Exchanging Notes

1Nancy Kulkarni

A wooden shikara floats on the pristine waters of the Dal Lake in Kashmir, as the deep, sonorous sounds of a cello drift in. An American woman is seen sitting cross-legged inside the boat, her back straight, head bowed and hands tracing baritone notes on the cello. But the notes that the 20-something young woman is playing are not Bach or Mozart. She is attempting a detailed alaap on Shri, a popular concert raga, in the ancient dhrupad style of Indian classical music said to have originated from the Vedas. This scene from legendary filmmaker Mani Kaul's short film, Before My Eyes (1989), recognised as one of the greatest landscape films that gives a private peek into the "paradise of India", was also perhaps one of the first dhrupad performances on a cello. It was also Nancy Kulkarni's maiden recital.

Now, over 24 years later, Kulkarni is arguably the only dhrupad cellist in the world. She has been studying the form of music for over three decades now, since she first landed in India in 1982. Before pursuing dhrupad, Kulkarni was the co-principal cellist of the Rome Festival Orchestra and section cellist with Chicago Civic Orchestra and Orchestra del Maggio Musicale of Florence, Italy.

"I don't know exactly what drew me to the cello, but I have been playing the instrument since I was 10," says the 53-year-old. Dressed in a traditional salwar-kameez, complete with a bindi, magalsootra and gold earrings, the Mumbai-based musician seems to have embraced not only Indian music, but also the culture and traditions of the country. Hailing from Wisconsin, she arrived in India because of a good offer on airline tickets for Mumbai. Armed with limited cash and only her cello, Kulkarni travelled, performed, learned and soaked in the culture of the land.

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