By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mixing Colors Of Indian Classical And Western Music : Clash Of Alien Elements

Last week (Jan. 24) I recalled an important essay I had written a few years ago in THE HINDU , on the alien connections of Indian classical music.  Now let me share with you some of my my further reflections in the same newspaper on mixing the colors of Indian classical music, either within the country between its  Northern and Southern systems, or externally with the colors of Western music. 
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 Glossary & Annotations 

North-South ' jugal-bandhis'  --   Permanently experimental joint ventures undertaken by musicians belonging to the classical music of North India (Hindustani music) and South India (Carnatic music), trying to highlight the common as well as contrasting elements and features of the twin musical systems. 

East-West interaction  --  In this specific context, attempts to mix colors of Indian classical music  and Western music, whether classical, jazz, or whatever  --  either by composers or by Indian and Western musicians in joint ventures .

Sitar  --  One of the important stringed instruments n Hindustani music. 

One-day-international cricket (ODI)  --   Drastically condensed form of cricket, co-existing with Test cricket since the 1970s.  Also called called Fifty-50, because of the limit of 50 overs of six balls for each side.

Test cricket  --  The classic form of international cricket at the highest level, with conservative standards of rules and regulations, each match lasting five days --  dress code strictly white shirts, trousers and sweaters.

Kerry Packer  --  Australian media tycoon who ushered in the televison era of cricket, severely diluting the classical form and standards of the game, even introducing heretic features like gaudy colored uniforms.

Twenty-20 game  --     Further diluted form of cricket in the 21st century, limiting the number of overs to 20 for each side and lasting just 3 hours, thus encouraging hectic swashbuckling playing styles.  

Hamsadhwani  --  A leading institution organizing classical Indian music in Chennai.  See An adventure called Hamsadhwani  (2006).

RRC  --  Popular initials of the late Mr. R. Ramachandran, journalist and pioneer impresario of Carnatic music, and founder of Hamsadhwani.  See Requiem for Ramachandran (2007).

Neville Cardus  (1888 - 1975)  --  Legendary music critic and cricket correspondent of Manchester Guardian, famous for his imaginative vision and stylish prose.  

Manchester Guardian  --  Highly influential British newspaper, now called The Guardian.
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25 July  2008
Colors of sound


The North-South 'jugal-bandis' within India are between two  sister  systems.  But the East-West interaction is mainly characterized by the clash of alien elements.


Talking about trends and traditions in the context of music (July 11), we had noted the interesting fact that certain new trends can co-exist permanently with a long tradition as parallel phenomena — because they’re neither forceful enough to influence the basic character or direction of the tradition by being assimilated into the system, nor so trivial as to wither away soon and just disappear.

We had also noted that a striking illustration of this aspect is provided by the joint ventures called ‘jugal-bandis’ between versatile Carnatic and Hindustani musicians representing the respective classical music systems of the Southern and Northern cultural traditions of India.

The same thing is more or less true of the experiments Indian musicians have been making for several decades now — in association with like-minded foreign musicians — to mix the sounds and colors of Indian classical music and Western orchestral music or jazz, whether they call it ‘fusion,’ ‘neo-fusion’ or something else.

So far as the Indian side is concerned, here’s another trend which is likely to exist permanently as a parallel and experimental phenomenon, not having any impact whatsoever on the Carnatic and Hindustani music traditions.

Impact on West

I said “...more or less true...”,  because this trend has somewhat different implications for Western music.   When such experiments manifest themselves in the shape of original written-down compositions for western orchestras, and attain a very high standard of excellence in the process, they can certainly be counted as unusually colorful additions to the ever-growing corpus of Western orchestral works, thereby enhancing the tradition.

Some splendid music of this kind has been composed by the sitar and violin maestros Ravi Shankar and L. Subramaniam, and has been performed successfully by important Western orchestras led by eminent conductors (including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta), with the composers themselves performing as soloists.  And as regards jazz, the accumulated effect of such cross-fertilization of musical ideas in the long run may well have a genetic influence on the tradition itself — because in jazz the scope for variation, innovation and improvisation is really endless, and an unlimited capacity to assimilate novel elements is inherent in the system.

Critical attention

The many subtle shades of this on-going trend call for a detailed discussion, which can perhaps be taken up some other time.  Meanwhile, let us just briefly note some interesting points here.   The North-South jugalbandis within India are between two sister systems of music which have an inherent and permanent bond, with many common elements in melodic and rhythmic terms.  But the East-West interaction between Indian classical and Western music is mainly characterized by the clash of alien elements.

