By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rustic Rituals, Romantic Reveries

When I was writing on Carnatic and Western music in the New Delhi edition of The Hindu some 20-30 years ago, often my focus was on fundamental issues, because I was inclined to explain some vital elements of South Indian classical music to intelligent readers in the Capital hailing from many culturally different parts of India (as well as foreigners in the diplomatic community), and also highlight some basic aspects of Western music for the benefit of my All-Indian readers. 

In  my previous note (Nov. 17), I had provided a sample text in the form of an essay marvelling at the purity of the ever-flowing music of pipes and percussion instruments in South Indian temples.  Now let me recall a concert review in which I had explored the subtle points of difference between the characters and original environments of European folk and gypsy music. 

As regards the specific Russian song I had mentioned in this context, I gained some fresh and surprising insights a few years ago after the Internet had infinitely extended our cultural horizons. I had conveyed those impressions in this column on 31 Oct. 2010.

The Hindu, New Delhi
1 April 1988

Lively session of gypsy music

Ochi chorniye, ochi strastniye
Ochi zhgoochiye,  i prikrassniye!
Kak lyublyoo ya vass! 
Kak bayoos ya vass!
Znat oovidyel vass
Yav nyedobriy chass!

     Eyes dark, eyes passionate,
     Eyes burning and beautiful!
     How I adore you!
     How I fear you!
     It's just that I see you
     At an unkindly hour!

This is a famous traditional Russian song, which many students of Russian are likely to have encountered some time or other.  When I was much younger, countless were the occasions on which I had heard it in an Assimil language course packed into a set of LP records.  There was. however, a special thrill in hearing the song rendered by the visiting Soviet musician Valentina Mashtakova, in a live concert given by the Mashtakov Gypsy Ensemble in the Kamani auditorium last week.  The event was organized.... as part of the second phase of the USSR Festival in India.

In this country we are not very familiar with the folk and gypsy music of Europe, and one may be pardoned for having a general impression that these have the same characteristics.  But while it is true that some features of Western folk and gypsy music are similar, there are certain basic differences between them which would be worth noting.

Much of European folk music and dance is related to rituals performed in ceremonial contexts like weddings, childbirth and funerals, or the advent of spring, summer, equinox, etc.  A substantial part of it has a functional character, and used to serve as an aid to (or celebration of) agricultural and rural activities like ploughing, sowing, harvesting, spinning, weaving or cattle-breeding.  In contrast, gypsy music is neither ritual-based nor work-oriented, for the simple reason that the gypsies were nomadic tribes who had no social moorings, nor any consistent work environment, which would give rise to such ceremonial or functional occasions.  Consequently, the gypsy songs are mostly romantic reveries, which reflect a certain freedom of spirit and gay abandon, and not the bondage of custom and hard work.

There is another significant aspect to be remembered.  Folk music and dance in their authentic milieu would generally involve the active participation of a large number of ordinary people belonging to any given community, whether rural or urban.  But gypsy music would be performed only by the small wandering groups of musicians, the local inhabitants normally  constituting a passive audience, and the dancing being only a marginal activity.  This is no doubt why even the modern ensembles which project these traditional arts on the stage tend to be fairly large in the case of folk dances, but quite small in the case of gypsy music.

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The Mashtakov Ensemble from the Soviet Union consists of three women artists and half a dozen men.  The concert started with some resounding songs rendered by Vladimir Klimeshenko, accompanied by a couple of accordions, several guitars, a violin and a zither.  The instrumentation remained more or less the same throughout the evening.

In the main part of the performanc, Valery and Valentina Mashtakov and their daughter Anzhelika, who were the star attractions, sang several lively numbers.  A characteristic feature of the music was the alternating phases of slow and fast tempi -- and the accelerating or scorching rhythms -- reminiscent of the Hungarian musical and dance form called Czardas....

In the programs of various Soviet folk ensembles which had performed in New Delhi during the first phase of the USSR Festival last year. music was not the predominant factor, but had only served as a vehicle for the folk dances.  In the gypsy ensemble's concert under review, however, music was the main thing, and the sinuous dancing by the women artists was only a secondary feature, though it did provide an interesting visual relief.

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Incidentally, due to some undisclosed reason the Aeroflot could not deliver the costumes of the ensemble in time....  But acting coolly and resourcefully, a consultant for the USSR Festival had procured some colourful Rajasthani and Lambadi folk costumes for the women artists, though the men had to be content with ordinary trousers and T-shirts.  So well did the improvised dresses blend with the musical scene that it was difficult to believe that they were actually an alien element.  The apparent universality in the gypsy image, visually speaking, came as quite a revelation!

But if the ad hoc costumes did not seriously affect the authentic quality of the presentation, something else did.  There were half a dozen tall microphone stands spread out on the stage, and yards and yards of electrical wiring. cluttering up the entire stage floor.  The singers' self-conscious way of brandishing portable microphones and constantly stepping over the wires added an artificial touch of pop music to the whole proceedings, and that certainly took some of the charm away.

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