music is math…

Window on the world: India

Before exploring the sounds and sights of its music, it is worth noting that India is a vast and complex nation. Geographically, it stretches from the Himalayas to the tropical Indian Ocean. Culturally, the country has a long and colourful history of different influences from both home and abroad. ‘Indian music’ is seemingly plural, not singular in its meaning.

Pigments in India

Obviously this post will do little but scratch the surface of the variety and history of Indian music, but that is the beauty of this culture. There will always be something else to learn or explore.

Approaching Indian music from the perspective of Western culture is frustrating because, although we know it sounds distinctly different, we do not really understand why.

The same is true of language (another great cultural divider). If we hear someone speaking in German or Spanish it is likely we will recognise the language by the accent and intonation, but unlikely that we will make any sense of what is actually being said.

If music were a language, its accent would be the instrumentation and intonation would be the movement of the melody. We encounter Indian music mainly in a secondhand fashion, for example through its influence on Western artists or its use in film soundtracks. Listening to a lengthy “raga” is challenging because the sounds are totally different from our own musical system.

Rabindranath Tagore, an eminent figure in pre-independence Indian culture, compared European and Indian music to day and night respectively.

‘The night world is our Indian music: one pure deep and tender “raga”…  At the very root, nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are overpowered by the sense of the One and Infinite.’

The Indian classical music brought to many Western ears by the sitar player Ravi Shankar  is in fact only one of many musical traditions from across the subcontinent. As well as this Hindustani variety, the Carnatic music of the south and the music of what is now Pakistan have a distinct sound and history. One example is the Qawwali style propelled to international fame by the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the man Jeff Buckley referred to as ‘my Elvis’.

While Western music is characterised by its use of harmonic and melodic movement, Indian music is based more on the sounds found inside one mode (i.e. the melody of a raga moves in relation to one chord rather than over the top of many).

With the explosion of recorded pop music in the West, Indian music began to both influence and be influenced by this new style. George Harrison added a simple sitar line to ‘Norwegian Wood‘, fitting perfectly with the raga-esque verse rooted firmly in the tonic chord. This Eastern inluence can also be heard in the hypnotic drone of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and less obviously in the melody of Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’, as Howard Goodall points out a few minutes into this clip.

This process worked both ways and Indian music began to absorb elements of Western pop music. The music and film phenomenon of Elvis Presley gave rise to the culture of Bollywood icons then later, hip-hop beats, sampling and remixing led to modern Bhangra.

Modern Indian music combines traditional instruments, such as the centuries old dhol drum in Bhangra, with modern and Western influences. Bollywood musicals have grown out of old Hindi folk songs, mixed with traditional dance music and various foreign elements.

It is this fusion of disparate cultural ingredients that gives Indian music its rich heritage and sound. In many ways this is what makes the whole of Indian culture so special, namely the mix of European, Hindu, Islamic and Sikh influences over the centuries. The music of the subcontinent has become one of the most recognisable and valuable parts of world music, from the meditative ragas to the urban bustle of Bhangra.

1. The Beatles – Within You Without You

While it might have been George Harrison’s only contribution to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Within You… is also the peak of his Indian influenced songwriting. The philosophical lyrics unfold over a hypnotic and slowly evolving melody with the instrumentation and use of rhythmic cycles lifted from Indian classical music learnt from Ravi Shankar, among others.

2. R.D. Burman – Mehbooba, Mehbooba

Although from a Western perspective this Bollywood song from 1976 might seem a little dated, this would be to ignore the beautiful melody alternating between a heartfult vocal and an energetic instrumental backing.

3. A.R. Rahman – Chaiyya Chaiyya

This song, sung by Sukhwinder Singh, is a track from the 1998 film Dil Se composed by “the Mozart of Madras”, A.R. Rahman. Its instantly recognisable hook, as well as spectacular coreography, helped this become a classic Bollywood tune. More recently, Rahman gained worldwide attention for his Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.

4. Panjabi MC – Jogi

The music of Bhangra stars such as Panjabi MC, Sukhshinder Shinda and Jazzy B is some of the more easily accessible Indian music. This could partly be because much of it actually comes out of the UK, but by combining Punjabi traditions its blending with hip-hop and rock India now has a modern musical style to export around the world.

5. Nikhil Banerjee – Nat Bhairav

Although Ravi Shankar may be the most famous example, he is just one of many masters of the sitar. Nikhil Banerjee is still well known across the world for his talent, as demonstrated by this footage from the BBC.

Click here for Spotify playlist

The playlist features the music used in the article plus some more Bhangra and Asian Underground tracks. There are a few extra classical pieces too, inluding Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan and some Carnatic music. Some credit is due to this site for the Rabindranath Tagore quote and some other facts. Check it out for a more detailed version of the music theory. Enjoy the music!


One response

  1. zachwallmark

    This is a well done introduction to the uses of Indian music in the popular Western context. The interplay and cross-fertilization between cultures is really fascinating – the adaptation of Indian sounds by Europeans and Americans in 60s rock is well known, but as you mention, the influence goes both ways. Bhangra is a delicious fusion of contemporary popular approaches produced by (primarily) ethnic Indians. A great piece of music scholarship on this issue of the dissemination of popular global styles is Timothy Taylor’s “Global Pop: World Music, World Markets” (Routledge: 1997).

    September 6, 2009 at 9:44 pm

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