Hello class. This week I’m exploring Northern India and building a case study concerning their musical traditions.
It seems to me (from a Western standpoint), that there has been a significant mainstream crossover with some of its cultural traditions into our culture. I think this is particularly true with music. Our book attributes much of this to the health/peace/spirituality movement of the late 60’s and to the Beatles (and George Harrison in particular) for the crossover. Whatever the reason, it’s as if Westerners have grown up learning just a tiny amount of the ‘language’ of Indian music— and I feel this small insight is enough to open up a wise expanse of possibilities where understanding and connecting toIndian music is concerned.
There are definite similarities in our musical cultures as well. Indian classical music is a music that features soloists and seems to share our admiration of musicians who show intense skill and virtuosity on their instrument. It is reminiscent perhaps to bebop jazz in this way.
Northern India is the home to some of the best examples of Indian classical music. Many Large cities like Mumbai, Pune & Delhi, make it a natural home for traditional Indian classical music culture to thrive— and thrive it has since the 16th century!
Geographically, the region is harsh and unforgiving. The mountainous areas are frozen in the winter and summers bring temperatures that rarely drop below 100 degrees. Like in many parts of the world, it’s possible that these harsh environments added to the vibrancy and urgency of a rich religious culture— in the case of northern India, this religion is Hundustani.
Hundustani music, and what is referred to as ‘Indian Classical Music’, are eternally tied together and share many of the same traditions and attributes. At the core of these traditions is the ‘raga’.
Raga, literally meaning “color” or “hue”, could be called the “tonal framework for the composition and improvisation.” (Bor & Rao). It is somewhat similar to a ‘mode’ in Western music, in that it is a collection of notes of pitches that serves as a guide for the composer to work with. In Hundistani culture, the particular notes that make up the raga often are related to a time of day or a time of year (Miller, 102). Similar to the West, there is a mnemonic system to denote each degree of the scale, Miller writes:
“The Indian equivalent to the West’s do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do is sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa, with which students of Indian raga can sing melody. As in the West, there are actually more pitches in the total tuning system than these seven because some pitches can be flatted or sharped; in India the total is usually said to be twenty-two, whereas only twelve pitches are used in the West. More than one raga may use the same set of pitches, but identical pitch sets are differentiated in practice from raga to raga due to dif- ferences in pitch hierarchy, typical melodic units, and extra-musical aspects. The two most important pitches are sa and pa, always a fifth degree apart.”
Raga are considered to be “improvisations” in Indian terminology, but there is still a strict set of rules which dictate the unfurling of the composition; it’s not really musical “improv” in the western way of thinking, though there are definitely certain similarities. Again, here’s Miller with some thoughts:
“Even as it employs a highly systematic compositional process, Indian classical music also allows for endless variation, and the genius of a performer is not in how well he or she follows established conventions but in how those conventions are manipulated for the purposes of individual expression.”
Indian Classical Music Instruments & the Bansuri:
It is an overwhelming to try and attempt any original cataloguing of the amazing and diverse musical instruments that are employed within Hindistani musical traditions. In my study-guide that I did this week for the class, I have featured a few notes on some of the most common instruments in Indian classical music, including the sarod, tambura and sitar— but for this blog I’d like to focus on a slightly more obscure instrument and analyze it in a bit more detail.
I knew I wanted to focus on a flute with a rich lower-mid register. I find the ‘round’ tones of these types of instruments to be particularly pleasing to my ear, particularly in the context of Indian classical music. The instrument I found is called the ‘Bansuri’.
What I love about the bansuri is the complete and total simplicity in design, and yet it produces a rich and complex sound. The bansuri is really just a length of bamboo, typically between 10 to 40 inches, with 6 or 7 finger holes and a single mouth hole. The player blows air across the mouth which creates a resonance on the inside of the bamboo tube based on where the fingers are placed. Higher or lower octaves can be played based on the shape of a performers lips (embouchure).
Here is an excellent video of a bansuri in action. While it is somewhat uncommon for a bansuri to lead a raga (it is often used for accompaniment during quieter sections of a raga), it IS sometimes done and the results are pretty spectacular. Take a listen:
I hope you fine the tones and timber of the bansuri to be as exciting as I do. To my ears it cuts through the music so prominently, and yet it is such a warm and ’spherical’ sound. I find it to be pretty unique in this way. I love the range it can produce as well. At times it moans in an almost cello-like fashion, but then it soars up an octave or two and is almost in the range of a human whistle. With its haunting melodies and impressive range, the bansuri is truly a beautiful sounding instrument if I have ever heard one.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a bit about North Indian Musical traditions this week. I look forward to reading your discoveries from the region this week!
Bor, Joep; Rao, Suvarnalata; Van der Meer, Wim; Harvey, Jane (1999). The Raga Guide. Nimbus Records.)
Miller, Terry E., and Andrew C. . Shahriari. World Music: A Global Journey. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.