Creating Social Spaces That Celebrate & Honour Togetherness: Fieldlines
3 April 2020
In his exploration of Panchatattva (five elements) — fire, earth, sky, wind and water, and its concepts within a socio-cultural and folkloric context, Komal Kothari wondered how the interpretation of these elements (albeit not from a philosophical or metaphysical perspective) varied amongst folk musicians of Rajasthan. “Throughout my research, I focused on what people had to say about the elements and not what has been written about them in Sanskrit treatises,” he said in conversation to Rustom Barucha as they discussed the significance of water and drought in fables and folklore in ‘Rajasthan: An Oral History’. “On getting to know some singers of devotional music from the Bavari Tribe, I asked one of the musicians: ‘What is akash (the sky)? How do you explain it? And, he said: ‘Have you ever seen a ghara (earthen pot)? Move your hand inside it but don’t touch its periphery. That is akash: A space with no boundaries.”
On a winter evening, as we gathered alongside eight artistes in Alsisar Mahal, I found myself preoccupied with such thoughts of spatiality that dispelled all conventional aesthetics of form and structure. One often discovered a correspondence between fundamental elements, space and art in places where the plurality of sound thrived. Last December, we embarked on a journey in the land of shifting sands and forlorn melodies to explore such a space that honoured the co-existence of dissolved boundaries and re-constructed sonic canvases.
As a part of ‘Magnetic Fields Presents Fieldlines’: an immersive residency project held in the week prior to Magnetic Fields Festival at Alsisar Mahal; Hannes Teichmann and Andi Teichmann (Gebrüder Teichmann), Bidisha Das (sound artist), Ustad Hakeem Khan (Kamaicha), Firoz Khan (Kartal), Sumitra Devi (vocals and harmonium), Ulrich Teichmann (multi-instrumentalist) and Kutla Khan (Dholak), lived and worked alongside each other conceptualising a sonic space that explored realms of traditional folklore and electronic music. The project was made possible with a Goethe-Institut International Coproduction Fund grant and realised in collaboration with Gebrüder Teichmann and their label NOLAND.
Dissolving Barriers And Building Bridges With Sound
“Breaking hierarchy and bringing equality: it’s about creating social spaces that celebrate and honour togetherness,” said Hannes and Andi when we first met in Badal Mahal which was transformed into an open interactive studio throughout the residency and festival. Through their project – Gebrüder Teichmann – the Berlin-based electronic musician duo, producers and cultural activists have been instrumental in breaking aural barriers and creating meaningful dialogues amongst diverse social and musical spaces across the world. “It’s quite an experience to be here. Rajasthani folk music is deeply rooted in a complex system of traditions. I think one of the challenges was to find a common ground from where we could go on a journey together musically. There’s a lot of conversation in Germany about creating archives of ethnological recordings. However, they are much more about recordings than they are about those artistes who create art. It is essential to create appropriate networks and spaces of solidarity for artistes across all levels of social and cultural backgrounds,” explained Andi.
One of the key components of the residency included to not present it as a single showcase but also demonstrate the entire process to the listeners. The coalescence of two different socio-cultural traditions and backgrounds allowed one to delve deeper into the artistic and metaphysical apparatus of languages apart from enabling artistes to expand and explore these concepts with sound. “The space we worked in continued to remain an open studio wherein the artistes partook in jamming sessions during the music festival. Therefore, people passing by would understand the social dynamics and energy of the group which more than often isn’t transferable on stage,” explains Hannes. “The residency has a lot more dimensions to it. While musicians are an important part of the process, it is much more about creating the right social spaces for such collaboration. We have known Munbir and Sarah for a long time. And, it’s amazing that Andi met Sarah in Berlin and they discussed the possibility of conceptualising the residency. It really felt as if two minds had found each other.” Following a panel discussion that ascertained the importance of cross-cultural collaboration in Berlin in 2017, Sarah and Andi soon began sharing ideas on creating residency structures that were both socially and culturally inclusive.
