By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, July 22, 2016

Substantial Dose Of Authentic Russian Folk Music

Unlike the fairly frequent chamber music recitals given by visiting virtuosi from the West in New Delhi in the 1980s and '90s -- who usually either dispensed superior classical music to us in far-too-tiny doses in far-too-short programs,  or presented some bizarre styles of music which made no sense to us at all -- the infrequent foreign folk music and dance shows were usually very substantial affairs, particularly those from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

As a prelude to my sharing with you the memory of a delightful experience of that kind, let me quote some thoughts from my reviews of a couple of other similar events which I had recalled earlier (Rustic Rituals, Romantic Reveries and Poppish-Turkish Folk Music  --  19/24 Nov. 2012) :-

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 is used to serve as an aid to (or celebration of) agricultural and rural activities like ploughing, sowing, harvesting, spinning, weaving or cattle-breeding . . . 

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 . . .  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 . . . 
Folk music . . . usually has a universal appeal, whatever may be the country of origin.  Folk songs by their very nature are simple and unsophisticated, and are not expected to have any intellectual refinement.  Therefore it is not really necessary to understand the meaning of the lyrics for enjoying folk music.  

Moreover, the strange and unfamiliar language of foreign folk songs even lends a touch of mystery to the music, and adds to its appeal.  It was interesting to see how enthusiastically our folk music was received in France and the U.S. during the recent Festival of India organized there . . .

Now, read on!

New Delhi
29 July 1988

Continuing impression of Soviet folklore

It is an excellent idea that the USSR Festival in India should come in waves, instead of hitting us like a cyclone.  It gives us some scope to have repeated exposure to the different facets of Soviet culture without getting mentally fatigued, and such recurring experiences are necessary for enhancing our familiarity with those art forms.

This is particularly true of folk music and dance.  While a daily folk-arts program over a fortnight is likely to become quite tiresome and may prove to be counter-productive, a substantial series of such events, spread over several months, does cumulatively consolidate our impressions in a positive way, giving us a worthwhile insight into the foreign cultural tradition -- which is precisely what such a festival is meant for.  Let us hope that even after the current festival commitments of the USSR are over, the Soviet Cultural Center in New Delhi will organize similar shows from time to time, not only in the Capital but all over India, so that the popular impressions created by this tremendous effort will not gradually fade away in the future.

Course correction

Ushering in the third phase of the festival, the organizers had announced a twin-event to take place in the Kamani Hall last week, featuring the Karagod Folklore Ensemble from Russia and a variety entertainment group from the USSR's Asian Republics.  The latter ensemble, whose music is said to be tradition-derived but with a jazzy outlook, could not perform because some sophisticated equipment needed by them had not been cleared by the Delhi Customs  .  .  .  and the whole evening was devoted to an extended performance by the Karagod Ensemble. 

Personally, I did not mind this at all.  Being an old-timer, I do prefer to have more of the original Soviet culture as I knew it or used to visualize it in my younger days, and less of the jazzified and pop-oriented music of this Glasnost era. 

The Karagod Ensemble specializes in performing the traditional folk songs and dances of Southern Russia, with a great deal of bantering between the performers (four women, six men).  The accent is on a continuous and elastic exchange of witty remarks and razor-sharp repartees, all expressed in vocal music, accompanied by folk instruments.  The dancing is rather marginal, meant to be an aid to artistic interaction and not a visually refined activity, although the costumes are elaborate and colorful.

Humorous show

Few people among the audience could have understood the precise meaning of whatever was being sung, but the humorous element which dominated the performance was never lost on the gathering.  To add spice to the show, some of the gorgeously-dressed women artists stepped down, walked along the aisles, and dragged a few men and a young girl up to the stage -- and made them participate in some of the group dances, no matter how clumsily.  This added greatly to the spectators' sense of involvement.

All told, the program, which was unexpectedly prolonged, turned out to be a very substantial dose of authentic Russian folklore.  Short of actually visiting a village in Southern Russia and personally taking part in the public merry-making, one could not perhaps get a more vivid impression of the fascinating tradition.

PostScript, 2016

Jazzy & jarring

Talking about jazzified and pop-oriented Russian folk music, you may find it interesting to read (or read again!) my comments in  Jarring Trend Ruins Russian Folk Music  (8 Jan. 2013). 

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