Pin It

Ancient music, modern times 

Indian classics settle among us

The drama of "East meets West" has a long pedigree, one rooted in tectonic frictions and overthrusts. But there's a very personal element, too. For me, it all hit during one cultural exchange of the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, it's an old rap: Sitarist Ravi Shankar and his disciple George Harrison were opening the Western mind further to the riches of Indian classical music. But I was too highbrow to pay attention.

            It took an old classmate, percussionist Bob Becker of Nexus fame, to turn me on to the Indian tradition. Becker had just gotten out of the US Marine Corps Band, and, with hair and beard flowing like John Lennon's (and like my own, soon enough), he immersed himself in Asian music. I felt his career shift was an antidote for a time dominated by militarism and war. (None of us realized how long the antidote's shelf life would need to be.)

            In any case, the man who already was a virtuoso of the marimba and xylophone put his skills into the Indian tabla, a pair of small, tunable drums played with the hands. It was no self-demotion. Indian music's rhythmic structures require great concentration and discipline, and Becker always had plenty of both.

            But the spirit, his and the music's, was the thing that moved me.

            It wasn't a fleeting sensation, either. I'm still moved when I attend Indian concerts in the Rochester area --- wonderful opportunities that, as you'll see, are increasing.

The musical epics that unfolded in Becker's accompaniments --- even then he was playing with world-class Indian musicians --- were a little different from the dramas of Beethoven string quartets, Schubert songs, etc., that were my universe. Indian music made a dramatic impact on me for sure, but the effect was less episodic, more cumulative, more unnerving in some way.

            A typical Indian composition is highly improvisatory, though its building blocks of melody and rhythm are highly systematized. But somehow these demanding compositions that can last an hour or more are also consolations. Here I'm thinking not of Lisztian piano pieces but of Boethius, for whom philosophy was the ultimate consolation, and musica an ethereal "harmony of the spheres." Indian music is grounded in texts written before Boethius lived (6th century C.E.), and I'd like to think the old Roman would have been as good a listener as he was a thinker.

            In the real world, Indian music has been making journeys to Western culture for a long time, since well before the Beatles, even before Ravi Shankar's 1950s exchanges with the cosmopolitan violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. But it's really making a second or third home in the United States today. Look in the record catalogs or at the CD shop, in the "world music" bin. Then recall that master sitar player Ravi Shankar won a Grammy this year.

            Yet many listeners still find Indian music mysterious or alienating. Robert Morris, head of the Eastman School of Music's composition department and an ardent fan of Indian music, tells of a conversation he overheard in an elevator the day after an Indian concert at the school: Two string department people were doing some Monday-morning quarterbacking. "What did you think of the concert last night," said one. "It's like cats meowing over a C-sharp," said the other. (Morris adds, though, that Ravi Shankar and the equally esteemed Ali Akbar Khan filled the Eastman Theatre on separate occasions.)

            But what makes Indian music work --- and makes it please or offend Western ears?

            First, the Indian tradition rests on an impressive armory of musical instruments. The tabla and the large, lute-like sitar are pretty familiar anywhere. But there's also the sarod, another lute-like solo instrument favored by Ali Akbar Khan. Indian ensembles, which generally have only a few players, rely heavily on the tambura, an unfretted string instrument that supplies a drone or harmonic backdrop.

            There are also wind instruments like the shanai, a double reed (compare the oboe) with a piercing, haunting sound; you've got to hear players like the famed Bismillah Khan to appreciate what this once-lowly instrument can do. There are flutes, too, that can do amazing things with the breath of stars like Hariprasad Chaurasia.

            The human voice is also at center stage; singers like the famed Bimsen Joshi have rivaled the speed, flexibility, and range of any melodic instrument. And surprise: The Western violin is big in south India, where it was brought by Portuguese colonizers centuries ago; one leading violinist is the much-recorded L. Subramaniam, who's played in Rochester.

            Indian classical music lives through two grand traditions, Hindustani and Carnatic. Hindustani music comes from a multi-ethnic, multi-religious territory across north India and neighboring lands. Carnatic music, by contrast, is hailed or criticized as being "purer," through association with a geography less impacted by change. But that, too, is debatable: South India and Carnatic music alike were heavily influenced by the Portuguese.

            As you'd expect, the two traditions come with enough technical details to fill a library. But basically, they both rest on music's inescapable foundations: what goes on "horizontally" (that is, melody and rhythm) and "vertically" (harmony and its alter ego, dissonance).

