Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ustad Sarvar Sabri: Extending the Boundaries of Fixity

Ustad Sarvar Sabri:
Extending the Boundaries of Fixity
Shezad Khalil

It is good to swim in the
waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide.
—Mahatma Gandhi (p. 308)

In an era in which postmodernist and postcolonial thought and its relationship with the arts, and in particular in music, is defined in accordance with the construction of the ‘new’, the names of prominent musicians as Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney appear to be constantly experiencing and experimenting with transforming the musical traditions of the past. This is to say that that which was acceptable and practiced throughout the narratives of antiquity has now evolved into novel and innovative procedures of the present, that is, change has occurred and continues to transpire.
Alongside the compositions of the twenty-first century South Asian and British South Asian musician sits the theoretical underpinnings of cultural thinkers as Homi Bhabha and Paul Gilroy. It is the speculations of these postmodernist and postcolonial theorists that provide the analytical framework and foray of contemporary artists as Singh and Sawhney illustrating as Bhabha observes that ‘newness’ occurs within the space of the British metropolis. This is then the
domain in which numerous South Asian and British South Asian artists take the ‘roots’ of their homelands and their classical training into the depths of the ‘unknown’. And, this is also the vicinity in which many South Asian migrants leave behind the artistic conventions of the ‘past’ to journey forward into the realm of the ‘new’. The intention of this is to redefine and reconstruct those identity politics that identify who they are as twenty-first century artists and how their artistic modes sit within the space of contemporary Britain. In turn, the result often leads to the formation of compositions that are hybrid in nature, but through the fusion of varying styles of artistic expression.
Stemming from a rich South Asian historical tradition of music that dates back to the court of the Mughul Emperor Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar, also known as Akbar the Great, (1542-1605), he contemporary composer and musician Ustad Sarvar Sabri welcomes and embraces the roots of
classical training with the intention of extending and experimenting with the conventions of adition. This is an argument that will be explored shortly, but first the contextual scaffold of Sabri’s history must be examined in brief.
It was during the era of Mughal rule that Akbar the Great, even though illiterate, displayed a great admiration for the performing and fine arts of the Indian subcontinent. As an aficionado of the ich diversity of the arts, Akbar attracted the greatest thinkers and artists in his court. These were known as the navaratna; the Sanskrit word for the nine jewels. One of these gems was Mian Tansen (1520-1590) who was a classical vocalist in the court of Akbar and also trained people in the art of South Asian classical music. And so, Sarvar Sabri’s lineage of musical learning belongs to and can be dated back to Akbar’s chief musician.
Sabri’s early teaching that he received from his gurus was not only affiliated with the past, but was also associated with some degree of fixity. Hall’s theorisations would describe this instance of Sabri’s musical training as situated in and influenced by ‘the idea of a pure, original people’ and culture [italics in the original] (p. 275). Further, the choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh would observe this type of ‘traditional’ guidance as an example of keeping alive the ‘acknowledgment of a common consensus’ of those ‘groups of people [that have and continue to] agree on certain things’, that is in connection with those systems of the past (p. 6). And therefore, for Sabri, his early training in the tabla would also be viewed as an instance of transmitting a consensus of the past into the domain of the present. But on close inspection, is this really so?
In fact, even though Sabri’s learning of the tabla was situated in the customs of history and stemmed back to the influence of Tansen and his musical systems, his work imitates Hall’s conception of ‘translation’. According to this cultural theorist then, some postmodern subjects, including Sabri and his musical manifestations, undergo a form of renovation; an excursion of progress and alteration. Although the artist’s training may have been positioned within the classical vocabularies of the past, it is as a result of these systems that direct several people to make changes to that which already exists. Hall observes that such people [as musicians and their
art] retain strong links with their places of origin and their traditions, but they are without the illusion of a return to the past. They are obliged to come to terms with the new [artistic] cultures they inhabit, without simply assimilating to them….They bear upon them the traces of particular cultures, traditions, languages [, artistic systems] and histories by which they were shaped. The difference is that they are not and will never be unified in the old sense, because they are irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures’ [italics in the original] (p. 310).
