Pointing out how questions of authenticity and artificiality inevitably arise whenever traditional folk arts are performed in alien/unfamiliar environments (Jan. 4, 2013), I remembered an evening in New Delhi about 20 years ago when a visiting Hungarian ensemble had served us a cocktail of the traditional music and dance of Magyar gypsies and medieval European courts.
Although my acquaintance with Hungarian folk music and dance at that time was quite marginal in spite of my intense interest in them, I did get the impression that there seemed to be something unnatural and rather contrived about several portions of the performance. When I mentioned this to the leader of the team after the show, I did expect him to offer a convincing explanation; but I found his answer quite intriguing. He said . . . . now, just read on!
THE HINDU, New Delhi
5 May 1990
Austria and Hungary are not only close neighbors, but have an old historical association, once constituting a common empire. And in a way it was interesting that within a couple of weeks of our encounter with the Mozarteum String Quartet from Austria. there was a visiting set of musicians and dancers from Hungary performing in New Delhi last Monday evening -- brought to this country by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. It was the Guild Society from Budapest , incorporating the Bakfark Consort and the Malev Kamaras Ensemble.
I have a particular liking for Hungarian gypsy music and dance, with the double-bass setting up an accelerating rhythm and the violins, winds and cimbalom keeping pace with colorful and swirling flourishes. The very first long-playing record I ever bought -- more than 30 years ago -- was a collection of Magyar music including a couple of Czardas numbers, and I remember being fascinated as much by the costumes of the dancers pictured on the disc jacket as by the lilting music which the record contained. I once spent a week in Budapest without being able to see and hear a gypsy ensemble, and it was certainly a thrill to attend a live performance of the same kind at last in New Delhi!
But as one lives on, one learns to perceive the difference between what is authentic and what is not, even if one isn't very familiar with what's seen and heard. The visiting team was a combination of artists performing court music and folk music, with four dancers -- two men and two women -- playing dual roles. Some of the court numbers and some of the folk items were performed separately, which gave one a feel of the genuine art. But some of the numbers mixed them up a bit, which did not ring quite true. On the whole, the program did make a powerful impression on the mind; the dances were exquisite, and the honeyed voice of the soprano Melinda Lugosy will be long remembered.
With the sudden stepping up of cultural activity here in recent years in terms of performances, we have started seeing the relentless march of innovation and experimentation, with our classical and folk traditions tending to get mixed up arbitrarily, which is a cause of great concern. But the whole world's culture seems to be in a kind of ferment now. Watching the interesting procession of foreign artists in the capital city, one has seen Turkish folk songs getting mixed up with pop music, or traditional Russian folk dances being choreographed in ultra-modern ways, to mention only a couple of things.
Backstage after the show, I asked Daniel Benko, the leader of the ensemble, how people in Hungary respond to this kind of mixture. His answer was simple and disarming: he said such mixing was not usually done there by this group, but is mainly meant for foreigners!
Tradition, innovation and integrity
Well, I've been mulling over that candid response for more than 20 years now!
Over this long period marked by technological hurricanes and socio-cultural tornados, I've been endlessly trying to find the elusive answers to many intricate questions relating to the conflict as well as the concord (which co-exist) between tradition and innovation, between purity and permissiveness, between innovation and integrity. I've often been puzzled by the great paradoxes inherent in the universal scenario of cultural progress; and at the same time, I have also gained some very valuable artistic and psychological insights into the whole phenomenon.
But don't spoil the fun by asking me for a concise executive summary of my ultimate findings! Let me just roll out, one by one, the reviews and essays containing my reflections on specific aspects which needed analysis and discussion from time to time in different contexts!