Wednesday, 21 February, 2007

Music of India, It Rocks !

Music, music and music, it's really the lifeline of every Indian. People in India cannot imagine a single day without music. Be it the morning bhajans in the temples, the FM on the car stereo, the mobile ringtones, the pubs, the weedings, etc. Music lives in the veins of every indian. It was in my mind to write something about the music in India. Here's the day. Music in India has many sections and many forms. The origin of north Indian (Hindustani) classical music is shrouded in obscurity. There is a tendency in India to attribute the invention of any ancient art form to one of the many Hindu deities, and the resulting synthesis of myth and legend is often taken as literal truth. But in reality north Indian classical music as it exists today is the result of a long process of integrating many diverse cultural influences. Not only is there a rich and varied tradition of regional folk music, but all through its history, India has absorbed the culture and traditions of foreign invaders, the most influential being the Muslim Moghuls. The introduction of Turko-Persian musical elements is what primarily distinguishes north Indian classical music from its predecessor, Carnatic, now restricted to southern India. The latter is a complex, rich and fascinating musical tradition in its own right, and even an untrained ear can usually distinguish between the two.

Teachers and pupils
In the north, both Hindu and Muslim communities have provided outstanding artists. While music recognizes no religious differences - indeed it is something of a religion in its own right - distinguished musicians of Hindu origin customarily take the title of pandit (and become known as gurus), while their Muslim counterparts add the prefix ustad (meaning "master") to their names. An ustad may teach anything - not only his own particular art or instrument. It is not unusual for sitar maestros to teach sarod or vocal techniques to their pupils. The teaching of north Indian classical music is a subject in itself. One thing that strikes a Westerner is the spiritual link between teacher and pupil. Quite often the two may be blood relations anyway, but where they are not, a spiritual relationship is officially inaugurated in a ceremony in which the teacher ties a string to the wrist of the pupil to symbolize the bond between them.

Apart from actual musical form and content, north Indian music has various extra-musical traditions and rituals, usually taught through musical families or gharanas. Traditionally, Indian music is taught on a one-to-one basis, often from father to son. Many academies and colleges of music now follow the modern style, but traditionalists still adhere to the gharana system, and great importance is still attached to membership of a musical family or an impressive lineage. A gharana, which may be for singing, for any or all kinds of instruments, or for dance, is more a school of thought than an institution. It suggests a particular belief, or a preference for a certain performance style. Gharanas differ not only in broad terms, but also in minute details: how to execute a particular combination of notes, or simply the correct way to hold an instrument. They are usually founded by musicians of outstanding ability, and new styles and forms are added by exceptionally talented musicians who may have trained with one particular gharana and then evolved a style of their own.

Scales of purity and imagination
Singing is considered to be the highest form of classical music, after which instruments are graded according to their similarity to the human voice. The two main vocal traditions are dhrupad, the purest of all, devoid of all embellishment and entirely austere in its delivery, and khayal, which has a more romantic content and elaborate ornamentation and is the more popular today. Less abstract vocal forms include the so-called light classical dadra, thumri and ghazal as well as qawwali, the religious music of the Sufi tradition. The degree of musical purity is assigned according to a scale which has music at one extreme and words at the other. As words become more audible and thus the meaning of lyrics more important, so the form is considered to be musically less pure. Indian musicologists talk about two kinds of sound - one spiritual and inaudible to the human ear, the other physical and audible. The inaudible sound is said to be produced from the ether, and its function is to liberate the soul. But to feel it requires great devotion and concentration which the average person can never really attain. Audible sound, on the other hand, is actually "struck" and is said to have an immediate and pleasurable impact.

Indian music always has a constant drone in the background, serving as a reference point for performer and listener alike. In north Indian music this drone is usually played on the four-stringed tambura. The privilege of accompanying a teacher's performance on the tanpura is often accorded to advanced students.

Indian music does not so much describe a mood (as some European music does) as help to create that mood, and then explore it to its depths. Where Western classical music starts at a particular point and then progresses from it, Indian classical music revolves around the point, probing it from every angle, yet maintaining a dignified restraint. It's this restraint that distinguishes Indian classical music from the carefree abandon of Indian pop and film music.

