Peter Pannke

PETER PANNKE, a renowned German musician-cum-writer and exponent of dhrupad, was recently in India for Ayurvedatreatment in Kerala and for a few musical interactions in Delhi and Mumbai.

It was eight thirty in the evening.At one of the resorts on the banks of the fast dying river Nila, in Cheruthuruthy village nearKerala Kalamandalam in Trissoor, ten people assembled after an ‘ayurvedic dinner’. Peter Pannke,the celebrated European musician,dhrupad exponent and author, invited renowned Bangalore-based sculptor Balan Nambiar, Sanskrit professor Heidrun Bruckner, Chair of Indology, University of Wurzburg in Germany, and me for dinner followed by his chamber concert for an hour.Nambiar and I were the only Indians. Other invitees included the prominent German litterateur Ilija Trojanow, whose latest novel The Collector of Worlds has already been translated into 27 languages, and Thomas Ott, the Chair of music of Cologne University. Peter wanted to celebrate the final day of his successful Ayurveda treatment. When he sang four compositions, including one of his own, for an hour, the mellifluousness dispelled from our minds the swansong of the dying river close by. The occasional mosquito bites too did not bother us.

“My father sang old folk songs and accompanied himself on the lute, and that was the first instrument I played,”smiles a jubilant Peter Pannke, who had no other inheritance in music. It was the first LP of the elder Dagar Brothers, released in the UNESCO series in 1964, “that inspired a whole generation of musicians and composers from the West to come to India to look for the roots of dhrupad.It attracted me too towards India.”

“The first Dhrupad Mela organised in 1975 at Tulsi Ghat in Varanasi by Amarnathji, the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, came as a revelation to me. Here I heard the musicians of the Mallik family for the first time. They were totally unknown to Westerners, and they put up such a wild performance that I did not dare to talk to them, but it was certainly a big inspiration.” This led Peter to conceive and execute the idea of the “European Dhrupad Mela” in 1983,which “triggered off all the dhrupad concerts in Europe going on now”.In 1992 he organised the Parampara Festival in Berlin which brought together Indian masters and their disciples from all over the world. “Since then we have been touring almost every year, doing hundreds of concerts, from backyard clubs in East Berlin to the Royal Albert Hall,’ says Peter.

Why dhrupad?

“In India, musicians say that dhrupad is most difficult to master, but for a total beginner it is easier to grasp the unadorned notes in dhrupad. The structure behind this music is much easier to recognise. The precise intonation of single notes caught our attention, because the so-called “minimal music”which came up in the 1970s did exactly that—exploring the possibilities of a system of intonation which had existed in the West before Werkmeister and Bach established the tempered scales that became the playground of Western composers after them”, Peter reflects.

According to him,it is a misconception that Indian music is based on melody while Western music is based on harmony. “Rudimentary forms of harmony came up maybe in the 11th century. Before that, the system of 22 sruti-s or intonation based on the consonance, was very much in use in Europe. Unfortunately, the Christian church expelled all traces of Eastern music from the liturgy,and the music of the troubadours which came to Europe via Al Andalus and Sicily was totally extinguished.”

Musical journey

Peter made his debut at the Vrindavan Dhrupad Mela in 1984, with a German friend who also was learning from Vidur Mallik. It was part of their training at the gurukula, but he adds that he never studied to perform,especially not in Germany, “because I always thought performing dhrupad for a German audience would be like addressing them in Chinese!”

Peter did most of his Indian musical practice with Vidur Mallik and his three sons Ram Kumar, Anand Kumar and Prem Kumar. He owes his very systematic introduction into singing to N. Zahiruddin Dagar who taught him for two years. When Peter wanted to learn from Ram Chatur Mallik who was a very senior musician, Zahiruddin Dagar told him that he could come back to him any time. The Malliks have a vast repertoire,virtually thousands of compositions. Whereas the Dagars take pride in singing dhrupad exclusively, the Malliks insist that an accomplished singer must know all the styles. At the Darbhanga court, dhrupad was sung at religious functions, but the soirees of the maharajas called for khayal,thumri and ghazal. The Malliks still excel in it, and to top it they sing all the Vidyapati songs in Maithili,”explains Peter.

Peter received training from four generations of artists from the Mallik family. It all started when he met the Malliks again at the Dhrupad Mela of Radha Raman Mandir in Vrindavan in 1980. “At the Mela I listened to hundreds of dhrupadia-s from different corners for seven days and nights. The Malliks were by far the best performers, and I just stayed back in Vrindavan. I had some money from the Ford Foundation to record an archive of all the dhrupad-s I could get hold of, but I saw that it was not possible to preserve the music by just recording it. It was necessary to bring teachers and students together,and the money was used to open a ‘gurukula’. Vidur Mallik became our first teacher, and he stayed in Vrindavan until his death in 2002. We often invited Ram Chatur Mallik, the senior singer of the tradition, for recordings. He fascinated me so much that I followed him to Bihar and stayed with him in Darbhanga for a couple of years. Having joined the Darbhanga court in 1924, he was a very close friend of the younger brother of the Maharaja. In the end, he let me copy the book in which his father Rajatram Mallik had collected all their compositions—hundreds of dhrupad-s and dhamar-s. The local officials of the Bihar Sangeet Natak Academy criticised him for handing over this treasure to a foreigner. He told them that his book would be eaten by white ants if he gave it to them!”

Peter established the Free Music Centre in Munich in the late 1970s where he taught people how to open their voices for almost seven years before he concentrated on his own work.

Own style

Being trained by both the Malliks and the Dagars, combining both the gharana-s, does Peter yearn for a style of his own? “I have been living and travelling with the Mallik family on and off for the last few decades, and we were singing together all the way.But mostly I do my own performances with my own songs, in my own style which I developed over the years. Sometimes with my own band,sometimes in duo with Prem Kumar Mallik. We have a vast repertory, and we do whatever suits the occasion. I never put up dhrupad recitals for myself, but nowadays I give people a taste of dhrupad if the circumstances are right. I believe it is quite exotic for Europeans whereas in India people can place it. They seem to enjoy it,seeing that I put my heart into it.”

When Peter found that his dhrupad background was suited to troubadour songs, he launched his own band called “Troubadours United”, an international group living on several continents.The band plays Indian,Sufiand troubadour music. He lives like a musical vagabond and a wandering storyteller-cum-writer. Peter also worked for radio and did almost 4000 broadcasts since 1978, more than half of them on Indian music.

His books

His book Singers Die Twice won him additional laurels in the international circuit. He conceived it when Vidur Mallik died. It is partly a travelogue—of his journey through flooded Bihar to attend the last rites in Vidur Mallik’s native village Amta, near Darbhanga. Peter has produced two photobooks too, one about India called Festival of Colours, published in German and French, and one about the Sufi music of Pakistan called Troubadours of Allah which will be published in Pakistan this year. His forthcoming book to be published in Germany soon is about the art of drumming in Mali in West Africa.

His next project? “Oh, it is a book about the Fakirs and Malangs of Pakistan. I was living at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif for a year before coming to India. I tell this story comparing the scene of the early 1970s with what is happening in Pakistan today.”