We live in times when vocalists and instrumentalists from the Hindustani music tradition, trained originally to be soloists, are often heard in large ensembles. The renditions do not necessarily include complex orchestral arrangements to incorporate the timbres, textures and musical possibilities that the instrumentalists and vocalists could bring on board. In fact, they often begin and end with melodic lines played in unison and the major part of each piece incorporates solo sections.

The reasons for such large ensembles becoming a frequent fixture in contemporary concerts are many, not all of which stem from a musical perspective. But we will leave that discussion for another day. It is important to note, however, that compositions based on the Hindustani music tradition were presented by ensembles even in the 19th century. For instance, the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali, the first formal music club in Bombay, presented Hindustani forms performed by instrumental ensembles that included Indian and Western instruments way back in the 1870s.

This column had discussed the ensemble renditions of the Akashvani Vadya Vrinda. Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar headed the first Akashvani or All India Radio National Orchestra. Archival recordings of his compositions with the Orchestra are available today. He also composed film scores and works for Western orchestras. But his experience with musical ensembles began when he played in the orchestra that accompanied his brother Uday Shankar’s dance troupe way back in the 1930s.

Historic tour

The ensemble accompanying Uday Shankar’s troupe was recorded in 1937, during their tour of the US. The recording was re-released in 1968 and titled Indian Music: Ragas and Dances - The Original Uday Shankar Company of Hindu musicians, Recorded During Its Historic 1937 Visit to the United States. More information about the recording can be found here.

The recording consists of 10 tracks based on different raags like Tilang, Bahar, Malkauns, Simhendra Madhyama and Hansadhvani (from the Carnatic system), Adana, Bhairav, Durga, Khamaj, and Kafi, composed by Vishnudass Shirali, a disciple of music educationist Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. The compositions are set to different taals, including the Teentaal, Rupak, Dadra, and Kaherva.

A variety of instruments like sitar, sarod, tabla tarang, jaltarang, esraj, bansuri, among others, have been included in the ensemble. Shirali plays the tabla tarang and also lends voice on a couple of tracks. Since the compositions were meant to support the choreography, they do not unfold in typical Hindustani instrumental tradition. Rather, they incorporate non-linear changes in tempi and also at times have parallel melodies written for different instruments.

When this recording was first made, Ravi Shankar still went by his original name, Rabindra.