Under my byline

Jazz, incorporated

Posted in Profiles by Rrishi on 24 February 2008

Manoj Pant teaches economics, but loves jazz. Now he wants to help Indian musicians make money

Manoj Pant, CollegiumThe professor has rushed home to fetch an important paper, and I am briefly left in sole possession of his office. It’s a cold cube of a room in JNU’s School of International Studies, where Manoj Pant teaches trade theory. Papers and dusty stationery cover the table, and gray metal shelves hold books and reports on WTO, FDI, the north-eastern states, Japan, Korea, Latin America — including a couple by Pant himself. There’s not a hint of his passion for music, specifically jazz.

“It’s all in here,” he says when he returns, pointing to his computer. But it isn’t really. It’s safe at home, where he has a room for his music and guitars. (He also has a six-man band — Collegium.) “In any profession you must have another profession which is completely distinct,” Pant says, “otherwise your other profession suffers. If I did only economics from nine o’clock to eight o’clock I’d be a cynic. To me [music] was a hobby, and then it became something evolved as a way of letting your mind settle.”

And then it evolved further.

While still a schoolboy, Pant had started to teach himself the guitar. He went to America in the 1970s for a PhD; there he took music classes and became “a reasonably good classical guitarist”. With time, however, he found that Western music “was more an intellectual challenge than something coming from within.”

Then he discovered jazz. “I realised this is what comes naturally to me… In jazz, Indian and Western music was coming closer together than in any other form of music.”

After he returned in 1982, Pant co-founded Jazz India’s Delhi chapter and was a moving force behind the famous Jazz Yatra music festivals of that decade. It “was a kind of pilgrimage,” he says. “Every two years we used to have these bands from all around the world come down and we’d have an interaction of music.”

Listening to diverse strands of jazz, he began to ask himself why, if music was a universal language, there wasn’t such a thing as “universal music”. “Everyone thinks that the integration of Indian and Western music came about through the Beatles and Ravi Shankar,” he says, “but that’s not true. That was simply George Harrison trying to play Western music on a sitar!”

Integration, he says “is that their idioms must also match. In my own training I discovered that in 16th-century [European] music, what is called modal [Gregorian] music, the modes are very similar to Indian music, what they call ragas.” The raga provides the theme upon which the musician improvises — and improvisation is at the root of both Indian classical and jazz.

Such improvisation, as any Indian classical or jazz connoisseur knows, quickly leads to great complexity. But the intensive musical training in India, says Pant, “makes even the most average guy in Indian music do the most intricate things and not realise he’s doing an intricate thing”.

No wonder, according to Pant, some of “the greatest names in jazz [are] Indian musicians: Hariprasad Chaurasia, L Subramaniam, even people like Bhimsen Joshi and Zakir Hussain. Trilok Gurtu, who’s a tabla player, is probably the best and most successful jazz percussionist in Europe. The sad part is they’re all doing this outside.”

Integration can make money. For instance, film music: “Today there is more money in Hindi pop than Western pop because the Indian gets the best of both. He gets the rhythmic forms of Western music and the words of Hindi music. So why should he listen to the two separately?”

Speaking of money, Pant was struck by the difficulty of making a living as a professional musician in India. “Textiles is a small-scale industry” with many local producers, he points out. “What about the artist as an industry? There are a lot of musicians who are trying to figure out how do I get to the national level, but they don’t have the wherewithal.”

His solution? Declare music an industry, as was done for films. “The minute you have a recognised industry you can get loans [to start a school or studio], you can import [equipment] on a preferential basis.” For banks, these loans “can be part of their risk-weighted portfolios”.

Unlike many economists, Pant had a chance to put his ideas into practice. Some of his research concerned the north-east, and in 2001-2003 he was taken on as economic advisor to the government of Nagaland. “If you want to integrate the states of the north-east, not only with India but with each other,” he told them, “why don’t you have music festivals?”

In 2004 Nagaland declared music an industry. Now two regional music festivals — Hornbill and Roots — support local and foreign talent-spotting, and a host of ancillary activities has grown, such as studios and recording houses.

“In a small place like Kohima,” Pant recounts happily, “there’s a music store which is better stocked than many in Delhi. I kept asking [the owner], whom are you selling to? Are you selling to other north-east states? He said I’m not able to satisfy the demand even in Nagaland, where do I go to other states?”

“How long can the state keep promoting something?” Pant asks. “The private industry in music must develop. This is not the Mughal days where the state looked after a Tansen — and there was only one Tansen. I’m always saying look at the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.”

(Visit Collegium’s website.)

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