Hakim Khan tuning his kamaicha before the open studio jam session | Image by Avirat Sundra
While the Teichmann brothers have been an integral part of Berlin’s underground musical landscape since the nineties, it was in 1989 that Hannes and Andi’s journey began with a punk band called ‘Totalschaden’ at the age of 9 and 12. “It means ‘wreckage after a car crash’,” quips Hannes bursting into peals of laughter, “We had our first public performance in front of grown up punks in clubs. We were too young to enter these places. So, our father and mother drove us there and back. It’s a great gift when you have parents who support your dreams even if you are a 9-year-old who wants to be a punk singer,” he said as Andi explained how concerts were organised in several unconventional spaces around their hometown Regensberg and other surrounding areas, and how their experience with respect to electronic music and club culture greatly influenced their journey with exploring independent alternative spaces, surroundings and communities.
The artistes often perform with their father, multi-instrumentalist and jazz musician Ulrich Teichmann as Teichmann & Söhne. The improvisation trio not only brings together two generations of German avant-garde musicians but also combines elements of world, free jazz, ambient, techno and krautrock. Accompanied with his clarinet and traditional Indian flutes, the musician bridged the gap sonically between the ancient world of folklore and contemporary realms of electronic music at a time during the residency when the artistes struggled to find a balance between polyrhythmic structures and melodic silences. In strikingly wide-spaced intervals, he often struck notes that glided along cascading melodic columns.
“There was a young guy captured during the Second World War. He was 16 when he was brought to America. Since he was a child soldier fighting in Hitler’s army, the Americans thought perhaps it was not a good idea to put all Nazis in one camp. So, they put him in a camp in New Jersey where he learnt swing jazz. He brought my first clarinet from America and taught me how to play the old style of jazz, “he told us, late one evening, “I was 13 or 15 years old and that’s how I learnt how to play the clarinet. I enjoy electronic sounds too, you know! When I first heard what my sons played, I found it a bit strange. I was a little angry at them for not learning how to play musical instruments. My sons are the only musicians I know who make music without playing any instruments,” he said much to the amusement of Andi and Hannes, “As we got older, we also grew wiser. And, they became less punk. Eventually, we tried to play together and it all worked out so well.” Ulrich also spoke about his travels and association with Embryo: a musical collective from Munich that has been active since 1969. Spearheaded by Christian Burchard and Dieter Serfas, it was described as one of the most eclectic krautrock bands and German jazz-rock collectives in the 1970s.
Firoz Khan observing Gebrüder Teichmann at work | Image by Akshatha Shetty
Pondering over the amalgamation of Western and Rajasthani folk styles, and the process of experimentation, he said, “It connects different worlds. In a way, it makes music better. Out of the synthesiser come Indian notes and shruthi sounds. There’s also some really good blues notes that not even jazz musicians can hit today. This was only done in the 20s and 30s when black musicians could hit those notes right. Jazz in Germany has become very academic-oriented. They don’t use these notes anymore. However, now you can put them in the computer, and play with it. It makes music more interesting,” he says.
According to Hannes, Ulli could demonstrate a raga and then fragment it thereby giving them space to establish communication with the samples. The unusual harmonic tension created between musical instruments resulted in elaborate melodic flourishes that dissolved in a labyrinth of warm tones. Traditional folk songs differ immensely from Western music compositions. “They have meaning, structure and a specific function,” explained Hannes as he further added, “It is very interesting to see that music can have such an important role in society. You can’t see or touch music nor can you place it in a temple or anywhere else. It’s just there. And yet, you can somehow catch it. It’s a part of the whole system. It was through Ulli that we were all finally able to understand each other. We could feel that we were becoming a social group that was not only cross-cultural but also inter-generational. Also, I am so happy that Bidisha is here too since she represents the DIY culture which is very important for us. Even though we are both electronic musicians, we speak totally unique languages.”
Transcending Barriers With Sound
During the residency, the artistes strived to understand the implications and complexity of social structures within folk traditions as well as how they differed in tonality, frequency, harmonics and dynamics from experimental electronic frameworks while nurturing a visual and auditory space that encompassed both worlds where language and music are tethered to spirituality and human connection.
“There are many stories that one can share through the language of sounds which is beyond realms of spoken language. At the same time, it is through language that one learns so much. In a way, it feels like we are writing a new story together but without words,” says Bidisha Das: creative artist and explorer with an inquisitive interest in art and science. While her medium of expression varies from sound to film, her relationship with nature, humanity, technology and the universe drives her creative journey that emboldens her fundamental inquiry into universal existence.
