A musical note | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 09, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 09, 2018

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A musical note

On 15 August, 1969, Ravi Shankar played at the Woodstock, an unlikely decision for a classical musician born in India to agree to participate in an event connected to what most perceive more as noise than music.

There was something about the youth of that generation. The youth simply rebelled. They rebelled against authoritarianism, rejected organised religion in any form, and devoted their attention more for a spiritual awakening.

The psychedelic era saw experimentation not only in intoxicants, but also in music, art, and culture. For the first time in history, attitude towards the East was devoid of colonial prejudice, and open to the ideology that East too, was a significant part of the emerging global culture.

By the mid-70s, George Harrison, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, Traffic — all giants in contemporary western music, had incorporated Indian classics in their compositions.

In his autobiography 'Unfinished Journey,' the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin wrote, “Indian music took me by surprise. I knew neither its nature nor its richness, but here, if anywhere, I found vindication of my conviction that India was the original source. The two scales of the West, major and minor, with the harmonic minor as variant, the half-dozen ancient Greek modes, were here submerged under modes and scales of (it seemed) inexhaustible variety.”

The 1967 fusion album featuring Ravi Shankar and Menuhin brought the flavours of the East to a Western audience for the first time. Two subsequent ventures followed, the last being released in 1976.

Puritans of the Indian classical genre were disdainful of Shankar's attempt to westernise a tradition that they held sacred, but Shankar successfully penetrated the Western mindset and changed their mindset regarding the music of India.

As all connoisseurs appreciate, the growth in Indian classical music took place not through displacement of old traditions, but by adding on to the repertoire. Hinduism, the predominant faith of this region, had no single founder, no single spokesman, and no single prophet. Its origins, just like the music they provoked are mixed and complex. The advent of Islam in this region almost a thousand years ago contributed to that magnificence.

Since time immemorial, hymns of the Hindu religious scriptures like the Vedas were and still are sung and accompanied by instruments. The religious narratives that provided a musical template remained equally important in the Muslim North, even when used for devotional purposes in the praising of Allah, or the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Historically, the value of music in India has not been entertainment, but spiritual enlightenment and it was deeply associated with religious activities at all levels.

During Muslim rule of Delhi and the later Mughal times, musicians came in contact with other cultures, which forever changed music – the genesis of sitar is traced to the Persians and developed in India by Amir Khusrau. The sarod is believed to have come from the rabab of the Middle-East; the santoor is said to have originated from the Kashmir Valley with theorised roots in Persia. And the flute, of course, is a patented instrument of the Hindu lord Krishna.

Ravi Shankar's greatest achievement, although not free from criticism, was to fill in the shoe of an ambassador of a rich culture, something the masses of Europe and America were somewhat oblivious to.

Before him, Uday Shankar, his elder brother, had made similar efforts in Indian dance forms by presenting to the western audience a hitherto unknown fusion that adapted European theatrical techniques, imbued with elements of classical, folk, and tribal dance of his native land.

Aladdin Khan, the most revered guru of Indian classical music, had also visited Europe with the troupe of Uday Shankar in the '30s, once again mesmerising audiences with the taste of pure classic music of the sub-continent.

North Indian music, often called, Hindustani music, quickly received a large fan following for its aesthetic appeal. Carnatic music, in the hands of L Shankar and his brother L Subrmaniam, influenced Western musicians in a different manner.

Not only The Beatles, the Indian bug had bitten other stalwarts like Peter Gabriel, and iconic jazz exponents like Miles Davis. Soon Indian music was being incorporated in symphonies, and orchestras.

As with all things '60s, drugs played a significant role, but so did the perennial desire to break all social codes. Even in the chaos of contemporary music, the stage was set for acceptance of not only Indian music, but music from all corners of the globe.

Ravi Shankar once said, “I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad— something that is very common in western countries.”

In the current age, spirituality is once again a dominant tagline in cultural discourses that surpasses music and blends all aesthetic forms like art, literature, fashion, even dietary choices. Music in this region has deep roots in religion and while the casual listener may miss the connection, a connoisseur not only picks it with ease, but is also appreciates the nuances.

The ragas, the dhuns are now mainstream, but one must not forget the richness of the qawwali tradition, marked by the non-use of instruments used primarily to express man's devotion to the divine or to sing praises of love in general.

The baul songs, a peculiarity of Bengal, are of different nature, and one that devote garlands to a nameless higher entity through words and music, accompanied by minimal use of instruments.

Mainstream Western music, even classical genres, has long parted ways with religion and even spirituality, in some ways. Whether listeners find that link in a hymn of a Madonna song, or the duets of Nora Jones and her half-sister Anoushka Shankar, Indian music still provides substance to fill that void, and perhaps this missing link is what the magic of Indian music is all about.


Photo: collected

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