A night of sublime music

By Dev Nadkarni

More recently, Kiwi Indians have had a bonanza of Indian performing artistes coming their way. While most of these have been performers of more popular fare of the mass appeal Bollywood variety, there have been a few of the refined classical genre.

One such was the father-son sitarist duo of celebrated veteran Pandit Debu Chaudhuri and his enormously talented son Prateek, who performed at the Auckland Town Hall on March 24.

The concert began with Prateek’s performance, which, as well as being immensely entertaining, proved to be a most effective Hindustani Classical Music 101 lecture one could ever hope for.

The appreciation of classical music has a lot to do with nurture and long term exposure besides discussions and interactions with those in the know about its various nuances. While many may have a ear for classical music, the richness of its experience necessarily comes when the novice listener is familiarised with the finer points during a performance by the performers themselves. And that’s what Prateek Chaudhury did with great elan.

Beginning the concert with raga Yaman Kalyan, he went on to explain every stage of its exploration in the classical style, the intricacies of taal cycles, arriving at the sam with the table player every time, the creativity and individual stamp an artiste puts on each extempore improvisation and many finer aspects to help increase the listener’s appreciation of the artiste’s offering.

He did this with great aplomb and with perfect teamwork with his veteran tabla accompanist Pandit Anup Ghosh. In the course of expounding on the Yaman, he brought in passages from popular Hindi film songs based on the raga, which most listeners would be able to identify, establishing the link between the raga and the song.

He also regaled listeners with the entire gamut of improvisations – from rhythmless alaps, slow jod, jhala, gat and fast drut, interspersing the rendition with sawaal-jawabs with the tabla and superbly intricate triple tihayees.

Prateek is an associate professor of music at Delhi University and it was evident from his lec-dem style presentation that he is as gifted as a teacher as he is as a performer. His presentation at the concert would have gone a long way in enhancing the appreciation of Hindustani classical music for several listeners.

Next to perform was Dr Chintamani Rath with his violin. Dr Rath, who lives in Tauranga, is plays both Hindustani and Western classical music and has performed for audiences worldwide, including for the late Pope John Paul II. He first played raga Hindoli and then a Bengali folk song, the lyrics of which he recited and translated for the audience.

The senior violinist had never ever performed – not even so much as practised – with Pandit Ghosh but both artiste and accompanist were on the spot when it came to anticipating each other. “That’s how it always is in Hindustani classical music,” the erudite Dr Rath said to the audience at the end of his presentation. It is not often that one gets to listen to a Hindustani classical performance on violin in this part of the world. We could certainly hear more of this great local talent.

Last to take to the stage was the father son duo of Pandit Debu Chaudhury and Prateek. Panditji is among India’s foremost sitar exponents, a respected Guru and teacher, a composer of numerous symphonies, has created eight new ragas, authored three books and won numerous awards and honours, both national and global.

Panditji began with a slow exposition of raga Jhinjhoti with a rich, extended alap, the slowness of pace offering a decided contrast to Prateek’s faster offering in his inaugural Yaman. Clearly, his style of presentation, especially in the early stages, was for the mature listener. He rounded off his first piece with raga Bihag in a faster tempo ably aided by Prateek. The two sitarists and the tabaliya provided a feast of rhythmic calisthenics toward the end of the piece.

The concert concluded with Panditji and Prateek playing a couple of Bengali folk tunes followed by a Hindi film song at the insistence of some in the audience. Undoubtedly, it was one of the more memorable Hindustani classical concerts heard in Auckland in recent times.


Auckland visit a walk down memory lane for Panditji

For Pandit Debu Chaudhuri, his Auckland visit was a walk down memory lane, catching up with old friends. He met up with former longtime Times of India music critic Mohan Nadkarni, now 90, during his stay in the city. The veteran writer had reviewed Panditji’s first Mumbai concert in the newspaper in the 1960s and predicted that he would emerge as one of the instrument’s top exponents. It was also an opportunity for Panditji to catch up with an old neighbour from Mumbai, again back from the 1960s and 1970s – Indian Weekender publisher Giri Gupta, with whose family Panditji and his entourage shared a meal.

First appeared in Indian Weekender , April 2012



Fiji land deal could help save a nation

By Dev Nadkarni

“Every time the plane comes in to land on one of our Pacific Island countries, as it flies low over so many beautiful green islands, I think to myself – how nice it would have been if our people had an option to live on them,” Kiribati President Anote Tong told me in the course of an interview in his office in Tarawa in October 2008. “There are hundreds of uninhabited but habitable islands in the South Pacific Ocean.”

Last month’s announcement that Kiribati was considering purchasing one of the islands in Fijian territorial waters has the potential to fulfill the recently re-elected President’s longing. The announcement received wide coverage in the media worldwide. The President’s office then issued a hurried rejoinder stressing that the idea of acquisition of a Fijian island was solely from an investment point of view.