Indian contemporary artist Bidisha Das | Image by Avirat Sundra
“I love interacting with nature and non-human things or entities that exist around me. I spent a lot of time travelling in Bengal, Orissa, South India, and even the Peruvian Amazon forest. These places are so different from one another but there’s also a sense of similarity that connects different parts of the world no matter where they belong. As an artist, I think that many of the expressions of building something unique with respect to machines are a part of my exploration or learning process,” says the artiste and adds, “In nature too, there exists electronic sounds wherever one looks. A chorus of crickets in my head sounds like a fast oscillator that moves in a certain way. I try to find my expression through this connection that I feel from within and this reflects in the sounds I create. I think both the worlds are really fascinating to me: the natural world out there, and the magical world of technology. It’s not one versus the other. I try to find a connection around it, and with it.”
Unleashing a symphony of elegant motifs, her journey with Sumitra Devi throughout the residency was structurally reminiscent of a sonic architecture that repurposed elements of enveloping drones and radiating melodies. The juxtaposition of ricocheting harsh textures with immersive ancient couplets sculpted melodic patterns that sustained an ambient atmosphere.
One evening, when Badal Mahal wore a deserted look, Sumitra recited verses from Ramdev, Mirabai and Kabir’s compositions, and other local ballads as she played the harmonium. In the solitary interludes resonated moments of grief and impassioned pleas of a melancholic soul. Her mother passed away when her youngest sister was just six months old. Her father was a construction worker. “When my father returned home from work, one night, I noticed that his hand was bleeding. It was broken. A small portion of the wall (where he worked) fell on him. The next day, he performed at a bhajan sandhya. I didn’t know he was an artiste until that moment. That was the first time I heard him sing,” she said reminiscing her childhood days, “He taught me everything I know. I belong to the Kamar community. Women are forbidden to sing. They told me that I was destroying the reputation of our village and our community. My father gave me courage. He would say: ‘no matter what happens never lose faith in your art and yourself’. I would hug him and cry when no one was looking. People were jealous that we would soon have a pucca (concrete) house, that we would have a better life. Years later, I built a house with three rooms and a big kitchen. I continued to sing and perform. This was my act of defiance.”
After her father’s death, Sumitra suffered from depression and gave up music for many years. There were times when she wondered if her life had meaning or purpose anymore. It was only a year ago that she started singing again. “When he died, I lost a part of myself. Over time, I healed and found my peace. I fell in love and got married. My husband and mother-in-law are very supportive of me and my journey. Music is the reason that I am alive today. That’s how I discovered hope, once more.”
Rajasthani folk singer Sumitra Devi | Image by Elefant
Throughout the residency, the artiste also shared her admiration for the creative process of electronic musicians. “In the beginning, I was lost. We didn’t really know each other. The first night I barely sang. I didn’t know what to expect. We met as strangers but we are family today. What they do is remarkable! They have managed to give music a unique direction!” she exclaimed, “My process is very different. Some people can compose a line in one night. Some take an entire lifetime. My grandmother was an extraordinary singer. In fact, her grandmother was gifted a gold sarangi by the Bikaner Darbar. Men, women and children would perform together back in the day. Culture and tradition degraded over the years, and our rituals were lost. There’s nothing left anymore. Today, Kamar women who sing are looked down upon by society. But things are changing, and I can feel it. There will soon come a day when many more daughters will sing and pursue music,” said the artiste who in conversation also expressed her discontent over rampant plagiarism of folk music compositions in Bollywood, “Many of my songs were stolen by popular producers. It’s such a shame that folk musicians continue to struggle while others take advantage of their gullibility. Artists are always struggling. No matter what we do, we will always have art. If we chase money, we will lose our art, and we will lose our ability to live. But if we chase art, we will find a way to survive and thrive!”
Where does sound come from? How does it become a melody? How does rhythm give it momentum, make it tangible, and how then do we attach meaning to music? We pondered over these questions on a winter night as we sat on the roof of Alsisar Mahal. “This body of ours: it is the source of our voice. Our voice is not borrowed from outside. Just like the harmonium is created out of many different components, our body too is made of many elements,” she explained, and sang with a smile: Mere naino main neer hi bahe oh shyam; Main toh balihari nandji ki laal, Zamana chahe kuch bhi kahe (Tears flow from my eyes, Oh lord! I have surrendered myself to Lord Krishna. No matter what the world says), she sang with a smile.
