Observations on the culture of Hindustani Classical Music

On an overnight train from Delhi to Jodhpur last month, I was seated next to a young, well-traveled author. We immediately realized we were both en route to the same music festival in Jodhpur and began discussing our musical tastes. I mentioned I was a Western classical musician, and he mused, “You know, I love almost every type of music I’ve heard, but for some reason, I’ve never been able to get into Western classical music. It’s probably my loss, but something about the audience’s reaction just throws me off. The polite applause, the coughing between movements–it doesn’t seem natural.”

I grew up in Los Angeles, studying piano and attending orchestra and chamber music concerts, so very little seemed unnatural to me about the culture of Western classical music. I am an American composer of Indian heritage, three months into my Fulbright year in New Delhi, where I am studying Hindustani classical music intensively for the first time. I spend my days not only practicing vocal exercises and sitting for class with my teacher, but also meeting incredible Indian classical musicians and going to as many concerts as I can. I am learning the music of this culture in the same way I am learning Hindi, its language—I learn as much from formal study as from the environment in which it exists.

Vegetable Vendor

I wake up early each morning to the sound of the subziwallas (vegetable vendors) walking up and down the streets with their carts, loudly enumerating their daily selection in a characteristic call, as residents shout their orders back from the balconies above. Cars, motorbikes, trucks, and cycle rickshaws drive down the street, honking at least a few times for good measure, and more liberally with the slightest provocation. The maid, the milkman, and the woman who collects the garbage ring my doorbell persistently until I answer, and sometimes they will even stay for a cup of tea and a chat. Coming from America, where we place a high value on privacy, I was initially overwhelmed by the constant interruptions. But it didn’t take long for the sense of community to grow on me: The sheer number and variety of people that exist in such a small space requires Indians to adopt a nonchalant attitude of adaptivity, each unapologetically adding their own distinct textures into a vibrant morning soundscape.

It is this very aesthetic that spills into the Indian concert hall. In the West, the environment of concert music is one of transcendence. We use our music to transport our listeners from the concert hall to another private world, created by the interaction of the listener’s imagination and the music. This event demands complete silence and a great deal of focus. No one dare cough, breathe too loudly, or rustle a bag for fear of puncturing that delicate sonic plane.

While transcendence is also the aim of Indian classical music, it is weighed against the equally vital component of audience involvement, often superseding the total silence that is mandated by Western listeners. To this end, it is completely acceptable to talk during concerts. Often, one listener will turn to another to comment about the performance, sometimes for a moment and sometimes at great length. People not only take pictures, set up tripods, and record, but often they will come right up to the stage mid-performance to do it. The audience moves about freely, walking in and out of the hall as necessary instead of waiting for a piece to be over to mask their movement with applause. While each artist has their specific demands for the level of silence and stillness in the hall, the fact remains that the audience is a vital part of the musical environment, and the artist seeks its audible interaction.

This environment of interaction mandates a different performance practice on the part of the artist as well. After getting settled on the stage, checking the mics and tuning, the artist will speak directly and candidly to the audience. The artist takes the pleasure and delight of the audience very seriously. In addition to saying a bit about the music, and sometimes asking forgiveness from both the audience and God for any mistakes committed during the performance (a common gesture that I have always found incredibly earnest and humbling), practical matters will also be addressed: Is everyone in the hall able to hear properly? Do they all have a place to sit?

Sitting audience
A concert at Moti Mahal, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur: The audience often sits on the floor with the artist. While taking pictures is considered uninvasive, pointing the soles of one’s feet at the artist is strictly prohibited.

 

One of the most inspiring musicians I have heard in India so far is renowned Hindustani vocalist Begum Parveen Sultana. She performed at Kamani Auditorium in Delhi last month, and not only was every seat in the huge hall taken, but people were sitting three across in the aisles and lining all the walls (fire codes apparently do not exist here). Parveenji looked out into the hall and, seeing the hordes of people who had come to hear her sing, she immediately invited the people without seats to join her on the stage, saying warmly, “Come, come! There is plenty of room up here!”

