Pianist Madhav Chari talks about the spirit of jazz, linking his music to Indian philosophy and his experiential workshops. DIVYA KUMAR listens in
PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN
If you go to meet jazz pianist Madhav Chari expecting to discuss just jazz or even just music, think again. With mind-whirling rapidity the conversation flows between cognitive science and colonialism, mathematics and anthropology, Indian philosophy and American academia, not to mention martial arts, dance and the Bhakti movement…
At one point, I have to ask him to stop briefly, so I can look back to the original list of questions I’d studiously prepared before the interview. But they seem rather limited — and limiting — now, so I decide to let the conversation take its course, just interjecting the odd query now and again.
“What we’re doing right now is jazz music,” says Madhav, halfway through, during an impassioned (there isn’t any other kind with Madhav) discussion on how jazz is freedom, but with form. “This conversation is not scripted. It’s loosely improvised but you’re still providing direction — that’s jazz music.”
And with that neat journalistic analogy for jazz, the free-flowing chat suddenly makes sense. After all, the essence of any conversation with Madhav Chari is jazz, the music form that grabbed him when he was a six-year-old in Kolkata and hasn’t let go since.
“What about it grabbed me I don’t know,” he muses. Maybe it was his father’s knowledge of jazz from the 1940s, when he saw the big bands of the era play while at The Lawrence School, Lovedale. Or, perhaps the family friend whom he used to watch improvising on the piano. “There was just an emotional connect. It’s like asking why the chocolate cake appealed to you… it’s hard to answer.”
He dismisses his training in Western classical piano as mere calisthenics. “Loosely speaking, yes, I’m trained in Western classical, in the sense that I did the gamut of exams, but it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s because we learn the music in a context where it wasn’t born, where that form of music isn’t a vibrant, living force, unlike in London, Moscow or Paris.”
This idea of absorbing music as a ‘living force’, of experiencing its spirit, is of intense importance to Madhav. That’s why he cherishes the time he spent in the U.S. at places such as New York or Chicago, where jazz still lives. There was the time, for instance, that he got to play with a local sax legend in Chicago while he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC).
“The great pianist Tommy Flanagan, who had recorded with John Coltrane, was sitting in the audience… I saw him and my heart just skipped a beat,” he laughs. “But the music took me over and I forgot my stage fright, and in the end, he congratulated me and gave me his number in New York. These experiences were very important in my search as a jazz musician.”
After his studies, Madhav spent some time as part of the jazz scene in New York and a brief eight months in Toronto before returning to India in 2003 and settling in Chennai, where his parents live. These past seven years have been a period of a spiritual awakening for the pianist, and Indian philosophy has now become an integral part of his musical journey.
“I want to be a jazz musician who thoroughly understands the tradition of the music, but who’s also alive to the possibilities of his own consciousness and has linked himself with the mystical traditions of India,” he says, adding with a smile, “But I don’t play Hindustani music… I’ll be playing the blues.”
He’s also developed some very strong opinions (to put it mildly) on the Indian music scene — whether it’s local jazz or fusion. “I will go on record saying that in the last 40 years, not one musician in Mumbai — the leading jazz centre in India — has tapped the spirit of jazz,” he says emphatically. “They’ve tapped the form, but not the spirit. And that’s why I have a problem with fusion as well, because so much of it is technical and theoretical, with very little experiential insight.”
His own corporate workshops, which he now conducts with martial arts expert George Kurian, focus entirely on just that — the experiential. “We make people do music and martial arts exercises, and allow the gateways of the mind to open up,” Madhav says. “There’s hardly any talking, because I believe that in the modern Indian urban consciousness, language is a tremendous block to understanding. English has blocked our access to our own experiences — it’s a facet of colonialism.”
These beliefs are part of the reason why Madhav has connected with Chennai the way he has since 2003. “It’s not about it being conservative or liberal; it’s about it being open to experiences while being rooted in tradition,” he says of the city. “I’m not impressed by people telling me Bangalore is more hip or modern; modernity is actually old, based on where I want to go in a cosmic sense.”
He enjoys the writings of S.N. Balagangadhara, chair of the Comparative Science of Cultures Centre at Ghent University in Belgium, on Hindu philosophy and religion.
He loves the music of American jazz pianist ‘Bud’ Powell. Madhav’s most recent album ‘Parisian Thoroughfares’ is titled after a Powell composition.
He likes Mathematics, in which he has a Masters degree from Dartmouth University