            To check out the horizontal, you can't do better than look at a phenomenon whose name has entered the English language, among many others: raga. On one level, a raga is a kind of scale --- notes ascending and descending. But on another level, it's a mode with a certain character and emotive power. Compare our "major" and "minor" modes, the first loosely expressing happiness and the latter, sadness. The raga repertoire, which is huge, has these two modes/characters, plus many gradations.

            However you construe them, the scalar patterns in Indian music have more flexibility than what Westerners can easily comprehend. Think of a piano keyboard, each octave of which has 12 fixed notes. The Indian octave, though, is said to have 22 notes, counting fixed pitches and some extras that are interpolated. The higher total may reflect some numerical sleight-of-hand. But there's a real musical practice behind it: Indian musicians sharpen or flatten notes for effect, producing a range of "microtones" that traditional Western performers --- especially those who play "fixed pitch" instruments like the piano or organ --- can only dream of.

            But the meaning of all this transcends technique and arithmetic. A raga derives spiritual and emotional meaning from its notes and intervals. There are many dozens of ragas (but not scores --- forgive the wordplay --- since ragas as performed are not written down). And so the meanings multiply infinitely: Each raga is taken to illuminate a spiritual state, mood, season, and time of day. An illustration: According to an essay by Nasreen Rehman on shanai player Bismillah Kahn, the raga Bhimpalasi is for the late afternoon, is "pensive" in mood, and evokes "wandering," separation, and reunion.

            Indian compositions often start with a long, slow, rhythmically free section. Then comes a long, fast section with a strong and steady beat.

            You hear the term tala almost as often as you do raga. Tala is a general term for rhythmic patterns and cycles. Sometimes the rhythmic framework of Indian music is regular and predictable; take teental, which has 16 beats in four units, like the Western "4/4" meter. But there can be odd-number totals, as well, a fact that makes things harder for the unpracticed ear to follow. Yes, there's no doubt that, to mix some metaphors, Indian rhythms keep your ears on your toes. But don't worry. Lose yourself in the musical progressions, remembering that everything's rooted in instinctive physical movement. By the way, Ravi Shankar started as a dancer.

            Now to hazard the impossible question: What does Indian classical music sound like? Never mind that business about "meowing" and its cousin among insults, "chicken scratching." The first thing to affirm is that Indian music sounds beautiful beyond words.

            Still, a technical phrase can help. Eastman School of Music ethnomusicologist Ellen Koskoff uses the descriptor "drone polyphony." Think of a bagpipe: endlessly sustained low notes (the drone) that undergird a high-pitched tune (make that more than one tune simultaneously, and you've got "polyphony"). Then imagine a typical Indian ensemble: The tambura supplies the drone. And a sitarist or shanai player adds a flowing melody above, or melodies, if both instruments play simultaneously.

            Last, there's one element that bears repetition: repetition. "People should understand that the music is cyclical, it keeps repeating," says Koskoff. Indeed, the music is blessedly obsessive; and this, like a heartbeat or the unforced breath, makes it more accessible and universal: Like a high-church litany or lowdown rock beat, Indian music insistently grabs and holds the spirit.

Only a few weeks ago, Eastman's World Music Series presented sitarist Kartik Seshadri in Kilbourn Hall. The series offers a range of global musics every year, among which the Indian tradition is well represented. Seshadri's performance was stunning; Kilbourn was not quite filled, though; the empty seats represented lost opportunities to hear Indian music as good as it gets.

            But more local opportunities for Indian music are coming up at the India Community Center, located in Perinton on the Monroe-Wayne county line. The ICC, as its members call it, is growing in other ways, too.

            Henrietta resident Shruti Date (said DAH-tay) is the ICC's education and social events coordinator. She says the center hosts eight concerts per year in its own 250-seat hall. Four concerts are Hindustani and four are Carnatic, she says. At this writing, the rest of this year's schedule has not been released.

            Date is not a musician herself, but she's committed to Indian musical culture and to its transmission. "The kids," she says, "especially want to go to the concerts and understand the role the music plays in Mom and Dad's lives. They want to know, is there a teacher who can teach it to us?"

            But Date has her own stake. "When you listen to the music," she says, "it touches your heart as you start the day, a spiritual touch that gives you peace of mind, eternal satisfaction; it takes you away from all the things going on in this materialistic world." She adds that the "same kind of feeling" can arise when she listens to Western classical music. But she says Indian music "takes you to a kind of peace." She says Western music is different --- more "energetic."

            In two senses, the spiritual peace Date describes is non-sectarian. Indian classical music "has nothing to do with religion or language," she says. Rather, she says, the tradition brings Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs together, and it unites Indians, Pakistanis, and other groups across national boundaries. She says, though, that most of the capacity audiences at ICC concerts are Indians.