Begum Parveen Sultana
Begum Parveen Sultana sings at Kamani Auditorium on October 8, 2011 in the Delhi Classical Music Festival. She is accompanied by a tabla player, a harmonium players, and two young singers who are playing the tanpura to accompany her.

 

Even after the performance has started, it isn’t uncommon for the artist to make requests from the stage between musical phrases: Can the mic level be brought up? Can someone bring a cup of tea, or a glass of water? At almost every concert I’ve attended, someone will inevitably rush onto the stage midway through the performance to deliver bottles of water to members of the ensemble.

As the artist connects with the audience from the stage, the audience also responds visibly from their seats. Many people mark out a specific beat pattern, keeping time with their hands on their knees and making large unabashed gestures that are visible to the artist on important beats. After a particularly virtuosic or ingenious passage, there will be loud remarks of approval (Arre wah! Aesa!–Oh, wow! That’s the way!).

Perhaps due to the fact that the concert hall is a recent installation in Indian culture, there are not really curtain calls and long rounds of applause, as the artist doesn’t make a particularly grand entrance or exit from the stage. Following the performance, after a short round of applause, audience members will begin yelling out suggestions, usually for the artist’s signature works. The artist will engage in an informal three-way discussion with the audience and the concert presenter, weighing the amount of time allotted for the performance against the desires of the audience, and reach a consensus before beginning the requested encore(s). Parveenji was so dedicated to her audience that as they shouted requests, she said, in Hindi, “Of course! I will try to sing everything you want. Even if the curtain falls on me, I will keep singing from behind it!”

This direct, unmitigated interaction seemed very foreign to me at first, coming from the West. These days the Western concert hall tends towards polite but hands-off interactions with the artists. Shouting, “Encore!” or bringing flowers to the stage is probably the most interaction an audience member will have with a performer, and I had grown comfortable with that “respectful distance.”

But even as recently as the famous Rite of Spring riots in 1913, it seemed that the interaction between audience and performer in the West bore much more resemblance to what I’ve been seeing in India recently. There is undoubtedly a complex web of reasons why our musical climate may have once been closer to this one. But one commonality between older classical music and Hindustani music exists that may have something to do with it: form.

The Meghwal of Marwar
The Meghwal of Marwar, a band of tandura players from Rajasthan perform bhajans of saint-poet Meera Bai in an outdoor concert at the Jodhpur RIFF festival.

 

Since the time of Bach, by some accounts, Hindustani music has been dominated by a style of music called khayal, which, literally translated, means “idea,” “opinion,” or even “imagination.” While, as the name suggests, the actual phrases rendered are largely left up to the artist’s improvisatory inclinations, they are couched in a rigid formal structure.

From a formal standpoint, it can be argued that khayal is for Hindustani music what sonata-allegro form was for Western classical music. Sonata-allegro form, simply stated, guided the audience through a long piece of music, dividing it into sections, each with a set of broad specifications, tied together by inter-sectional unifying elements. The understanding of this form provided the audience with a commonly trod road map, which resulted in an easy point of entry into the music.

A basic khayal presentation is comprised of four sections, each faster than the next. Some are pure improvisation and elaboration on a raag, while others draw from and expand upon previously composed material. Though the technical specifications and aesthetic purpose of each section vary vastly from sonata-allegro form, the presence of such a form serves largely the same purpose.

Before beginning a piece, the artist will usually start by announcing the raag (scale) to be sung. In the olden days (and perhaps still in elite circles today), leaving raags unidentified was a matter of prestige: While Westerners have two main scales, there are hundreds of raags, and the same expertise was required to correctly identify a raag as would be required on a drop-the-needle test in the West. For many experienced listeners, just the name of the raag will call to mind a context: the notes in the raag and their correct means of elaboration, as well as characteristic phrases (pakads) that define the raag.

