Extremity and Beauty

The alaap is a formal and conceptual innovation of the same family as the circadian novel, in which everything happens, in an amplification of time, before anything’s begun to happen. At what point North Indian classical singing allowed itself the liberty of making the introduction—that is, the circumventory exploration that defers, then replaces, the “main story”—become its definitive movement, I don’t know; it could go back to the early 20th century, when Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan’s romantic-modernist proclivities left a deep impress on North Indian performance.

My aversion to Indian classical music turned to devotion

Still from Anhe Ghore Da Daan (2011)

The following is an excerpt from Amit Chaudhuri’s Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, out tomorrow from New York Review Books.

I had heard—or overheard—Indian classical music as a child. A man or woman would be singing on the radio. The singing was instantly up for parody. I never dreamed then that I’d have anything to do with this tradition. My incredulous dismissal is, in its own way, a happy memory, to do with an interlude when I was unconnected to what would consume me a decade later. Dismissal, in fact, is the default response to khayal (the pre-eminent genre of North Indian classical music) well before we get to know what khayal is, and vaguely term its strangeness “classical music.” Those who later become acquainted with its extraordinary melodiousness forget that on the initial encounter it had sounded unmelodious. There may be many reasons for this first misprision. When I was growing up, it may have had to do with the fact that all kinds, old and young, talented and less talented, got periodic slots to sing on All India Radio once they’d passed an audition. How did they pass the audition if they didn’t sing well? A singer of what are called “light classical” forms in India would reply—Because pure classical music relegates tone and beauty to secondary status, or gives them no status at all, and privileges mastery of grammar. This is not quite true, but has enough truth to explain why people with voices that aren’t musical sing khayal with authority. It’s related to a Brahminical mode that Indian thinking is often in danger of slipping into.

Another reason might be that various forms of classical music pursue tonality to an extremity. Once the ear becomes used to the extremity, it hears beauty. The convergence between extremity and beauty particularly applies to the most sensuous vehicle of melody, the human voice. Whether singing opera or the khayal, the voice—in very different ways—will seem far removed from its normal range and function, encroaching on registers that sound unnatural: so that it might provoke laughter, or cause impatience. Classical music might comprise one’s heritage, but it also has an air of deep foreignness. Music was one facet of Indian culture that—for instance—the English colonizer simply didn’t understand, and didn’t care to. But Indian classical music is as incomprehensible to most Indians as it was to the English. One assumes the air of foreignness marks European classical forms too, not only for people from countries outside Europe. As far as alienated Indian responses to Western classical music are concerned, two come randomly to mind. The first is from my mother. She once told me that when she first heard strains of Western classical music when living in London with my father in the ’50s, they made her profoundly sad. Then there’s Rabindranath Tagore, in his memoir Jiban Smriti (“My Reminiscences”), speaking about his time in London between 1878 and 1880. A woman singing reminds him of a horse neighing. The piano is an inferior instrument, because it can’t execute glissandos; the violin is preferable. Of course, Tagore’s remarks arise partly from politics and colonial tension. They mask a shrewd and creative interest in Western music common to many Indian composers.

There may be another reason why my aversion to Indian classical music turned to devotion. It has to do with the unpredictability of our lives as readers and writers, listeners and musicians. What’s bored us might begin to obsess us. What seemed important might, one day, lose its interest. You can’t be prepared by education, say, for Indian classical music. A change of direction may occur without warning. You find a point of entry you hadn’t been looking for. This might also happen with a book. The book could be a canonical one. You read three pages, and it does nothing for you. A year later, you pick it up and read to the fourth page. It does nothing. One day, you read it determinedly, without pleasure, and, on page 125, you’re struck by a phrase or simile; it unlocks the book’s language and teaches you how to read it. The point of entry comes unawares; it makes a world or work available which you’d had no time for previously.

Until 1977 (when I finished school), I wanted to be a pop, then a rock, musician. My parents, probably thinking I’d become a chartered accountant, allowed me this fantasy. My father, an extraordinarily kind man, sponsored my enthusiasms. As a result, I possessed a Yamaha acoustic guitar with a sweet, expansive sound, and an Ibanez—both procured from Denmark Street on trips to London.

