Public Ethnomusicologist Showcases Work With Indian Music

Chicago IL: In a presentation on Feb. 13 at Logan Center for the Arts of University of Chicago (UC) titled “Moving across Global Soundscapes: the Permutations of a Public Ethnomusicologist,” Amelia (Amie) Maciszewski explored documentary film-making and musical performance. A constant refrain was the constraints and advantages of pursuing such a vocation outside of academia.

Prof. Kaley Mason at UC Dept. of Music introduced Maciszewski as sitarist, teaching artist, ethnomusicologist, and documentary filmmaker. Having begun her training in Hindustani music under late sitarist Suresh Mishra, she continues under sarod maestro Aashish Khan and Hindustani vocal diva Girija Devi. She has 4 CDs to her credit: Guru Pranam (2010) and Light and Legacy (2007) both feature her classical sitar. Sangeet Safar (2010) and Shimmering (2007) showcase her Indo-jazz fusion project ensemble Sangeet Millennium. A PhD in ethnomusicology from University of Texas (Austin), she has been visiting professor and teaching artist at the Universities of Colorado, Alberta, Pittsburgh, and Texas. Passionate about women’s rights and creativity, she has published several articles and produced 4 films documenting her research with courtesan musicians (tawaif) in India. Maciszewski resides primarily in Austin and Dallas.

Maciszewski showed scenes of her ongoing collaboration in “Indo-Jazz” fusion with saxophonist Paul Klemperer with whom she recently toured Oklahoma, performing and giving lecture-demonstrations at universities and schools. In a sound clip from the tour, her sitar plays along with Aparna Shah’s singing to Klemperer’s composition related to raga Charukeshi, accompanied on tabla by Shantilal Shah. Purists of Hindustani music remain uncomfortable about the pitch of the jazz saxophone, which sometimes sounds out of tune to them. At Diwali San Antonio, the only official civic festival of its kind in the US, Sangeet Millennium Ensemble, led by Amie (here playing the bowed instrument esraj) with Paul, accompany vocalist Madhura Chakrabarti singing a Baul song at Hemisphere Park. Also chronicled are her frequent performances at benefit events for non-profit human rights organizations such as Miracle Foundation, which has launched several orphanages in India, and Guria Sansthan, which works to fight modern-day sexual slavery and trafficking.

Wearing her scholar hat Maciszewski works with the Sangeet Research Academy (SRA) in Kolkata on their Guru Pedagogy project. SRA recreates the setting of the traditional Hindustani music master-disciple (gurukul) system of training. SRA’s eleven gurus teach without syllabus or degree conferred, only regular performance evaluations. The project examines their respective highly individualized pedagogies to discover consistent principles through inter-guru dialogue, but without attempting to standardize. The research team has conducted extensive interviews of the gurus, including 83-year-old vocalist Padmabhushan Girija Devi, 103-year-old vocalist Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, and sarodist Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta, with the intention of developing a comprehensive, rigorous pedagogy of Hindustani music that combines a certain standardization of musical knowledge with the nuanced training of the gurukul. This needs to be at once authentic and catalytic, reverent to tradition yet remaining relevant in the globalized, economic superpower India of the 21st century.

SRA Executive Director Ravi Mathur, who has no music background and no political agenda, insists on statistical analysis to allow intrinsic musical value to emerge through questions: What is special about your teaching method (taleem)? What steps do you follow with respect to rag-dhari, bol, gaayaki, layakari, riyaaz, etc.? Are students taught individually or in groups? All the Indian students at SRA are on scholarship. Non-hereditary musicians on the SRA faculty such as Dasgupta are less concerned with gharana (stylistic lineage) than those either from hereditary backgrounds or closely connected to them, such as Girija Devi.

Devi’s responses during class at her campus quarter were simple but profound: “Thumri is like a garden with different flowers; hence difficult to standardize, unlike khyaal. Dhrupad, dhamaar, tappa, etc., are also specialties of Banaras. . . . Nobody sings thumri like our Banarasis, unlike khyaal which everybody sings.” The thumri clip showed Amie seated with other students learning bol banao (elaborating the words of the lyrics) in raaga Bhairavi.

Khan responded in Urdu to researcher Meena Banerjee on the relative emphasis on taal, laya, layakari: “People can be out of tune but not out of taal.” In the video clip, he demonstrated the first song he learned (asthut). To Banerjee’s question “How have you preserved your voice?” he replied, matter-of-factly “Through daily namaaz and prescribed fasting (roza).”

Buddhadev Dasgupta, who completed a career as a mechanical engineer, demonstrates a systematic analytical approach to teaching music. His youngest student is only four years old.

Maciszewski then showed clips from two movies for which had composed and performed soundtrack music last year. Her rendition of Tagore’s song, Tomaro Ashime, for the narrative short film “Clay” by Sushma Khadepaun-Parmer of Cutting Chai productions evoked the pathos (raaga Bihag) of a wife mourning her husband. Rituparna Basu’s documentary The Revolutionaries chronicles the lost history of Bengal during Partition retold by an old pensioner, Purnendra Chakravarti. It opens with Maciszewski’s lively raaga Desh animating Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech. Her plaintive esraj subsequently expresses the disillusionment of these former revolutionaries reduced to pensioners.

The workshop was part of the weeklong “Performing the Bengal Borderlands: Music, Movement and Encounter.” Maciszewski performed on sitar at the inaugural concert (Feb. 11) and spoke at the international symposium (Feb. 14). She acted as catalyst to kick off the concluding mehfil (informal musical gathering) and keep it going at the Dept. of Music (Feb. 15). At the “Voices of Change” panel (Feb.16) hosted by UC Smart Museum, she introduced her advocacy work with the courtesan musicians (tawaif) in North India, before showing her fifty-minute documentary.

Throughout, the freelancer emphasized her ever-changing and overlapping roles as performer, producer, teaching artist, research associate, film music composer, and her espousal of music as a mode of advocacy. The lack of a regular academic salary poses the challenge of navigating civic sources of funding and grant proposal writing, in which she must clearly state how presenting Indian music directly benefits students at school and the wider community.

Photo captions
1) Maciszewski (center facing) conducting her workshop at UC Logan Center for Arts on Feb. 13
2) Amie Maciszewski speaking during the international symposium “Performing the Bengal Borderlands” at the UC Francke Center for Humanities on Feb. 14
3) Maciszewski introducing her social activism on behalf of the tawaif at the “Voices of Change” panel on Feb.16 hosted by UC Smart Museum at the Logan Center for the Arts.
4) Amie Maciszewski (R) on the sitar accompanied by Manpreet Bedi on the tabla at “‘Hindustani Strings at the Borderlands” concert on Feb. 11 at UC Logan Center for Arts
5) Assistant Prof Kaley Mason (R) of UC Dept. of Music introducing Amie Maciszewski (C) on the sitar accompanied by Manpreet Bedi on tabla (L) on Feb. 11 at UC Logan Center for Arts.