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All good things come in threes

Harpreet Bansal spiller fiolin

She was three years old when she decided that she would be a violinist. Now HarpreetBansal will spend three years studying the classical music of northern India.

Her father put on a cassette featuring the Indian violinist Dr Lakshminarayana Subramaniam. From that moment on, the three-year-old girl was hooked. She was absolutely determined to become a violinist.

“It was so fantastic! I asked my father who was playing, and he told me that it was an uncle in India,” says Bansal.

That was the beginning of the beginning. This autumn there was a new beginning for Harpreet Bansal, when she began a three-year-long senior research fellowship at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH). Under the title “The Vocal Violinist: Learning Through Teaching”, her research will explore and delve more deeply into the classical music of northern India. The main focus of her PhD study is the instrumental singing style of “gayaki ang”, as it is known in India.

“In Indian classical music there are two ways of playing an instrument. One of these is playing as though you were singing. This is what I want to investigate: the transferral from song to instrument. The other way of playing is more instrumental – a little more percussive,” she explains.

Father and guru

And in many ways this is how she herself entered the world of music. Because although three-year-old Harpreet had decided to become a violinist, she did not begin to play the violin until she was admitted to the local community music school at the age of eight. Until then she had been singing and playing the harmonium, which is the customary way of beginning to study the classical northern Indian music tradition.

“You learn to sing first. Everything is done by ear. The teacher sings, and you repeat what you heard without using written notation. Then afterwards you can transfer this to an instrument if you want.” This method, or tradition, is called “guru shishya parampara”.

“Guru means teacher, shishya is student, and the last word means tradition,” Bansal clarifies.

Her guru has been her father, Harbhajan Singh Bansal. He is also a musician, and Harpreet Bansal grew up with the Indian tradition as a powerful presence due to his influence.

“He is a singer, but has also taught many instruments. He moved to Norway in 1973, and has been involved with music his entire life.”

Do you think that you would have become a musician without him?

“Probably not,” Bansal laughs.“Indians and Pakistanis often want their children to become doctors or lawyers, not musicians. The future prospects for musicians aren’t as bright.”

Authentic enough?

Bansal earned her Bachelor’s degree in classical Western music in 2003. For her Master’s degree, awarded in 2011, she conducted a thorough study of the classical Indian raga tradition. The 37-year-old was born and raised in Norway, but both parents are Indian. This makes her what she calls “bi-musical”. Now she wants to find out more about the impact this has on her music.

“Because of my dual musical background, I want to determine how authentic the Indian music I play is. I am wondering whether the way I play can really be authentic.”

What do you think yourself?

Harpreet Bansal considers this for a moment.

“Of course musicians inspire each other across traditions. Even if I am influenced by the West, I think my music can be called authentic.”

All the same, she wants to confront this question and put it to the test. This is why she is travelling to India to study with a guru.

“I want to learn how to cast off my Western musical background. It will be difficult, but I’ll make a real effort. When I come back I’ll practise the material, interpret it from the point of view of both traditions, and teach it to my ensembles.”

Visiting Rotterdam in the Netherlands is also part of her travel plans.

“The music conservatory there offers a specialisation in classical Indian music. It was begun by a world-famous flautist from India who is one of my biggest idols: Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia,” Bansal says.

Mozart, Beethoven – and Indian

Bansal’s choice of musical direction has been influenced not only by her family background, but also by the way she wants to work as a musician.

“When I began at the Academy I was naturally playing Mozart and Beethoven, but I was also playing Indian music at the same time all through my studies. So when I started studying for my Master’s degree after a few years I had to think about what I wanted to do. It isn’t my style to be a member of an orchestra.”

Why not?

“I thought for a long time that I wanted to be. When it comes to craftsmanship, classical Western music has a much stronger and longer tradition, and I’m glad that I studied it. But in Indian music I have been trained as a soloist, to play with my own personal style. In an orchestra you don’t get much freedom, and I felt locked in when I did that,” answers Bansal.

Where are the points at which Indian and Western classical music meet?

“I think that they are both strong traditions, but they are very different. I can’t see any point at which Indian music and Norwegian folk music intersect, either. Both are transmitted orally – you learn by ear, not by notation. Indian folk music and Indian classical music have influenced one another throughout the years, so you can also hear scales and tonal influences that resemble Norwegian folk music. I can also hear Norwegian folk melodies that I recognise from Indian music.”

Sing, listen and learn

Her own ensemble, Bansal Band, comprises musicians from different places and with a variety of musical backgrounds, including jazz, Persian music and Indian music. Bansal herself composes the ensemble’s music. Here, too, she uses singing actively, although not on stage.

“When we rehearse, I sing the music for them first. I can play it, too, but then it’s difficult to refrain from adding ornamentation. It’s easier to show them what I mean by singing it: this is how I want it – this is how I want us to play it. For the people listening, it’s also easier to understand. Singing is organic; it’s easier to demonstrate where to breathe in the music, the dynamics, and things like that.”

How would you describe the music your ensemble plays?

“It’s a combination of composed and improvised music. The point of departure is classical northern Indian raga music. We work intensively with the material. Our goal is for all of us to get to know the tradition in depth. I serve as a teacher, just as I would for a student, so that the musicians acquire as much background knowledge as possible. You can learn more when you enjoy playing.”

She herself intends to learn more by visiting India and the Netherlands, among other places.

“One objective of getting a doctorate is to develop myself further. I’ve been working as a free-lance musician for many years, and it’s a hectic life. I don’t have time for peace and quiet. Now I want to go back to my roots and find the time to study more intensively,” says Bansal.

“I have always felt the need to show Indian musicians and audiences that even though I was born and raised in the West, I’m still a good Indian musician. Since I have studied and been influenced by Western music, I have always felt that it’s a little bit in the way when I have been in India. It’s something like... where am I?”

Do you think that the PhD. studies that you’re now undertaking will help with this?

“Yes. It’s not that I want to do it to satisfy anyone else, but I can discover more about how I play.”

A secret

What is very clear to her now, that she wants to be involved in Indian music, has not always been easy for her to recognise.

“I have always thought about how Norwegian and Indian I am. I have Indian parents, and my father has been my guru. But I have never been part of an Indian community. I have always had Norwegian friends.”

Has your involvement in Indian music felt like a lonely activity?

“Yes, it has. I have always been very interested in keeping up with what’s happening, and I’ve gone to concerts and visited Indian musicians in Oslo. When I have visited India together with my parents and my siblings, we’ve often gone to festivals, listened to music, and met with artists,” says Bansal.

At home in Norway it was for a long time a well-kept “secret” that she was involved in music.

“The fact that I played violin – Indian music – was in a way a secret. It only went on at home. I gave concerts at cultural events, but there was nobody among my acquaintances at school who knew about it.”

Why not?

“It wasn’t like that when I went to nursery. Then I gave concerts. But in primary school the environment wasn’t open to music, and in lower secondary school people had other interests. And those didn’t include Indian music. I liked Michael Jackson and listened to other music during those years, but at home it was always classical Indian music. I always felt that there were two sides to me.”

The specialised music programme at Foss Upper Secondary School proved to be a decisive turning point for her.

“I realised that this was where I belonged. Everyone was there because of music. We had a common interest. The others found it intriguing that I played Indian music, and it was regarded as something positive. It was wonderful to be able to be myself with my music.”

Now she is looking forward to discovering herself through music to an even greater degree. And she hopes to be able to share her knowledge.

“I’m expecting a certain amount of progress, that itwill sound different when I play in three years’ time. But I also hope that I can contribute something that others can make use of,” Harpreet Bansal concludes.