In 1978, I left school, and my anomalous side found play. I turned into a quasi-modernist. I wrote imitations of Beckett’s early, incomprehensible English poems, themselves imitations of Eliot. I grew my hair to a length of my choosing. I entered “Junior College” in Elphinstone College and pretended I was a BA student. I gave off the vibes of a drug addict without having touched an illegal substance. I made progress on the guitar very fast, and started writing songs when I was 16. From a pop-rock singer, I transformed that year to a Canadian singer-songwriter in the making.

The points of entry came then. They formed a small cluster. Maybe it’s in their nature to seem like a constellation in retrospect, when one is related to the other. The first was my music teacher’s arrival in my life. He wasn’t my music teacher then; he was my mother’s. He was very young—I realize that now—maybe 34. He wore a white kurta and white pajamas. His name was Govind Prasad Jaipurwale. My mother had a long list of music teachers in Bombay. However talented they may have been, they were a part of my mother’s world, not mine. I mean I wasn’t interested in them except as characters in her world, which served as an exotic counterpoint to mine. Govindji, as we called him, was the first of her teachers to access my world. At 16, I was ready.

I first heard about him in a conversation a lyricist called Rajesh Johri had with my mother on the balcony of the flat in Malabar Hill. My mother felt her teacher at the time had nothing more to offer her. She and her teachers tired of each other periodically. Rajesh Johri then let drop that surname, Jaipurwale—literally, “of Jaipur.” It was already known (to my mother, not to me) from his father Laxman Prasad Jaipurwale’s reputation as a teacher. “How good is he?” asked my mother, about the son. Laxman Prasad had, by then, passed on. “Is he better than X?” she said, referring to her present teacher, a perfectly good singer with, not unusually, alcohol-related problems. “Better?” said Rajesh Johri. “X hasn’t been born in comparison. Woh uske samne paida bhi nahin hua.”

I remember my mother was amused by this recommendation. She repeated it to my father in Rajesh Johri’s voice. She was an excellent mimic. And Govindji became her teacher. I was struck by how beautiful his voice was: that, unlike many teachers of classical music whose voice wasn’t necessarily their strong point, he could sing the so-called “light” forms like the bhajans or devotionals my mother wanted to learn from him with quiet, blissful conviction. Just as pure classical music was met with bewilderment, and sometimes mocked, by those who listened to the simpler forms, the simpler forms were slightly looked down upon by the classical world. I use the past tense because classical music is now so peripheral to the consciousness that what I’ve described no longer constitutes a debate or misunderstanding. Nevertheless, I got the sense that Govindji was walking a tightrope in singing so many forms with such ease; that ease was suspect, and that too much melodiousness risked not being given proper seriousness.

He was a great pleasure to listen to—the tone of his voice, and a mastery that made you believe that he could do anything with it he chose to.

He sang softly, without insistence, and almost never sang the same phrase twice. His aim, achieved with modesty, was to surprise and be surprised.

I wanted to do what he was doing. This was odd, as I’d been content till then to sing songs with my guitar. But there was something contagious, arresting, and disruptive of the flow of time about being able to produce, consecutively, two or three versions of a phrase, each with a marginally different emotional impact, each new thought revising the previous one.

I tried to do it when I was alone, and stumbled. Clearly, you couldn’t produce these modulations just because you wanted to.

Not long ago, I found myself discussing narrative with a group of academics over dinner. Someone said that narrative doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle, and end in that order. I pointed out that there were narratives in which the beginning took up so much time that you didn’t know when you were going to arrive at the actual story. Personally, that was the sort of narrative I liked. I told the academics what the filmmaker Gurvinder Singh had said in a talk in Delhi about the screening of his first film Anhe Ghore da Daan (“Alms for a Blind Horse”) at a film festival in Canada. Singh said that the ten-to-fifteen–minute prologue—which he showed us before his talk—had presented the director of the film festival with a problem. She wanted him to cut it and move straight to the main narrative. He said he’d rather not show the film at all than dispense with the opening. The film’s prologue was significant. Nothing happened in it except the establishment of a certain meandering lifelikeness. Since this lifelikeness, this quality of constantly revisiting the present moment, is more important to me than the story, I actually wanted Gurvinder’s entire film to have been a prologue.

