When music obsessives look back at the fruitful collaborations between musicians of different traditions in the 1960s, one year that will stand out for them is 1967. That was the year The Beatles released their seminal album Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts Club, which included George Harrison’s Hindustani classical-inspired track Within You, Without You. That same year, John Mayer and Joe Herriot composed Indo-Jazz Fusions, an album that blended raga elements with jazz. And across the Atlantic, jazz great Don Ellis’ orchestra played his composition Contrasts for Two Orchestras and a Trumpet with the Zubin Mehta-conducted Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Another fine example of such creative synthesis in 1967 was the album Jazz Meets India. Featuring three Indian Hindustani classical musicians and three European jazz musicians, the album represented a search for a new kind of world music – one that could bind together diverse audiences and be universally loved. According to critics, Jazz Meets India was one of the first instances when musicians from the East and the West performed on an equal footing.

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This intermingling of musical styles had started in the late 1950s. Aided by Cold War politics, and their own creative impulses, musicians began to cross traditional borders. Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar were among the better-known musicians who collaborated with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Bud Shank, Dennis Budimir and John Handy, among others. But there were also those who moved to the West for better opportunities and for reasons entirely providential. One such artist was Keshav Sathe, who played the tabla on Jazz Meets India and Indo-Jazz Fusions.

Born in Goregaon, Bombay, in 1928, Sathe’s first job was in the city’s General Post Office, and second as an accounts officer of the state government. In 1956, he was deputed to work in the accounts section of the Indian High Commission in London.

Sathe had been a chess player of some repute in Bombay – he met the American chess great Bobby Fischer in Leipzig in 1960 – but it was the tabla that truly fascinated him. It wasn’t always easy for him to follow his passion. As Sathe wrote in his memoir Moonlighting in Broad Daylight (co-written with wife Katharine), his strict Brahmin father had imposed a taboo on touching the tabla since its head is made of goat skin.

Keshav Sathe. Photo credit: 'Moonlighting in Broad Daylight', by Keshav and Katharine Sathe.
Keshav Sathe. Photo credit: 'Moonlighting in Broad Daylight', by Keshav and Katharine Sathe.

Besides Sathe, another Indian on both Indo-Jazz Fusions and Jazz Meets India was the sitar player Dewan Motihar. Deepa Motihar, his wife who lives in Delhi, and Balwant Bhaneja, a Canadian diplomat of Sindhi origin whose family once knew the Motihar brothers, provided details of Dewan Motihar’s otherwise sketchy early life. According to them, Motihar, who was born in 1927, was a song artist for All India Radio in Delhi in the 1950s and played the sitar and the Hawaiian guitar. He was also known for his Sindhi Sufi songs. Like Sathe, work led Motihar to London.

London soirees

In the late 1950s and ’60s, Sathe and Motihar were part of a group of Indian musicians in London who gathered, often informally, for soirees and concerts. These performances were organised by Ayana Deva Angadi’s Asian Music Circle at the High Commission or at private residences.

Musician Viram Jasani recounts the impromptu concerts in his father’s West London house that became a meeting point for Indian musicians and music aficionados. During several such occasions, he says, Motihar and Sathe played together, as Shamshad Bai (actress Saira Banu’s grandmother) sang. They also provided accompaniments to the actor-dancer Surya Kumari’s recitals. Surya Kumari, once a well-known film actor and singer in Madras Presidency, was popular in the UK as a dancer. In 1965, she acted in a play called Kindly Monkeys, for which Motihar and Sathe played the music.

Jazz Meets India took shape in January 1967 when Mani Neumeier, a German percussionist who had studied and worked with Motihar, contacted Sathe. As Sathe recounts in his memoir, Neumeier had created a version of a drum called the Mani-tom, playing which involved blown air via a thin hosepipe. Neumeier suggested to Sathe the possibility of a musical collaboration (not on the Mani-tom though). The idea had the encouragement of music visionary and writer Joachim-Ernst Berendt, who was deeply interested in different musical traditions.

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Kusum Thakur on the tanpura was the last member of the Indian trio. A kathak dancer who had performed for the BBC in London, Thakur had also acted in Hindi films like Talaaq and Leader.

On the album, the Indian and European trios were named after the lead instrumentalists: the Dewan Motihar trio and the Irène Schweizer trio (with the Swiss-born pianist Schweizer, Uli Trepte on bass and Neumeier). Accompanying them were Manfred Schoof on the trumpet and Barney Wilen on the tenor saxophone.

The musicians met each other for the first time two days before they were scheduled to perform at the Donaueschingen festival in the Black Forest region. The album was recorded at Villingen-Schwenningen, and a week later, they opened the Berlin Jazz Festival as part of Berendt’s Jazz Meets the World series.

The 37-minute Jazz Meets India had three tracks, with Motihar on sitar leading in the first track, Sun Love. Motihar’s scat singing style was evident in the next track, Yaad. In the last track Brigach and Ganges – the name drew from two revered rivers in Germany and India, to symbolise the spirit of collaboration – the freeform jazz gave way seamlessly to the clearly recognisable tones of a classical raga. The 1970 issue of Jazz Forum, a magazine of the International Jazz Federation, described the album as “one of the most important record editions of the last few years”.

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After Jazz Meets India, Motihar and Sathe played together on the Indo-Jazz Fusions album. They also recorded two songs for Mayer, along with the guitarist Amancio D’Silva and the saxophonist Tony Coe. The duo also accompanied Welsh folk-rock singer Meic Stevens on his only English language album, Outlander.

Later years

Motihar left for the US in 1970. Living on the East Coast, he continued to look for gigs. He once performed at a concert in New York with percussionist Badal Roy, which was well-received, and released an album of Kabir bhajans. But, unlike in London, he was unable to become part of a musical collective.

According to Bhaneja, Motihar returned to India in the 1980s and immersed himself in Sindhi music. He worked mainly with his brother, the composer Kan Motihar, releasing several records and cassettes. Motihar died in 2002.

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In London, Sathe continued performing with eclectic groups of musicians and remained innovative. He was part of D’Silva’s Konkani Dance as well as the “psychedelic folk-rock” album Sagram (a misprint of the word sargam) that included Jim Moyes on the guitar and Clem Alford on the sitar. Moyes, Alford and Sathe teamed up with singer Alisha Sufit to form the band Magic Carpet. Sathe also toured with Indian Music, a group that he had formed with Anand Pillay on the sitar, Tony Roberts on the flute, and dancer Shobana Jeyasingh. Pillay taught mathematics at university in Britain, and Jasani would often step in to take his place when he was busy.

Sathe’s last concert was in 1993 in San Sebastian, Spain. Before a packed audience, Sathe was lauded for his musical dedication and honoured by fellow musicians of the John Renbourn group, whom he had played with since 1973. Apart from Renbourn and Sathe, the band included Roberts, the singer Jacqui McShee, and Sue Draheim, who played an eight-stringed fiddle. Sathe died in London in 2012.

As Sathe’s oeuvre makes evident, he carved out a musical career on his own, with fortuitous help at pivotal moments. He lived a life of intense and often accidental experimentation, but one, as with Motihar, that was intensely devoted to music.