The ochre sands shifted in the moonlight. Amidst incantations of the divine, elongated into the howling of distant winds were gentle sonic waves and melodic phrases that trembled with angst. Interpreting emotions into sound, Sumitra’s compositions were an extension of her soul. It is in her quest to find joy that she unravels layers of misery and agony. “Happiness,” she says, “That’s what I was denied. That’s what I seek through my music, and perhaps through love. And, after all these years, when I finally know what it means to feel joy I fear I might lose it all.”
A Glimpse Into Folk Traditions And Manganiyar Musical Structure
Nadiya men Ganga bari, tiratha baro Kedara; Runkha men chandana baro, raga Gunda Malhara (Greatest of rivers in the Ganga, of pilgrimage sites Kedarnath; Greatest of trees is the sandalwood tree, the greatest raga Gund Malhar), recited Ustad Hakeem Khan as he explained the nuances of Rajasthani folk musical structure to the artistes gathered around him. In ‘Bards, Ballads and Boundaries: An ethnographic atlas of music traditions in Western Rajasthan’ where I first came across Hakeem Khan’s contribution towards understanding folk musical structures and concepts, historians and academicians during their research discovered that the largest community of hereditary professional musicians in the rural areas of North India tend to share two major characteristics: ‘they are bards who recite and preserve genealogies for generations of patrons, and secondly, they are peripatetic usually moving around a fixed territory of villages.’
Folk musicians jamming in the desert | Image by Akshatha Shetty
Hakeem Khan plays the kamaicha (bowed chordophone): a bowed unfretted lute with a large round body covered with goatskin. “It belonged to my forefathers and is almost 300 years old. I repair it and even make all the strings myself. In order to understand our ragas and raginis, one must imagine the entire Manganiyar musical structure as a large tree. The root of the tree is raga Gund Malhar. Now, imagine the tree has six branches and each of those branches have five sub-branches. The former are ragas and the latter are raginis,” he explained as he strung the bow across his kamaicha demonstrating a few ragas. While dissecting the concept and nuances of raga theory in folk music, ethnomusicologists over the years realised that the Manganiyar’s repertoire of ragas differed from North Indian classical music. Although some ragas of folkloric origin (Sorath, Des, Maru, Pahadi) are shared by musical traditions, Suhab, Sameri, Birvas, Mangh and Khamaychi are unique to Rajasthani folk music. In fact, several ragas sung by both Manganiyar and Langa including Rano, Sasvi, Sindhi, Bhairavi, Mangh and Kohirayi have Sindhi origin.
Akshatha Shetty discussing the cultural heritage of the folk musicians | Image by Elefant
“I had an ustad. His name was Haider Khan. He lived 10 kms from my mother’s village. He was the one who taught me how to hold and play the Kamaicha. Lay mili unse (I learnt rhythm from him). I couldn’t spend a lot of time with him since I had to take care of my home too. Back then, our jajmans (patrons) would gift us horses. When I was younger, I rode to my performances with the Kamaicha on my back. That’s how I travelled to the abodes of my jajmans to perform across the state. Over the years, as I performed with musicians who played different instruments like algoja (double-ended flute), I also learnt how to play many more ragas and talas,” he said recalling moments from his childhood. “If our jajmans did not present us with ‘dhaan’ or did not wish to listen to new songs on auspicious occasions, perhaps our traditions wouldn’t have survived. Our community would have given up music altogether. Our culture and identity would have perished. While our traditions may have altered with time, our music has persisted, and survived. There once was a Jogi named Mithu. He played the ‘been’ (pipe). I learnt two or three ragas from him. I would invite him to stay with me, paid him for his services and even took care of his food. In return, all I would ask of him was to play the murali (pipe) while I played the kamaicha. There was another jogi Rana who often performed at the Jaisalmer Darbar. He was the best ‘been’ player I had ever come across. I remember the king gifting him with a gold ring (2 tolas) after one of his performances. I made Rana my dharm bhai (soul brother). Since I had the horse, I’d accompany him everywhere. He taught me how to play Raag Bhairavi and a few other songs that had unique rhythmic structures. Some had just melodies.”