While writing these pages, I wondered if I could call the first chapter “alaap,” thereby playing on the meaning of the main segment of khayal. “Alaap” means—presumably in all North Indian languages—“introduction.” It’s also a major component of khayal. The initial delineation of the raga, before the vilambit or slow composition starts to the tabla’s accompaniment, is called “alaap.” So is the broaching and exploration of the raga in the vilambit composition, where the singer ascends reluctantly from the lower to the upper tonic, subjecting the notes and the identifying phrases to repeated reinterpretation. This is the alaap too; through a progression of glissandos, it contributes to a full emotional and intellectual engagement with a raga, and can take up to half an hour or more, depending on the singer’s inventiveness or obduracy. The alaap is all; its detail justifies the genre’s name—“khayal,” Arabic for “imagination.” From alaap we move to drut, fast-tempo segments, which are more virtuosic, less lyrical and tardy in character. No other musical tradition allows the prologue to be definitive in this way; not even the Carnatic or South Indian tradition, or the dhrupad, precursor to the khayal, has a counterpart to the alaap’s divigation. Carnatic performance has alapana, a long opening without percussion in which the raga is established. But alapana, like the nom tom alaap in dhrupad, soon takes on a quasi-rhythmic form: that is, the syllables are sung in and out of metre, although percussive accompaniment is still to come in. The rhythmic element in alapana and in the dhrupad’s long introductory passages creates a sort of excitement to do with the climactic; in the khayal, though, all expectation of the climactic is set aside. In fact, the rhythmless alaap in khayal is relatively short; the percussion instrument, the tabla, soon joins the singer, playing a tala (a cyclical measure with a fixed number and allocation of beats) at an incredibly retarded tempo. The singer proceeds in free time, heedless of the tala and the tabla player except when they must return, after an interval, with the composition to the one, the first beat, of the time cycle: the sama. Otherwise, unlike Carnatic music or the dhrupad, free time reigns over the exposition, notwithstanding the tabla, which, in a feat of dual awareness, the singer nods to and largely ignores. The alaap is a formal and conceptual innovation of the same family as the circadian novel, in which everything happens, in an amplification of time, before anything’s begun to happen. At what point North Indian classical singing allowed itself the liberty of making the introduction—that is, the circumventory exploration that defers, then replaces, the “main story”—become its definitive movement, I don’t know; it could go back to the early 20th century, when Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan’s romantic-modernist proclivities left a deep impress on North Indian performance.

The alaap corresponds with my need for narrative not to be a story, but a series of opening paragraphs, where life hasn’t already “happened,” ready for recounting, but is about to happen, or is happening, and, as a result, can’t be domesticated into a perfect retelling.

Should I call this chapter “alaap,” then? Or should I give the book that name?

If the meeting with Govind Prasad Jaipurwale was a “point of entry” that drew me to a tradition I’d been indifferent to, there would have been other points of entry before or after that would make me turn to him as a teacher.

I’m speaking of ’70s Bombay; a beautiful flat on Malabar Hill; a lifestyle of privilege in a socialist economy, in which 80 percent of my father’s salary was paid in tax; a Bombay in which there was a pretty clear demarcation between the black money that circulated in the business world and the white money my father earned; a Bombay thirteen or fourteen years before deregulation. So—in spite of the privileges that derived from his company position—my father’s life remained essentially middle-class. On the one side of us were the untaxed incomes and monetarist-religious values of the business clans; on the other were the deprived, and the educated people who aspired to the sort of life my father had.

