Friday, 11 July 2008

The Sound of Music

Music has an uncanny ability to simultaneously enthrall and empower the listener. Then be it imagery or be it prose, the thought process becomes crystal clear. Most of us have experienced this at some point or the other. This evening while talking to a Romanian friend I had this realization all over again. He has been listening a lot to Indian classical music these days. In his words it helps him “structure his thoughts” and focus on his thesis. Strangely enough as I write this piece I am listening to a recording of Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on the MohanVeena (an adaptation of the Hawaiian guitar). If I were to think back, I have always listened to music while studying, working with spreadsheets or doing anything that requires concentration and focus.

Music in Indian mythology has been granted divine status and it is said that the laws and forms of music were first revealed to sage Narad. Maybe this is why it is so closely related to meditation and relaxation? The early recorded origins of Indian classical music can be traced back to the Samveda (one of the four most ancient holy Hindu scriptures). Today, Indian classical music has two different and very distinct forms – Hindustani which is a North Indian style and Carnatic which is the South Indian technique. Both forms of the art have their roots in the Natyashastra, a music treatise written in the Gupta period of Indian history (circa 320 – 550 AD). The main principle of these art forms is the raga or the melody formula. Each raga has a distinct set of five or more notes to be used in a distinct order. While there is quite an emphasis on vocal music in both styles, in Hindustani music each raga has a prescribed time or season. Carnatic ragas do not carry along any such prescription. Over the course of history, Hindustani music has been substantially influenced by Persian culture whereas Carnatic music has retained most of its original form.

Along with the Persian influence in the art form, Hindustani classical has also inherited some musical instruments from Northwestern Asia. Two key Hindustani classic instruments with their origins in Persian art form are the sitar and sarod. They are also among the most popular string instruments in Hindustani music (while the violin and veena are more popular in Carnatic music). I must admit that I am quite partial to both the instruments and in particular to the sitar. London being such a global city offers a number of opportunities to listen to great maestros playing live. One such rare and unique occasion was a fusion performance by Ustaad Nishat Khan on the sitar and the world renowned Paco Pena on the guitar. The soft and soothing sitar with the impassioned and strong guitar seemed to intrigue not just me but a whole host of Londoners from varied cultures and myriad walks of life. The event saw an almost packed house at the Royal Festival Hall.

Ustaad Khan played the sitar in the Hindustani style accompanied by the tabla (Indian percussion instrument) and Paco Pena played the guitar in flamenco style along with the bongo and a vocalist. Each expert retained the sanctity of his own style and played individually to begin with, introducing the instruments. After having provided an initial flavor of the two forms and the characters of the instruments, the two maestros took off together to create blended music which seemed to be an independent art form in its own. The two percussionists seemed to be in perfect synch with one another as was the vocalist with the other four musicians on stage. There was not one person in the audience who wanted the performance to end and when it did there was a huge applause for an encore. The artists gratified the audience and what ensued is unforgettable. The sounds of the sitar brought to life the image of a stealthily flowing waterfall and the accompanying guitar brought the warm rays of the sun. The percussion instruments filled in for the blowing breeze and the vocalist stepped in for the chirping birds. It was a gripping and unique experience. The fact that I remember the sensation in the auditorium after all these months should indicate how thrilling the experience was.

I have yet to encounter another art form with such an ability to transcend all barriers and touch the inner chords of millions of hearts. Nothing can bring a smile on the face of a Londoner like the street busker plucking away at his guitar in the middle of the night. There is no alternative to jazz by the canal on a warm summer evening. There is no substituting Beethoven by fire on a cold winter day. And nothing can take place of Ustaad Zakir Hussain playing the tabla with Shivmani on the drums while the clouds thunder in the dense Mumbai monsoon. Music is universal and without boundaries. It needs no language, cast, color or race; it is simply the sound of music and is happy to be so.

PS: This has to be a coincidence. Just yeaterday I wrote this post and today I was introduced to one of the newest inventions in the world of music. It is a Swiss instrument called the Hang, invented in 2006. While modelled after percussion instruments it also has melody. The lower notes sound like as if the Sarod is being palyed and there is an element of the South Indian ghatam as well

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