However, even if an audience member doesn’t know a certain raag (and I certainly don’t know many of them), s/he need not worry: the beginning section of each composition is a slow unmetered section called an aalap.

Made up of long, flowing, improvised phrases that grow from the tonic note, they slowly work their way through the various registers of the voice from low to high, exposing each note of the raga and emphasizing key phrases that identify it. This section serves the practical purpose of allowing the artist to settle their voice into each register while simultaneously attuning the listener’s ear to forthcoming complexities. If the listener knows the raag, s/he listens for the artist’s ingenuity in its elaboration. If not, s/he uses this section to become acclimated to the content of the piece, one note at a time.

In vocal concerts, something I’ve found both beautiful and helpful, especially in the aalap, is the expressive use of the hand. We are taught in the West not to move our hands unless necessary, and even then, just to make broad and specific gestures that don’t detract from the music—much vocal training is dedicated to getting rid of superfluous motion so the body is correctly positioned to resonate and project. But in Indian music, hand motion is a conduit for expression. With one palm open, in a gesture that seems to beckon the audience, the singer will trace the outline of a phrase in the air while singing. Unlike Western structures such as the Guidonian Hand, there is no methodic correlation between the gestures and the notes. But in a melodic language where subtle nuance is often lost to our Western ears, I find that these hand gestures, which provide a visual representation of the complex twists and turns in each phrase, provide a clear roadmap of the artist’s intention.

By the time the artist reaches the end of the aalap section, the audience has settled into the sound world of the raga. The tabla (percussion) then enters and a certain taal, or rhythmic cycle (like a time signature, but often longer and more complex) is established. The audience members who are familiar with the rhythmic cycle will also tap their hands in the specified beat pattern. The artist begins to sing a short composition in the established raag called a bandish. The bandish is usually an ancient four-line song with text in Hindi or Brajbasha, passed down aurally through generations of musicians. Musically, it serves as a storehouse for all the particular nuances of the raag it is in, and contains the melodic seeds for correct elaboration of that raag. For the audience, the most important and memorable part of the bandish is the first phrase, called the mukhra, or “face,” which serves as a marker during the remainder of the piece.

The final section of a piece is made up of very fast technical passages called taans. These are also improvised at about the speed we would associate with sixteenth notes, and are either sung in sargam (Indian solfege syllables) or aakar (vocalizing on “aa”). This is the artist’s chance to demonstrate both pyrotechnical virtuosity and rhythmic ingenuity.  The artist must end each taan right before the beat in the rhythmic cycle where the mukhra returns, and the game is to see how ingenious and creative he can get with the taans while still sliding in to home base just in enough time to grab the mukhra. The members of the audience hold their breath as the critical beat draws near, all the while keeping time with their hands, waiting to see how the artist will find his way back.

Once a successful landing on the mukhra has been made, especially if the taan has been particularly long and difficult, there is a moment of connection between the audience and the musician. The musician will momentarily loosen focus and actually make eye contact with both the ensemble and the audience. The look is often one that seeks approval, and the audience members will, in turn, voice that approval by nodding their heads and waving their hands in a particularly Indian gesture that, if a translation were possible, would say something like, “Ah! There it goes.”

When I played the tanpura (the stringed instrument that produces the drone) in my teacher Gaurav Mazumdar’s sitar performance a few weeks after arriving in Delhi, this was one of the first things I noticed while looking out into the audience from the stage. Each time he landed on the mukhra after a difficult passage, a smattering of hands would go up in this very gesture. Aside from being instant feedback for my teacher as he gauged his audience’s response to his improvisations, I found it very encouraging to look out and see these gestures of acknowledgement and approval.

Of course, there is no obligation on the part of the audience to approve of the artist’s ability. The artist is trying to please, and it is up to the audience to clearly indicate his success on that front. I’ve been to concerts where there is relatively little response from the audience, where things are perhaps not quite to their liking. On the other hand, when I attended Parveenji’s concert, people actually applauded and yelled after every single taan. And rightly so: each one was more divine than the next.

