Using rhythm games to escape office boredom (Bullshit Jobs excerpt)

 

Quick description of I used Indian rhythm games to help keep my mind alive through the grey mundanities of my former life as an office worker (included under a pseudonym in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, radical anthropologist David Graeber’s book on the rise of meaningless employment under late capitalism):

 

bs jobs excerpt

 

“The frustrated musician in me has come up with ways of silently learning music while stuck at my corporate desk. I studied Indian classical music for a while and have internalised two of their rhythmic systems. Indian approaches are abstract, numerical, and non-written, and so open up ways for me to silently and invisibly practice in my head.

 

I can improvise music while stuck in the office, and even incorporate inputs from the world around me. You can groove off the ticking clock as dull meetings drag on, or turn a phone number into a rhythmic poem. You can translate the syllables of corporate jargon into quasi hip-hop, or interpret the proportions of the filing cabinet as a polyrhythm. Doing this has been a shield to more aggregate boredom in the workplace than I can possibly explain. I even gave a talk to friends a few months ago about using rhythm games to alleviate workplace boredom, demonstrating how you can turn dull aspects of a meeting into a funk composition.”

“Indian dancers place themselves in the shoes of gods as well as mortals” – Akram Khan interview

 

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The trailblazing choreographer returns to his roots, curating Darbar Festival’s Indian classical dance programme at Sadler’s Wells later this month. He discusses this off-stage role with Darbar’s George Howlett, along with how classicism can be experimental, and why reconnecting with nature must be physical.

 


 

As a teenager, Akram Khan toured the world as part of Peter Brook’s eight-hour production of the Mahabharata. Each evening he would immerse into the ancient Indian epic, exploring themes of love, family, and war alongside sweeping visions of the cosmos. The work depicts the struggles of two noble families who vie for the throne of Hastinapura. They disagree about the proper line of succession, and their intergenerational feuding shrouds the world in darkness.

 

Khan sees the opposite phenomenon at work in today’s Indian classical dance world. For him, classical forms shine brightest when examining their own boundaries, and pushing the margins of what is considered ‘proper’. He knows that classical arts must experiment to survive, but acknowledges that innovating with traditional ideas is a fine balancing act. Modern experiments can miss the deep knowledge of the past, but ancient forms that stay too ancient are consigned to the history books.

 

Khan has always lived at the confluence of these tensions – classically trained, but not a classicist. This year he is curating Darbar Festival’s dance programme, inviting some of his favourite artists for a three-day takeover of Sadler’s Wells (23-25 Nov). How does he choose what to represent?

 

“I believe the artist liberates the form. Great artists are storytellers, and you have to trust them to bring their own subjects to life. So for me choosing artists is more important than styles. They both have to combine to communicate something universal. For Darbar I’ve chosen classical artists from kathak, bharatnatyam, and odissi, which happen to be three of the best-known forms.”

 

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Khan’s own roots are in kathak, and his choreography has never become unmoored from the style’s core characteristics – fluid spins, intricate hand gestures, and periods of calm punctuated by bursts of densely mathematical footwork. He has entrusted Sangeet Natak award winner Gauri Diwakar with representing it at Darbar. She will perform Hari Ho…Gati Meri (“Let my salvation be in the supreme”), a modern four-part solo work tailor-made for her by Aditi Mangaldas.

 

Elsewhere in the programme, bharatanatyam explorers Renjith Babu and Neha Mondal Chakravarty will use subtle eye movements and striking limb geometry to evoke different incarnations of Shiva and Kali. Their unusual jugalbandi duet draws on yoga and ancient martial arts, balancing creation and destruction over Carnatic vocals and a live orchestral score. Mavin Khoo, its choreographer, will also be leading a bharatanatyam improvisation workshop, open to observers and participants.

 

Odissi dance can trace its roots back over two millennia, to carvings in the Manchapuri caves and descriptions in Sanskrit aesthetic treatises. It was suppressed to near-extinction under British rule but has since enjoyed a resurgence, adding theatrical elements to a core of sinuous postures and energetic jumps. Award-winning modern exponent Sujata Mohapatra will walk a rhythmic line between dance and drama at Darbar, dissolving character into shape with sensuous poise.

