Welcome to Mumbai!
This tour is the first one in which I’ve bypassed Mumbai (formerly Bombay) as the first stop. I had landed in Mumbai and immediately transferred by domestic flight to Nagpur. Nagpur, in central India, was much smaller and less crowded than Mumbai. Arriving back in Mumbai and taking a taxi to the hotel, I was vividly reminded of the high population density, resulting in gridlocked highways during peak hours. Mumbai at rush hour is the essence of chaos. Cars and buses constantly honk their horns, to no effect, other than to add to the chaos. No one adheres to lanes. Indians who visit the US are impressed that in our rush hour traffic, Americans faithfully follow the prescribed lanes as marked on the roadways. In India, there are rarely any lane markings, and when there are, they are usually ignored. Cars press forward, filling every space in the relentless push forward. Often the side rearview mirrors are folded in, so that the cars can squeeze through tight spaces. No one looks behind anyway.No one knows the exact population of Mumbai. Estimates range up to twenty million inhabitants. There are millions of rural families who migrate into the city in search of jobs. Mumbai contains the world’s largest slums, as seen by many for the first time in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. But Mumbai is also witnessing a building boom. There are dozens of ultra-modern high-rises under construction. Besides offices, the growing middle class will purchase residence apartments in the new buildings. Often slum huts spring up beside the new buildings, housing the menial laborers and their families who hope to cook, clean, babysit, and otherwise work for the more prosperous high-rise resident neighbors.
Mumbai’s cultural level is very high. It is home to Bollywood, India’s version of the Hollywood film industry, in India’s case producing more films than any other country. Almost all of them are musicals, providing song and dance numbers that are then played on the radio after having been featured in movie houses. There is lots of work for studio musicians. I had the pleasure of working in the Bollywood studios fore several months in 1982-83. I was invited to work in the studios by my friend Louiz Banks. I played the wind synthesizer at that time, which, because it was a new and rare instrument, meant that I was not taking work away from any Indian studio musicians. Bollywood already had plenty of Indian flutists and saxophonists who were available as needed. I recorded for the late famous producer, R. D. Burman, as well as recording with Lata Mangashkar, the vocalist holding the Guiness world record for the most recordings made by a single individual.
I traveled to India first in 1971, which is when I became enamored with the bamboo flute used in Indian classical music. I enrolled at the Ali Akbar College of Music in California in 1975. In 1982 and 1983, I traveled to India, first as part of a music troupe accompanying superstar Indian Kathak dancer, Chitresh Das. That’s also when I met keyboardist Louiz Banks and became involved in the jazz and recording scene in Mumbai. All the while, I have continued to pursue the study of the rich classical Indian music traditions. This ancient tradition holds more music than any single person can master in a lifetime.
Part of the pleasure for me of visiting India is the opportunity to attend Indian classical music concerts. I’ve attended two classical concerts so far on this trip. The first was a Kathak dance concert. Kathak is the major style of North Indian classical dance (as opposed to Baratanatyam dance in the south and Odissi in the east.) Having worked with Chitresh Das, I appreciate the finer points of Kathak, and the featured dancer on this concert was excellent. She danced traditional stories from ancient Indian texts. She performed rhythmic compositions accompanied by a quartet of excellent musicians. She danced with a troupe of other dancers in ensemble pieces. And finally, she did a more modern interpretive dance accompanied by keyboard, saxophone, and pre-recorded rhythm tracks. Originally, Mynta was supposed to open this concert, but circumstances prevented that. And so, we were invited as “special guests”, called to the stage at the beginning of the concert to light candles in the ritual to consecrate the stage, which initiates all traditional Kathak concerts.
The second concert we attended was at the invitation of Mynta’s tabla star, Fazal Qureshi. It was a traditional classical concert, featuring tabla with sarangi (a string instrument similar to the cello), a vocalist, a violinist, and a South Indian-style percussionist who has also played with Mynta on several occasions. The vocalist happened to be Vikku Vinayakram’s second son. (We had just performed with Vikku as described in my blog of several days ago.) Once again, Mynta was invited to sit in the “VIP” front row. India, perhaps as an outgrowth of its caste system, separates concert attendees by setting up VIP sections, and sometimes even VVIP (very very important persons) sections.
Second Mynta Concert
Mynta’s second concert of the tour is our only one in Mumbai on this trip. It provided me with the opportunity to invite some of my local friends to attend. The concert was a sell-out. Again, we shared the program with star percussionist Sivamani. Since Mynta is re-uniting for the first time since our last tour a year ago, we were more comfortable with each other by this second concert. Our repertoire is quite difficult, and so it improves with practice.
For this Mumbai concert, we were graced by the guest appearance on one piece by Indian vocal star Shankar Mahadevan. Shankar toured Sweden as a member of Mynta for several years prior to my joining the band. Since leaving Mynta, his career has continued to expand, including composing and producing soundtracks, commercial productions, recordings, and touring with guitarist John McLaughlin’s latest incarnation of his Indian-fusion group, Shakti. Suffice it to say that I consider Shankar to be one of the most versatile and virtuosic vocalists I’ve ever heard, much less had the opportunity to perform with.
Thoughts at Large
In India, visitors are ever reminded of the existence of many poor people. There are beggars who wander through the gridlocked traffic, tapping on the car’s windows to solicit donations. The poor are visibly malnourished, unlike many of America’s poor, who are sometimes overweight. Poor Americans can be obese and in poor health from poor lifestyles and bad diets, supported by the commercial food industry that uses government subsidies to make unhealthy fast food more affordable than healthier foods. India’s poor are generally very skinny. Indeed, obesity used to be a sign of wealth.
With a population of over a billion people, India’s greatest resource is its cheap labor. However, most of the poor workers are illiterate and unskilled. Usually, everyone…men, women, and children in a poor family are forced to work, to simply survive. Child labor is rampant, even though it is officially illegal. (The caste system has been illegal for many years, but it still exists as well.)
I sometimes feel “first-world guilt” when money is lavished on us visiting foreigners as guests, while the workers behind the scenes at the hotels and restaurants are struggling just to earn enough to feed themselves. Traveling to India reminds one of how fortunate we are in the US and Europe. The public’s water system is clean. The electricity is consistently reliable. The public institutions are generally honest. It’s not necessary to pay bribes to receive basic public services. Pollution is generally under control. Food is cheap and plentiful. Be thankful! Even the poor in America are rich compared with the poor of India, based on the environmental factors listed above.