One hundred strings and peaceful brainwaves: Indian classical santoor comes to Egypt

Maria K., Saturday 10 Sep 2016

India's santoor player Bipul Kumar Ray and his band completed a tour around four Egypt cities, where he spread ancient knowledge and positive vibrations between 5 and 8 September

In the centre, Dr Bipul Kumar Ray plays on santoor (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

"When you are feeling troubled, disturbed by thoughts, I am 100 percent sure that if you listen to my concert and close your eyes, you will feel very comfortable and beautiful inside. You will probably sleep."

While for many musicians the sight of a sleeping audience would be disheartening, for Bipul Kumar Ray it seems to be one of the desired effects.

Soothing the mind, attaining inner peace and, eventually, freedom from all worldly concerns are among the main obectives in Indian classical music, of which Ray, a disciple of the renowned Pandit Bhajan Sopori, is a pure and profoundly trained representative.

His recent tour around Egypt started 5 September with a performance in Alexandria within the framework of the 14th Bibliotheca Alexandrina International Summer Festival.

Accompanied by Indranil Mallik on tabla, Manohar Balatchandirane on mridangam and Avinash Kumar on swarmandal and vocals, he proceeded to Cairo 6 September and then to Minya and Beni Suef on 7 and 8 September respectively.

Having performed before in China, Thailand, Peru, Venezuela and Austria, Bipul Ray found the Egyptian audience "vibrant" and eager to learn new things.

"They [the listeners] try to understand, ask so many things about Indian classical music, what is raga (melodic scale) and tala (rhythmic cycle) system," Ray comments to Ahram Online.

Ready to share his knowledge with the Egyptian audience, he combined his concerts with question and answer sessions. Teaching is something Bipul Ray obviously enjoys: already a santoor instructor at Delhi University in his early thirties, he also runs a private music academy Raganjali in Delhi, and gives workshops and private classes around the world.

He has almost 20 students ranging from five to 65 years old, some Indian and some foreigners, from Argentina, Spain, Russia, Thailand, and China. "All are equal. I think anyone can learn santoor. Fundamentals are very easy," he comments.

Indranil Mallik on the Indian tabla [L] and Dr Bipul Kumar Ray on santoor [R] (Photos: Mona Abdel Karim)

Santoor, the cousin of Arabic qanun

The Indian classical santoor Ray is plays is a close relative of the qanoun of Arabic music.

The main and obvious difference between the instruments is the way of producing the sound. The qanoun player plucks the strings, whereas the santoor player hammers them with special strikers called "kalam." This puts the santoor into the group of "hammered dulcimers" among a large family of similar instruments examples of which can be found in many countries all around the world: khim in Thailand, salterio in Mexico, tsymbaly in Ukraine, to name a few. In India, the general term for stringed instruments is "veena."

"In ancient times in India we had a hundred types of veenas. Currently maybe seven or eight of them are being played. It is not bad," says Bipul Ray philosophically. "With time, in every country something changes in culture and music. It is not possible to remember and preserve all things."

It seems Ray never loses his calm. He is sure that his type of veena, a relatively new one, has a good future.

"It came into the scene just 50 years ago. Now it is very famous in India and abroad, appears in private and governmental festivals, in film music."

Compared to its predecessor from Kashmir, used in the local "sufiana mausiqi," this santoor is far more developed; it has one hundred strings and is perfectly suited for playing classical ragas. Raga is an Indian melodic system close to the Arabic maqamat, which is based on scales and strict rules for their development, and gives large possibilities for improvisation on the spot.

"Mostly I select what I will be playing an hour or even half-an-hour before the concert," Ray admits.

So in Alexandria, for example, he presented pieces in raga Rageshree; in Minya the choice was Sohni.

"There are maybe 1,400 ragas in general and it is impossible to know them all. I know the basics of 350-400. I know well almost 200. As for regular playing, most Indian musicians select about 20 for a lifetime," he reveals.

Santoor performance in Cairo (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Bipul Ray doesn't beleive in simplifying his repertoire to make it more accessible for a foreign audience.

"For me, it doesn't make difference if I am playing in India or I am playing abroad. I follow the grammar all the time. There is no need to break the system and do something easy. We can do a smaller piece, but in pure form."

Among the different criteria for selecting a raga is the time of the performance, as the melodic scales are attributed to the seasons of the year and the hours of the day.

"If I play a morning melody in the evening, I will not feel good," Ray says.

Theraupetic functions of music

From ancient times, it has been believed that each raga has special powers, from invoking rain or fire to setting the mind into a religious or romantic mood.

Recently, Bipul Kumar Ray took research on the effect of ragas on the human mind to a scientific level. Together with Mehulkumar Dave, a psychologist from Mumbai, they are conducting research based on the measurement of brain wave frequencies within a group of around 15 children with different brain and mental disorders.

The musician has already created 32 tracks for therapeutic listening sessions; the psychologist prescribes and conducts sessions while gathering digital data on special equipment imported from the US. Autism, IQ development problems, stress, insomnia — they beleive raga music can be helpful for these conditions, but the official results are yet to be published.

Involving children and young people in traditional music is a special mission for Bipul Kumar Ray.

"It is a very important message for youth of every country: please preserve traditional things. If your classical art forms are not safe, you are not safe. Try to understand your country, your culture, and respect music of all other countries, all cultures, all humans ... If children listen to music, practice music, they will be very good human beings. You know, now people get involved in terrorism and all these things. But if you are a musician, you cannot murder anybody."

Santoor performance at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 5 September (Photo: Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Centre Facebook page)

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