For Sabri then, his contemporary arrangements and art form are created from a combination of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’. What this means is that the ‘past’ (‘sameness’) is positioned within the ‘present’ (‘difference’), but the ‘present’ (‘difference’) is dissimilar to and/or an extension of the ‘past’ (‘sameness’). For example, in creations as Master Drummer of India, 2002, a CD album influenced by three of Sabri’s gurus:
Ustad Bundu Khan (1880-1955), Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan (1942-89) and Karaat Ullah Khan (1918-80), the listener witnesses how this musical genius in tracks as ‘Taal Bundu Khan’ not only executes his classical training but also presents a modern twist to the composition by playing it in
an unusual eight and a half beat cycle.
In this brief example of this tabla master’s work, we observe how Sabri unfolds the ethics of his musical philosophy. This is positioned within the realms of hybridity that is as inspired by the notion and elements of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’. In discussion with Sabri, 2012, he justifies his thinking: ‘I never lose track of or contact with my roots … It is the concept of a musical idea and process that is more exciting as well as the ability to find different ways’ of communicating thoughts. For Sabri then, the notion of broadening boundaries is situated within the belief that one can create ‘newness’ without having to challenge tradition and/or the past. ‘History’ in itself can then open doors for the construction of something quite novel and unique, and yet similar and distinct from the past. It is this philosophy that sets Sabri apart from many twenty-first century composers and musicians as many of these artists appear to break away from the musical systems of the past and infuse their contemporary work with minute elements of their classical training.
Sabri’s constructions then take the notion of ‘sameness’ on a different voyage of discovery. Even though he begins each musical journey from the starting-point of the past that is as positioned
within his classical training, from here his roots develop into something both ‘fresh’ and ‘new’. ‘Sameness’ then expands itself and travels along a route that is concerned in conveying difference’. It is this conception of disparity, diversity and variation that distinguishes the work of this master from other South Asian and British South Asian musicians of the contemporary domain.
Sabri’s musical compositions also imitate Jeyasingh’s thoughts, especially in relation to tradition. If, as Jeyasingh asserts that convention is something that has been ‘tried and tested’, suggesting that the practices of the past do not remain stationary, then for Sabri the same thought and philosophy are applicable to his own creations. This is because as Jeyasingh states, the terms ‘tried and tested’ propose the importance of alteration. This is not to say that one’s musical
roots have to remain static. Not at all! In fact, for Sabri, Jeyasingh’s vocalisations advocate that his own work celebrates the musical systems of convention and yet at the same time he enhances
these by employing his own ideas in order to experiment with and deliver the past into the present. Further, Sabri’s postmodern arrangements continue to convey signs of particular musical traditions so that the listener understands that the systems of the past are still appropriate and relevant for the contemporary world that we live in. Further, even though his work bears a strong influence of the past, it is through Sabri’s aptitude as a maestro of the tabla that he is able to modernise these constructions through his own musical and hybrid vocabulary.
The route(s) and destination are one, that is, the past can be represented in the present.

For further information on Sarvar Sabri, see his website:
and his company Sabri Ensemble:
Please visit Sarvar Sabri and the Sabri Ensemble on Facebook. For further reading of Sarvar
Sabri, see Arc Music, ‘News’:
Selected Bibliography
Homi Bhabha. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Mahatma Gandhi. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. May-July 1925. Vol. 27. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust, 1968.
Paul Gilroy. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double
Consciousness, 1993. Reprint, London:
Verso, 2002.
Stuart Hall. “The Question of
Cultural Identity”. In Modernity and its
Futures, edited by Stuart
Hall, David Held and Tony McGrew, 273-325. Oxford: Open University Press, 1992.
Shobana Jeyasingh. Appendix i – Transcripts
of Presentations: Shobana Jeyasingh”. Compiled
and produced by Tina Cockett. In Traditions on the Move, Open Forum Report, edited by Academy of Indian Dance,
6-9. London: Academy of Indian Dance, June
9, 1993.
Shezad Khalil is studying for a PhD at the University of Loughborough