More than two decades after founding the band Indian Ocean and a decade after seeding the material for a solo album, Susmit Sen has come out on his own. It's a rare solo debut worth the long wait.
Before we get to the album, a disclosure. I prefer not to talk to a musician regarding his or her work while grinding out its review. In this case some other project needed me to talk to Sen at length. So I got a peek backstage. The view reaffirmed my early thoughts on hearing some of the album's songs at a concert a few months ago.
First, it's refreshing to hear Sen's idiosyncratic guitar without the loud mix that Indian Ocean always manages to cook up. Second, it's even more refreshing to hear an Indian guitarist of a modern musical language holding his own with ambitious compositions.
Sen's is a unique sound you are not likely to forget in a hurry. On first play, you may have that other-worldly feeling of being able to relate a phrase or two to something from somewhere else - the turn of a raag , a blues slide or a rock riff, a Hindi song motif, a hilly folk tune, or even the background score from a film. But listen again, and you may note that Sen seems clear about the entire structure of a song from the very beginning. And it's this complex structure that creates Sen's language.
In a way, it's about Sen's sense of order. Admittedly, a very Satyajit Ray-like order in which the creator knows the 'storyboard' of his creation way before launching into its production.
There are harmonic thoughts in all of the first six compositions, which run for 7-10 minutes each. The thoughts get play mostly as bounce-backs in the taans sung by Asheem Chakravarty, Shubha Mudgal and Papon. (The album's last song, a reprisal of the national anthem, is not as ambitious in scope as the others.) The only words (by Sanjeev Sharma) are in 'City Lights', in which Mudgal sings to the haunting tune: "Ghoome ghoome thaat ka chakka, lagi haat pe daud/ Bhi nasha halke mann ka baaja, daud sake toh daud."
Despite that sense of harmonic layering, the songs seem to be melodically led, like in an Indian system. You can often hear a swirl of shadow notes making up the illusion of volume. Sen even wields his guitar at times like a sarod, with brief bursts of violence as if in a jhala, or resonant drone.
Tribute, a 'one-take solo' which is also the album's longest piece, is an offering to Ali Akbar Khan, whose "meditative poise" moved Sen. It's also supposed to be about anyone who has ever influenced Sen, including some non-musicians. How do those bits get expressed? "If you are a true musician, your character comes out in your music," says Sen. If that be the measure, what sort of a person would Sen be? Maybe one who thrives in rational exuberance, with the self-confidence of a person who has lived on his own terms and won. And surely a person who looks beyond immediate pleasures.
This fortnight has some other reasons to cheer as well. No, it's not 'Chikni chameli', which like most item numbers deflates musically as soon as you switch off the visuals. (Ajay-Atul's percussion-heavy score for the film, though, has more than a lungful of life in it.)
The season's big reason to celebrate is that recordings from the vast archives of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai have been made available to the CD-buying republic. Sony Music has started publishing them, digitally remastered and all.
Among the first dozen-odd on the shelves are a Rashid Khan performance at age 18, a Gangubai Hangal concert in which she was supported on the sarangi by a certain Sultan Khan, and a 1980s' recording by ML Vasanthakumari, who along with MS Subbulakshmi and DK Pattammal made up the 'female trinity of Carnatic music' but has not been heard in the North as much as the other two.
The recordings come with informed liner notes by singer Amarendra Dhaneshwar and writer Geeta Sahai. The tastefully designed jackets have Avinash Pasricha's black-and-white images of the musicians lost in trance. And the double albums sport a friendlier-than-usual price of R299.
Another classic has been given a new lease of life. Bhinna Shadja (Note Extraordinaire), Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale's film on Kishori Amonkar has been released on DVD by the good people at Enlighten Film and Under Construction distributors (Rs 499). The film, with interviews in Marathi, Hindi and English, is more of a lavishly crafted ode rather than a sharp documentary. (The film was part-funded by our foreign ministry for use as a tool of 'public diplomacy'.)
Amonkar shows a disarming candour in sharing the learnings that made her the diva she is. At once fragile and formidable, she says, "Once I enter the meditative state of a performance, I ask god to take me away and just leave the raag and its mood." Zakir Hussain says Amonkar reaches that state at every performance. It's a state all musicians aspire to, but few achieve - ever.