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The role of accompanying artists in dance

- Shveta Arora
Photos: Anoop Arora

October 5, 2018

Just a few years back, musicians accompanying dancers live would be seen sitting on one side of the stage, facing the dancer. At the end of the performance, their names would be announced and that would be about all the credit that they got. But these musicians that we are going to talk about have been seen sitting either with their backs or their faces towards the audience, being very much a part of the performance, in the frame with the dancer. It is then that you come to realise that they are one of the building blocks that go into the formation of a production.

Faraz Ahmed, Mohit Gangani and Ashish Gangani are all members of Aditi Mangaldas' Drishtikon repertory. Faraz is the seventh generation of the respected Moradabad gharana, continuing the tradition in Hindustani classical vocals and sarangi. Mohit and Ashish are from the famous and widespread Gangani clan of the Jaipur gharana, known for Kathak and percussion. All three are now fixtures in every production and performance by Aditi and Drishtikon.

Faraz sings, plays sarangi and composes, Mohit plays the tabla, Ashish plays the pakhawaj, and along with Faraz, they compose the rhythm for most of Drishtikon's performances and productions. I interviewed the impressive trio on the role of accompanying musicians - how they hold dance performances together, how difficult but rewarding it is to adapt to a new style of dance despite being from long lineages of classical music, and the difference between performing solo and as an accompanist. I sat down with them after a rousing performance of three artists at a Drishtikon baithak in Delhi - Kathak by Anjana Singh, contemporary based on Kathak by Manoj Sonagra, and a tabla performance by Nishith Gangani, 15 year old son of Yogesh Gangani. Mohit was on taal for his nephew, and all three accompanied the dancers, displaying their usual flair.

Mohit and Ashish are the third generation of their family to be working with Aditi, an accomplished Kathak exponent and guru who has also broken every set mould and framework with her Kathak based on contemporary. The same spirit runs through the work her students do in her repertory, and the music trio says they've learnt a lot from working with different styles of dance, music and presentation. Productions like 'Within' also break the norm when it comes to how accompanists participate in a dance recital, and all three credit Aditi with giving unprecedented visibility and freedom to musicians.

Mohit Gangani, Faraz Ahmed, Ashish Gangani

When and how did you start your training?
Mohit Gangani: I was about four years old when I developed an interest. The atmosphere at home was like that. When we were young, we hadn't planned to enter this tradition, but as we grew older, we developed an affinity for it. We thought, our elders have earned so much recognition, are we worthy of walking the same path? At four, I gravitated to the tabla.

Was there any pressure from the family?
Mohit: The pressure wasn't like 'you have to do this', it was just... You are their child, you should do it. You are from that family, the next in line; there certainly was that pressure, yes. At four, I started learning from my uncle, since we have been trained within the family. I have learnt from my guru Pt Fateh Singh Gangani, and from Pt Rajendra Gangani, whom you know as the famous Kathak maestro today, I have learnt laya and layakari. Because everything was at home, we did not have to make much effort, so I thought, let's pursue music. I was otherwise interested in cricket as a child, but my mind was finally diverted from it, full and final (laughs). Gradually, we entered this tradition, and now at 27, I'm still playing the tabla, and this will be my profession.

Ashish Gangani: I started at 10 with the tabla, since that is what I was fond of. Then I saw bhaiya (Fateh Singh Gangani) playing the pakhawaj, and so from the age of 14, I started learning the pakhawaj as my primary instrument, though I was also learning the tabla. I learnt pakhawaj with great interest - from my father, from bhaiya, and then from the Kathak Kendra, when I got admission to it, from Pt Ravi Shankar Upadhyay. I did a five-year course, and I used to go to his home to learn as well. Then I joined Didi (Aditi Mangaldas), and learn a lot here… I gain a lot from Drishtikon. I'm playing a lot, but there is always the desire to learn more, to keep learning.

Did you enter this field primarily because you were born into this family, or because you personally had an interest in it?
Ashish: No, there was no insistence at home that I do this, but we heard music day and night, except for the times we went out to play! It just enters the bloodstream -if the Ganganis have earned such name and fame, we should try to do something as well.

Mohit: We are the sixth generation of this family that's continuing in music. Ashish and I are cousins.

Faraz Ahmed: I started learning music from when I was 6. My family also traditionally has been in music. I was interested in music and so I learnt vocals and sarangi, as is traditional. My brother and I were a duo, we would sing together, but I am with Didi now, and involved in dance as well. I have worked with a lot of people here, besides Didi herself. I was featured in one of her Baithaks, where I sang classical music. We have been musicians traditionally - I am the seventh generation following this tradition in my home. Sarangi, vocal, tabla - it's all part of the atmosphere in my home.

Your experience as solo artists and as accompanists to dancers - how are they different, and where is your talent displayed best?
Mohit: My personal opinion is that we have a lot to learn, being established is a long way off. It is true that we are used to all the formats - the difference I feel is that when you play solo, that's your own work. There is little creation of your own, in the sense that, like our elders had kaydas. When we play solo, we play what has been made by those who came before. Ustad Zakir Hussain took the tabla to a whole new level. Tabla was called an accompanying instrument, now it is a solo instrument. Zakir Hussain and Kishan Maharaj have been instrumental in bringing the tabla to this level.

