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Salient. Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 8. Monday, July 1, 1963

Compelling Beauty Of Indian Music

page 6

Compelling Beauty Of Indian Music

About 3000 Years Ago the Indus river valley heard the first stirrings of Indian classical music. Today, those monotonous Vedic chants have become a highly developed and refined art form. To most European ears Indian music is meaningless. It is not polyphonic, its rhythms are complex, its instruments strange, and its purpose and spirit completely different from the music of the West.

Yet, with a little patience, Indian music can bring worthwhile rewards to the Western listener. It has a force and directness of expression unknown in the West; its melodies can be of compelling beauty.

The first step towards the enjoyment of Indian music is to rid the mind of its Western attitudes. Classical Indian music is rarely simply an entertainment.

Sir Rabindranath Tagore has said: "For us, music has above all a transcendental significance. It concerns itself more with human experience as interpreted by religion, than with experience in an everyday sense."

Going further, another writer has said: "Indian music requires of its hearers something of that mood of divine discontent, of yearning for the infinite and impossible." However, the newcomer need not worry about this except to realise that a different frame of mind is required.

Historical factors have led to a division in Indian culture between the north and the south. The southern or Karnatic style of music preserves the direct line of classical development. It is more introverted than the northern or Hindustani style, which has been more subject to foreign influences. It is said that the influence of ancient Greek music can still be seen today thanks to Alexander's conquest of northern India. Certainly the Mohammedan invasion had a profound effect on the classical line, and this at a time when the pinnacle of Europe's effort was "Sumer is icumen in."

The octave in India is divided into twenty-two microtones called "shrutis." The scale is usually composed of seven notes called "suddhas." The number of shrutis in the interval between each suddha varies (as the number of semitones varies between different notes in a European scale). The northern arrangement of shrutis per suddha in an octave is like this: 4 3 2 4 3 4 2. the total being twenty-two. The southern arrangement differs considerably.

Indian musical instruments.

Indian musical instruments.

The Indians vary their scale by diminishing or augmenting the intervals between each note and thus can form a great number of different scales. Each of these many scales has a different character and is called a "raga." The raga is the basis of all melody, and melody is the great glory of Indian music.

Western music has seen its greatest developments in harmony, but Indian music, which has only very primitive harmony, has developed its melody and rhythm. Each melody and its variations is constructed rigidly upon one raga. The distraction of contrast is avoided and thus the music is direct and its effect accumulative and powerful.

Indian rhythm is probably the most difficult aspect of its music for a Westerner to appreciate. The beat never stays the same for more than two bars. In the north it is usually given out on a double drum called a "tabla." and in the south on a single drum beaten at both ends called a "mridanga."

The drummer conforms to a particular rhythmic form (tala) hroughout the piece. He supports;he melodic line while at the same time performing his own complex embellishments. The understanding between drummer and the singer or instrumentalist is sometimes unbelievable.

The violin of the West is an instrument of Indian origin. Its relative in India is the squat, guitar-shaped "sarangi." It is found throughout the north and is especially beloved by wandering beggars. The most widely used classical melodic instrument is the "vina." This looks something like a lute but with a hollow gourd attached to the upper end of the fret-board to make a rest and an extra sounding box. It has seven strings, of which four are played and the other three produce a drone accompaniment. The strings are plucked either with over-grown fingernails or with a plectrum.

Similar to the vina is the "sitar." It has seven strings and usually about nineteen sympathetic strings. It is a beautiful instrument and has become very popular among professionals and amateurs alike. The "tamboura" is shaped similar to the vina but without the extra gourd. It has four strings which are strummed to produce a droning sound. The strings are tuned to the principle notes of the raga being used, and the instrument provides a nonstop background drone.

Of wind instruments the most common is the "nagasara," the Indian oboe. Like the Indian flute, it has no keys. Good players of the flute and nagasara can produce an amazing range of notes. Their shakes and slides would shame a Western instrumentalist.

The most popular drum is the tabia, which is really two drums each head of which gives a different sound. Both can be tuned and can produce sounds ranging from a sharp tap to a noise something like Rolf Harris's wobble-board. The mridanga another popular drum, has already been mentioned. There are innumerable other types of drum to be found in India.

A number of recordings of Indian music are available on the New Zealand market, in particular Yehudi Menuhin's, in which he comments on the music. The Record Society (part of the World Record Club) has issued a record featuring the sitar and plans to issue another shortly featuring Indian drums. The Wellington Central Library also has some recorded music—mainly vocal.