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Faithfully Yours

Faithfully Yours is a musical odyssey. Celebrated Indian singer, Anup Jalota, The Rajkumari Cultural Center and the Kalavant Center presented Guyana's blissful singing couple, Roopnarine and Mala, in live concert to launch their new CD recording, “Faithfully Yours”.

According to Pritha Singh, playwright / dramatist, and director of The Rajkumari Center, “Shri Anup Jalota's auspicious support to Roop and Mala, in this exciting and challenging new beginning, is testament of their high standard of artistic excellence. His collaboration with the Rajkumari and Kalavant Centers creates a bridge of understanding and appreciation of between the Indian and Indo-Caribbean artistic communities, both in India and the United States.”

The concert was held at the Maharishi Dayananda Gurukula in Jamaica, NY on Saturday, July 10, 2004 at 7:30 p.m. The place is the Arya Samaj building in Jamaica, New York. The setting was simple but austere with religious wall paintings. It may not be described as artistic; but the stage managers offered a backdrop to exemplify the main purpose of the evening – a montage glowed in deep rich colors competing with the stern religious paintings, boldly affirming: Faithfully Yours. The simplicity however, coupled with the paraphernalia of lighting, cameras, and musical instruments did provide an artistic ambience and measured elegance. And the audience sitting on the carpeted floor suggested humility, warmth and empathy.

With its staid architecture and pastel colored interior the building did not radiate movement or fluidity. It was when the artists began their performance that the entire setting appeared to breathe energy.

The event not only showcased the talents of artists but also delighted a crowd of approximately 400 people, a mix of NRI, Indo-Caribbeans, and few Whites and Blacks, spanning all age groups, who sat enthralled past 12 midnight, and who were highly receptive and appreciative of the performances that were both entertaining and enchanting – making the presentation of their latest CD a huge success. It was pleasing and refreshing to find young people especially sit through the evening and keep taal.

Roop and Mala shared the stage with their own guru, Ustad Kadar Khan, and Anup Jalota. Their blended devotional harmonies with exquisite musical orchestration filled the atmosphere with soulful sounds of traditional Indian classical music. They were obviously also doting in their admiration of the acclaimed Kadar Khan and Anup Jalota, and certainly seemed pleased to share the stage with them. Kadar Khan and Anup Jalota infused life and energy throughout the evening, the intoxicating rhythms brought about by an invisible communication and collaboration. Such display of camaraderie among world-class musicians is healthy and tells of mutual respect. Kadar Khan electrified the audience with a variety of textures and energetic rhythms on his tabla, forcing finger and toe tapping. Unconsciously you responded and you caught yourself humming along, or you lapsed in peaceful reflection. Anup Jalota, gracious as ever, demonstrated requited love when he sang nostalgically songs to obviously please Roop and Mala – and the audience enjoyed him immensely.

Roop and Mala performed with brilliance affecting the intensity of the music of the harmonium, keyboard and tabla to fuse effortlessly – making the intricacies of Indian classical music appear deceptively simple. The technical ability of Gulam M. Khan (harmonium), Anup Jalota (harmonium) Kadar Khan (tabla), Ayub Khan (tabla), Imran Khan (Tabla), Javed Khan (sitar) – all ustads and prodigies of north Indian music – is wonderful and the depth of feeling expressed through the trained voices of the singers is simply (but not simple) admirably.

These classical performances have a high degree of technical complexity, but the audience was captivated by the music and songs – feeling and being part of the music – identified with rather than intellectualizing it.

Pritha Singh, playwright/ dramatist, and director of the Rajkumari Center, performed excerpts of her definitive work Women of the Mahabarata with pindrop silence from the audience, which apart from affording an interlude augmented the magic of the evening. As usual her performance was superb.

“The Balkarans’ association with Rajkumari began in 1995 with The Sound of Her Bells, the Center's inaugural event at the Queens Theater in the Park. The bond has remained since. Together they share their art and knowledge, and serve as an inspiration to the Indo-Caribbean community and the broader American public.”

Roop and Mala are very talented musicians and I am sure we will hear and see a lot more of this duo in the future. Already their sonorous clarity and melodious rhythm tend to pervade the atmosphere with a celestial sensation. They have a lot to offer since they feel that music (like sports) brings people together, promotes a state of unity, strengthens bicultural identity and keeps the heritage alive and well.

I spoke with Roopnarine (Dev) and Nirmala (Mala) Balkaran in a very laid-back manner at their home in Brooklyn, New York, a home with simple but pleasant and tasteful furnishings depicting their religious and musical way of life. Their display of Hanuman, Ganesh and Saraswati shows an obeisance to their way of life.

They say they are not religious in the accepted meaning of the word. They do their pujas in their home with their 15-year old son Aakash. They explained that the way Hindu rituals are done here and in Guyana are not always the same as in India. For example, in India Pujas are done by pujaris.

Mala observed diverse issues and problems in communities of New York, and stated, “We need to make a difference in our own lives first. To set an example.” Roop added, “People who have knowledge [must] share [it].”

We talked generally about Hindu practices in Guyana and New York pointed out that many of these are not consonant with what obtains in India. They believe that worship is personal.