***

Things move more slowly in India. The permeating sense of urgency we have in the West is just not part of the culture here. Everything moves at its natural pace, just as the clay idols of the goddess Durga float unhurriedly in currents of the Yamuna on the final day of Durga Puja.

Durga Puja

This is as true in the study of music as in every other facet of Indian life. Hours may be dedicated to singing just a single note. Weeks can be spent singing up and down the scale of a single raag. It might be six months to a year before a musician can settle comfortably into the nuances of any given raag, and longer before they can improvise within it. Indian music theory is relatively simple in comparison to Western theory: it can be learned easily in a few days, but it comprises a much smaller portion of the total musical experience. The actual realization of a raag requires the gradual but persistent building of intuition so that extemporaneous renditions can incorporate subtleties that cannot be taught in any methodical, quantitative way.

The only element of Western music I can relate this to is our minor scale. We learn in textbooks about the three different kinds of minors, their purposes, and the logic behind usage of sharp or natural notes. But ultimately, any person who has heard enough Western music can easily hear when it sounds right or wrong. Paul Henry Lang, in his book Music in Western Civilization, argues that the minor scale is a vestige of a time when Eastern and Western music were more connected. Indeed, the raags in Indian music contain a multitude of nuances similar to this one that can truly be learned only by context and repetition, as one learns the usage of words in a language as a child.

So it’s not surprising that, as we learn language from our parents, an overwhelming percentage of the younger musicians who accompany the great artists are their own children. Until recently, most families in India had a specific line of work. Whether they were sweets-makers or politicians (like the Gandhis), most trades were carried through the generations. Even in Hindustani music, there are gharanas (the Hindi word ghar means home), families of musicians that have cultivated a certain style over generations. As the years passed, dedicated students outside the family would occasionally be allowed to learn with them, but even then, they were more like adopted children than students.

While the concept of gharanas is not democratic, they have produced a number of interesting results. Up until the dawn of All-India Radio in the 1930s, there was very little cross-pollination between musicians, to the point that certain musical secrets were guarded like treasured family recipes. Styles would develop unaffected by the outside world, and this resulted in a great variety of highly specific stylistic traditions. In addition, most of these musicians have started their education from the womb, and have been guided in their practice for upwards of eight hours daily. By the time they reach an age at which they are able to concertize, their level of musicianship is extremely high. In order to imbibe such subtleties too complex to be written down and also to acquire the ability to improvise freely within these subtleties, a high level of immersion is required.

Often one or two of these younger musicians will also be present on stage during a concert of an established artist. Commonly in vocal concerts, the artist will gesture to the younger musicians, and they will sing a few phrases at a time. This serves two purposes: the artist is able to rest for a minute during a very taxing performance, and the young musician gets a chance to be an active part of the performance, singing a few phrases for an audience before they have the endurance to sustain an entire concert.

This is something I find brilliant about the Indian teaching tradition: the transition from practice with a teacher into performance in front of an audience is gradual, and by the time young musicians are ready to spread their own wings, they have already had a taste of the dynamic of interaction with a large variety of audiences.

Since I set foot in India this past August, I have been constantly inspired by the music I hear. But it’s not just due to my immersion in the world of Hindustani music, where almost everything I hear is new to me. It’s because I can see these two beautiful musical traditions and their surrounding cultures side by side. And from that perspective, it is pointless to think in rights and wrongs, in clichés and taboos. I can only think in possibilities.

***

Reena Esmail

Composer Reena Esmail‘s works have been heard in performances and festivals throughout the U.S. and abroad. She studied composition at Juilliard and the Yale School of Music, and is currently on a Fulbright grant, studying Hindustani classical music in India. Her travel blog can be found here.

