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Hindustani classical singer Kishori Amonkar. Photo: Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times
Hindustani classical singer Kishori Amonkar. Photo: Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times

What does our music say about us?

We may not have the order of the West, but we have an art that produces the most moving music imaginable

What defines our music, when compared to the music of the West? What does it say about us? My observations about Hindustani and Western classical music are as follows:

Our music:

1) The most important element is the vocal.

2) The singer performs while seated.

3) The size of the group is small, and usually less than six people.

4) There is a hierarchy of instruments and performers on the stage.

5) The singer performs with eyes closed.

6) The music is not written.

7) The performance is improvised.

8) The setting is informal.

9) The lyric is unimportant.

10) The accompanying instruments echo the melody and all regularly come together on the sam.

11) Men and women sing the same material.

12) The music is culturally inclusive and so is the material.

13) The system of learning is closed.

Their music:

1) The most important element is the instrumental.

2) The singer performs while standing.

3) The size of the group is large and can go from solo to quartets and quintets to orchestras of 100 people.

4) There is no fixed hierarchy of instruments, but there is a hierarchy of performers.

5) The singer performs with eyes open.

6) The music is from a written score.

7) The performance follows instructions.

8) The setting is formal.

9) The lyric is fixed.

10) The accompanying instruments offer harmony and counterpoint.

11) Men and women sing different parts.

12) The music is culturally inclusive but not the material.

13) The system of learning is open.

Eyes closed: There’s a lovely video of Kumar Gandharva aged 10 singing Hirabai Barodekar’s Govardhan Giridhari. His eyes are open. He’s singing it without grasping the internal meaning and without feeling the emotion. In his later videos, his eyes are mostly shut. Why is this so? I speculate about this later.

Hierarchy: In Hindustani, the accompanying musicians are inferior. Their job is to follow the trailing voice of the singer. Tabla players used to sit behind the singer till the 20th century. The percussive solo is a modern innovation from Ahmedjan Thirakwa. Most tabla players played the theka, meaning keeping time. In Western classical music, the most important person on stage is the man keeping time (conductor), who to us in the East seems to be doing little. There is a hierarchy but it is based on experience and not the instrument. This is the origin of the term “second fiddle".

Informal setting: The tabla player can tune his drums mid-performance (like at a Grateful Dead concert), and there could be banter exchanged on stage and with the audience mid-performance. The true setting of Hindustani music is the intimate baithak, not an audience that is formally in front.

Come together: When I was learning tabla under Amrutlal Kapadia in Surat 35 years ago, his definition of sam was that point of the taal “jyan ‘ha!’ kehvanu man kare" (where you feel like exclaiming ‘yes!"). This sort of insistence on regular agreement is found in other forms of our popular entertainment, like the Gujarati garba and its fixed claps.

Lyric unimportant: I accept that this is disputed and scholar Ashok Ranade, in one of his lectures, dismissed the idea that Hindustani music has contempt for the lyric, with examples. But it is difficult for the listener to accept that Hindustani music stresses lyric. For example, in the fast (drut) phase of a raga, a totally different song may be attached to the one sung slowly (vilambit). There need not be any continuity. And listening to any number of great singers, one concludes that mumbling or forgetting the words is perfectly acceptable.

Western classical music legend Mozart.
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Western classical music legend Mozart.
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