And as for the tabla, when accompanying in Kathak, it is very important to know that Kathak is a tradition in which, in the role that the tabla and pakhawaj have, you are not playing anything of your own. You are playing for them, for what they are performing. You have to follow every aspect, every movement of theirs, even the way a drop of water falls. The way Kathak dancer Anjana Singh performed the movement of raindrops, even the falling of one droplet is critical for the dancer and the pakhawaj, because they are collaborating. And the biggest thing to remember in Kathak is the upaj, or the spontaneous performance of the dancer - you have to know the mind of the dancer. That is a very big role for the tabla.

With vocals, the tabla vadak needs a lot of thehrav (restraint and control). Kathak requires great pace from the tabla; vocals require great restraint, patience, a sweetness that doesn't disturb. In Hindustani classical, they sing khayaals, which are 48 matras, or jhumras in 56 matras; these require a lot of thehrav. At that point, we can't play like we do for Kathak - this requires a lot of patience, to play for so long. In earlier times, singers would sing a khayaal for an hour, an hour-and-a-half; it's much shorter today.

Faraz: Singers would do just vistaar for two or two-and-half hours. Even the audience does not have that kind of patience now. Music has changed with the times.

Mohit: If I talk about instruments, in today's times, accompanists have to present their learnings according to their approach and interest, because performers can indicate that you play a solo at any time. The primary performer will give you a chance at some point. In that opportunity, you have to prove yourself. That is of great importance in accompaniment. And today, tayyari - that has to be solid.

Faraz Ahmed and Aditi Mangaldas

Your 15-year-old nephew Nishith played the kaydas of various great gurus on tabla. At this stage of his learning, can he accompany a dancer or a singer? Doesn't that take more experience?
Mohit: No, that is in his blood. Ashish and I belong to the Jaipur gharana, which is known for dance. That is why it's in his blood, and he won't have much trouble playing accompaniment as compared to any other tabla player. Nishith also has the same environment at home - 24 hours of Kathak riyaz going on. Of course, the mind has to be more open, the tayyari has to be solid.

Ashish: Solo and sangat both require sweating it out. In solo, you're playing your own thing, so you have to have your own mind. And Didi gives us a lot of opportunity also.

Aditi does make sure the accompanists are recognized.
Mohit: Since you have spoken of her, I will say that in today's time, in Kathak and contemporary based on Kathak, no one gives her accompanying artists as much freedom and visibility as Aditi does. She gives maybe 10 per cent more importance to accompanying than to the dance, even. She is very knowledgeable about music; she has given more than half her life to this art. We are very young, like her children.

Faraz: This is why Didi has started this Baithak series to give new talent a platform. There was a 15-year-old playing here today, and look at how talented he is.

Ashish: Our family has been associated with her for so long - we are the third generation to be playing with her.

Mohit: First it was our guru, then our uncle, and now the two of us. It's like a family relationship with her.

In 'Within,' I watched the music accompanists take the stage and be included in the frame of movement along with the dancers, not sitting to the side. That was a first for me as a viewer.
Faraz: When they sit at the front of the stage with their backs to the audience playing the pakhawaj, they become part of the dance. I was not part of this presentation at first - she created a special place for me so that when I make an entry, I sing with her, and that makes an impact. The audience liked it, and so did we.

Even today, you were a part of the dance presentation rather than simply playing music to accompany (in the contemporary piece by Manoj Sonagra, they and the dancer went back-and-forth with the bols and the sounds in the absence of any instrumental music).
Ashish: I think that in Delhi, you will find this sort of thing only here at Drishtikon.

Faraz: This is her thought, her ideas. And people are now starting to follow this.

When you were first asked to move out of the side, was it strange for you?
Faraz: Yes, at first we found it odd, how will we sit? But when the performance takes place, something very different emerges. Now, we're used to it. People also appreciate it -if you hold a note, or play a rousing percussion piece, you suddenly get noticed. We become part of that thing.

Ashish: But we have to be both very open-minded and very alert -where you end the rhythm, where your hands are, when you are in the frame of movement. You have to be alert - keep counts, remember the dancer's movements, which movement is at which count.

Ashish Gangani, Aditi Mangaldas, Mohit Gangani

You have to understand the other forms as well - Kathak, contemporary dance etc?
Mohit: Absolutely. 95 per cent of Didi's work is classical, 5 per cent she does is contemporary. We belong to a classical family. When we were new, we found it unfamiliar at first. But we thought, everything should be tried once and now we've been working with Didi for 10 years. It's not 'try' anymore, it's our zone now.

