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Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain performing a concerto with the Symphony Orchestra Of India in 2013. Photo: Narendra Dangiya
Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain performing a concerto with the Symphony Orchestra Of India in 2013. Photo: Narendra Dangiya

Alaap in C minor

Ahead of Zakir Hussain's gig with the Symphony Orchestra of India, a look at the difficult encounters between Indian and Western classical music

In 1971, at The Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York, Pandit Ravi Shankar took the stage with Ustad Alla Rakha Khan. Minutes after they started playing, applause broke out. There was just one problem. Shankar and Alla Rakha had not yet begun their set; they were still tuning their instruments. “If you like our tuning so much," Shankar told the crowd, “I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more."

He was already a household name in the West by then, thanks in large part to his friendship with the Beatle George Harrison. But while the audience might have known who he was, it was clearly having trouble comprehending his music.

That incident certainly did not impede Shankar’s quest to blend Indian classical music with Western styles, nor did it prevent a slew of collaborations between Indian classical musicians and Western jazz, blues and pop musicians. However, it stands as a poignant, if slightly humorous, reminder that people listen to music differently, and it is challenging to introduce new sounds to ears that are not trained to hear them.

Beyond this basic distinction, there are several other technical differences, including the dissimilar methods of tuning instruments. No wonder then that meetings between Indian and Western classical music are rare.

So, when you read that Zakir Hussain is composing a piece that he will play with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), the news leaps off the page. Hussain’s new composition, Peshkar, commissioned by the SOI, will premiere in September at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. It is a single-movement work, divided into five sections.

Zakir Hussain. Photo: Satish Bate/HT
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Zakir Hussain. Photo: Satish Bate/HT

This is Hussain’s second collaboration with SOI; the orchestra backed him, bassist Edgar Meyer and banjo player Béla Fleck at performances during SOI’s 2013 concert season.

Last year, Hussain’s brother Fazal Qureshi played the tabla along with a string quartet in a rendition of Mozart’s Divertimento in D, perhaps the first time an Indian instrument had been used in a canonical Western classical piece. “The Western musicians I was playing with were concerned because they said Mozart did not write this with tabla in mind. I told them that’s because Mozart did not know what a tabla was," Qureshi says.

He listened to the piece repeatedly, and found places where a tabla could fit in.

“The tabla, being primarily a percussion instrument, can play the percussion that is already present in the composition without upsetting the balance much," Qureshi says.

Blending two distinct formal structures of music which have developed and formed over hundreds of years is never as easy as Qureshi makes it out to be. Imagine trying to fit the steps of a waltz into a Bharatanatyam performance. Another formal distinction: Western music’s base is formed of scales made up of notes with distinct intervals (the difference between two notes in a scale)—imagine crossing a river on steps of stone, with each step a note. Indian classical music treats note intervals in a far more slippery manner, gliding over them, like water flowing under the stones.

L. Subramaniam. Photo: Pramod Thakur/HT
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L. Subramaniam. Photo: Pramod Thakur/HT

In 1986, Yehudi Menuhin, the famous American violonist and conductor—who was a pioneer in making the two traditions meet when Shankar and he first collaborated in 1966—heard Subramaniam play and invited him to perform at his 70th birthday, in Germany. “Menuhin told the audience that he had never heard such power from the violin as he had in my performance," Subramaniam recalls.

He began collaborating with Menuhin and other Western classical musicians, including the American violinist Ruggiero Ricci—“one of the greatest violinists of the time"—and Jean-Pierre Louis Rampal, the Frenchman credited with making the flute popular again as a solo classical instrument in the 20th century. After writing pieces for smaller ensembles, Subramaniam ventured into writing orchestral pieces with Indian influences and has emerged as one of the most important figures in global fusion music.

“I use raga-based harmonies," Subramaniam explains. “I use the notes in a raga to create harmony. Ragas use intervals that are not used often in Western classical music. So when you create harmony using ragas, the combination of notes is surprising and pleasant, which is what attracts even Western listeners to my compositions."

