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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

26 January, 2005

Infused with music

It is ten to midnight and I am sitting in an ocean of black heads
listening to Amjad Khan playing Rag Rageshri. In the glow of light
spreading from the stage I look over the audience - I estimate it to
be about 200 in an average row, and nearly 80 rows - so about 15,000
people under this huge tent structure. Three musicians are sitting on
the large stage, elaborately and tastefully done up with large motifs
of tablas and veenas and an esraj punctuating a batik texture in cream
and green. A sign proclaims "The Dover Lane Music Conference - 52nd

The concert will go on through the night, and so will this audience -
a phenomenon possible only in Kolkata. This Music Conference is held
every year from 22nd to 26th January, with whole night programs on the
22nd and 25th, because 23d and 26th are always holidays in Kolkata.
Much of this crowd has waited for this event all year, and jostled for
tickets, and will tell the story the rest of the year. Tonight itself
we have Amjad, followed by Jasraj and then Hariprasad Chaurasia will
be coming in just before dawn, and then the lesser known rising stars
will continue through the day.

The sound system is excellent, and works magnificiently even here
almost at the very back where I am sitting, laptop illuminating my
face as I type. No one's mobiles going off - but there were some
heated tempers in the back a few minutes ago - an unseemly altercation
had begun and the volume kept going up until the musicians paused,
looking in this direction and the crowd started shouting, even more
loudly - "DadA - bAire jAn..." (Please leave!). So much for mobile
phones - a woman two seats from me has her shawl over her head and is
talking to someone in sotto voce - "if there are problems call me," I
can hear her saying of some domestic crisis.

Amjad has moved into the gat, after playing an almost non-existent
AlAp. The rising star in today's billing is the tabla player,
Aniruddha Chatterjee, who is doing a fabulous job - he has the showy
looks of Zakir Hussain, fair under a thick crop of dark black hair,
which he swings around vehemently as he produces one drumroll after
another. The lady next to me informs me he is the son of Anindo
Chatterjee - so he has a good lineage - I wonder is it mostly the
training that makes a musician specialize into a particular instrument
- I mean, the genes are surely not that varied across instruments
... But then beyond a point, music is about ideas, which is why
someone like Ravi Shankar can be guru to flautists and guitar players.
Amjad himself is of course, quite the showman, his sarod glistening
under his silver hair - and this piece is off to a great start. The
third man on stage is playing the small drone instrument that is
increasingly replacing tanpuras everywhere.

Amjad is in full flow and the tabla is pulsating along and I can see
heads nodding among this sleepless mass - and looking again at this
ocean of black heads I wonder how the same music can electrify all
these thousands of brains, can keep them from sleep ... now Amjad is
speaking some bols into the mike - in sync with what the tabla is
playing, it is part of his attempt to draw the audience into the

I remember those snow-bound Rochester winters when I first heard about
the Dover Lane Music conference from the passionate guitar-playing
Debashis, who would tell me of how they would be there at 5 in the
morning, listening to the master's from the very front. But for me,
this is the first Dover Lane I have been in. Tickets are hard to come
by, but Didi with her usual connectedness has managed to wrangle a
ticket for me from a friend, with the warning that "it's not a VIP
seat, you may be sitting next to her tabalchi," - which tells the
world how much we think of the non-stellar musicians...

Now the music has reached a stage where Amjad is playing small
phrases, not quite a sawaal jabab - that is no doubt coming - but
something more like broken up fragments reaching a som after three,
five or six refrains.

The tabla man, the young Chatterjee, is no doubt very well
trained,.. his basic skills on the tabla are on display as Amjad plays
a slow rhythm, letting him go into a flurry and sprinkling the
drumroll patter with amazingly sharp notes - as striking as blue
flowers in the yellow of a mustard field - and one listens to him -
actually in a live performance such as this, one also revels in seeing
him - and one wonders what one must do to get one's fingers to be
capable of such extraordinary feats - somehow it seems that the class
of musicians coming up today - certainly the tabla players - are well
ahead of the previous generation, in sheer virtuosity if not in the
maturity of their temperament, which of course I am not connoisseur
enough to plumb... Now Amjad is playing a refrain and the tabla has
gone into ecstasies again - at the end of this phase the crowd bursts
out clapping... and I wonder how insulted a western orchestra would
feel if the audience were to clap at a crescendo...

The couple in front of me have their binoculars out and for once,
I wish I had one - so many times I have lugged one around from place
to place without it ever coming into use ... again the tabla is in his
staccato roll punctuated with these very clear "ta"s and "na"s - what
is amazing is that all these beats are coming from the same right hand
- both the roll and these sharp notes in between - actually now that I
look at the stage backdrop it seems almost like the tabla roll - a
dense texture of greens and cream, with these large promintent blocks
standing out with their musical instruments. ... In some sense all
art is about contrast - you weave what is considered a neutral,
pleasing tapestry, and on it you throw in a contrast - you draw the
eye of the viewer into the frame, and then surprise him; at the end of
a story, you challenge the expectations of the reader in some
unexpected way. And the surprises have to keep changing with the
times - what was a great "twist" to Victor Hugo, is today mere

This is perhaps something the young Anirudh Chatterjee understands
very well, for he has plenty of surprises up his sleeve. This piece
in particular, Amjad is also giving him a lot of leeway. Now both the
sarod and the tabla are going such hammer and tongs - and it sounds
like that almost literally - and of course, such high levels of energy
cannot sustain and the piece comes to an end amid a thunderous

Once the music finishes, we realize how tense we have been with the
rising tempo, how anxious our minds have made our bodies. This is
perhaps why music is so primitive, so ingrained in us. This is why
how music predates language. Even the most spastic child who responds
to nothing else, responds to music.

Once the silence sinks in, the crowd relaxes mind and bocy, and
stretches languorously as it waits to see what will come next. It is
quarter to one, and people are looking askance at me and my laptop,
and anyway the battery is running down so I shut it down.

This year's Dover Lane Conference ended today, 26th Jan.



Blogger Dan Husain said...

i think i'll skip music fests in future... i will read your posts ;-) They are equally lyrical.

31 January, 2005 15:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying to find information on this year's Dover Lane festival. It seems it takes place from January 22-26. Does anybody have more specific info (venues, prices, program etc?). Please!
Write me at


02 January, 2006 15:12  

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