            S. Kumar, a South Indian by birth and an RIT mathematics teacher by trade, is another Rochesterian deeply involved in the local musical scene. (Like L. Subramaniam and other South Indians, Kumar uses a first initial only; he explains it stands for a paternal name.) Kumar says he's only an amateur who plays tabla with Carnatic folk song ensembles. "I just play for the fun of it," he says.

            Kumar does acknowledge that Indian music's structures are related to mathematics. "But that is certainly not why I love the music," he says. "I listen pretty much every day. Most of my interest comes from listening." He also enjoys shepherding some of the ICC's visiting artists around town. Who are Kumar's own favorite performers? He mentions the vocalist Srinivasa Iyer, a monument of the Carnatic tradition at age 90-plus.

            Now in his late 40s, Kumar is pleased his two middle-school-age daughters are studying the vina, an analogue of the sitar. He says the girls are studying violin at school, as well.

            In the Carnatic tradition, says Kumar, "most of the compositions are religious." The vocalists, he says, "sing in praise of deities."

            With this point, is Kumar contradicting Date? Not really. "One doesn't have to be religious to appreciate the music," though it may help, he says.

The ICC's musical activities, says Shruti Date, are inwardly focused. "We're not advertising locally," she says.

            "If we did," she says, "there would be no room; we're just keeping it to the members... but we have some non-Indian members who joined [primarily] for the music." In any case, she says, the ICC may expand its offerings and widen its audience, especially for fundraising.

            S. Kumar refers to one sign of growth. Next year, he says, the ICC will be using its newly christened cabins for a youth music camp.

            These and other local developments are the microcosm of what's happening on the global stage between Indian and Western music. And the process of mutual enrichment has been going on a long time already, with stylistic fusion in the forefront.

            Take L. Subramaniam's concept of "neo-fusion," as he himself calls it. In the 1980s, Subramaniam collaborated with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, for example. Subramaniam also has taken up the electric violin. He's got a "Spanish Wave" CD on the market, too, done not only with Western musicians but with Alla Rakha, the late tabla virtuoso. Alla Rakha was known for his work with Ravi Shankar and many other musicians, and for his efforts to bridge the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions.

            Western musicians are building bridges, too. The Eastman School's Robert Morris says some composers are imbued in Indian and Asian styles. He mentions some of his own compositions from the 1970s, like Varnum, for melody instruments, drone, and percussion. Many avant-garde techniques, he says, "are actually traditional in other musics."

            Indeed, some Western composers have taken a page from Indian music's "microtonal" qualities and other features. More often, as Morris says, composers internalize the Indian aesthetic. But whatever they adopt or emulate, Indian-influenced Western composers aren't a new breed. Established masters like Albert Roussel, Olivier Messiaen, and John Cage were part of this movement. The aging Philip Glass has made his mark in this arena, too.

            And speaking of minimalists: The New York City-based MELA Foundation boosts the work of the late Pandit Pran Nath. MELA performances also feature works by Idaho-born minimalist La Monte Young and the well-known Terry Riley.The famed Kronos Quartet --- which like Nexus is a great assimilator --- has a working relationship with this supranational group of musicians.

Early this year, Ravi Shankar took home a Grammy award for his CD Full Circle. The CD immortalizes a Carnegie Hall performance.

            A Grammy is no small thing in the music biz. But in this case, the award might be taken as another sort of affirmation. Indian music is hitting the heights in a global musical culture.

            ("Globalized," as well. Ethnomusicologist Koskoff decries the export of "commercialism" to Asia and elsewhere. "I am often confused and dismayed how Western music controls things," she says.)

            But Indian music is also rounding home, as anyone can hear occasionally in venues like Kilbourn Hall and the ICC.

            For upcoming ICC concerts, go to the center's website,


Speaking of Indian Classical, Indian Music


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Featured story

More by Jack Bradigan Spula

Browse Listings

Submit an event
  • Re: County exec race will be Dinolfo versus Bello

    • Bello was Irondequoit supervisor for two years and two and 1/2 months, Jan. 1, 2016…

    • on February 15, 2019
  • Re: County exec race will be Dinolfo versus Bello

    • So, Happy, it sounds like you agree with me. There's nothing new and exciting in…

    • on February 15, 2019
  • Re: Diner series: Mt. Hope Diner

    • I have been going here for at least 50 years, back in the Pat and…

    • on February 15, 2019
  • More »
  • This Week's Issue

    Cover Story:
    Education... means emancipation
    What would Frederick Douglass think now of the state of education in the city he loved? Seven Rochesterians – community leaders, students, and parents – offer their assessment and their advice.
    read more ...

    Tweets @RocCityNews

    © 2019 City Newspaper.

    Website powered by Foundation.