We talked about caste, about the riots in Gujarat, and they lamented in disgust what took place. They were present during the Gujarat riot and saw horrible and barbaric behavior by fanatical individuals. They spoke of their experiences and life as they saw it in India, and proffered some explanation of the caste system (which is still alive and well) and the dowry system – some positive, others negative and backward. But they emphasized that one needs to be in location to fully understand, rather than get information from secondhand source, especially from the fringe and extremist elements.

Mala implored, “Try to live as human beings,” noting that one should not be insular…. She continued, “I worship my music.”

Roop showed his obvious detestation for bigotry when he drew my attention to a recent incident: referring to a call he received from a man who admonished him for performing with Muslims. He pointed out that fanatics and extremist would dog your sanity. He retorted that he is a musician. “My music has nothing to do with religion; this is boundless music.” Referring to those critics of Muslims (who invaded India) he said, “Whatever was done in the past is history. We have to move on. Life is like that. Things happen all over the world. We have to move on…. God is one. He may be called by different names.”

I concurred, “If we agree that the European conquest of America and the decimation of the Indians, taking their land, etc. is wrong, do we expect that the Europeans should now return to Europe? It is a fact of history. We cannot undo that. I sometimes think of these historical events in terms of ‘epochalism’.”

Mala who appeared sedate also became excited when speaking of certain issues. She said with definitive authority, “The first principle of religion is Respect.”

We all agreed that the world (including India), in the larger scheme of things, belongs to all of us – not just Hindus or Muslims. They bemoaned their experience of the riots of Gujarat which they avered opened their eyes in regard to conflicts, especially between Hindu and Muslim.

Mala reminisced, “We have traveled to many places, Jordon, Jerusalem and we have seen… If you do [wrong] things in the name of religion it is wrong. Most decent people were ashamed by the misdeeds of the fanatics [in Gujarat].” Mala entreated, “Don’t look for the negative things in life; look for the good things. Free your mind. When your mind is free, there is nothing else to adversely affect you.”

Roop joined in rhetorically, “You don’t need a lot in your life. What can you do with the negative things?”

“They attributed their success to determination, and the dynamic Tabla Maestro, Ustad Kadar Khan, who nurtured them into the sadhana (discipline) of humility, devotion and dedication associated with the transmission of India's fine arts from guru (teacher) to chela (student). Kadar Khan led the Kalavant Music Ensemble in concert with Gulam M. Khan (harmonium), Ayub Khan (Tabla), Imran Khan (Tabla), Javed Khan (sitar) – all ustads and prodigies of north Indian music.”

These singing artists focused on North Indian classical music in their studies. They spent five years studying music under Shri Raojibhai Patel at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Ahmedabad, India, one of India's leading educational institutions in musicology where they obtained their BA, Sangeet Visharad, in North Indian music.

We talked lots more about their life in Gujarat as students of music. They must like it there since they visit every year.

Then we all waxed nostalgically….

Roop who is from Shell Road, Kitty remembered, “I was in the Ramanand Band in Guyana [in the 1960’s and 1970’s]. Initially, like most others, I was exposed to film music. We heard of classical music. We knew of Ravi Shankar. We used to sing movie songs. We didn’t have the training." He recalled his days in Ramanand Orchestra with his brothers, Balgobin, and later Prakash Gossai, all of whom sang and performed at weddings, temples and on Radio. Later on when the [Indian] cultural center begun they started to give classes.

Earlier, Roop went to India and returned to Guyana as a Veterinarian. He worked with the Ministry of Agriculture, and they both have fond memories of their sojourn on the Essequibo Coast where he was stationed for some time. He still practices as a Vet in Brooklyn.

Mala grew up in Queenstown, Georgetown. She looked at Roop and proclaimed, “He was always naturally artistic… and then when we got married we came here and we started to sing at functions in fundraising, etc. Then we met Kadar Khan and he took an interest in us. I used to sing a little bit at home. We would go to the Kalavant Center in Manhattan. Musicians would come from India….” She stopped as if to dramatize and voiced, “Talent is one thing, but discipline and practice and dedication… you have and do these because everyone has the talent.”

Roop brought to mind, “We did a bhajan album, a ghazal album, more of a hobby. These were done before we went to India.” Mala joined in, “We were working hard. At nights, and then began questioning ourselves. We asked three questions: Who am I? Where am I going? And what do I want? Those questions surfaced in our minds. Luckily, a clarity of purpose came to us. We thought of going to India. We started giving [personal] things away.”

In Gujarat they got attached to their guru after 2 years of their training. He was taking care of our musical interests without our knowing. Now at 98 years he is still mentally alert. He does not consult books; everything from his head. They learned all aspects of music, even the elemental ‘manners of music’ (which they feel is lacking in local musicians).

Mala mused, “Music. By doing my music I’m getting closer to where I want to go. Where? An inner self-satisfaction. Something that we love.”

We rambled on, talking about our common experiences, talking about musicians we knew, the early taan singers. Roop said that he used to imitate other singers, including Rafi and Mukesh, which helped in training his voice.

We mutually began to close the interview, and then spoke of personal things – the mundane, not before Mala observed, “Doing a BA in classical music is just the first step. Being a musician knows no bound. Does not matter if you are from Guyana or elsewhere.” And Roop in a pensive mode declared, “I always do my singing for myself. It may sound selfish. But sometimes you have to understand and empathize with the feelings of the artist.”

–interview by Gary Girdhari
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