Only very highly accomplished Carnatic and Hindustani musicians usually get together in such North-South joint ventures now and then, which means that normally there’s a strong tendency to achieve excellence.   By contrast, there seems to be a proliferation of cases where Indian musicians get together with foreigners in the so-called ‘fusion’ business, often leading to quite frivolous and worthless exercises.  The reasons why this is so are obvious.  While it is difficult to evade critical attention and review in India in the case of the encounters between Carnatic and Hindustani musicians, things are rather different in the external context.

Indian classical musicians even at average levels of competence are nowadays having more and more opportunities to visit Western countries on the invitation of the ever-growing Indian communities there, and they find it quite easy to line up some ordinary foreign musicians to join them in a free-for-all musical merry-go-round.  And back home in India, of course, their CV and image get boosted by cryptic references to their ‘experience in fusion.’  Who is to review and critically evaluate their activities abroad?

Music and cricket

We need only to reflect a little to realize that there are such old traditions and new trends which exist side by side in the contexts of all performing arts and not just music; and that it’s equally true of many of our other traditional concerns also, and not merely the arts.   A more or less similar phenomenon in sports which we Indians can think of instantly is the extremely popular one-day international cricket (ODI), which has co-existed with Test cricket for more than a quarter-century now (quite peacefully, after a quickly resolved initial confrontation between Kerry Packer and the cricket establishment around 1980).
Once again I say “...more or less...”, because obviously there are some important points of difference in the similarity.  Unlike the cross-over contexts in music, the 50-overs-ODI ceased to be experimental long ago, though it hasn't ruined the Test tradition and has just remained a parallel trend.  

Of course, the most intriguing question today is how the Twenty-20 game is going to affect the whole scenario!  Talking about cricket and music in the same breath inevitably brings back fresh memories of Hamsadhwani’s late founder-secretary RRC, whose brief and colorful remarks on the concert platform often contained interesting references to cricket.  And, of course, it also makes us think of the famous Englishman Neville Cardus, who wrote colorfully both on cricket and music in the Manchester Guardian, even mixing them up sometimes! 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Alien Connections In Classical Indian Music : Tradition, Innovation And Integrity

In the preceding post and another recent one ( 22 Jan. 2014 and 7 Dec. 2013), I recalled some of my comments dated 2010, 2009 and 1991 (published in THE HINDU) on the subtle bond which exists between artistic tradition and innovation.

It so happens that the scope for fresh commentary on the kaleidoscopic nuances of this complex topic seems to be endless.   Exactly one year ago, in this blog (6 Jan. 2013: Magyar Mixture : For Foreigners Only!), while recalling my review of a  performance in New Delhi by some visiting Hungarian musicians and dancers in 1990, I had added the following postscript:

Over this long period marked by technological hurricanes and socio-cultural tornadoes, I've been endlessly trying to find the elusive answers to many  intricate questions relating to the conflict as well as the concord (which co-exist) between tradition and innovation, between purity and permissiveness, between innovation and integrity. 
I've often been puzzled by the great paradoxes inherent in the universal scenario of cultural progress;  and at the same time, I have also gained some very valuable artistic and psychological insights into the whole phenomenon.

But don't spoil the fun by asking me for a concise executive summary of my ultimate findings!  Let me just roll out, one by one, the reviews and essays
containing my reflections on specific aspects which needed analysis and discussion from time to time in different contexts.

So then, here's another slice of the same bread!

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Glossary & annotations (In same order as in text)

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --  Classical music of South/North India.
Ragas  --  Melodic patterns which are basically defined by tradition, but have great scope for original visions and interpretations. 

Swaraprasthara  --  In Carnatic music,  an imaginative sequence of improvised clusters of notes within the limits of the standard melodic patterns.  A similar impromptu sequence in Hindustani music is called Sargam.

Sangeet Natak Akademi  --  Prestigious Government-sponsored national institution in New Delhi, concerned with preserving and promoting music, dance and drama on a national scale.  In 1989-90, I was the Member-Secretary of a national Committee chaired by Mr. P.N. Haksar (a distinguished diplomat-turned-cultural-philosopher), which reviewed the performance of SNA and certain other similar national organizations concerned with the visual and performing arts as well as literature.
Music Academy in Chennai (formerly Madras)   --  One of the most prestigious and influential cultural institutions in India.

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THE HINDU3 Aug.  3, 2007
Alien connections: why, who and how?


It seems to be our natural responsibility
to provide the outside world with our own
authoritative guidance and leadership in
disseminating our classical music abroad.

