Among the winners at the Grammy Awards in February 1968, in the three important categories of jazz, pop and classical, were three performances that were in some way fertilized by Hindustani music: Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin’s West Meets East. It was perhaps an annus mirabilis for Indian classical music, capping such an active decade of its encounter with the Western consciousness that, two years earlier, British pop singer Steve Marriott had exasperatedly remarked: “We’ll be able to get plastic sitars in our cornflakes soon.”
In Bhaivrai: The Global Impact of Indian Music, Peter Lavezzoli aims to chart that encounter, in the years before and since 1968. To do so, he reprises a technique he earlier employed in writing about Ellington, telling the story of how Ellington (or, in this case, classical Indian music) influenced individual musicians by telling the stories of their lives and art. This unfortunately necessitates very frequent and very basic doses of potted history, gleaned from the battery of secondary sources listed in the bibliography and rewritten unimaginatively.
Maestro at work: Lavezzoli’s interview with Pandit Ravi Shankar is one of the best sections of the book. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP
Bhairavi, thus, always seems to be in danger of toppling into the chasm of yawns that is reserved for dry narrations of names and dates, although it is finally held back from that fate by Lavezzoli’s own primary research: interviews with musicians and personal interpretations of trends and influences.
In roughly chronological order, Bhairavi takes a roll-call of musicians who helped spread Indian music in the West, interviewing them when possible. Lavezzoli writes about Ali Akbar Khan, the sarod maestro who starred on the first-ever Indian classical LP record; about the mathematical polyrhythms of tabla players Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain; about the compositions of Philip Glass; about the modal improvisations of rock pioneers such as Grateful Dead and of jazz giants such as John Coltrane; about, of course, George Harrison’s love for the sitar and India; of the electronic beat experiments of Talvin Singh and Cheb i Sabbah.
The two most striking musicians on this list—Harrison and Coltrane—were of course no longer available to be interviewed, which is immensely unfortunate. As consolation, Lavezzoli offers us some of their views recorded elsewhere, and he ably captures the experience of their musical transitions.
Much of the quality of Lavezzoli’s interview material is inconsistent. His final full chapter—the tihai, if you will—is a lively interview with Ravi Shankar, whom the book justifiably identifies as the fulcrum of the Indian music revolution in the US. Shankar is eloquent and forthright, capturing the development of Hindustani gharanas in one response far better than Lavezzoli does over the entire book, and readily condemning the gimmicky and the compromised in modern music. “Anything is accepted now... Any music, any sound, either in chord or dischord (sic), even out of tune,” Shankar says crushingly. “We have reached a dangerous crossroads, and the danger is the survival of our classical music.”
Bhairavi—The Global Impact of Indian Music: HarperCollins, 430 pages, Rs450.
But other musicians settle for banalities, and this is partly the fault of the questions posed to them. In every interview, for instance, Lavezzoli insists on asking, in various woolly iterations: “Do you see a connection between Indian music and world peace?” Deservedly, he gets only platitudes in return. Perhaps believing that Indian classical music cannot be discussed without reference to its spiritual roots, he frequently abandons musicology to toy with notions of God and the divine sound. Can devotional music be a pathway to God, Lavezzoli inquires of the guitarist John McLaughlin. He receives, in answer, a curt, “That question is unanswerable by me.”
What we would have loved Lavezzoli to do is more of what he does best: Simply talk about the music. As a professional percussionist and singer, and as a student of tabla and dhrupad, Lavezzoli has a natural empathy for the invisible grind of making music and an ear that can pick apart an edifice of sound to examine how it was put together. His discussions on Harrison’s India-touched songs, such as Norwegian Wood, Love You To and The Inner Light, or on Coltrane’s gorgeous four-movement suite A Love Supreme are lucid deconstructions of the music and of how its elements were conceived. Pleasingly, the book’s sharpest insights into the creative process come, in the end, through the music itself.