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Lunch with: Durga Jasraj

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-28

Durga Jasraj is, well, Mother India.

It sometimes seems that her classic face - carved from the genes of two of India's most prominent artistic families - is everywhere. In an ancient land but a modern society where half the population of 1.1 billion is under 25 years of age, that face captures the ethos and ambitions of a country that's already become the world's fourth biggest economy - and one into which Americans are pouring unprecedented investment.

It is also a face that invites attention to the fact that, notwithstanding the rapid economic development and consolidation of democracy that have lately seized the imagination of Americans, Indian society - perhaps far more than most cultures - is rooted in traditions of classicism.

And while Ms. Jasraj's emphasis is on the arts, one is left with the impression that she believes in order for the international community to better understand India - and thus do more business with it - it is essential to understand those classical roots.

"I don't want to give the impression that I've embarked on some kind of global campaign on behalf of India," she said. "I stay close to classical music. But classicism does offer insights into what India is, and where it may go."

Ms. Jasraj's face is on television; at concerts around the world, where she frequently serves as the impresario; on albums of Indian classical music, a millennia-old genre that she's made trendier; in films produced in a nation that turns out more features than any other country - more than 1,000 annually; and in the board rooms of international corporations that she's persuaded to support her enterprises that cannily meld an artistic sensibility and business acumen.

"These days everything is about globalization," Ms. Jasraj, founder of Art and Artistes India private Limited - which produces television programs, events, music albums, and ring tones for telecommunications companies - said. "So you have to present your own traditions in a manner that's contemporary and relevant. For today's young people it's difficult to connect to their own culture and music. They're lured by other options."

Those options include popular music and movies - genres, in fact, to which Ms. Jasraj has herself contributed as one of the most prominent figures in the Indian entertainment industry. Indeed, as she explains it, it was by joining the commercial industry that she was able to accumulate enough influence to obtain support for her efforts to reinforce and promote the languishing classical tradition.

"It has been a fight for me to get classical music into the mainstream," Ms. Jasraj said. "Television and radio were ignoring this music, as they were ignoring folk music. It was all pop music, all the time. I realized that no one was likely to give me sponsorship for a 30-minute weekly program about classical music on TV unless I had my own celebrity. So I decided to become famous by getting into popular TV."

Her entry into broadcasting was facilitated by Zee TV, a network affiliated at the time with Rupert Murdoch. The subscribers of the network - founded by the man who generated the satellite-TV revolution in India, Subhash Chandra - included more than 225 million people of South Asian origin in 84 countries, including America.

The game show that Ms. Jasraj hosted was an instant hit. Overnight, she became a superstar, receiving the sort of adoration from fans that in most developing countries is reserved for soccer or cricket players and, of course, movie actors.

In fact, movie roles followed. So did prominent assignments for ad campaigns. Ms. Jasraj became a sought-after figure as emcee of awards shows.

With that kind of exposure came privileged access to corporate sponsors. An international bank invited Ms. Jasraj to produce a diary and calendar illustrating the lives and work of six contemporary maestros of Indian classical music. The government-run national broadcasting network Doordarshan asked her to film events focusing on the country's two classical music genres, from North India and South India, respectively.

In those programs, which Ms. Jasraj anchors, she points out that Indian classical music is one of the world's oldest and richest musical traditions. (The scholar and Indian classical performer David Courtney has written that the basis for Indian music is "sangeet" - a combination of three art forms: vocal music, instrumental music and dance. The present system of Indian music is based upon two important pillars: rag and tal. Rag is the melodic form while tal is the rhythmic. Rag may be roughly equated with the Western term mode or scale. There is a system of seven notes which are arranged in a means not unlike Western scales.)

Now Ms. Jasraj, in cooperation with leading figures from the Indian music world, has launched the Indian Music Academy to sustain the momentum that resulted from her television productions and concerts.

These productions include including the wildly successful Tiranga, a paean to the tri-colored Indian flag; Panchatatva, a visually eclectic recitation by several maestros; and Golden Voice, Golden Years, a multi-media celebration of what Ms. Jasraj calls "musicography."

Most of these performers rarely enjoy the financial security in old age that India sometimes accords to its maestros.

Ms. Jasraj knows a thing or two about this. Her father, Pandit Jasraj, is the country's leading exponent of North Indian classical music. He hails from a distinguished lineage of the Mewati Gharana - or family - and his father Pandit Motiram, and older brother Pandit Maniram, were both famous figures in classical music.

Indeed, there's a music auditorium named in her father's honor in the Long Island community of Hempstead. The University of Toronto has established a music fellowship in his name.

Ms. Jasraj also has distinguished lineage from her mother Madhura, whose father, V. Shantaram, was a prominent film producer and director. (He gave his granddaughter a role in one of his films when she was barely five.)

"So I represent a synthesis - singing from my father's side, acting from my mother's side," Ms. Jasraj said.

To her credit, she has been guarded about coasting on her extraordinary legacy. There is general agreement that Ms. Jasraj's success has been her own.

"I happened to be at the right place and at the right time," Ms. Jasraj said, with obvious modesty.

Now her daughter, Avni, is coming into her own. She's a rising star in the designing world, and has her own popular brand.

That three generations of the Jasraj family have such a public presence at a remarkable time in India's history suggests, of course, the dynamics of dynasty. The Nehrus and the Gandhis have been India's best known dynasties in the post Independence years since the British left in 59 years ago. But they were practitioners of politics. Ms. Jasraj taps into an even older tradition, that of the arts.

And that makes her both a classicist and a contemporary icon. What else to call her but Mother India? She represents continuity.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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