Folk artists practicing in the Badal Mahal at Alsisar | Image by Akshatha Shetty
His son Kutla Khan who accompanied Hakeem to the residency learnt how to play the dholak when he was six years old. All week, he served as a focal point for the traditional musicians in their attempt to understand and reinterpret the intricacies of experimental electronic textures and fluid rhythms. “Rhythms produced by the electronic instruments are quite different from our traditional rhythms. We have specific names and a structure for what we do. Their mechanism is quite unique. I have never seen anything like it in my lifetime. What Bidisha, Hannes and Andi do is a result of their own journey and reflections. However, Andi and Hannes have had Ulrich as their guru. It is by observing their father that they carved their own path in music for themselves. We aren’t any different, after all,” he said with a smile, “We may not understand their language but we all speak the language of sound. I can’t speak Hindi very well, and I don’t understand English at all. It is through music that we found a way to interact with one another. It took us days to find the lay kari (appropriate rhythmic structure) with each other. Their rhythmic structure changes and evolves with time. It interacts with us and alters according to our interaction with it. On the first day, we were playing in isolated worlds but now we are a family. We have slowly started piecing it all together. That’s because, we have finally begun to understand each other’s hearts.”
As 17-year-old Firoz glanced at the musical instruments displayed around the studio, he sat on his knees and picked up the khartal: castanet-like instruments made of four flat strips of wood that are not connected to each other. He then narrated the story of his ancestors who mastered nuances of rhythmic progressions and musicality of folk structures.
“Decades ago, my grandfather Ustad Sadiq Khan came across a portrait of Mirabai with a khartal. He resided in Pakistan like most of his ancestors. Something crossed his mind and he decided to carve the instrument from North Indian rosewood (sheesham). With rosewood we get more clarity whereas wood from other trees doesn’t produce such beautiful sounds,” he said demonstrating some polyrhythmic techniques and configurations.
His musical acumen and ability to isolate and blend within the experimental sonic spectrum offered a unique insight into the contemporary world of folk musicians. Over the next few days, we also briefly discussed sonic progressions and spiral patterns of rhythmic stresses in Manganiyar music. As observed in Idea of Rajasthan: Explorations in Regional Identity — while there are two main rhythmic patterns in Manganiyar music: kalvara (8 beats or matras) and tintar (7 beats or matras), some musicians also use jhaptal (10-beat) or dipchandi (14-beat pattern) with certain compositions. The rhythmic patterns of Indian classical music are consistently cyclical in nature with the point at which the melodic composition and rhythmic accompaniment come together (sam) occurring with absolute repetitive regularity. However, if classical tals are cyclical in nature, the movement of Manganiyar rhythmic patterns can best be described as spiral.
Firoz Khan and Ulrich Teichmann during the final performance at Magnetic Fields Festival 2019 | Image by Avirat Sundra
“Interpreting the accents: that’s what it’s about,” said Hannes and Bidisha, one night, as they discussed how the musicians struggled to find one another in the initial sessions, “For instance, if we have put our accents on 1 and theirs is on 2, then we are always lost. In the beginning, the folk musicians were focused on their quest for dha. And, that dha will never come from these machines. We were all looking for the right direction with each other. It is important to give each other space to construct and deconstruct elements within a moment. That will not only help us explore something beyond individual boundaries but also create something beautiful together.”
A few hours later, adorned with marigold flowers, the ivory-hued racks on the right corner of Badal Mahal were transformed into a shrine. Sprawled on the table across the room was a book that had a photograph of Goddess Rani Bhatiyani: a special deity for the Manganiyars. The fragrance of jasmine and rose incense sticks wafted in the air. A modified dautara and a modular ‘heart’ were placed at the centre of the shrine. “It’s [the heart] kind of a conductive two-oscillator synthesiser,” said Bidisha and Hannes, “The manner in which you press your thumbs between these nooks creates these crazy cross-modulator sounds. It’s even stereo. We can also have modulations in the middle with the resistance here. It fades with the charge falling down, and acoustically it sounds like a howl! It is the tiniest instrument and doesn’t even have a switch. You just plug in and it completes the circuit. There’s an incredible combination of the heart with a monotrone delay that one should definitely explore.”
Amidst cross-currents of musical abstraction, one caught glimpses of melodic rifts and harmonic excursions within fluid structures that ebbed and waned throughout the jamming sessions. A continuous stream of sounds echoed in the studio. And, the recordings captured it all: broken conversations, poignant pauses and moments that dissolved all semblances of sonic hierarchy.
