Indian Music and the West

Indian Music and the West

When we talk of Indian Music and the west and their interaction, if any, we have to look at the issue from two or three points of view.

The first obviously is the extent and quality of interest taken by Westerners (principally the British rulers) in the Indian classical musical system. The second is the type of attempts or efforts made by Indians musicologists and performers—to carry and project our traditional music in Western countries. The third is the extent to which Indian Musicians succeeded in imbibing or assimilating the essentials of Western Musical system and conversely the assimilation by Western musicians and music lovers of the classical music of India. For the sake of clarity we could take up the points one by one and then see if we can reach any specific or broad conclusions.

The first issue relates to the interest or studies undertaken by Westerners in the creativity of Indian classical music. As we have seen, the alien rulers prior to the British came not merely to conquer and rule the country but also made this country their home and were ready for intermixture of culture, art and even social customs. But this unfortunately did not happen with the British who entered first as traders and step by step changed themselves into the rulers of this country.

The British Rulers had brought with them the Western spirit of enquiry into India’s heritage and past. Keeping the basic interest of colonial domination intact, the English officials, educationists and intellectuals displayed very wide interests which extended from studies of Indian flora, fauna, tribal customs and society, to fine arts. Thus we had great English scholars who worked on all these subjects inclu­ding wild life, local customs, and religious tenets. They included outstanding civil servants, professors and even men from the British Army. It was but natural that they turned their attention also to the state of our arts like music, sculpture and painting. As a result, a lot of literature on these subjects started being published. Talking specifically about the traditional Indian music, the first publications came out in the earlier part of the 20th century perhaps a little before even Pundit Bhatkhande and Paluskar had undertaken studies to codify standardize the Indian Melodies and reduce a large number of compositions in these melodies into a regular system of notations.

The first amongst the British scholars to produce very serious and authentic treatises on Indian music were Mr. A.H. Fox Strangways and Mr. H.A. Popley. The former wrote the ‘Music of Hindostan” (1914) and the latter “The Music of India”. Mr. Popley came out with his book in 1921. Mr. Popley in his salutation to Mr. Strangways wrote “India can never be too grateful to this musical scholar for the limitless labour love and imagination he has lavished upon Indian Music”. The tribute is true both in words and spirit. In his own important book Popley rather modestly said that “this little work is sent out into the world in the hope that it may help to make known the great value of Indian music and that it may play some part, however small, in the improvement and spread of this culture throughout India”.

Let us admit in gratitude, that these great scholars were sincerely attempting a revival or resurrection of our musical traditions much in the same way as the great German scholar Max Muller rediscovered the Vedanta Philosophy and essence of the Sacred Vedas. Such an effort is by itself highly commendable and what we did not get from the British rulers in the shape of active pursuit, learning and presentation of Musicwas compensated by scholarly writings on Indian musical system which helped us in deve­loping and in better understanding the system which lay behind Indian classical music.

Why did the British not take to the prac­tice and performance of Indian music?

Perhaps there is to my mind, only one explanation to this. The Western musical concept is not the same as the Indian musical concept. Western Music is based on the concept of harmony and ensembling of notes emerging from different scales. Traditional Indian Music, on the other hand, is ‘based entirely on “melody” with fixed scale of notes. The Indian system goes beyond— extending to refined portrayal of Ragas or melodies, using (in contrast to staccato notes) “meends” or graces as also “strutis” or semi tonal notes in Raga Alapa. With this sharp conceptual difference the meeting ground for the two systems has not been large enough and has necessarily remained confined to intelligent research and experimentation. In sum, therefore, the English contribution has been in the field of theory, system and research of Indian music but not in its practice, performance or propagation.

The fundamental point is that in Indian music the notes are members of a form or melody already supplied by tradi­tion and the newness is created by their graces and arrange­ments, while in Western music they create new forms as the music proceeds. Thus there is creativity in both the systems but the methods and philosophy are different. From the mystic standpoint, western music speaks of the wonders of God’s creation. Indian music hints at the inner beauty of the Divine in man and the world. Indian music requires of its listeners something of that mood of divine discontent, of yearning for the infinite and the sublime. Thus it is possible to awaken interest largely by way of acquaintance with the Indian musical system so far as a westerner is concerned but his total emotional integration with the fundamental ethos of classical Indian music is not perhaps possible.

