An ambitious guide to Indian music

Alaap, produced by Aurobindo Society for Times Music, is huge in scale and sweep

20 CDs + 1 book
Times Music
Rs 4,900

Alaap, Times Music and Aurobindo Society's 20 CD-project, can break the uninitiated and the hesitant into the complex world of Indian classical music.

The offering spans 20 CDs and a 275-page book. Earlier introductions in the Indian market were not as ambitious. Music Today's introduction -- they call it a guide to music appreciation -- is spread over three tapes. HMV's introduction to Karnatak music is two tapes long.

Aurobindo Society deserves thanks for planning and executing a project this vast. Alaap took ten years to complete, and is undoubtedly the most extensive introduction to Indian music available today.

"The first thing that strikes me is that practically nothing in the project has gone according to plan. And yet, when I look back, I feel that perhaps there was a plan after all, though hidden from us... working itself out all the while," says Vijay of Aurobindo Society in his afterword.

He co-ordinated the Alaap project from Pondicherry, living through the exhilaration and despair of interacting with musicians, writers and record labels.

"Commercial considerations were kept on the backburner," he told a TV channel after the project was released on August 15, 1999, the birth anniversary of saint and scholar Aurobindo, and also Independence Day.

The project is not credited to any single writer or researcher because as many have contributed to its making.

Alaap is divided into three parts: The Quest and the Lure, where the basics of music, and the concepts of swara, raga and tala are explained, Hindustani Music, which outlines the countours of north Indian classicism, and Carnatic Music, a corresponding introduction to the southern style.

Among the best parts of the book are the reflections on swara. Alaap relates swara to the idea of self -- 'swa' is self and 'ra' is that which shines forth -- and says, "The human voice has always a small component of swara in its timbre... Even this natural swara of human voice, when trained in raga and tala, can produce impressive musicians."

But mere skill isn't enough: "...the musician who has consciously worked towards the acquisition of the full swara produces quite another impact -- a mysterious economy, an assurance of direction, a quality of unbelievable credibility in the tonal essence of the voice, an integrity that is larger and more significant than the raga or the tala or the technical skill of the musician. Such a musician transcends the plane of the raga and lives and moves on a level above it".

The fire of learning

Alaap then explains many concepts, such as the chilla.

The chilla is "one of the most austere and mysterious traditions" in the learning of Indian music. This "extreme step" usually lasts 40 days, and hence the name.

A musician who performs the chilla isolates himself from the world "to attain a greater excellence in performance, a mastery in technique and sometimes to find the swara".

This retreat can elevate a musician to a higher awareness and make his music more instrospective. "In some cases its effect can be so far-reaching that the student abandons all desire, even for music, and becomes a mendicant withdrawing from life... Many illusions about life and its meaning drop away from people who do the chilla," Alaap explains.

The most telling description of chilla comes from Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, founder of the Kirana gharana.

He is reported to have told Pandit Bhatkhande, the famous musicologist, that the chilla is like "lighting a fire under your life. If you do not cook, you will burn. It is better to get cooked so that everyone can enjoy your flavour. Otherwise, you will be a mass of cinders, a heap of ash."

Alaap devotes many pages to the passion that music inspires in the learner and the listener.

Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Agra gharana used to recall how Unnao, a little village, "was paralysed for some time when, one winter dawn, a singer merely passed through the village, singing". The stranger's music, says Alaap, sent the inhabitants into a state of reverie and bliss, and no one was able to work in the fields or attend to domestic duties for days.

This is the magical, hypnotic power of music, the power that Aurangzeb was wary of -- he believed listening to music would make him effeminate and unfit to rule. It's the same power the Pied Piper uses to settle scores with the deceitful mayor.

Alaap, like most books on music, talks enthusiastically of the spiritual nature of the musical pursuit. But the idea that everything about music is sacred and good is, at least in this reviewer's view, stretched to the point when it sounds false.

Music is no automatic gateway to holiness. It doesn't automatically fill a guru with generosity and benign caring. Musicians can be petty, and musicians bitch.

Transcending the mundane
The guru's power enjoys the sanction of tradition.

Many gurus use this sanction benignly, treating their pupils like their children, feeding, nurturing and disciplining them into learning the art. One also hears of gurus who drive students to depression and madness, gurus who humiliate brilliant students for fear that they may surpass their own children, and gurus who cynically turn students with no musical potential into unpaid domestic help.

Much can be said for a down-to-earth approach to music instruction, at least at the elementary stages. Surely there is a world of difference between the chilla that a musician enters into of his own volition, and the distraught state that a guru wilfully pushes his disciple into?

Alaap explains many concepts well. Its glossary is very useful, thanks especially to the demonstrations on the companion CDs.

The varieties of graces, however well explained in words, become much clearer when you hear them sung or played.

You can read what a sthayi (octave) means in the book, and then play the CD to understand how different sthayis sound: five sthayis -- anumandra, mandra, madhya, tara, atitara -- are demonstrated on the veena by Jayanthi R Krishnan.

Similarly, you hear well-known names performing the dhrupad, dhamar, khayal, thumri, tappa, dhun, ghazal, bhajan, kirtan and jugalbandi. The various gharanas are illustrated with recordings of stalwarts. You hear samples of various instruments, including some rare ones like the esraj.

Fantastic galaxy

Alaap offers a fantastic galaxy of singers and instrumentalists - from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Dagar brothers, Amir Khan, Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi and Jasraj to younger musicians like Zakir Hussain and Shubha Mudgal.

In the southern section, we hear veterans like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Lalgudi Jayaraman, A K C Natarajan and D K Pattammal and youngsters like Unnikrishnan and U Srinivas. For both the Hindustani and Karnatak sections, Alaap has managed to get invaluable archival material from All India Radio. HMV has also pitched in with material from its rich catalogue. In addition, Alaap has acommissioned some original recording.

Some drawbacks: the voiceover (it's in English throughout) mispronounces words, changing the meaning of Sanskrit words: 'aadhaara shadja' becomes 'adhara shadja' ('aadhara' means base, and refers to the key note, while 'adhara' means lips!); similarly 'swarajati' becomes 'swarajaati' and 'jaavali' becomes 'javaali'.

Many musicologists believe the ragas are actually derived from the folk tunes of various regions. That's how we have ragas named after regions (Multani from Multan, Goud Malhar and Goud Sarang from the Goud - meaning Bengal - region, the Kanadas from the Kannada-speaking regions, and so on).

Alaap does not talk about this connection with the non-Sanskritic traditions, preferring to leave the impression that the grand Indian music tradition came totally from the Vedic past.

The marga and desi interaction of Indian culture finds no mention anywhere, but such a study is important to an understanding of Indian music, which continues to thrive in its oral, unwritten, and in that sense folk, form.

The music of the 'classical' Jaipur gharana, for instance, is strikingly close to the music of Rajasthan's 'folk' singers. Many folk tunes are even now being codified and adapted into the classical repertoire. Raga Bihari, a favourite of Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, is full of the swirling phrases that we hear in folk songs.

Alaap is huge in sweep, and hopes to address both a curious foreign audience and an Indian audience denied exposure to its own cultural roots. An introduction such as this one has the potential to lure many into the wondrous world of Indian music, but be warned no book can substitute first-hand interaction with musicians and passionate music lovers.

Overall: The landscape we see on our journey may differ from what is described here, but we would still be grateful to Alaap for showing us the first turning.