4 thoughts on “Observations on the culture of Hindustani Classical Music

  1. Brendan Faegre

    Thank you for sharing this beautifully crafted description of your experiences thus far getting deeper inside the culture of Hindustani classical music. The connections you draw between Indian lifestyle and musical traits are keen, and this is certainly a wonderful introduction of both the country and the musical tradition.

    My only concern with your article is your description of the “raag” concept, which I fear may be confusing for newcomers to Hindustani classical music. A “raag” is partly defined by its parent scale, but it is also much more. It is a “mode”, which includes specific notes used when ascending, specific notes used when descending, more important notes, notes or patterns to avoid, characteristic phrases, notes to start phrases on, notes to end phrases on, specific ornaments to use with specific notes when approached in a specific manner, etc. These highly refined melodic structures are part of what is so complex and beautiful about the Hindustani approach to melody, and by equating raag with scale, it may be difficult for others to see these subtleties.

    I also find the potential for a detailed music theory to be just as rich in Hindustani classical music as it is in Western classical music. One can study the raag system for decades and continue to make new discoveries. The same is true with the tala system. There are a number of published books which successfully outline a basic Hindustani classical music theory, for example the 300+ page book “Nad: Understanding Raga Music” by Sandeep Bagchee. This may be an improvised tradition, but it is one with an incredibly refined list of constraints within which the improvisation occurs.

    Your prose really brought me back to India though, so thank you again for such lovely writing. I look forward to reading more about your experiences, and to hearing how they manifest themselves in your own compositions in years to come!

    Reply
  2. Reena

    Thanks for your very thoughtful commentary on my article!

    I completely agree about a raag being much more than a scale in all the ways you have described. I talk later in the article about our use of the minor scale, which reminds me very much of the use of the ascending/descending forms of a raag, and I wish I had Paul Henry Lang’s book with me to refer to, as he makes the connection much more eloquently than I do.

    I know it has been much debated in the relation of Indian music to Western music as to whether to refer to a raag as a scale, and while I agree that they are only vaguely related at best, I do think the scale is to the west what the raag is to Indian music, and is a basic point of departure for someone who is unfamiliar with the structures within Indian music.

    Coincidentally, Nad was the exact book that led me to my comment about the theory of Indian music: I understood the concepts it presented very quickly, but still felt that it left me far from attaining a working understanding of Hindustani music (the way that, in my opinion, reading Schoenberg’s Fundamentals of Musical Composition would give someone a very clear working knowledge of the process of composition) — there is so much about this music that I can easily understand innately but find very hard to verbally articulate.

    I agree with you that the Indian classical music does have a very nuanced theory about it — to me, though, that theory is much more easily understood when executed: again, the same way we can theorize about the minor scale, but ultimately we can easily identify what sounds ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when we hear it. But maybe I just haven’t found a text that effectively expresses these things in writing yet — I would really welcome such a text!

    I see that you’ve done a great deal of work in both the areas of Hindustani and Western classical music — thanks again for taking the time to read and comment, and I’m looking forward to hearing some of your work as well!

    Reply
  3. good article

    Thanks for not lapsing into comments about “spirituality” and “peace” in your discussions of Indian music. That’s such a trite notion and I’m glad you’re not subscribing to it.

    The only thing I take issue with is your comment that things move slowly an without any sense of urgency. I think this is rarely found outside the upper classes. On the contrary, the sense of urgency is found in every moment the poor try to scrape together a living; whether it’s the guys running around with heavy loads in Old Delhi (walk from the Chawri Bazaar station to Jama Masjid to get a sense of what I mean) or the persistence of your dhobi beating your laundry, there’s an enormous sense of urgency and energy expenditure.

    Reply
  4. michael webster

    beautiful article thank you.

    regarding quiet and transcendence in the western concert hall it is well to bear in mind that for example not clapping between movements is a relatively recent change. The western concert hall is all about “history” – a 19th c mania – the silence is perhaps as much about reverence for history/authority as it is transcendence. Maybe why the concert hall feels (to me anyhow!) such an arid place for new work…

    Reply

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