 

Khan has always been inclined towards fusion, mixing traditional Indian vocabulary with moves from Thriller on the carpets of his father’s restaurant as a child (“how I’d prance around…”). His programme reflects this, turning to artists from the experimental sides of classicism. But he recognises that they approach things differently:

 

“To me there are two ways of creating – you can push the walls of a room from within, or pull from the outside. I’ve always been on the outside, drawing from all styles that catch my eye. The artists I’ve selected are classicists, pushing from the inside of their rooms. Classicism isn’t about stasis – it’s about adherence to particular boundaries, and creating using ideas within them. They all show that traditional forms can evolve without losing their core.”

 

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India has played host to deep cultural interchange for centuries, and its classical arts have always been in flux. They blend colour from multiple waves of history – Vedic metaphysics, Hindu rituals, Islamic colonial patronage, and English terminology. Khan is drawn to the places where these roots intertwine, pointing out that Mangaldas’ kathak piece is based on Muslim devotional poetry to Lord Krishna, a Hindu deity.

 

Indian classical dance is a global phenomenon now too, with plenty of innovation occurring outside the subcontinent. Bharatanatyam originated in Tamil Nadu, but Khoo is a Malaysian who trained in Britain and the USA as well as India. Others look elsewhere in the world, with Kiran Rajagopalan fusing Indian and West African ideas in New York last month.

 

Khan is himself a product of India’s vast artistic diaspora, born in Wimbledon to a Bangladeshi family. He frequently looks back East, collaborating with artists of South Asian heritage including Nitin Sawhney, Anish Kapoor, and Hanif Kureishi, but is adamant that he never chooses them on this basis: “It’s about whether their work has universal appeal. This has to come from the human story itself – one of imperfections and pain as well as beauty and joy. You should feel like you’re all learning together rather than being taught.”

 

So do Indian classical arts have a particular power to entrance the uninitiated? “I feel there’s something universal about narratives from ancient Indian history – the grand themes, the shared myths, the flawed deities. Indian dancers place themselves in the shoes of gods as well as mortals. And empathy is extraordinarily important – facial expressions and subtle body language communicate so much. I feel we’re drifting away from empathy in today’s world, and dance invites us to return to it.”

 

Kathak derives from physical storytelling, and the expressive techniques of the bards are still visible today. Khan sees that dance must embody complex characters and identities if it is to inspire broader social reimagination: “It can erase walls and boundaries within us. This may be momentary, but serves as a reminder that the walls are man-made, mainly coming from a place of fear.”

 

Kathak devotees describe how middle-aged male dancers can suddenly morph into beautiful young women using only the subtlest of movements. This is no mean feat, especially while synchronising their footsteps and leaps to intricate tabla rhythms. Indian forms bring high demands, and training often starts early. “Classical dancers have to sacrifice themselves in a way – the physicality and precision are immense. There’s a certain discipline and rigour you can’t teach.”

 

Khan knows these feelings of obsession from the inside. After returning from the global Mahabharata tour he skipped school to dance, waving goodbye to his parents each morning before changing out of his uniform and practicing all day in the garage. He got away with it for a year, only being discovered when they turned up to bemused teachers at a school parents evening. “They realised how serious I was about dancing then. I practiced eight hours a day for long periods, but it never felt like a sacrifice – it was a need.”

 

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Newcomers to Indian classical arts often enter expecting a reverent atmosphere, and leave surprised at the sheer playfulness of the performance. Hindustani musicians will twist and stretch each other’s phrases, and kathak exponents are masters of mime, transforming into peacocks, demons, and many-faced gods at a moment’s notice. There is something refreshing and childish going on, as if witnessing a return to our most basic human impulses.

 

Choreographers combine the playful and cerebral, contrasting these mime-like expressional movements (abhinaya) with those embodying ‘pure form’ (nritta). A dancer may impersonate a flock of birds, then use rapid-fire footwork to tease new tensions from a 14-beat rhythm.

