Art: “Hindustani classical music can save one from oblivion”

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(From left to right) The author and the classical sitarist Josh Feinberg during a concert in California.

“I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.”

J.M. Coetzee,
The Lives of Animals

It must be strange to even attempt to write a short article on a musician when, in fact, I do not really know much about Hindustani classical music. I know not what is taal, jap, alaap, and teental, but I do know one little thing: that Hindustani classical music can save one from oblivion, when the listener listens, he or she gets enamoured by this millennial art of subtle charm and deep complexity. My love of world poetry (Keats, Tagore, Seth, Darwish) may have had this lasting effect and imprint, and natural modest inclinations to approach the lure of the sound.

A raag mishra khamaj can soothe one’s heart pain. A raag yaman opens one’s eyes to the beauty in the nature surrounding us, which we so often take for granted. Recently, I had begun to triage out raag yaman from within the tunes of gross commercial Bollywood movie songs, and often rushed back home to re-listen to the tunes and compare, and check if I was right in my assessment.

The excitements of a veritable novice, one can say. A raag bilaskhani todi could, in my humble view, make one remember a dear departed friend, and see him in front smiling. And listening to Ustad Rashid Khan, to Ustad Vilayat Khan, to the emerging Arnab Chakrabarty, or Samrat Pandit could (again in my humble view) soothe one’s somehow awkward and tepid existence in this world.

I had come back to US from Mauritius, a bit brokenhearted, and before I knew it, I was back on the scent of Indian Classical circuits in the Bay Area, like a hunter preying on the art of the artists, for their Duende, I would search for concerts addictively and selectively, just to sit, listen and lose myself for a few hours. This is how I attended Feinberg`s concert, very recently, held at the august setting of the old Trianon Theatre in downtown San Jose, California. Prior to attending the concert, I had been following his posts and practices on Facebook, through his albeit rare, but wonderful short music lesson posts. The reverence he had for his Gurus, and above all, his extreme modesty and easy demeanour, instantly appealed to me. Possibly his jazz background, his Jewish musical heritage and his great ouverture d’esprit made of him amongst this new breed of worthy heirs to the bold novel trajectory that classical Hindustani music was taking de nos jours.

A music that we all know well had emerged from age old traditions of the Indian continent, but now fully belongs to the whole world, often via the able young hands of intrepid experimental musicians, with one foot in their own Gharanas, and the other in modernity. I know there are countless new emerging talents out there, but to be able to meet Feinberg on that day, made it a day to remember. I decided to throw him some very open questions, and let him speak for himself directly to us, to teach us the art of his fine art. We pray and hope he will visit Mauritius one day and grace us with the beauty of his music.

Josh Feinberg, classical sitarist: «I love music, and I pour my heart into it»

RG: Who is Josh Feinberg?
Josh Feinberg (JF): I’m a seeker, an experimenter and a philosopher. I love a challenge, and I work hard. I love music, and I pour my heart into it. I want to make my mark on the music world and inspire musicians.

RG: Gharanas are a millennial tradition, and seem to vibe with Guru parampara system. How does a westerner get absorbed into it, and what have been the challenges?
JF: I got introduced to music very young through classical and jazz, but also through Jewish music at our temple. The melodies sung at synagogues are based on middle eastern type scales and melodies. I think this primed my ear for Indian music, and got me interested in non-western music. Hindustani music is one of the world’s oldest, most complex and most beautiful musical traditions. It embodies depth, intricacy, improvisation and emotion. To me it’s the most complete and most demanding music in the world, and I love it.

RG: What is the “summum bonum” of indian classical music? What do you listen to? How do you practise?
JF: Hindustani music is a cross between an art form and a religion. It’s music practised as a classical tradition but in service and praise of the divine. This music should not be aimed at the gallery, or at playing to the lowest or most base aspects of the audience’s taste. Hindustani music should be about using the art form in search of supreme truth and self-realization. These days I only get about 2-3 hours of practice per day due to family and teaching demands. I teach a lot, but I would rather teach less and have more time for practice and performance. Exactly what I practise changes and it is a huge topic. But I do some technical exercises every day, practise new ragas I’ve learned but haven’t cultivated. I also compose. I think a lot about how to make myown mark on the music and how to find my own voice.

RG: You were a Jazz enthusiast too. So, are you also into the new genre of the fusion. Do you see this as the way to keep Indian classical in the minds of the youth?
JF: I’m not very interested in fusion music as it is currently being practised. The classical tradition is always new, and so rich, and much of the fusion to me lacks substance and depth. That being said, there are some projects I do enjoy. Ustad Zakir Hussein’s projects are brilliant. To blend two or more different musical traditions well is a huge undertaking and should not be taken lightly. It is absolutely doable, and has lots of potential but it takes so much thought and artistry to make it worthwhile.

RG: Lastly, how does one reconcile family life with the intense Indian Classical circuits? Some of the greats were particularly self-absorbed, intense, deeply lost in their Art.
JF: It is tough to balance family life with music. I’m very grateful that my family is very supportive of my career and my music. Hindustani artists generally do not get very busy until they enter middle age, and possibly later if one is not a hereditary musician. People and organizers are reticent to accept young artists. As such an artist in my early 30s, my touring schedule isn’t too demanding yet. I play 30 or so concerts per year and travel for about 6-8 weeks. I would love to be much busier, however. And if that happens, I would travel with my family.

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