Rahul Nair, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
As part of the ‘Eye on India’ festival, East Meets Middle East, a fusion ensemble of musicians from India and Chicago performed on the morning music stage at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. The ‘Eye on India’ festival was started in 2011 as a result of a collaboration between Anuradha Behari, longtime resident of Chicago, and Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts in India. The festival is all about ‘contemporary India coming to Chicago, and Chicago coming to India,’ said Sujatha Purkayastha, Executive Director of the festival, with an emphasis on collaboration.
The collective treated the audience to melodious Indian and Middle Eastern compositions, their music a flawless collusion of their differing sounds. Ronnie Malley, along with percussionist George Lawler, make up the Middle Eastern half, whilst tabla player Subrata Bhattacharya and sarod player Abhishek Lahiri bring the Indian element.
‘It all started on a very, very, very cold January morning,’ recounts musician Malley, who has been making music with Lawler since 2004 and met Subrata in January 2016. They immediately decided to collaborate, following an attack on a Sikh Gurudwara in Milwaukee. The perpetrator had thought that he was attacking a mosque, since he didn’t know the difference between Sikhs and Muslims. Malley and Subrata felt the need for people to be taught about each other, as fighting ignorance is necessary for us to move forward. He and Subrata were highly inspired by each other’s music as well: ‘Art can usually stand alone and speak for itself. We don’t want to club people over their heads that we are trying to do this. We want to start a conversation.’ The collective played for the first time together at the Eye on India festival in Chicago earlier this year, and performing there led to being invited to JLF.
All the artists in the quartet have been playing music since childhood, and it is this deep understanding that makes their performance so masterful. Subrata and Malley explained that when you go beneath the surface, you discern a lot of similarities between the two schools of music: maqam in Middle Eastern music is an equivalent of ragas in Indian classical music; tabla is a word associated with percussion in both, and the rhythm systems are also similar. ‘They are like different languages with similar grammar,’ a perfect metaphor for the multicultural collaboration that is Eye on India.