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Hindustani Classical Music

As published in Crème Magazine on

8th September 2017

   Sometimes, knowledge must be lost; for it to be appreciated, before being profoundly accepted again. Unfortunately, many things that define Indian heritage have only been accepted back in India after acceptance and commercialisation of the phenomenon in the West. There are several examples of it; Yoga, being the poster child of that sentiment.


   Indian classical music dates back to the Vedic Era with mentions of it in the Rigveda. However, Hindustani music as we know it, found popularity in the courts of the Mughal emperors, barring Aurangzeb, as they were great patrons of music. Tansen and Birju Bawra became legends, with stories of how the rendition of Raga Deepak could light fire in the palace while Raga Megh Malhar could conjure thunderstorms to calm those fires. These musicians were given an almost godlike status. Yet we sit here, in modern-day India, listening to Ed Sheeran and Adele, with no recollection of who Ustad Rashid Khan is or what instrument Pandit Shivkumar Sharma plays.


   Musicians such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain; legends today, have inspired equally accomplished legends in western music. Pandit Ravi Shankar inspired the Beatles, while Ustad Zakir Hussain was part of a rhythm band called ‘Planet Drum’; which received the 1992 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album and then again, in 2009, for Best Contemporary World Music Album. Hindustani classical music has not inspired the West without reason. The versatility, richness and structure of Indian classical music lends itself to a very clear choice of Ragas for very specific situations when the music is being composed. The Ragas in their hundreds belong to ten primary groupings, known as Thaats. While Western music has the concept of different scales, the Hindustani equivalent Ragas, are essentially, an order of ascending and descending notes with a predefined grammar that allows ascension and descension in specific order. These Ragas; by virtue of the selection of notes, their ascending and descending order & the rules that bind them along with their nuances, invoke feelings within the human mind. Hence, Ragas are associated with specific emotions, time of day, seasons and situations. For example, Raga Malhar is best suited for the romanticism associated with thunderstorms and heavy rains, while Raga Bageshri is associated with the emotion of a woman craving reunion with her lover. Raga Bhairavi creates the imagery for the rising sun in your mind, while Raga Yaman invokes the emotions of devotion and dedication.


   The other difference, which makes Indian music unique, and which requires musicians to develop advanced skills to be able to perform, is the fact that, unlike Western music; where the band rehearses every single beat and note to give a perfect rendition of a piece of music as intended by the composer, Hindustani classical is never rehearsed. Many times, the first time the band comes together is when they are ready to perform, guided in most cases, by the vocalist who orchestrates the entire composition, in real-time. Since the rules of the composition are determined by the raga, the person on the accompanying instruments, by following the vocalist, knows that both he, and the vocalist are bound by the rules of the raga. This takes care of the first parameter of the composition. The second parameter is the rhythm, which too is predetermined before the vocalist begins the performance. The rhythm binds the vocalist and the accompanist in the same way.


   I believe every human being is musically inclined, but not everybody can appreciate every genre of music. I believe the popularity of Bollywood and Western music has to do with the fact that these are distributed over popular mediums much more than jazz or classical music. Therefore, step one of beginning the journey of appreciating music has to do with exposure to different types of music. The more variety one listens to, the more likely they would able to appreciate the nuances and technical complexities of music. The appreciation is only enhanced when one tries to learn to play an instrument or sing.


   It might be difficult for somebody who has never gone beyond the realm of popular music to appreciate any form of classical music, let alone, Hindustani classical. A great place to start would be listening to various semiclassical compositions and fusion music. TV programmes like ‘Coke Studio’ and Bollywood movies, like ‘Raincoat’, can perhaps be a great place to start, to begin the journey of what used to be India’s heritage.


   I take great pride in the fact that Pune is the hub of classical music. It has been home to many legends like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Bal Gandharva and Hridayanath Mangeshkar. We find artists like Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Jasraj performing frequently in Pune; and of course, Sawai Gandharva brings together some of the best musicians from all over India to Pune. I hope we don't have to wait for a century to appreciate that which we already have aplenty, but is at the risk of losing.

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