Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cultural Exchange! Russia and India

Soviet postage stamps commemorating Russian Indian friendship

Great Irony of the Cold War number 671: in South Asia, the Leader of the Free World (USA) supported a serial military dictatorship (Pakistan) while the Vanguard of International Communism (USSR) supported the world’s largest and liveliest democracy (India).

India and the Soviet Union have had a very strong friendship for decades. It was certainly but not entirely about global geo-politics, weapons and socialism. Russian advisors and technicians were scattered throughout India working on major industrial projects. Thousands of Indian students were educated at Soviet universities. And in the area of culture, folk, classical and popular music troupes from both countries regularly toured the other.  As a child one of my favorite story books (and one I still own) was Vasilisa the Beautiful, a collection of old Russian folk tales that my folks picked up at the local bookstore in Allahabad.

Today’s post recalls and celebrates that great friendship and is the first in a short series called Culture Exchange! 

In the mid 1980s a series of major cultural events called Festival of India were held in various places around the world. Sponsored by the government of India, their purpose was to promote the best of India to an audience that was in many cases still largely ignorant and skeptical of the country many thought of as a poverty stricken backwater.

On the final night of the Festival held in the Soviet Union (1988) Ravi Shankar accompanied by more than one hundred Indian and Russian classical musicians performed a concert at the Kremlin. Composed specifically for the occasion by Shankar, the seven pieces were in part meant to honor the heart-felt depth of the relationship between the two countries.  The highlight of Shankar’s suite is the monumental and very moving Shanti Mantra which never is amiss on a Sunday morning.

Shankar composed all seven of the pieces here as a melding of the musics of India and Russia. "Prarambh," the opening piece, is an ethereal sort of sound created by the amalgamation of Indian and Russian instruments both playing ragas. "Shanti-Mantra" is based on Raga Devagiri Bilawal, as well as the Shanta Ras, from the Bharatanatyasastra (oldest work of Indian music theory), and is performed by both the Indian vocalists, as well as the Government Choir. Three ragas are based on Raga Hemavati, Raga Kirwani, and Raga Basant Mukhari, and are performed solely by the Moscow Philharmonic musicians. "Tarana" makes use of a Punjab form of singing that utilizes nonsense syllables to great effects of rhythmic wonder. "Sandhya Raga," based on Raga Yaman Kalyan, is "basic" Indian classical music, without any Russian additions, and "Bahu-Rang" is the finale of the concert. It is based on Raga Mishra Pilu and has five movements, the first being instrumental, the second being call and response with the drums, the third being improvised thumri singing, and the fourth element being a folk portion that leads to the climax, a song "Unity of Friendship and Love" by Shankar. While the synthesis of Indian and Russian musics could leave a listener wary before hearing the album, Shankar remained almost solely with Indian music, though the performers may have been Russian. The album is definitely worthwhile, as the backing Russian chorus can add something to the music, though leaving Indian classical solely in the hands of foreigners can be a dangerous matter, as is proven on three ragas. Throughout, though, it's quite a nice album, worthy of the Shankar name being placed upon it. (All Music Guide)

Track Listing:
          1.   Parambh
          2.    Shanti Mantra
          3.    Three Ragas in ‘D’ Minor
          4.    Tarana
          5.    Sandya Raga
          6.    Bahu Rang
          7.    Shanti Mantra (reprise)

Listen here.

From the sublime heights of high classical art at the grandest citadel of Ancient and Holy Russia, we whiz across the ocean to Bombay to take in a show by a group of Russian jazz musicians called Melodia Ensemble. They were a big-band jazz outfit and were headlining at India’s premier international jazz event Jazz Yatra (now Jazz Utsav).  Their performance of funky sprightly and highly accomplished jazz was captured on tape and released in the Soviet Union by the state record label.  For years it has been only known and available to cultists but the Washerman’s Dog is very pleased to present Concert in Bombay recorded at the 1980 Jazz Yatra for your listening pleasure. 

Track Listing:
1.    Holiday
2.    Opus No. 2
3.    The Old Fort
4.    Whirlpool
5.    Remembering a Friend
6.    Birds in a Window

Listen here.

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