Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Baithaks in Hong Kong: An interview with Poorna Mysoor

My friend Poorna Mysoor, née Gopalaswamy, has been living in Hong Kong for around ten years now. I’ve known Poorna since my law school (NLSIU, Bangalore) days where, in addition to being academically gifted and a good mooter, Poorna had the reputation of being a nightingale. Recently I caught up with Poorna and found that her passion for singing and Indian classical music has not suffered on account of living in Hong Kong or being a legal eagle. On the contrary, Poorna has managed to set up a 'Baithak' of Indian musicians and singers based in Hong Kong! At my request, Poorna agreed to tell Winnowed’s readers how she came to set up a 'Baithak' in Hong Kong.

Winnowed: Poorna, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on Winnowed.

Poorna: On the contrary, let me thank you for asking me to do this interview. I'm flattered and honoured to appear in your blog.

Winnowed: Tell me, since when have you been interested in music?

Poorna: My relationship with music is like that of a loved one in the family. It has always been there from the time I can remember. I can't really remember how old I was when I started my Hindustani classical vocal music lessons with my grandfather, Pt. D. S. Garud. Roughly I might have been 6 or 7 years old. As I used to spend a lot of after school hours at my grandparents place, I had the company of music even if I didn't have company of other kids of my age. My grandfather was quite a disciplinarian. I was made to sing with every student that came in from afternoon till evening. This gave a sound foundation upon which to build the higher learning later on in my life.

Winnowed: Did you ever consider taking up music as a full-time profession?

Poorna: Oh yes, I did! Music came to have such an impact on me that age 15 I was ready to take it up as my profession. But my grandfather discouraged me from this path. He was of this view that in this day and age, if art is made to bear the burden of earning a livelihood, its integrity might not survive. The best way he said was for art to be for its own sake. So he encouraged me to do something else for a livelihood and take music as a serious hobby.

Winnowed: So you took up law?

Poorna: Yes, I took up law, which was again an equally strong passion that I had. Once I qualified and entered the big bad world of practicing law, I realised that the pursuit of a serious hobby was not always easy. My profession started making an increasingly bigger demand on my time. A balance between my profession and music was eluding me.

Winnowed: What made you move to Hong Kong?

Poorna: Love! (Laughs). I met Anup, my husband, in London and we got married a year later. He got an opportunity to work in Hong Kong. We had no idea of the world to the east of India. The sense of adventure got the better of us and we moved here in 2002.

Winnowed: Did you work as a lawyer in Hong Kong?

Poorna: Yes, for almost 9 years in intellectual property law. I was with Baker & McKenzie when I realized that practice of intellectual property is not really half as challenging as research can be. So I made a career move to take up full time research. Currently, I’m a PhD student at Hong Kong University.

Winnowed: And how did this idea to have a Baithak come about?

Poorna: I got many opportunities to sing, including in the Hong Kong based Indian choir, Tharangini. But there was no platform dedicated to showcasing solo performances of Indian classical music, light or semi classical music. I knew that we had to create one. I always felt that there might be classically trained artistes in Hong Kong like me who might be looking for a platform to present their music. But I just had not met them yet. I needed the critical mass, as presenting my own music in my own platform all by myself would have been self-aggrandisement of the worst order (laughs).

Last year during Ganesh Chaturthi, I was invited by the Maharashtra Mandal in Hong Kong to perform. At the rehearsals I met just the people I was looking for - other classically trained like minded performers, who pursued Indian classical music as a serious hobby. They showed tremendous enthusiasm to get together to perform. As you might know, the core of Hindustani classical music is improvisation. We get an opportunity to personalise our renditions very early on. The more we practice the more we get ideas to improvise. The more we practice with others, the more we can exchange these ideas. And the more we perform to an audience, the more inspired our performance would be.

What I wanted for ourselves was an informal stage, a stage where the performer is in conversation with the audience at the eye level, and not in hierarchy of a stage and an audience. Apart from quenching our own thirst for performing, we also wanted to share our knowledge of music with our audience in a way they can appreciate. That gave birth to 'Baithak', a group of amateur performers of Indian classical, semi-classical and folk music in conversation with the audience.

Winnowed: That’s amazing! How often do you folks get together for a Baithak?

Poorna: We have so far had four performances, each based on a different theme. With the fourth Baithak a month ago, we completed one year of launching this platform of Baithak.

