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! 

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