The clarification is understandable, given the sensitivity around the issue. Kiribati has been in the spotlight in recent years as being one of the island nations that is most threatened by sea level rise. President Tong has campaigned tirelessly at all sorts of world forums, especially at the climate change mega jamborees from Bali to Cancun. Though it has been designated as one of the most “vulnerable” islands threatened by climate change and sea level rise, the funds promised at successive climate meets for adaptation and mitigation projects have come in a mere trickle for Kiribati.

And the biggest question of all – of what to do when push comes to shove has remained unanswered. Mass migration – and the big issues and problems that come with it – has been discussed many times but there is far from a consensus in the world community about what to do with rising sea level related climate change refugees. Climate scientists would have us believe that such an eventuality is a question of when, not if, but world organisations have left the issue in the too hard basket and it has never formed part of serious public discourse at least thus far.

This is despite dozens of television programmes and hundreds of media reports that have portrayed Kiribati as one of the first nations to potentially sink along with another neighbouring atoll nation, Tuvalu, as sea levels rise because of climate change.

Kiribati though has a host of other problems that the issues related to sea level rise have overshadowed. One of the most isolated island nations in the Pacific Ocean, its slender atolls straddle three time zones giving it one of the highest land to territorial waters ratio anywhere. Given this sprawl and poor air and sea connectivity, logistics and administration are challenging, to say the least.

Tarawa and many other atolls have no freshwater sources as there are no permanent rivers or streams and people depend almost exclusively on rainwater or small desalination plants. Donor countries have helped build large rainwater storage tanks and changing weather patterns tend to keep residents perpetually on the edge when rainfall fails over several weeks at a time. Being flat atolls, king tides often ravage the country, especially the causeways that link atolls, submerging the only single linking road for hours at a time.

Ever rising tides are battering the nation’s coastline with making saltwater flood coastal farmlands and destroying the semblance of agriculture that the islands have. It is not unusual to see hectares of coconut groves shorn of their fronds sticking out mournfully out of the salt-ridden, fallow ground. Worryingly, the influx of people into Tarawa from the outer atolls has made it one of the densest places anywhere in the Pacific, mimicking problems caused by overcrowding in developing world metros.

There is little industry in the island nation and Tarawa gets only a few tourists each year even though it has some interesting World War-II gun sites (Christmas Island, which lies two time zones away to the East and is closer to the West Coast of the United States, gets far more tourists to visit its WW-II heritage sites). Also, last month’s announcement that Kiribati would help in yet another search mission for legendary pioneering woman aviator Amelia Earhart may help boost tourist numbers, if the mission shows promise of discovery.

President Tong’s clarification that the idea to buy the Fijian island is for investment purposes does have a basis. Wealthy individuals, Hollywood celebrities like Mel Gibson and businesses have been known to own islands in the Pacific. So for a country to buy an island is hardly out of character.

But clearly, possible future mass migration in the face of continual sea level rise would definitely have been a major driver in the decision. After all, low lying islands like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean have also been considering investing in tracts of land in far off continents, obviously with a view to resettling their populations in the event of an impending oceanic cataclysm. But the fact that the President and the Kiribati government have sought to relegate this possibility to the background is understandable, given the sensitivities around the issue.

Fortunately for Kiribati, though, it has a small fund of a few hundred million dollars sitting in Australia, which it accumulated years ago out of royalty proceeds for mining phosphates on Banaba, one of its outer atolls. Successive Kiribati governments have dipped into this nest egg time and again and it has diminished somewhat – but is still quite considerable, running into the hundreds of millions. In that sense, it has played its cards better than Nauru, which went from being one of the wealthiest countries in terms of per capita income (thanks again to phosphate) to zilch in the space of a decade. It is this small pile of cash that might ultimately bail out the people of Kiribati.

Curiously, if the deal goes through and the Republic of Kiribati ends up acquiring a Fijian island, it would be the second time that Fiji would play a role in resettling displaced iKiribati people. Following the savaging of Banaba by colonial phosphate companies in the last century, Banabans were shipped en masse to the island of Rabi in Fiji. The Banaban community is now integrated into mainstream Fijian life and as the older generation passes on, life on the distant atoll, now all but abandoned, will only be a distant memory and will live on in folk songs and stories (compiled in a well-produced book in New Zealand a couple of years ago).

Given the multiple implications of the proposed island deal, Fiji deserves praise for welcoming this move, as its government has done publicly.  If the deal goes through according to plan and the people on some of Kiribati’s atolls do end up resettling on their new island home in Fijian waters some time in the future, it would be the first ever incidence of climate change related migration in the world and may well open the door to other such humanitarian migration elsewhere.

The deal could help save an entire nation.

First appeared in Islands Business, April 2012