Our first performance was on 15 October 2011 at our apartment in Hong Kong. Being in the vicinity of Dasera festivities, my suggestion was to present semi-classical renditions in praise of 'Shakti', the feminine divine power. We were also testing waters with the audience by choosing semi-classical, because we knew that we could not do an hour long pure classical raga rendition in our first Baithak. We had to first get to know our audience. At the same time, we were ourselves skeptical about whether even semi-classical forms such as Bhajans would be of any interest to our audience. But we wouldn't know until we tried...

The First Baithak held on 15 October 2011

Winnowed: What was the response like?

Poorna: Our first Baithak was very well received. The beauty of the programme was that each of the compositions was no more than 6 mins, but based in a classical raga and set to a taala. Apart from giving the gist of the meaning of the lyrics, we gave the audience basics of the raga being presented, the movement of the rhythm and that of the notes with the rhythm. For our audiences it was the first time in Hong Kong that the performers had taken the time to bring them a step closer and deeper into what is being performed. We were really encouraged by the response from our audience.

Winnowed: And the second Baithak?

At my suggestion, we took Holi as a theme for the second one. The idea was to explore all forms of music that depicts the festival of colours. The members of my group very enthusiastically started working on the content. By the end of it, we realised that we had covered Holi from the age old tradition of Dhrupad style (a style of singing in temples centuries old pre-dating the Khyaal style of singing), to Khyaal, thumri and bhajan styles ending with the contemporary depiction of Holi in folk traditions and Hindi films. To add authenticity to the performance, we roped in a Punjabi dhol and a dholki player. Within a span of two hours, we were able to show the audiences the diversity of music relating to Holi. We had built such a climax by the end of it with fast paced rhythms that the audience was on their feet dancing to the rhythms. When the performers enjoy their own music, they inevitably transmit their joy to their audience.

The Second Baithak - With Holi As The Theme

Winnowed: And after that?

Poorna: After the success of Holi Baithak, we felt confident to take a more somber and more deeply classical theme. We were getting to know our audience better now... So, I suggested we do a session on morning ragas, involving Khyaal rendition. This was an exercise in showing our audience what raga system is, how ragas differ depending on different times of the day and how improvisation in Indian classical music unfolds in Khyaal style. Although the turnout was smaller than before, those who were there enjoyed and appreciated our efforts. For many it was quite educational, as the raga system had never been demystified in their mind.

The Third Baithak - Morning Ragas Unfold

Winnowed: After this was your fourth Baithak marking the first anniversary?

Poorna: Yes, that’s right, and the theme was Sufi music. When I suggested this theme, I knew that we were taking a lot of risk. For one, none of us had really presented Sufi music to an audience. In fact, we did not even have a consensus on what we all believed to be Sufi. We engaged in a healthy debate of our own perspectives. We did our own research and defined our own boundaries. I also spoke to a dear friend who hails from a Sikh family who grew up with Sufi music all around her. We arrived at a consensus that we cannot become Nusrat or Abida for this concert. Although they are doyens of Sufi music, Sufism and Sufi music are so all-embracing that anyone singing with an abandon can make Sufi music their own. The key is to lose oneself in Sufi music. The key is to lose self consciousness, the who, the where and the how of music and just sing for the love of it and for the devotion of it.

It was a fantastic journey for all of us. The solo numbers were carefully chosen to represent some of the most celebrated Sufis such as Khusru, Kabir, Bulle Shah, Nanak and some of the more contemporary Sufi kalam. But the biggest challenge of all was to learn and present qawwali. The group dynamics and synergy are very important in rendering a qawwali. With persistent practice and guidance from one of our team members (Jairam), we gained the confidence we needed in presenting qawwali. Traditionally in qawwali there is a base of repetitive and meditative mode sung by chorus and one or two designated singers improvise on important words in the lyrics. The chorus claps to the rhythm to feel a deeper involvement. In our rendition we decided that we will all sing chorus and we will all take turns in improvising. So, one starts the alaap and before she/he tapers off another singer takes over seamlessly to create diversity and harmony at the same time. This was our way of personalising the qawwali so that our style would not be compared with the "original", if there was one. We sang two traditional qawwalis - Alla hoo and Chaap tilak. Those who know will recognise Alla hoo as a characteristically Nusrath number with all male singers. To make our version of Alla hoo not even remind the audience that it was from Nusrat (and hence be disappointed with our performance) we decided to perform the core of it all by women.

While the solo songs brought out the peace in Sufi music, the qawwalis brought the meditative modes. We paced the evening in such a way that we would start with the peace of the solos and build the evening to a crescendo with our qawwalis. I have to note our experience in singing the qawwali. Part way through singing qawwali some of us felt that we were not performing, but music was just flowing through us effortlessly. Our sense of abandon was so deep that we were transfixed in meditation. Even as I remember those moments now, my eyes well up in tears. We were not ourselves. Such is the power of Sufi music. Needless to say our audience was enthralled by the performance, and some of them moved to tears too...

