strings. His uncle Kamal Sabri Khan now uses the same strings.
Fusion music is not a new concept, Suhail explains, but has become a genre only now. Khayal gayaki, for instance, is the fusion of dhrupad and Irani music and was the fusion music of centuries ago. But it is now a revered classical genre.
Amaan and Ayan Ali Khan
The seventh generation of the Senia bangash gharana, Amaan, 37, and Ayan Ali Khan, 35, are sons of legendary sarod player Amjad Ali Khan.
Having learnt from their father, they are extremely proficient sarod players and stick to traditional classical music when performing with him. But the brothers have also forged a musical identity that is more contemporary, stretching the possibilities of the sarod, which traces its origin to the ancient rabab of Persia, by collaborating with musicians from across the globe -- the Allman Brothers, guitarist Derek Trucks, American Folk song writer Carrie Newcomer, Grammy-nominated Oud player Rahim Alhaj and UK's National Youth Orchestra.
"From the time we were born, the language spoken was music, the air that we were breathing was music. We took the shape of the vessel like water," the brothers say in an email interview.
So, how do they adapt their music to reach out to a global audience? "Honestly, Indian classical music has no rules about how it should be presented or executed. That's very individualistic. Though our father has been a very strict traditionalist, he's always believed in adapting to change," they say. "Over the years we have tried our best to make the sarod reach out to a new audience that perhaps would not be at a classical concert."
Amaan and Ayaan believe that music needs to constantly evolve. "What is tradition can also be in a scary way a convention. You have to keep incorporating your life's experiences into your music; it's an extension of who you are. Therefore every decade has had music repackaged to reach out without really diluting the content."
Son of sitar maestro Pandit Kartick Kumar, Niladri Kumar is a sixth generation musician. He is also the creator of the zitar – a combination of the traditional sitar and the electric guitar.
Niladri, 41,started training under his father, Pandit Kartick Kumar, a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, at the age of four and was considered a child prodigy. When he was six, he had his first stage performance in Pondicherry. But he "moved out" of home and by 17 was working in Bollywood music -- something most classical musicians look down upon. By the late 1980s, he was working with leading music directors
Laxmikant-Pyarelal. "I had to face a lot of criticism. But the technical hurdles I faced were a bigger challenge. Fifteen years ago, technology was not so advanced, and I had to actually sit down with carpenters, electricians and other musicians to make my own instrument," says Niladri.
His exposure to international music and desire to innovate led him to fusion. "I do not like to classify my music in genres. I just play music." he says. One of the things that led Niladri to create the zitar was the "wish to engage the youth". "Another reason was that when I played with musicians who use electronic instruments like the electric guitar, drums, etc, the sound of my acoustic sitar was inaudible."
Since then he has worked with several musicians, including tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, legendary English guitarist John McLaughin, Swedish bass guitarist Jonas Hellborg and, closer home, composers A.R. Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Pritam to name a few.
Niladri's zitar can be heard in Bollywood chartbusters like 'Crazy Kiya Re' from 'Dhoom 2', 'Chup Chup Ke' from 'Bunty aur Bubli', 'Na Jaane Koi' from 'Gangster' and 'Alvida' from 'Life in a Metro'. He has released over 20 national and international albums and performed at numerous gigs across the globe.