Music for seasons
While Indian classical music has a raga for every season, when will the weather improve in London, writes Pavan K Varma.
Imagine then a note, light as air, translucent, unscripted and eternal, floating away from a sitar, resonating, even when the artist has removed his fingers from the instrument, by the sheer momentum of its sweetness. These were my thoughts as I listened to the scintillating performance of Shujat Khan at the Royal Festival Hall in London last week.
Shujat is the son of the legendary Vilayat Khan saheb who died last year. His uncle is Ustad Imrat Khan, perhaps India's most well known Surbahar player. His grandfather was Ustad Inayat Khan, whom Vilayat Khan once said no one could equal in terms of tonal purity. With such a lineage, Shujat could not but emerge as a sitarist of eminence, and this was greatly in evidence during his performance.
What really pleased me was that the Royal Festival Hall was jam-packed. The attractions were not only Shujat, but also Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shiv Kumar Sharma, and the hugely talented but temperamental Kishori Amonkar. Alas, I could not stay beyond Shujat's performance, but was told that a great part of the audience did, and the performances finished almost near midnight. Vibhakar Baxi and Jaya Visvadeva of Navras Records who organised the evening in memory of Vilayat Khan need to be congratulated for a very good show.I have never formally learnt Indian classical music. My late mother was very well versed in it, and my sisters had a teacher come home to teach them. I was fond of music even as a child and many well wishers suggested that I too should be allowed to learn. My mother, however, felt that I should concentrate on my studies. 'Ek hi ladka hai, gavaiya ho jayega', is what she is supposed to have said in response to such suggestions. I therefore missed the opportunity to learn classical vocal at the right age, and this has remained a lasting regret. However, my love for classical music remained, and today I can recognize most ragas, and have a very large repertoire of recorded music at home.
All these years of exposure to Indian classical music has not reduced my wonderment at the sheer grandeur of the tradition. Each raga is capable of infinite improvisation, and yet each must unfold within an inflexible structure. Unlike western classical music, an Indian musician has no notations, no text, and no pre identified pattern for his or her performance. Any yet he is bound by the most rigid rules. Every time I see a performance which displays the working of this complete creative freedom within an iron cast framework, I am left absolutely amazed at the timeless perfection of the system. The categorization of ragas, in accordance with the phases of the day, morning, afternoon, evening and late night, is always a revelation. How much thought and observation must have gone into working out what combination of notes produce music that corresponds best with different parts of the day? And there are ragas, such as Basant and Malhar, which reflect the mood of the changing seasons.
I have a theory about the amazingly intricate rhythm that accompanies the elaboration of a raga. The more basic a culture and civilization, the more elementary is the beat in its music and dance. The more complex and ancient a culture, the more sophisticated is its sense of beat. The rhythmic patterns that inform Indian classical music are incredibly sophisticated, and are known to the performer and his percussionist to a point where the simple and the predictable are completely dispensed with in favour of myriad rhythmic patterns that gradually lead to the sama, the climax, whose intensity-in the hands of good artists-is nothing short of orgasmic.
All good music gives pleasure. I learnt the other day of an experiment carried out on three batches of mice. Each batch was put in an enclosure and required to negotiate a maze. The first batch was exposed to silence for a week. It negotiated the maze 30 per cent faster. The second batch heard Mozart. After a week it had halved its timing. Heavy metal was inflicted on the last batch. It took more, not less, time to get through.
A final thought: while Indian classical music has a raga for every season, when will the weather improve in London? It snowed most of last week. The crocuses and daffodils in Hyde Park-brave harbingers of an elusive spring-must be very confused indeed!
(A Stephanian, Pavan Kumar Varma is a senior Indian diplomat and presently Minister of Culture and Director of the Nehru Centre in London. Author of several widely acclaimed books likeGhalib: the Man, the Times and the recently released Being Indian, he will be writing the column Hyde Park Corner, exclusively for HindustanTimes.com)