 

Khan credits Indian classical music with first opening his eyes to mathematics, and is drawn to kathak’s interlocking numerical patterns (perhaps a logical inclination is in his genes: his grandfather was a prominent Bengali mathematician). But he doesn’t see it as an abstract mode of engagement: “I had a natural impulse to search for sequences in the world around me, and ‘take things apart’ as I learned them”.

 

He feels that modern technology confuses our perceptual apparatus: “We live in a high-speed world, full of unfamiliar patterns of movement which blend representational elements with those of pure form. But modern life also pulls us towards logicalising everything, so we struggle with these ambiguities more than we should. Dance is such an ambiguous form of communication, and we misunderstand it if we forget this. We must be fascinated by ambiguity – art is always about what cannot be quantified.”

 

He explains how classical dance can directly address the messiness of the world around us, with all styles originating as much from everyday folk rituals as abstract Sanskrit philosophy. Dancers can summon the monsoon or harvest, and depict rivers, galloping horses, or vines swaying in the wind. He laments modern society’s disconnect with nature:

 

“Our relationship to the natural world is primarily a physical one. Humans have a need to explore and respond to the environment they’re in, but today’s world is so virtual and disembodied. The supermarket is the closest some people get to nature. Dance should be about celebrating the importance of our bodies, and reminding us that we can’t reconnect with our environment without them.”

 

I mention that six of the festival’s eight main dancers and choreographers are female. He recognises the rarity of this on the British dance scene: “Men have been dominant over civilisation. The injustice is still frightening, and unequal power dynamics can bring up the very worst aspects of humanity. People are in denial, and the arts world is no exception. We need more balance at all levels.”

 

Khan begins to tell me more about the Mahabharata, but then profusely apologises for having to run off to another appointment. There is plenty more to discuss – he will be giving a talk at Darbar on innovation and his classical roots. He may be retiring from full-length solo performance in 2019, but still leads the Akram Khan Company, and shows no appetite to retreat from the dance world. Some of his final remarks are revealing: “I always wanted to dedicate all I had to my art. I’ve talked about this with classical dancers – we feel that it can never really leave you.”

 

  • Darbar Arts & Heritage believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. To find out more, sign up for the Darbar newsletter or explore their YouTube channel.

 


George Howlett | www.ragajunglism.org

 

 

 

 

 

‘Stay close to the music itself, however you can’ – Debashish Bhattacharya interview

 

Republished in full on MusicRadar

 


 

Debashish Bhattacharya is both a radical and a traditionalist. His self-designed slide guitars breathe new colours into ancient Hindustani ragas, and he has taken them around the globe, collaborating with musicians from Hawaii to Okinawa. He catches up with George Howlett to discuss instrument creation, the hidden harmony in ragas, and how listeners should appreciate the interconnectedness of the natural world.

 


 

Like many Hindustani stars, Pandit Bhattacharya was born into a long cultural lineage. He traces his family back through seventy-six generations of artists, writers, and Sanskrit teachers, and represents the seventh in a straight line of musicians. He established himself early, debuting on All India Radio at the age of four, winning competitions at seven, and inventing his first slide guitar at fifteen.

 

But his path has never been a straightforward one. He was denied a prestigious classical scholarship on the grounds that he didn’t play a traditional instrument, and just as his career was taking off he left his home in Kolkata to study with the late guitar pioneer Brij Bhushan Kabra.

 

“In my generation, I’m among only a few musicians who left to study instead of starting to market themselves. I left my family and many local opportunities, travelling 2418 kilometers and entering my guru’s house with a ten rupee note and no extra garments. I didn’t play concerts for those ten years, and learned under tremendous hardship. My life as his disciple is inexplicable. I would say it was more traditional than anything I’ve experienced in life.”

 

He also learned North Indian sitar, sarod, and vocal music, but has always been inclined towards outside influences too: “I learned the Hawaiian guitar as a child, and played 1920’s European and Hawaiian compositions aged five to nine. I’ve studied 6-string slide and staff notation.”

 

Growing up he had to face critics who did not see a place for the guitar in ‘true’ Hindustani music. He had to develop a healthy confidence in his achievements, but acknowledges that the journey of a disciplined perfectionist is not easy: “Imperfection is your walk in the path of perfection. This is a lifelong journey, which will eventually end with you and start with someone else. Restless nights can be made restful with a glass of something, or can be a source of inspiration to work harder.”