In any choreography, are you part of it from the beginning? And how many rehearsals do you have to do with the dancers?
Mohit: Oh, don't ask! We rehearse from morning to night, all month. The way Didi comes up with a concept or a production - she doesn't just do traditional Kathak repertoire. We are part of it right from the beginning. She'll tell me, Ashish or Faraz, let's try something. She'll say I have this, now you come up with something to match it. Research goes on.

Ashish: It is already decided that here, in the centre, you will play. Now what you play, you have to come up with. And you have to play according to the theme and the track.

Mohit: It's like research in science -Didi is the scientist, and we are her assistants!

Faraz: Her production 'Timeless' has recorded music, and we also play live to it. It was very difficult for us, but she badgered us till we did it. Live and recorded music are played together.

Mohit: Even in 'Within,' the recorded portions (in contemporary), we have played and recorded them. Once we enter the studio, sometimes we get a surprise - we are asked to match something, and then slowly the whole thing develops, and when it finally gets to the stage, it gets a name - Within, or Timeless, or any of the others... We are a part of it right from the start, since we are all permanent here.

Faraz: From 10.30 in the morning to 5.30 in the evening, we are at Drishtikon.

How much do you contribute to the shaping of a production? What role do your contributions play in its development?
Mohit: In considering opinions, when Didi has a movement, she'll say Mohit, Ashish, Faraz, come up with something for this. Occasionally, what I play, if it doesn't fit, she asks me to change it. But most of the time, our inputs are included. Most times she accepts our suggestions. Our opinions play a major role, I think. We have riyaaz at Drishtikon each morning, from about 11 to 12.30, and we develop new things - us, the dancers, Didi…It's very important for us at that time that we have a role.

Ashish: There is always some input. When Didi does her solos, for instance in Jhini Jhini, Mohit was out for a program and Faraz and I were there. Didi brought us the words - Jhini Jhini.

Faraz: She brought us the bandish, Jhini Jhini, and we tried it in many ragas. She also played Kumar Gandharva's bandish for us, in raga Bhairav. She wanted to include this. So we heard the bandish, and Kumar Gandharva's rendition is so deadly, he is peerless. But Didi choreographed it, and said these are the movements, and these are the feelings, you try something with this. We tried many ragas for hours on end but nothing really fit. Finally, at the end of the day, we came up with the raga Jog. It clicked with Didi immediately. As we developed it, there were variations in it too...

Ashish: The rhythm we began with was neither tabla nor pakhawaj, but ghungroos, not even the theka. And then how, from the ghungroos, follow the pakhawaj, the tabla, then vocals, the flute, disparate elements are brought together and seamlessly melded.

Mohit: If you listen to it carefully, there is a very unusual rhythm used in it, and that has been played using the snap of the fingers, the chutki (plays the beat). The music director Sajid Akbar has given it this touch in the recording of Jhini Jhini for 'Inter-rupted.' He has used this rhythm so innovatively, that rhythm plays a central role in that part of the performance today.

Faraz: Didi wants rhythm and music from everything.

Your alaap really adds to the mood.
Faraz: You have to create the right atmosphere with the ragas. Whether it's a bandish for a dancer or singing solo, the alaap sets the mood. Then the bandish begins.

Does the development of the music ever contribute to a change in the choreography?
Faraz: No, the choreography that has been set remains that way, but the music - if we don't like that piece at that point, we can say let's try something else for this.

Mohit: Sometimes the music is set earlier, and the choreography is done according to that.

Do you ever feel the pressure of belonging to illustrious lineages of music?
Mohit: Yes, that is a major pressure, because Ashish and I belong to the Gangani parampara and Faraz belongs to the Moradabad gharana, a major gharana of vocals and sarangi. Ashish and I are grandsons of a man who has earned much fame; there are students of his today who are legends. The first name is of Pt Rajendra Gangani, then there is Urmila Nagar, Prerna Shrimali, Shashi Shankhla… Hence, there is a lot of pressure on me and Ashish because... if we do well, it will be said of us, 'They are his kids.' And if we do badly, 'Did you see? They are his kids?!' It's the same thing, and two very different ways of saying it.

Faraz: I have learnt from my ustad, Ghulam Sabir Khan sahab, and my grandfather, Ustad Sadiq Ahmed Khan sahab. There is certainly a lot of pressure, whether we perform with Kathak or as solo artists, a stamp of the lineage - he is that one's brother or that one's student. If even one sur goes up or down, that comment comes quick, "Absolutely no riyaz.'

Do young dancers today have enough appreciation for their accompanying artists?
Ashish: It happens sometimes, that when we play for Kathak, only the Kathak is being watched. But when we play, we should show what we have too -that we are from this prestigious family (that's the pressure of the lineage). The dancers definitely appreciate it, though.

Mohit: They have no option but to respect the accompanists. We play with their seniors too, after all - they don't have the option of criticising us even if we're paying badly! Today's times are like that… competition is so fierce in everything. And in the classical arts, the most important thing is respect. The dancers we work with today, they're so gracious that if there's a senior sitting with them, they seek permission and they mention them as well - 'I'm fortunate to have so-and-so performing with me'. It's a big thing that we're still getting to see this.

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