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Musical conversation

Was the meeting between Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Jethro Tull really music without boundaries?
UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA ponders over the question.


"Sitting on a park bench... "

AS the familiar bars of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" filled the Homi Bhabha Auditorium at the southern tip of Mumbai, the audience breaks into cheers. Just outside, the tide was high, and the waves were breaking restlessly along the rocky shore. Inside, as John Lennon famously instructed, those in the cheap seats clapped, and the others rattled their jewellery.

A rock concert and not in the open air? Alas, with Mumbai's only real open-air music venue, Rang Bhavan, being served with notice for noise pollution, music concerts have to shift into closed halls like this one. While the Homi Bhabha auditorium is a splendid venue for a music concert, it cannot take Rang Bhavan's numbers.

Lovers of the aging British rock band's art and progressive rock music were trying for days, but there simply weren't enough tickets for everyone. No wonder, then, that another special appeal was made this evening to save Rang Bhavan. And surely this Page Three audience, which included Aamir Khan and Jackie Shroff, apart from Indian musicians like Rahul Sharma, Gary Lawyer and Sunitha Rao, would take up the appeal.

The evening's concert was part of "Music Without Boundaries", a two-nation joint tour by Jethro Tull with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. The idea emerged out of a correspondence between Rajeev Chaurasia and Ian Anderson, Tull's "Magic Flute", four years ago. After all, it is Chaurasia who has given the baansuri its divine voice; and it was Anderson who introduced the flute into rock music some four decades ago, and gave Jethro Tull its unique kind of music. A meeting of the two would be fascinating.

The evening began with Indian classical music. Chaurasia, accompanied by Vijay Ghate on the tabla, began the evening with the lovely raga Durga. A musical conversation between Chaurasia's flute and Ghate's tabla had the audience enthralled. After a short break, Jethro Tull appeared onstage, and rock magic began. They began with their late-1960s blues-jazz track "Nothing Is Easy", from their early album "Stand Up", followed by "Living With the Past".

The next piece, the slower, more thoughtful "Bombay Valentine" was inspired, said Anderson, by the ardour of the Valentine's Day messages that he read in a Bombay newspaper during their 1994 concert here.

"That was when it was still Bombay, not Mumbai," he remarked, adding: "After all, it's still Bollywood, it's not Mollywood, is it?" It was an evening of Tull classics: "Thick As A Brick", from the famous album of the same name that was the first rock album to be one continuous piece of music, and also a dense, complex poem.

And then there were other Tull standards: from "Benefit", the famous "With You There To Help Me", the song of the "backwards-played" flute.

Then there was their celebrated and very lovely "Bouree", which Anderson called a "cocktail-jazz" version of the classical J.S. Bach piece. "Because Ludwig Van Beethoven's too hard for us," he joked. And of course, "Too Old To Rock and Roll", proving once again that they're not. And then that fabulous piece, "Songs from the Wood".

As performers, unselfconscious and witty, Jethro Tull are a visual treat. With his metal flute, lusty singing, and "girly" acoustic guitar, Ian Anderson is a captivating sight. In his bandanna and colourful jacket, fey and portly at once, he prances about onstage, now in a one-legged stance for his flute-playing, now facing Martin Barre on the electric guitar, and now coming up front to the audience, with an energy that belies his 56 years (the Scottish-born musician was born in 1947, and has spent 41 years in rock). It was Anderson who took Tull away from its origins in blues-rock to explore other terrain. One recalls the title of their first album, "This Was", which stood for the temporary nature of their blues phase. "Blues were my favourite colour until I looked around and found another song that I felt like singing," Anderson said.

Interesting trivia: on the Tull website is an authoritative Indian-food guide written by Anderson for novices; the Indian connection continues in the form of his Bengal cat named Bhajee. No wonder then that Anderson is comfortable with the Mumbai audience, which is "easy tonight"...

And he invites them for `a couple more songs, a couple of drinks at the bar, and then off to bed - don't worry, Andy's paying.' The band is off to Britain later tonight for some practice for their imminent tour there, but Anderson and his wife are headed down south for four days on the beach at Goa.

Jethro Tull is not only Ian Anderson, even though he is its most widely known face. It is also made up of drummer Doane Perry, bass guitarist Jonathan Noyce, Andrew Giddings on keyboards, and of course Martin Barre on electric guitar.

In an interview with Tull guitarist Martin Barre, Classic Rock Revisited calls Barre "one of the most unsung guitar heroes of all time". The 1946-born Barre began studying not music but surveying and architecture; he then left college in the 1960s to play saxophone and flute with a touring soul band.

By 1968, he had moved to the electric guitar when he first met Tull. When Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams left the group in the late 1960s, Barre joined the group, and that was the beginning of his 35-year relationship with the art and progressive rock band. Not a man for the "blistering solo", he has said in the same interview.

The evening ended with an impromptu improvisation by Chaurasia and Jethro Tull, during which Vijay Ghate on the tabla and Tull drummer Doane Perry kept the audience engaged with an extended musical dialogue.

Was this really a celebration of "music without boundaries"? Well, it was surely an interesting experiment; and may there be many more. It was also a rare chance for Tull lovers to hear their band live.

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