Bridging Beethoven with Indian ragas

Ershad Kamol | Updated at 12:35pm on November 02, 2018


From left, Shani Diluka, Sahana Banerjee and Prabhu Edouard perform in rehearsal in Dhaka.— Abdullah Apu

Three classical musicians — two from France and one from India — recently visited Bangladesh to present two successive instrumental concerts in Dhaka and Chattogram as part of their South Asia tour to present German legendary composer Beethoven’s mystic sonatas with Indian devotional classical ragas.
The musicians of the trio — Shani Diluka, Sahana Banerjee and Prabhu Edouard — are of South Asian descent. They developed their Cosmos Project to let the world know about Beethoven’s fascination for Indian culture and to link his mystic sonatas with the Indian devotional ragas for the contemporary audience of the east and the west.
The musicians had their world premiere of the classical music project at the Goethe Institut auditorium on Monday besides staging another show on the following day at Alliance Française de Chittagong.
The shows were jointly organised by Alliance Française de Dhaka and Goethe-Institut, in which Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Appassionata Sonata were played by the French pianist with Sri Lankan descent Shani Diluka and six ragas such as Darbari and Marubihag were presented by the Indian sitar player Sahana Banerjee. The Franco-Indian percussionist Prabhu Edouard, born in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and later migrated to Paris, worked as a mediator for smooth transition of the two classical music genres with the versatility of his tabla.
In an interview with New Age, the classical musical trio shared their experience of visiting Bangladesh for the first time. They also spoke about the Cosmos Project besides reflecting on the nature of their collaboration and future plans to experiment further on the blending of eastern and western classical musical genres.

Video by: Abdullah Apu

Shani Diluka, who initiated the Cosmos Project, said that her first visit to Bangladesh greatly enhanced her experience in life. ‘I’m happy to be here and discovering a very rich culture that has its delicate dimensions. We received warm welcome from everybody here in Dhaka. We will leave Bangladesh for India with great feelings as we are set to present the project in different cities there.’
Shani informed that as part of the three-year project they would play the concert in Sri Lanka and several European cities, and would record the concert in each venue.
Sahana Banerjee, a Pune-based musician, who was born and brought up in Kolkata, said she felt as if Dhaka was her home. ‘I’m feeling like I’m in my hometown as we share common language and almost common culture. I’ve heard a lot about fascination of the Dhaka audience for classical music from the Indian master artistes who participated at the Bengal Classical Music Festival. I also want to participate at the festival with my sitar,’ she said.
Talking about the Cosmos Project, Shani Diluka said that she developed the idea of creating dialogues between Ludwig van Beethoven’s mystic sonatas with the Indian devotional ragas after learning that German legend’s love for Indian culture. Beethoven was reading the German translation of Indian mystic text Upanishads in 1816, she said.
The religious and philosophical texts were written between 800 BCE and 500 BCE when Indian society started to question the traditional Vedic religious order.
‘Beethoven immersed himself in these texts and even wrote an Indian Brahmanic poem to put to music. This relationship has never been explored in concert or recording. So, I conceived the three-year long Cosmos Project with my two old friends for paying tribute to Beethoven ahead of his 250th birth anniversary to be celebrated in 2020 and to contemplate the spiritual relationship between Beethoven and India. Prabhu helped me a lot to bridge the two different genres of music,’ she added.
‘Upanishad glorifies universality, humanity and brotherhood, values that Beethoven used to celebrate through his wonderful creations. And similar theme is found in many Indian musical traditions. So it was challenging but not impossible for us to create a musical dialogue between Beethoven’s sonatas and Indian ragas, said Probhu.
‘In our unique music project, we imagined how Beethoven would have felt after reading the ancient Indian mystic texts of Upanishad and then tried to develop a dialogue between his sonatas with Indian devotional ragas through our musical experimentations. In this sense it’s not a typical fusion project, neither is it like other music projects initiated before by Indian classical musicians like Pandit Ravi Shankar or Ustad Zakir Hussain with western musicians,’ Prabhu explained.
Talking about the uniqueness of their initiatives, the musicians informed that they had not changed the original texts of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Appassionata Sonata, neither had they modified the ragas like Darbari, Shyam Kalyan, Marubihag, Tilak kamod, Kirwani and Madhuvanti.
‘The audience would get the original flavours of the distinct music traditions in our presentations. The rhythm and structures of Beethoven’s sonatas played on piano by Shani helped me as a tabla player to pick up the rhythm and then smoothly transpose that with Sahana’s ragas on sitar. And again I do the similar task in case transition from ragas to sonatas,’ Prabhu explained.
‘Different musicians may have different interpretations of Beethoven, but Shani’s presentation is really helpful for creating such dialogues’, he added.
Shani said she selected two of Beethoven’s sonatas as they glorify universality and humanity. ‘The Moonlight Sonata narrates the movements of the moon, time and the cosmos while the Appassionata Sonata, the most difficult sonata he created, explores a gamut of human feelings. And he composed rhythms using in those sonatas, which can be played on piano to create similar sounds in sitar and tabla. That gave me the chance to connect his music with ragas played on sitar and tabla. Moreover, such experiments can bridge the eastern and western cultures, traditions and heritages,’ Shani added.
Sahana said she enjoyed taking the challenge of playing sitar with western classical music having variations of scales in the same composition.
The collaboration among the three musicians began almost 10 years back when they initiated another music project titled ‘Schubert Meets Indian Classical Music’ paying tribute to the great Austrian romantic composer Schubert Franz Peter Schubert.
‘I met Shani while playing a concert on Schubert in Italy in 2006 along with other musicians. Then Shani proposed me to work more on such collaborations since both of us live in France though of South Indian descent. Sahana is an old friend of mine and at that time she was staying in Paris with her husband. Then we three together came up with Schubert Meets Indian Classical Music, which was very successful,’ Prabhu recalled.
All three musicians are soloists and they never formed any band. But, they want to continue such collaborations to experiment more on Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and other western masters.
Their experiment seems to have created a new threshold for further exploration. ‘May be we will also experiment more based on ragas created by Mian Tansen, Ustad Alauddin Khan and other South Asian masters,’ Shani Diluka concluded.