Raags and rhythms
The mainstay of all north Indian classical music is the raag (or raga), an immensely intricate system of scales and associated melodic patterns. Each of the 200 main raags is defined by its unique combination of scale-pattern, dominant notes, specific rules to be obeyed in ascending or descending and associated melodic phrases. While Indian classical music is renowned for improvisation, this only takes place within the strictly defined boundaries of a particular raag. If the improviser wanders away from the main musical form of the raag, his or her performance ceases to be regarded as "classical" music. The mark of a good performer is the ability to improvise extensively without abandoning the set of defining rules.

Some raags are linked with particular seasons; there is a raag for rain, and one for spring; raags can be "masculine" or "feminine"; and musicologists may categorize them according to whether they are best suited to a male or female voice. Each raag is allotted a time of day, a time identified with the spiritual and emotional qualities of the raag. Raags are specifically allocated to early morning (either before or after sunrise), mid-morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, early evening (either before or after sunset), late evening, late night and post-midnight. This system causes a few problems in northern latitudes, for there is some argument as to whether a raag should be heard by clock-time or sun-time. Purists adhere to the archaic tradition of a "raag timetable" even if they're only listening to CDs. The performance of a raag, whether sung or played on a sitar, sarod or sarangi, follows a set pattern. First comes the alaap, a slow, meditative "mood-setter" in free rhythm which explores the chosen raag, carefully introducing the notes of the scale one by one. The alaap can span several hours in the hands of a distinguished performer, but may only last a matter of minutes; older aficionados allege that most present-day listeners cannot sustain the attention required to appreciate a lengthy and closely argued alaap. As a result, performers have felt under pressure to abbreviate this section of the raag, to reach the faster middle and end sections as soon as possible. This became customary in the recording studio, although the advent of the CD, which does not force the music to fit into 25 minutes as the LP did, has initiated a move back to longer performances.

In the next two sections, the jorh and the jhala, the instrumentalist introduces a rhythmic element, developing the raag and exploring its more complex variations. Only in these and the final section, the gath, does the percussion instrument - usually the tabla or pakhavaj - enter. The soloist introduces a short, fixed composition to which he or she returns between flights of improvisation. In this section rhythm is an important structural element. Both percussionist and soloist improvise, at times echoing each other and sometimes pursuing individual variations of rhythmic counterpoint, regularly punctuated by unison statements of a short melody known as "the composition". The gath itself is subdivided into three sections: a slow tempo passage known as vilambit, increasing to a medium tempo, called madhya, and finally the fast tempo, drut. Just as the raag organizes melody, so the rhythm is organized by highly sophisticated structures expressed through cycles known as taals, which can be clapped out by hand. A taal is made up of a number of beats (matras), each beat defined by a combination of rhythm pattern and timbre. It is the unique set of patterns (bols) available within a particular taal that defines it. There are literally hundreds of taals, but most percussionists use the same few favourites over and over again, the most common being the sixteen-beat teentaal.

The most unfamiliar aspect of taal to the Western ear is that the end of one cycle comes not on its last beat, but on the first beat of the following one, so that there is a continual overlap. This first beat is known as sum, a point of culmination which completes a rhythmic structure, and performers often indicate it by nodding to each other when they arrive at it. Audiences do the same to express satisfaction and appreciation.

Among smaller, more discerning audiences, verbal applause such as "Wah!" (Bravo!), or even "Subhan-Allah" (Praise be to God!), is considered the standard form of appreciation. Only in Western-style concert halls, where such exclamations would be inaudible, has hand-clapping come to replace these traditional gestures of approval.

Light classical music
Many concerts of classical music end with the performance of a piece in one of the styles collectively referred to as "light classical". Although they obey the rules of classical music with respect to raag and taal, they do so less rigorously than is required for a performance of dhrupad, khayal or other pure classical styles. The alaap is short or nonexistent, and the composition is frequently derived from a folk melody. Indeed, it could be said that light classical music is essentially a synthesis of folk and classical practice. The two most important and widespread types are thumri and ghazal.

