A World Tour of Music 1 – India

In the melodic mould of the raag – often taking over an hour to unfold – the great power of Indian music, says Geoff Dyer, lies in the way that it is both utterly physical, erotic, and profoundly spiritual.

Some of the most innovative music recently has combined elements of Indian classical with various kinds of western music. Talvin Singh’s Anokha and the various Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan remixes – Night Song and Star Rise – integrate the rhythms of contemporary dance music with patterns and flourishes from the subcontinent to create an utterly contemporary sound which also hints at the timeless.

Purists might object to the classical tradition being plundered and vulgarised in this way, but it is arguable that, for instance, international awareness of – and respect for – Nusrat’s traditional devotional work was actually enhanced by his willingness to deviate from it. It seems likely that the vocal and instrumental samples on albums like his encouraged listeners to explore the culture from which they were taken. The attractions of the ecstatic chants of Qawwali are immediate, immense and overwhelming. The appeals of Indian classical music are subtler but no less seductive.

Broadly speaking there are two main strands of Indian classical music: Karnatak in southern India, and Hindustani from the north. Within these main forms there are numerous subdivisions. In Hindustani music, for example, the range of vocal music extends from the most austere, dhrupad, through to thumri or ‘light classical’. The human voice is at the centre of the tradition (it is not uncommon for students of an instrument to be taught by a singer) but a variety of instruments now aspire to the condition of the voice.

It is a shame in a way that sitar and sarod – two instruments that are most ‘alien’ to western ears – have become so firmly identified with Indian music in many western minds as to have become synonymous with it. The field is, of course, much wider and more varied than the fame of Ravi Shankar led people to believe. The violin has long been a staple of the Karnatak tradition, and the precociously talented Srinivas has made the mandolin a solo instrument.

This is something we see happening repeatedly in the development of the music this century: one or two exceptional performers elevating a minor or supporting instrument – an instrument, that is, for accompanying a singer – to a solo instrument in its own right. Sultan Khan and Ram Narayan did exactly this with the sarangi, a stringed instrument whose ‘sob’ has an unparalleled capacity to pull at the listener’s soul (at a London recital by Sultan Khan a sub-orgasmic groan passed through the audience as soon as the first note was struck!). The shehnai is a wind instrument, similar to an oboe, which can be mournful, lyrical and, in the hands of Bismillah Khan, awesomely funky.

Whatever the instrument, most variants of Indian classical music are rooted in the raag, a melodic mould or outline which musicians do not so much as improvise on or around as into. There are thousands of raags, but the bulk of recorded performances are based on a relatively small number. Each raag has its own mood, usually corresponding to the time of the day or season, but, as in the best jazz, the emotional – and spiritual – input of the musician is all-important. Technical explanations of what is going on in terms of beats, cycles and scales are dauntingly complex but all you need, really, is to listen.

The problem is finding the time – and the silence – to listen: a 70-minute CD often contains just one piece. It is emphatically not background music: you need to immerse yourself in it, to give yourself to it completely. And while you can skip to the climactic passages, this is actually anticlimactic because the climax really begins way back, with the very first note. Sometimes 90 per cent of a raag is improvised around the barest outline but, if it is performed well, then the whole of the raag – its essence, its boundless possibilities – will, paradoxically, be implicit in every note. Stability is provided by a drone, a kind of tonic, the stretched canvas on which the musician-artist will work.

The soloist then embarks on the alaap, a slow, unaccompanied and improvised exploration-creation of the raag. Gradually a pulse is introduced. This generates a yearning for percussion, for narrative, which is answered by the entrance of percussion (tabla, most commonly) and the start of the composed section of the recital. The interplay between solo instrument and percussion becomes more and more intimately entwined, building in speed and intensity to a prolonged, surging climax. The latent sexual overtones of these terms is not accidental: the great power of Indian music lies in the way that it is both utterly physical, erotic, and profoundly spiritual.

Classic CD magazine, 1998

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