Looking back at the steady progress and consolidation of the classical traditions of Carnatic and Hindustani music during the second half of  the 20th century, we can observe that certain occasional and isolated events of a similar kind have a way of getting entrenched into irreversible trends in due course.  To this category belong the marginal efforts to associate the twin classical music systems of India with Western music, particularly instrumental jazz.

Recent articles in this column had focused attention on both the positive and negative aspects of this trend, with particular reference to Carnatic music.  Before we conclude the discussion, it is necessary to answer a crucial question which arises.  Apart from their inclination to widen their horizons and diversify their own experience of music, do Indian classical musicians have any other moral justification for developing such alien connections which carry the risk of diluting our traditional values?  To find the elusive answer to this question, let us consider the following significant facts.

Initiative and influence

The colourful Indian ragas and our sophisticated percussion techniques are far too formidable to be ignored by enterprising foreign musicians for ever — and sooner or later they were bound to be discovered and used in Western music circles, if only marginally.  By the judicious infusion of Indian melodies and rhythms, both symphonic music and jazz can be enriched with novel and entirely permissible colors.

The reverse process can also be envisaged in the case of jazz, though perhaps not in the case of symphonic music.  The melodic improvisations in Indian classical music have a very close affinity with the imaginative sorties which are the essence of jazz.  Authentic jazz could therefore materialize in the most natural manner in the thick of an extensive exercise in variations in a proper Carnatic or Hindustani music recital — adding an unusual but permissible flavour to the swaraprasthara or its Northern equivalent without transgressing the norms of our classical traditions.

But obviously such ventures, to be successful, must be undertaken by visionary musicians of the highest calibre belonging to both sides.  The really important thing is, who does it and how. 

If some of our own accomplished and versatile musicians took the initiative in doing this, the result could be far more constructive than if the lead were taken by foreigners in whose veins the blood of Indian music does not flow.  It seems to be our natural responsibility to provide the outside world with our own authoritative guidance and leadership in disseminating our classical music abroad, in whatever form it is done.  Otherwise, the basic elements of our music may eventually begin to be exploited in alien music circles in all sorts of indiscriminate and distorted ways, leading to the widespread dilution of our values and the eventual decline of our musical tradition.

Role of Academies

For quite some time from the 1960s, such contacts were mainly between a few outstanding Indian and foreign musicians who had extraordinary musical visions and an irresistible inclination to widen their horizons;  and some of their bold experiments in cross-fertilising their musical ideas had resulted in some really original and colourful music.

Those were days when very few Indian musicians had any opportunities to go abroad.  But during the past 20 years or so, even the average Indian classical musicians have been getting regular invitations to visit America and some European countries, mainly to perform Carnatic or Hindustani music for the benefit of the constantly expanding Indian communities there.  This greatly increases the scope for indiscriminate proliferation of such experiments in East-West integration, because even moderately accomplished musicians from both sides now find it easier to get together and have a fling.  Which means, of course, that the risk and chances of achieving mediocrity rather than excellence are multiplied many times.

We would certainly like our adventurous musical ambassadors to perform in their own country now and then with their foreign collaborators, and subject their credentials to our critical scrutiny. That will not be easy to arrange normally, but even compact discs or cassettes featuring of such ventures are not readily available in India.

It may be a good idea for the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi and the Music Academy in Chennai — and perhaps other leading academic institutions of music elsewhere — to acquire relevant recordings either from foreign music markets or from the musicians themselves and build up comprehensive reference libraries where interested music-lovers can listen to such music and form their own impressions.  And the academies can pass their own judgment, of course, and filter such performances for recognition and appreciation if justified.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Conservation And Innovation : Cross-threads Of Dynamic Artistic Traditions

A few weeks ago I had shared with you an article I had written in 2009 in my column Musicscan in the Madras edition of  THE HINDU, quoting a substantial portion of an essay I had written in 1991 in the New Delhi edition of the same newspaper, on the innovative base of artistic tradition (7 December 2013  -- Classical Music : Never-ending Nexus Between Tradition And  Innovation). 

I have taken fresh looks at the same question on many occasions during the past 20 years, and here's a relatively recent essay which highlighted some intriguing aspects of the the whole issue:

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4 Oct. 2010


The logic of fusion

Conservation and innovation may appear to be mutually contradictory terms in the context of all arts; but actually they are the twin cross-threads which constitute the fabric of all dynamic, artistic traditions. This is particularly true of all classical music.