Sound of the south
Southern India's Carnatic classical music is essentially similar to Hindustani classical music in outlook and theoretical background but differs in many details, usually ascribed to the far greater Islamic influence in the north. To the Western ear, Carnatic music is emotionally direct and impassioned, without the sometimes sombre restraint that characterizes much of the north's music. For instance the alaapaana section, although it introduces and develops the notes of the raag in much the same way as the alaap of north Indian music, interrupts its stately progress with sparkling decorative flourishes. Often, too, the alaapaana is succeeded by a set of increasingly complex elaborations of a basic melody in a way that is more easily grasped than the abstract, sometimes severe improvisations of the Hindustani masters. Compositions, both of "themes" and the set variations upon them, play a much greater role in Carnatic musical practice than in Hindustani. The raags of Carnatic music, like those of Hindustani music, are theoretically numbered in the thousands and musicians are expected to be familiar with them all. In practice, however, there are only two hundred main raags ever played, and probably only fifty or sixty in common use.

Song is at the root of South Indian music, and forms based on song are paramount, even when the performance is purely instrumental. The vast majority of the texts are religious, and the temple is frequently the venue for performance. The most important form is the kriti, a devotional song, hundreds of which were written by the most influential figure in the development of Carnatic music, the singer Thyagaraja (1767-1847). He was central to the music, not only for his compositions but also for the development of techniques of rhythmic and melodic variations. Southern India's biggest music festival, held annually near Thanjavur on the banks of the River Kaveri, is named after him.

Although the vocal tradition is central to this music, its singers are perhaps less well known in the West than instrumentalists. M.S. Subbulakshmi and Dr M. Balamurali Krishna are among the famous names, but the most celebrated is probably Ramnad Krishnan, who has taught in America.

The instruments of Carnatic music include the vina, which resembles the sitar but has no sympathetic strings (Carnatic musicians appear not to like the somewhat hollow timbre that they give to the instrument), the mridangam double-headed drum, and the enormous nadasvaram, a type of oboe just over a metre long which takes great experience and delicacy to play. The violin is widely used - listen to the playing of Dr L. Subramaniam or his brother L. Shankar, better known for his fusion experiments with guitarist John McLaughlin than for his classical recordings. The mandolin is growing in popularity and the saxophone has made a strikingly successful appearance in the hands of Kadri Gopalnath. Among vina players look out for S. Balachander and K.S. Narayanaswami.

Percussion is very important, perhaps more so than in Hindustani music, and percussion ensembles frequently tour abroad. In addition to the mridangam, percussion instruments include the ghatam, a clay pot played with tremendous zest and sometimes tossed into the air in a burst of high spirits. "Vikku" Vinayakram is its best-known player.

New paths
In earlier times the job of musician was more or less hereditary: would-be musicians began their musical education at the age of four, and music (as a profession) was considered beneath the dignity of the well-to-do and the academic classes. However, in recent years traditional restrictions have been relaxed, and music is no longer the province of a few families. Many educated Indians are becoming involved in both performance and composition, and as public performance loses its stigma the requirement for musicians to begin their training at a very early age becomes less forceful. Women instrumentalists are also making their mark - a startling innovation in a male-dominated musical culture. Two women with particularly high reputations are violinist Sangeeta Rajan and tabla player Anuradha Pal, both of whom have recorded in India. Several gharanas have been set up abroad, notably the one in California run by sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, who is probably Indian music's most influential living figure, and there is a steady trickle of Westerners who are willing to subject themselves to the disciplines of study.

However, the importance of the old families is barely diminished. Among the younger generation of players are such names as sarod player Brij Narayan, son of Ram Narayan; Nikil Banerjee, who studied sitar with his father Jitendra Nath Banerjee; and Krishna Bhatt, who studied with Ravi Shankar and also comes from a family of musicians. Ravi Shankar's own daughter, Anoushka, also created a stir when she made her debut in 2001 at the age of 19, although her film-star looks were greeted with greater critical acclaim than her playing. Other important figures to listen out for are sitar player Rais Khan and vocalist Rashid Khan. These, like the other names mentioned, bear witness to the remaining vitality and richness of the classical music tradition in India and abroad.

Folk music of India
There are many kinds of Indian folk music, but the main regional strands are those of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, the Punjab (spread across both India and Pakistan), and Bengal (including Bangladesh). Kashmir produces its own distinctive folk sound, and the music of many of India's tribal peoples more closely resembles that of southeast Asia or even Borneo than anything else in the subcontinent. Apart from obvious linguistic differences, the folk songs of each region have their own distinct rhythmic structures and are performed on or accompanied by different musical instruments. Some classical instruments are used, but the following are mostly associated with less formal folk occasions.