 

I get the sense that he’s always aimed to expand his own understanding rather than rebel against anything in particular. After all, anyone who designs their own instruments has to rebuild from first principles: “I created the first Indian classical guitar in 1978 at the age of fifteen. I designed it from scratch – it wasn’t a modified Western guitar. Since then I’ve introduced new elements to global slide guitar, including new tunings, fingerpicking techniques, and over 500 compositions”.

 

Today he wields his self-designed ‘Trinity of Guitars’ – the Chaturangui, a 23-string amalgamation of sitar, sarod, violin, and rudra veena, the Gandharvi, which blends the 12-string guitar with veena, santoor, and sarangi, and the Anandi, a 4-string slide ukulele. He isn’t done yet, telling me three more creations are on the way.

 

Instrument design is an artistic endeavour, but requires mathematical precision too. Bhattacharya has always sought to connect different modes of thinking, and it’s no surprise that he found inspiration in school biology classes as well as the goddess Durga: “Religion and science are useless if they don’t help each other. I find myself happy with or without them, lost in the addiction of pure sound, portraying love in the groove of time.”

 

This interconnected approach helps him to see shapes others often miss in traditional Indian music: “We don’t think about harmony the same way, as our music is modal. A raga may be made of notes, but the melody and extended phrases give harmonic shape to it. Chords are already there. In the past 60 years Ustad Amir Khan used tanpuras with three notes (Pa-Ni-Sa), and Ustad Vilayat Khan tuned his sitar’s chikari to a major triad (Sa-Ga-Pa).”

 

Elsewhere he speaks of Bach’s solo string works in the same regard. They are also streams of single notes, but nobody would see them as absent of harmonic movement. I wonder what his own take on the violin partitas would sound like? Perhaps we’ll find out – he’s been writing orchestral scores.

 

Nowadays he performs and collaborates to acclaim around the world, and says he’s found “most of the innermost answers” to questions around his music. So what drives the multipegged maestro to keep on exploring? “I’m a student, and my drive is to learn new things and refine my actions. That’s the best way to live the rest of my life – I’m just the adventurous raga-guitar wala.”

 

Pandit Bhattacharya doesn’t sit on the boundaries between his traditions – he fully embodies them. However he also recognises the importance of keeping disparate styles distinct: “I can play three different styles – it’s about creating new wings, not polluting. But I don’t mix them when I play traditional dhrupad style.”

 

Unfamiliar music elicits different reactions from a listener, so does he consciously change his style when playing to Westerners? “I walk to the studio or stage in the same way, whether in India or abroad. When I perform the dialogues are between my own guitars and my beloved ragas.”

 

Overall he describes himself as “an optimist and a pessimist” about the future of Indian classical, recognising that young musicians are growing up in a much faster-paced world than their forebearers. He has seen this firsthand – his daughter Anandi is an accomplished singer who releases her own albums as well as featuring on his, debuting this year with Joys Abound.

 

“I love younger generation musicians, but they miss some of what we had – gurus and teachers who were not so busy earning everything needed to sustain life. They have it harder, suffering from the viruses of judgements, negativity, self-marketing, and short term pleasures. But if a student has the right mixes of passion and focus then it will bring them benefits and serve the Hindustani tradition too. Illiteracy is not a problem, but half-education is.”

 

He takes his own teaching commitments seriously, working with thousands of students around the globe. He encourages modern learners to stay discerning and integrate their musical approach: “Taste is the filter. I think art claims surrendered lovers to itself. And leading a scholar’s life is not enough – there are no boundaries like this in nature. We segregate and draw lines for particular purposes, but everything connects, including the sixth element – sound.”

 

“Expansion inward is more important than outward. Stay close to the music, however you can. My gurus taught me that – I’m still trying to be close enough.”

 


 

Debashish plays the Southbank Centre on Sat 22nd Sep at 6:30pm, accompanied by Sukhwinder Singh’s sparkling tabla. Tickets available here (£18-50). The concert is a double-bill with violinist Praveen Sheolikar, as part of Darbar Festival 2018. See Debashish’s own website for more dates.