When Artistes And Machines Crafted A Beautiful Tale With Sounds
“I have various analogue monophone synthesisers,” said Hannes as he explained more about the numerous components that his set-up comprised while fiddling with equipment before him, “They are mainly built around the same principle as an oscillator through which I can have different oscillation forms to create a sound that I can play with. I also have a basic instrument that acts like a modular drum which is great for jugalbandi with Indian drums. This is primarily a piezo pickup: a kind of microphone which picks up the swing of the material behind the panel. My set up for the residency also includes a Eurorack system. That’s how you would call it because of the very definition of its size. And, there are several little modules each of which has a specific function. Basically, you are building your own system from scratch using various functions and then connecting them with smaller cables. I use a DJ loop sampler to sample traditional instruments. I think I like live sampling for it is not always in sync with everything. I just capture a moment. I then have a loop that isn’t running in synchronised time. So, I have this interaction with a part of reality that I’ve managed to capture but not in a technical or mathematical manner.”
Final performance on day 3 of Magnetic Fields Festival 2019 | Image by Avirat Sundra
In conversation, Andi mentioned how his setup was still developing throughout the residency. Amidst guitar peddles, I noticed the LXR drum machine which the artiste explained allowed him to experiment outside the conventional frameworks of percussion. “You can go polyrhythmic which also means that you can change the lengths of sequences. Parallely, you can have shifting rhythms. I mainly do percussive stuff in the project and love using ‘the heart’. I know the person who developed this machine. You get a kit with electronic parts, and you have to build it yourself. I have been using this for a few years. You get a harsh but aesthetic glitchy effect that is controllable to a certain level. There is a lot of in between sounds that one can produce by ‘abusing’ the system in a specific way. Sometimes, there are a lot of harsh noises but they are all a part of it. I really like to explore these surprising elements that I can’t really control. Yet, I play with it constantly.”
On the other hand, Bidisha’s explorations delved deeper into the symbiotic relationship of living and non-living entities. A sense of order lurked underneath the unorthodox display of instruments on her table which included an old computer fan, circuits that have been modified and transformed into a sequencer, a modified dautara and an oscillator fashioned out of an old box that she picked up from a market in Kolkata. “I also love using this instrument that allows me to play around with plants or other living beings. Once connected, it picks up a beat (from the living thing) which then forms a part of the composition. If you hold it, you see the light moving and the circuit completes with you,” she explained, “I think I really like the idea of having a conversation with instruments. It all kind of comes together not in a manner where I am controlling the machine or vice-versa but it’s more of a collaborative venture into a specific moment. The process itself leads you somewhere. And, I think it just so happens that the exploration results in you linking a part of the process to what you would like to express.”
Folk musicians tuning their instruments before the open studio jam session | Image by Akshatha Shetty
Showcasing their final performance at the BUDx stage, the eight artistes gathered in the palace courtyard unravelling striking interpretations of spiritual and philosophical texts embedded in a shimmer of overtones. Swirling melodies collided with abrasive textures during the performance creating a cosmic delight of musical narratives that offered a profound insight into their relationship with one another. Floating alongside billows of delicate harmonies were effects, layers and motifs: all condensed into a melodic orb. Later at night, as a sea of revellers swarmed Badal Mahal after the concert, seated in their midst were guards, waiters and cooks who worked in the palace. “I am moved by what I witnessed,” said one of the waiters, “We never attend any of the shows but we made it a point to attend this one. They truly honoured our sound, culture and tradition, and we welcomed theirs. This is who we are. This is Rajasthan.”
Not only did the artistes forge a strong bond with one other but the sculptural heft of their musicality crafted a sound that both honoured their individuality and resonated with moments of familiarity. A journey that once began with strangers, isolated melodies and fragmented spaces bore witness to poignant moments when barriers and boundaries dissipated in their midst. In the end, they managed to create it all: a space for both the performer and observer; a space with no boundaries; a space where we all belonged together…
Ann mad, Dhan mad, Vidya mad, Raj mad, Sambandh,
Je suniyo hai raga mad, Awar mad sab rad!
Written by Akshatha Shetty
Banner + Thumb Image by Ron Bezbaruah for Magnetic Fields Festival 2019
Originally posted on Border Movement on 04 March, 2020.