My parents had no vanity. This wasn’t a conclusion I came to myself, as I’d never subjected them to scrutiny; it was pointed out to me later, when they were old, or gone. The people who said this were right. I don’t mean my parents were “good.” I mean they managed to remain human. For this reason, they spoke to each other in the Sylheti dialect to the end of their lives. For this reason, we visited relatives annually in towns in Northeast India like Silchar and Shillong; a liberating experience for all three of us. For this reason, there were hardbound copies of classic Bengali novels on the bookshelves, beside Grolier Classics, the Pelican edition of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, and biographies of Jackie Onassis and Marilyn Monroe. For this reason, there was music in the house. I mean I had access to much more than a boy in comparable circumstances in Bombay would have had. I don’t mean “culture,” or what Bombay deemed to be “culture”; I mean other worlds.

By “other worlds,” I’m thinking, mainly, of India’s modern traditions, which I became aware of through my relatives and through the hardbound volumes on the shelf; and I’m thinking of the classical ones: dance, music, sculpture, temples, mosques. Growing up in Bombay, my friends and I didn’t delve into these. We were in our own world, of Sad Sack and Archie, of Elvis and later Dylan. I don’t mean we were deracinated; we were a transmutation of Indian reality. We felt Indian, but somehow also felt Woodstock was our inheritance. Something about our formation made us feel naturally at home in the American Sixties, a decade that had just passed and gone by, for us, without Vietnam. The English language dominated. In Bombay, the modern Indian languages were called “vernaculars,” and those who spoke them labelled “vernacs.” I never picked up Marathi, though I was taught it in school. Indian music and Indian traditions felt quasi-religious and therefore discomfiting; we—a secular class that had largely been educated in Christian schools and had no religion ourselves—firmly shut them out. Still, those “other worlds” were there, to be skimmed over in textbooks, or, for me, encountered in songs overheard and towns visited.

Some points of entry came to me from lighting on Marathi programs on TV. I think TV came to Indian households in around 1970, comprising, at first, a few hours every evening about agriculture and industry. Or that’s how I remember it. By the mid-’70s, there was a fully functional national channel, which made accommodations for local programming at certain times of day. Then a second channel was added—in Bombay’s case, with chiefly Marathi content. Why I chose, in 1978, in that four-bedroom flat in Cuffe Parade, to look beyond the modest English-language entertainment—game shows like What’s the Good Word? and sitcoms of the Mind Your Language variety—toward the Marathi fare, I don’t know. But I recall watching some episodes of Pratibha ani Pratima (literally, “Talent and Profile”) on Sunday mornings. I saw Kishori Amonkar on this program, replying to a question and then singing a few notes without any accompaniment. I was struck by the dark flow of the meends or glissandos and the voice’s purity. Having ignored Marathi all my life, I understood very little of what was passing between the singer and her interlocutor. It was like watching an arthouse film without subtitles. On another Sunday, I caught Bhimsen Joshi on the same show. At some point, he began to explore, in passionate detail, the notes of a thumri. Once more I felt the urge—as I had with Govindji—to replicate what I’d heard. Once more, I found it near-impossible to reproduce what had sounded fluent and spontaneous.

Each encounter—Kishori Amonkar; Bhimsen Joshi; the singer Balgandharva, whom I heard one night on Channel 2—was a jolt. I think it’s safe to say that Balgandharva is almost entirely unknown outside Maharashtra. He was a star in the ’30s and ’40s in a form that’s specifically Marathi—“sangeet natak” or “music theater,” in which he sang “natya sangeet”: “theatre music.” He played women. The channel showed pictures of him in a sari. I don’t know if I happened upon this program because, bored by life in Cuffe Parade, I was at a loose end, or because I was scavenging for snippets of classical music, probably being, by now, addicted. The voice was transfixing. It was so high-pitched it could have been a woman’s, just as Kesarbai Kerkar’s was so low-pitched it could have been a man’s. Something spiritual happens when a voice departs its accepted register, which is often determined by gender. This was true of Balgandharva. His singing had a bodiless freedom and pliability. The songs he sang from the natya sangeet repertoire were Marathi offshoots of classical compositions, executed with an almost guileless virtuosity, with Balgandharva clearing his throat before he plunged into a new taan. I had no idea who he was. The program was Marathi; besides, the channel behaved as if it was radio. The song’s name appeared on a wavering caption, and was played from a 78 RPM record.

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