 

George Howlett | www.ragajunglism.com

 


 

 

 

 

Rāga Jungle: Turntables, Tablas, & Tālas

 

selva

 

 

Jungle music and Hindustani classical tabla playing have some really striking similarities.

 

 

 

Listen to We‘s jungle masterpiece Magnesium Flares, and Zakir Hussain & Alla Rakha’s Lineage tabla duet. Both are both based around intense 16-beat percussion loops, with rapid and unpredictable drum syncopation taking up the central listening position usually occupied by melody. This is surprisingly rare in music, but is fundamental to both tintal-rhythm tabla recitals and jungle/DnB. The styles regularly hit 160-180bpm, and overall instrumental textures are similar: busy percussion in the mids, ambient harmonic colour floating in the background, and a clearly distinct level of superdeep quasi-melodic bass. The tracks above are composed of little else.

 

Both styles feature heavy drops, and multi-layered rhythm voicings are common in jugalbandi percussion duets as well as the more complex corners of jungle (hear Amon’s hint of Indian melodic flavour in there?). The percussion textures of both genres summon up sounds of water – although tabla is often said to evoke monsoon rain and streams, while the heavier splash of jungle cymbals is probably closer to a cascade of rocks falling into a lake:

 

 

Tabla’s bol percussion language and Ragga jungle’s MCing serve pretty similar functions – they are primarily about defining accents and rhythmic flow, rather than communicating via the usual linguistic meanings of words. I’ll let you decide whether MC Demolition Man or Pandit Yogesh Samsi has the better flow:

 

 

That being said, there are other ways to conjure up precise images from bols – Zakir Hussain can sketch a cannon, a galloping horse, a deer searching for food, and a steam train. In fact the rela (‘rushing’) category of tabla’s core repertoire acts as an aural history of North India, aiming among other things to evoke the sounds of Colonial railways, with many compositions explicitly aiming to mimic the sound of the new technology as it spread across North India. The first tracks were laid in the 1850s, but recorded sound did not reach India for another generation – tabla’s versatile sound palette allowed the vivid new rhythms to be captured and shared.

 

It’s also intriguing that UK Apache (jungle’s Original Nuttah MC, describes: performing…[while] doing the call to prayer at my mosque in Tooting’. Although the link to tabla is not direct, it is pleasing to know that the Islamic devotional music which profoundly influenced Hindustani performance also left its mark on a bonafide jungle classic.

 

And Pandit Lacchu Maharaj’s pre-performance ritual definitely has one similarity with the UK’s Jamaican-infused Ragga subculture. Lacchu is among the absolute funkiest of individuals, and it was an honour for me to briefly study tabla in Varanasi under a branch of his Benares gharana lineage:

 

 

Tabla and jungle share yet more direct similarities when it comes to physical performance. Whether the musician is positioned behind a pair of turntables or drums, they may well be playing for dancers in front of them (although raving and kathak are otherwise on opposite ends of the spectrum)At their best then both genres evoke a sense of immersive and spiritual fun, and given the similarity of their core elements then it is no coincidence that they both mix particularly well with jazz.

 

I’ve never heard a true fusion that would complete the Jazz/Hindustani/Jungle collaboration triangle, although Talvin Singh and some of Bill Laswell’s wilder fusions have come pretty close.

 

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So I’ve had a go at laying down some Rāga Jungle, by fusing up some classic oldskool drum breaks with the kayada compositions I learnt while studying tabla under the Mishra lineage in Benares, as well as my sloppy personal variant of the South Indian konnakol language (more on this soon). Tendonitis issues and having a day job limit my own ability to become a real tabla master, but someone who can play them properly should explore this further – you will have some incredible fun.

 

 

RJSpell

 


 

[Rāga Jungle audio/video forthcoming, i.e. let me get my shit together]

 


 

Tablas & Rāgas – YT playlist (73 mins):

 

Beautifully Crafted Jungle – YT playlist (77 mins):

 

Shuffling the combined playlist also works great.