To continue once again with the British contribution to the study of classical music of India, reference has to be made to pioneering works like “Musical Modes of India” by Sir Wilson Jones. “A Treatise on the Music of Hindustan” by Capt. Willard, ‘Grammar of Music” by J. D. Paterson, “Some Indian Conceptions of Music” by Mrs. Maud Mann, “Sanghit” by Fancis Gladwin and others. These works testify to the great devotion, verging almost on a missionary zeal, which must have gone into detailed studies, discussions on the old texts and ceaseless sifting of evidence, data and inferences. These writers’ believed that “Indian Music possessed so much value for the life of the people of India that, in this great day of national aspiration and progress, it ought to be known and understood by every man and woman who has India’s good at heart, so that it may become cultivated in every city and village throughout the land.”

Let us admit in gratitude how very prophetic these words would appear today forty years after Indian Independence, although the thoughts were nurtured by English writers almost a century ago. If these early thinkers set the ball rolling as it were, it was people like Rajah S. M. Tagore, Bhatkhande, Bhandarkar, Paluskar and many others who picked up the threads and vigorously continued efforts to spread the education and culture of classical music with the help of princely states, Zamindars and the richer sections of the rural and urban society of this vast country. Today we have indeed come a very long way after independence with the teaching and culture of music having spread phenomenally far and wide. Independence opened the gates of the world and the West in particular and cultural exchanges between India and the West increased very considerably and this resulted qualitatively in a different kind of musical interaction, a massive export and propagation of our music abroad, the like of which never took place in the past.

Spread of Indian Classical Music in Western Countries

We may now turn to the second and rather interesting part of our study namely efforts made by our musicologists and performing musicians to project and spread our classical music in the Western countries. There is no clear historical source to ascertain the first or maiden effort which may have taken place. The first sporadic and isolated efforts perhaps took place during the last quarter of the 19th Century. No exchanges took place during Mughal period or the earlier part of the British period. In general, instrumental music was the first to be projected and for obvious reasons vocal music has not even today (except for some Dhrupad Music and professorial assignments for khayal singers) been able to make much headway.

The first journey to Western countries was perhaps by Ustad Shamsuddin Khan (Sitar and Surbahar) of the Jaipur gharana and the uncle of the authors’ Ustad Abid Husain Khan. The Jaipur Sitar Gharana which was carried by Ustad Shamsuddin Khan to Europe. The visit took place in the summer of 1894 and the Ustad performed before aristocratic audiences in three centers of Europe namely Rome in Italy, Paris in France and London in England.

In the early part of the 20th century, Ustad Sakhawat Hussain Khan, the noted Sarod player of Lucknow visited England and ably demonstrated the traditional playing of the Sarod. There were possibly some other indivi­dual artists also who visited Europe for performance.

The next major projection of Classical Indian Music was by Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar who accompanied Uday Shankar, the internationally famous Indian dancer, in his European tour as the top musician and adviser to the music troupe .which Uday Shankar had taken with him.

This visit of Ustad Allauddin Khan, a master of several Indian instruments including the Violin, helped to open up the presentation of various Indian Instruments to the common listeners of Europe . With his great recep­tivity, Ustad Allauddin Khan imbibed some of the tech­nical excellence of Western Violin players, developed fresh ideas on Indian orchestration and also brought with him ideas relating to rhythmic variations/patterns and also use of harmonic effects on Raga Music for which both the Sarod and Violin were ideally suited. The visit of Uday Shankar to various European countries covered several years of the decade 1930-1940.

The Second World War intervened and all cultural acti­vities were totally suspended. The end of the war saw several nations including India rise from their dull stupor of centuries, exploitation and marching towards their cheri­shed goal of national independence. The revolutionary struggle for freedom came to a near miraculous end but not before the heavy price of partition had to be paid in terms of blood, sweat, tears and the uprooting of millions from their homes and seeking shelter elsewhere.

Amidst toil and chaos the Indian nation led by great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Pundit Nehru and others took up the herculean task of nation building exemplified in agricultural revolution, industrial expansion, spread of education, foreign policy and many other constructive activities.