No matter  how old and conservative a classical music tradition may be, it must have had a beginning at some point of time in the distant past, and that beginning would obviously have been based on some innovation or other. Such a musical manifestation would have been static and sterile and wouldn't have evolved into a tradition at all, if it hadn't encountered and absorbed many far-reaching innovations in the course of ever-changing social and cultural scenarios and norms.

Thus a classical system of music depends as much on successive innovations in order to make dynamic progress, as it depends on conservation in order to survive as a stable tradition. Obviously, the system can remain authentic and retain its integrity only if there's a proper balance between conservation and innovation. Such a delicate equilibrium is all the more significant if the tradition has a compelling and indispensable spiritual orientation, because any undue liberties taken with the sacred element in the name of innovation would tend to undermine the very fabric of the music - which is true of Carnatic music.

Virgin vistas

The necessity to introduce legitimate innovations, which do not dispense with the basic elements and principles of a musical tradition, arises mainly from two important factors. One of them is the increasing sense of monotony created by endlessly recurring features, and the constant need to find more exciting methods of performance. The other factor is the progressive and dramatic transformation of the social and cultural environment caused by successive technological revolutions - reflected in the lifestyles and attitudes of the musicians and music-lovers - which creates an urge to trim some conventional modes of performance and introduce some new perspectives.

One of the attractive innovations attempted in musical traditions all over the world, has been to introduce some colors from other musical systems, whether these happen to be close or remote to one's own system. And such enterprise evolves into a kind of import/export business when like-minded musicians belonging to different systems of music get together and try to discover a common idiom and explore some virgin musical vistas. Right or wrong, in the case of joint ventures associating Indian classical music (whether Hindustani or Carnatic) and Western music (whether classical, jazz, pop, folk, Latin American or whatever), such activity has come to be categorised as ‘fusion'.

In this short essay I have only explained the logic of ‘fusion.' Obviously, such experiments in innovation can result in fascinating and permissible performances only if the musicians who undertake them are not only well accomplished, but actually function at the highest level of imagination, excellence and integrity. In the case of Carnatic music, it is vitally important that the spiritual quality of the music is never sacrificed or even diluted -- so what exactly is permissible, and what isn't? In other words, what exactly are the limits of ‘fusion'? 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

India Joins Exclusive And Elusive Cryogenix Club

Just a few weeks ago India had successfully sent an internationally well-equipped  space vehicle on its way to a Mars orbit  which is expected to be achieved in a few months' time.  And now comes the news that its long-term endeavour to develop a powerful entirely-made-in-India cryogenic spacecraft engine has also succeeded at last after overcoming several serious setbacks.  

Are you watching, Indira Gandhi?  (see Articulations Online, 1 Dec. 2013 :  Destination Mars : Bravo, ISRO!  Bravo, India!).


6 Jan. 2014

GSLV-D5 launch places India in elite league

 One of India’s most ambitious dreams became a reality on Sunday when its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-D5), powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine, effortlessly put the 1,982-kg GSAT-14 communication satellite into a perfect orbit after 17 minutes of flight.

The cryogenic engine built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired for 12 of those 17 minutes.

The precision of the cryogenic upper stage was such that it put the GSAT-14 into an orbit with a perigee of 179 km, against the target of 180 km, and the apogee achieved was off by a mere 50 km for a target of 36,000 km.

The grand success caps 20 years of hard work by ISRO’s engineers, after being denied cryogenic technology under pressure from the U.S., suffering a heartbreaking failure with an indigenous cryogenic engine flight in April 2010 and having had to scrub its second attempt with an indigenous cryogenic engine in August 2013. . . .

The mission’s success means India now has the ability to put satellites weighing more than two tonnes in orbit, joining the elite club of the U.S., Russia, France, Japan and China who have mastered this perilous technology of using cryogenic propellants -- liquid oxygen at minus 183 degrees Celsius and liquid hydrogen at minus 253 degrees’ Celsius.


7 Jan. 2014

Resilience pays off

The Indian Space Research Organisation is adding feather after feather to its cap. Just recently, it sent off the country’s first effort at planetary exploration, the Mars Orbiter Mission. On Sunday, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), equipped with an indigenous cryogenic engine, put the GSAT-14 communication satellite into orbit with effortless ease.

It was an unequivocal demonstration of the space agency’s mastery of cryogenic technology, a key element in building more powerful launch vehicles.  While its older sibling, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), can accommodate communication satellites weighing about 1,200 kg, the GSLV will be able to carry spacecraft that are heavier by around 1,000 kg. . .  .