I first heard of Richard Bennett when I received a link to his then “new” album, New York Swara. On it he re-imagined the beautiful Indian raga, “Hamsadwani” and “Raga Gunkali,” which is allied to the bucolic morning raga “Bhairavi.” Everything unfolds with mystical purity through the notes of Mr. Bennett’s piano. On this record he also performed the lesser-known, but no less majestic “Raga Miyan ki Malhar” composed by Raja Miyan, a 14th Century Hindustani vocalist who might, today, be recognised as the “John Coltrane” of his generation. This record intrigued and fascinated me even before I had the opportunity to listen to it. How could anyone, I wondered, play Indian ragas on a piano? There was no drone of the veena within earshot, just a violin, double bass, tabla and a western drumset. A double bass and drum set! What audacity. And then there was the fact that the piano is a fixed pitch instrument as opposed to the sitar and veena which are variable pitch instruments. How on earth was Mr. Bennett going to pull it off, I wondered? Then I heard the record and my ears and mind were not only opened, but literally expanded. I have heard John McLaughlin play “Indian” inflected music, but that was on a guitar specially manufactured with a set of strings strung across below the conventional six strings, tuned to vibrate in sympathy when certain notes and chords were played. But what Richard Bennett did was astounding.
I was saddened to hear that the record, pressed into a CD, was not available to me. Now that vinyls are rarely available, I would take a CD any day over digital files, which I find offensive. I was even more saddened to find that this record has been all but forgotten. But Mr. Bennett, I found, is made of sterner stuff. And he is also delightfully mad – at least that is what I have gleaned from his 2015 record which he has entitled Pure: Ragas on Piano with Soul. Again, I am left scratching my head in wonder. New York Swara was not a one-off record at all. Indian music and what a pianist can do with it is a magnificent obsession. Truth be told, I have heard only one other pianist who made an attempt to integrate the piano (the best one can call that experiment) with Indian instruments, playing original compositions in Indian modes and that was by a group called J.G.Laya, which comprised the Joël Almeida (piano) with Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam/claypot) and Subash Chandran (Konnakol/vocal percussion, mridangam, morsing/Jews harp). I heard their wonderful performance at the 1984 Jazz Festival in Bombay. And then I heard nothing; no recordings – successful or otherwise – from that trio. Like Mr. Almeida, Richard Bennett is a pianist of unbridled ingenuity, a genuine talent mad enough to pursue something that has never been deemed to be possible. And that too, to pull it off in a manner like no other pianist – dare I say musician – has done before.
Recognising this fact, I cannot stop wondering why Richard Bennett is lionised in New York – he has played at haloed concert halls and spaces that many musicians would give an arm and a leg to just get in the door – and not so much in Bombay. I believe that he ought to be better known in India and certainly in the US as well. HOwever, it did not seem to concern him when we talked some time ago, but it does bother me, sitting here in Canada. Both countries tend to dismiss anything new. Even in Canada, we cannot accept the only constant in life: change. It is a human frailty. And no matter how many times Change returns to slap us in the face, we still will not learn. However musicians like Richard Bennett are always changing; always evolving even though they fight that. Even Mr. Bennett did that when he first went to India to follow his then-fiancée, Paula Jeanine to Bombay. She is an ethnomusicologist, a jazz vocalist and multi-instrumentalist and was studying aspects of Indian performing arts. Most visitors to that city are hit by the extraordinary walls of people that seem to be in no real rush to get anywhere. Yellow and black cabs mingle with people and cows. There is extraordinary wealth in that city. You can feel it in the air. For instance the price of gas is among the highest in the world litre for litre, but this does not seem to deter people from using their cars. It hits you in the face, this maniacal ostentation. A large group of women are dripping with jewellery while the vast majority struggle to eke out a meagre existence. And yet, you feel that change is in the air – even revolution – but nothing ever happens. It’s offensive to those of us who find poverty of any kind offensive and you can’t escape it even though you know you must; even when, approaching Bombay airport you are hit with the prospect of the largest slum in the world – Dharavi – a slum so large it could effectively swallow up several favelas in Brasil in one fell swoop. How can the culture of a once great civilisation survive here, let alone thrive? I know; I was once a practicing poet there and a musician as well. And although I read my poems on national radio, at soirées held by lovers of the arts; even gave a piano recital once and published a book of poetry, no one really cared. I felt I would die an artist’s death there, like all artists seemed to do as most of them scrambled to toss its living history into one of so many rubbish heaps of civilisation. And so I did.