As with any kind of collaboration, opinions abound on whether it is meaningful or merely a cosmetic superimposition of one form over the other. Subramaniam is wary of Indian musicians who have not studied Western music composing for orchestras.

“When I compose for Western musicians, I study their range and consider how I can create new tonalities. Then I write the music for each instrument in the orchestra. I can tell them I want them to play the B flat note instead of the B natural one. You can’t do that if you don’t know Western music," he says. Subramaniam will introduce four new orchestral pieces in the next six months, in different parts of the world.

His compositions have been a source of inspiration for Chitravina N. Ravikiran, the celebrated chitravina player. In 2000, Ravikiran was asked to perform with an orchestra at the Millennium Festival in the UK. “I thought the Western musicians would be quite rigid in their way of thinking. But they were surprisingly open to my ideas, and I made them play a raga."

More than the technical differences in the way Indian and Western classical is played, Ravikiran says it is the tradition of listening that creates a divide. “When an Indian listener hears a short bit of a Beethoven or Mozart composition, they start relating it to a melodic tune. It gets reduced to this," he says, humming what sounds like the theme tune of a video game. “Similarly, Western listeners will find some of the combinations of notes in Indian music not to their liking."

Sandeep Das with the Silk Road Ensemle. Photo: Jennifer Taylor
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Sandeep Das with the Silk Road Ensemle. Photo: Jennifer Taylor


The British colonials encountered Indian music in the 17th century, but wrote it off as unsophisticated and rudimentary because it did not contain harmony. “The argument that Indian music lacks harmony is actually a superficial one," says Srinivasan. “It does not have the Western concept of harmony, but it has it in its own forms."

The British may not have had the same insight but they had, by the late 18th century, developed a curiosity about Indian music. Sir William Jones, the founder of The Asiatic Society and an avowed Orientalist, had studied Sanskrit texts, including treatises on Indian music. His essay, On The Musical Modes Of The Hindoos (1792), is perhaps the first organized attempt to understand Indian music.

Like most early Western scholars, Jones had very specific ideas about what he considered pure Indian music: that with its roots in the ancient Vedic past, uncontaminated by Indo-Persian influences. It was in these circumstances that Westerners initially attempted Indian music. Many Englishwomen were drawn to transcribing Indian songs for Western instruments. This specific genre came to be known as the Hindostannie Air. Ian Woodfield, an expert on the subject, defines these Airs as “short musical pieces derived from an Indian original but arranged in a European idiom".

The heydays of the Hindostannie Air were in English homes in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1780s and 1790s, where there were attempts to transcribe Indian tunes with the use of a harpsichord or pianoforte. Often, the women employed the services of a professional Western musician for the purpose. It is said that even Warren Hastings, Bengal’s governor general, was fond of singing Airs.

As traditional Indian music is difficult to transcribe in Western notation, the Hindostannie Airs were inaccurate in depicting the original melodies. In the end, they were little more than exotic souvenirs from the dominions.

Amjad Ali Khan with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Marcia Lessa
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Amjad Ali Khan with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Marcia Lessa

The next significant steps towards a blending of Indian and Western music would take place during the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Rabindranath Tagore, who was enamoured of Western classical and folk music, incorporated those melodies into a number of his own songs. Many of these tunes were a blend of Indian ragas and Western melodies. The songs were also devised in a way that allowed them to be sung by choral groups. Significantly, Tagore insisted that his songs be written in Western notation.

A near contemporary of Tagore, Inayat Khan, better known today as the teacher of Universal Sufism, initially travelled to the West in 1910 as a Hindustani classical musician. An accomplished veena player, he gave several recitals in Europe long before the likes of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. During his travels, he met the modern Western classical composer Claude Debussy, who showed interest in Indian music and later incorporated Indian ideas in his compositions, particularly his Sonata For Flute, Viola And Harp (1915). Khan also experimented with Western music and tried writing Indian music with harmony.

Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha with Yehudi Menuhin. Photo: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
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Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha with Yehudi Menuhin. Photo: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

As Gerry Farrell writes in his groundbreaking book, Indian Music And The West, “He was one artist who found no conflict between different musics and the integrity of their respective forms."

In 1966, Shankar and Menuhin would record West Meets East, the first of a trilogy of similarly titled albums, which won the 1967 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance, the first time that an Asian musician had won a Grammy. Barring one track, all the tunes were composed by Shankar and based on Indian ragas—and would also feature Alla Rakha and Menuhin’s sister, Hephzibah, who played the piano.

A few years after cutting an album with Menuhin, Shankar took the next leap: arranging a hybrid music composition to be performed by a large group. In 1971, he recorded his first sitar concerto, Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn. Years later, in 1981, he would premiere his second sitar concerto, Raga Mala, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductorship of his friend Zubin Mehta.


Indian classical musicians often speak fondly of the Western world’s sense of history and the way it preserves and honours music written centuries ago. “It is considered prestigious for an Indian musician to compose a symphony or play with an orchestra," says Warren Senders, an American musician who performs as a Hindustani classical singer.

Senders, who is also a jazz musician and leader of the Indo-jazz group Antigravity Ensemble, is sceptical about the intentions of Indian musicians who want to see their names on billboards next to the feted maestros of the West. “Often, the desire comes from a place of naïveté," he says. “It gives musicians a sense of sophistication. Their Indian listeners back home will be impressed that they have composed a symphony and performed it in the West."

Sometimes, the sense of accomplishment is coloured by a desire to prove the worth of Indian classical music to Westerners. “Western classical musicians can be condescending about other forms of music," Subramaniam says, when talking of his early attempts at fusion. “They consider their system the only real classical one and club all other styles together as world music. But I know that Indian classical is one of the most sophisticated music systems."

There is more, however, than simply status and ticket sales at stake while bridging the chasm between Indian and Western classical. There is also a lot the two traditions can learn from each other. “The rigour required to actually write a Western composition definitely helps build character," says Ravikiran. “Also, the teamwork required in their tradition is something to admire." Western music in turn, he says, is attracted to many elements of Indian music. Most recently, some of the offbeat rhythms popular in Indian classical have become popular with Western composers.

Western music can learn a lot from the Indian idea of rasa, the emotional, almost spiritual element in Indian music, Dalal says. Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Philip Glass, pioneers of minimalist music, were infatuated with Indian classical music, though most of their compositions ended up appealing to an entirely new audience rather than Indian or Western classical listeners.

“The Parsi composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, whose father was born in Bombay, brought in the aesthetics of both Indian and Western classical, but his art music sounded like neither and was unique and strange," says Karl Lutchmayer, a British Western classical pianist of Indian origin.

Indian musicians have also borrowed ideologies from Western music without any actual collaboration. Tabla player Jayanta Bose created a tabla symphony, a complete orchestral music piece with harmony, played on several tablas, without any other instrument.

Despite Shankar’s efforts and the centuries-long interest in each other’s music, the reality today is that a majority of Indian classical and Western classical music lovers just don’t listen to music the same way. “There’s no point trying to create a fusion when Western listeners still associate Indian music with snake charmers and Indian listeners can’t tell the difference between Bach and Yanni," says Senders.

To create a musical language that will speak to both sets of listeners, you first have to educate people on the beauty in each tradition. Senders teaches students in the West about Hindustani music by making them listen to recordings from mehfils (musical gatherings) at which knowledgeable audiences give enthusiastic daad (vocal appreciation). “I try to get them to listen for the things the audience is hearing. Only if people can teach people how to listen and understand both forms of music can we form a creole. Right now, what we have is pidgin."

There is a strong belief among musicians from both traditions that a phenomenal meeting point is yet to be reached.

“We are not there yet," says Srinivasan. “But the quest for such a higher ground is inspiring."

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