The Fourth Baithak - Sufi Music For The Soul
Photograph by Prachi Patade©

Winnowed: Tell me, does your audience consist mostly of Indian expats and people of Indian origin?

Poorna: Yes, but we do have an increasing number of non-Indians in the audience. I must mention here that one of our tabaljis is a Frenchman. But I invite non-Indians into the audience based on the theme of the Baithak. For example, the morning raga Baithak would have been too heavy for a completely new audience to Indian classical music. Similarly, Sufi music with so much emphasis on poetry and philosophy might have been lost on some of our non-Indian friends. But this is not to say that the Indian audience is any more educated in Indian classical music. They might have more empathy, but they equally need handholding on our journey. So I have made it a habit now to have a pamphlet that describes the content of the programme from a theoretical, aesthetic, philosophical and literary point of view. It is a daunting task, but something I find deeply educative for me as much as my audience.

Winnowed: When’s your next Baithak going to be? Have you decided on the theme?

We have been having discussions about our next Baithak to be held on 26 Jan 2013. In celebration of Republic Day we plan to feature the diversity of Indian folk music. We already have ideas we would like to explore for our future Baithaks, and have a full year’s worth of content in our head to execute in two hour capsules!

Winnowed: Are you happy with your progress?

Absolutely! It is deeply satisfying that we now have a forum to express ourselves and engage in creative exploration, at the same time filling a lacuna in Hong Kong’s cultural scene. You know you have made a difference when emails of appreciation pour in after each Baithak, many of them painstakingly describing each aspect they liked and making constructive suggestions. Looking back at the way Baithak has grown, I must emphasise that I could not have done this alone. I have the strong support of my vocalists (Shruti Pendharkar, Kaustubh Paranjape, Jairam Parameswaran, Prasad Patil and Krithika Chandrashekar), our tabaljis (Pradeep Lad and Yannick Even), our harmonium player (Sachin Olkar), our dholki and dhol players (Rupesh Patade and Viveik Segal) and our sound engineer (Ambrish Acharya). If not for their contribution in terms of time and effort, creative input and just their zeal to strive for the very best, Baithak would not have been what it is today. Also, my husband Anup Mysoor is a pillar of support for me. We have had all four Baithaks at our flat and for the Sufi Baithak we had over 100 people attending. Once I disappear among the performers to focus on the music, Anup who is left with handling the logistics of ensuring people find a place to sit, a drink to drink and such. He also quietly tolerates all the rehearsals we do on weekends. Without all of this, we would not have been able to take Baithak this far.

Winnowed: And what future plans?

Poorna: We do have very passionate discussions about the future of Baithak. It is quite clear that there is a growing number of people who wants to attend our Baithaks. We have limited space at home. But if we take Baithak out of a home setting into an auditorium then it will not remain Baithak anymore. We will lose the personal touch and informality. The sanitized impersonal environment of an auditorium is just what we have been successful in avoiding all this while. But we cannot deny a greater number of people wanting to learn about Indian music the opportunity based an arbitrary criterion of availability of space. So, we will have to balance these interests somehow. An idea is to premiere our thematic evenings at Baithak and then have a full blown concert at a larger venue. We already have requests for a rerun of our Sufi Baithak. But this will involve more commitment in terms of time and event management, like booking the venue etc. We already invested a great deal of time on the content and rehearsals. Event management is something none of us have much time for. So, we need to see how we will take this forward.

Right now, we are all extremely happy to have found each other and continuing to perform together. And as for myself, after my grandfather’s death last year, I have been learning from my mother Vedavathi Gopalaswamy on Skype. She composes most of the songs I perform for our Baithak. It is a journey so fulfilling that we wouldn't want anything to disturb that....

Winnowed: If someone based in Hong Kong is interested in attending your Baithaks and wants to contact you, what should s/he do?

We have a facebook page, “Baithak Hong Kong”. If you like it, you will get all the updates on our next programmes. As I said, we have limitation of space, and until we have resolved it and throw it open to a larger audience, the invitation to Baithak will unfortunately be limited. But do watch this space, we will find a solution, possibly by the next Baithak.


Jo said...

That sounds like a great idea, to explain the ragas, lyrics and all that helps the common man enjoy music on a greater level.

jyothi sriram said...

Music touches the heart and that is the closest to our being!!Wish u every sucess in ur effort,may u continue to spread the fragrance of music that ur grandfather dedicated his entire lifetime for.