In Rajasthan, music is always played for weddings and theatre performances, and often at local markets or gatherings. There is a whole caste of professional musicians who perform this function, and a wonderful assortment of earthy-sounding stringed instruments like the kamayacha and ravanhata that accompany their songs. The ravanhata is a simple, two-stringed fiddle that, skilfully played, can produce a tune of great beauty and depth. Hearing it played by a fine street musician behind the city walls of Jaisalmer, it seems the perfect aural background for this desert citadel.

The satara is the traditional instrument of the desert shepherds. A double flute, it has two pipes of different lengths, one to play the melody, the other to provide the drone, rather like bagpipes without the bag. The bag is the musician himself, who plays with circular breathing. Local cassettes of these instruments are available in small stores across Rajasthan. As well as drums, India boasts a variety of tuned percussion instruments. The most popular in this category is the jaltarang - a water-xylophone - consisting of a series of porcelain bowls of different sizes, each containing a prescribed amount of water. The bowls are usually struck with a pair of small sticks, but sometimes these are abandoned as the player rubs the rims of the bowls with a wet finger. The small brass, dome-shaped cymbals called manjira or taal are the best known of the many kinds of bells and gongs.

Filmi and Bhangra
There are songs for all kinds of work and play in India, and almost every activity is represented in song, and there is an extensive repertoire of dance music. Inevitably, film music has drawn heavily from this folk tradition, but sadly has also become a relatively effortless substitute for most of it. In some instances, "pop" adaptations of traditional folk music have served to revitalize and add a fresh lease of life to the original form - bhangra, the folk music of Punjab, is a very good example of this. British "bhangra-rock" has created a fresh interest in the original bhangra of the Punjabi farmers.

Folk music is now beginning to awaken greater interest, particularly with non-Indian record companies, and largely as a result of the growing Western interest in different kinds of Indian music. Perhaps this overseas interest has come just in time, for although it is still practised in the old way in more traditional settings and for particular rituals - weddings, births, harvest time and so on - folk music on the whole, if it is to be defined as the "music of the people", has largely been eclipsed by the output of the Indian film industry. Whereas in the past traditional wedding songs would have been sung by the neighbourhood women all through the festivities, it is now more usual to hear film songs blaring away at Indian weddings. Nonetheless, fears that traditional music is vanishing altogether seem unwarranted: in Pakistan the unique sound of the sohni bands - clarinet-led brass bands which play at weddings - fills the air with wild melody, and in Rajasthan, members of the traditional musicians' castes still make their living by playing at ceremonies and for entertainment. The radio and cassette player are by no means all-conquering.

Marching bands
Spend any time in northern India, particularly during the winter wedding season, and you're almost certain to come across at least a couple of marching bands. First introduced to India by the British Army in the early nineteenth century and later adopted as a folk idiom right across the north and centre of the country (where they replaced the old shehnai-and-drum naubat troupes of the Moghul era), brass bands have become an essential ingredient of working-class weddings and religious processions. Decked out in ill-fitting, mock-military uniforms (complete with tinsel epaulettes, plastic-peaked caps and buckled gaiters), the musicians (band-wallahs) are most often called upon to accompany a bridegroom's party (baraat) in its procession to the bride's house. The music itself - a cacophony of squealing clarinets and crowd-stopping blasts of brass played over snare and dholak tattoos - is invariably at odds with the mood of the groom, sitting astride a hired white horse on his way to married life with a stranger. But no one seems to care, least of all the members of the baraat, hip-thrusting and strutting along like Bollywood's best, to the stream of Hindi film hits, folk tunes, popular raags and patriotic songs.


Ravinder said...

A great post on music. Lots of info...

Eshona said...

I dont find the post is so great, because it does not mention abt marathi popular music like lavani, bharuda, povadas. this music has great role in indian culture. Not only this but it also misses upon the contributions that the bengali music does to the indian music for eg. Baul sangit and rabindra sangit.

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I have ever listen indi music, actually any kind of european music at all, I'm gonna try it, thanks for sharing, very interesting what you said about the instruments.