By the mid fifties when the country had somehow regained its breath, thinking started being bestowed upon cultural resurgence. Cultural agreements with various nations were signed, the Radio was expanded and later the Indian Council for Cultural Relations was set up. It was a virgin field and opportunities for performing artists started emerging. It was at this stage that imaginative, talented and far seeing artists like Pundit Ravi Shankar started making musical appearances quite regularly in U S A and Europe with almost unprecedented success. It was, in every sense, a pioneering effort for Ravi Shankar—early upbringing in Paris, his education, his training under Ustad Allauddin Khan, his sojourn abroad with his famous brother Uday Shankar and the confidence and blessings he enjoyed from Pundit Nehru—all these put him in a key position in the international cultural map and he brought accolades for India by becoming a performer of international repute and an undisputed cultural ambassador of India abroad.

Other eminent musicians followed but largely as concert performers. All said and done, the net result was the massive propagation of instrumental music so much so that it became almost an export item and materialistically involved a boom for the manufacturers of Sitar and Sarod, which became internationally recognized musical instru­ments.  Subsequently Dhrupad singers and Bin players also made successful tours of the West.

All this has now gone on for at least three decades. One is prompted to ask what the net outcome has been in terms of genuine propagation of our classical music in the Western countries with a different mental and cultural ethos.

The concerts in western and european countries are by and large, attended and patronized by Indians settled in those countries. It needs a lot of advance planning and preparations to get good Western audiences at the concerts.

Once the wave of performing abroad started, mediocre, ill trained, half trained musicians managed, through influence and contacts, to go abroad. Perhaps, over the years the call of the dollar seems to have been much more powerful than the serious and high standard of presentation of music. In Indian parlance the saying goes that the “Yogi has turned into a Bhogi” i.e. a steadfast and committed performer has reduced himself to the level of a seeker of materialistic advancement.

Have we succeeded in projecting and performing our true traditional classical music abroad?

The answer is best left to the reader’s judgment.

We have now to turn to the third aspect of this subject. In the last three and a half decades of projection and dissemination of our classical music two more dimensions appear relevant and must be brought out—

  1. What is the extent to which Indian artists have been successful in imbibing or assimilating the essentials of the Western Musical system and to what extent there has been the dovetailing of Western ideas or concepts into Indian classical music?
  2. Conversely how much have Western musicians and Western lovers of Indian music been able learn, assimilate and develop proficiency in Indian Music?

These are indeed very difficult questions to answer. Propagation, giving concerts, starting musical schools are one thing, but aesthetic acceptance by Indian Musicians of the basic features of Western Music is quite a different thing. We have seen great examples like Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin playing a duet but even on superficial listening one point surfaces rather clearly. The Indian melody system can be played very correctly and mechanically by a brilliant Western artist but it is necessarily alien to him from the point of view of the musico-cultural ethos to which he belongs. These efforts must be considered bold experiments only not indicative of clear cross fertilisation of Indian and Western musical thoughts or moods. It has been a great experiment and meeting of great musical minds.

The allied area is that of Orchestration. Here also experimentation only has taken place to a very large extent. Melody based Indian Music is ill at ease with Western harmonic movements with changing musical scales. A similar problem arises when Western musicians try orches­tration on Indian Ragas. What really has been possible is a massive musical ensemble with large number of instruments with varying combinations of note production. This can at best, be called a step forward towards creative musical ensemble reflecting the changing moods of the audiences and their urge for something new. Undeniably, it is not melody based classical Indian Music.

Interaction between Indian Classical Music and Western Music

This then is the defacto position. We are at the cross roads of experimentation but experimentation only. The interaction between Classical Indian Music and Western music could be reduced to a few basic postulates‑

  1. Phenomenal projection of classical Indian Music has taken place in the West.
  2. The West showed considerable interest to start with but as soon as the first flush had gone, we were left with reduced numbers of Western connoisseurs, students and performers.
  3. Indian and Western music have originated and developed in separate cultural ethos and the emotional make up of the musicians of the two systems are totally different.
  4. Interaction between the West and Indian Music has enriched creative music through instrumental ensem­bles which strictly cannot be brought within the classification of orchestration as it is known in the West. But it is definitely a search for new frontiers.

Here perhaps we may close our discussion with the fond hope that, the interaction of The Future Indian music and the Western music may produce something more constructive. If anything, the barriers of ignorance have been broken down and Indian classical music has finally come out into the world and demonstrated its potentialities and powers of receptivity.