You’ve probably heard Indian classical music before. Perhaps you’ve listened to a Ravi Shankar tape or watched videos of his daughter Anoushka, or maybe you’ve encountered its distinctive sounds in a Bollywood movie. If you’re extra lucky, you might live in a region blessed with an arts organization like Kalakendra, as Portland is. The performing arts society produces several concerts a year, and the last one I went to—starring vocalist Uday Bhawalkar, at PCC Rock Creek in Washington County in May—changed my life. But then, they’ve all changed my life.
It’s true! I know it sounds like a gross exaggeration (surely every concert can’t be a life-altering event), but that’s the way it is with Indian music: a raga performance is like an initiatory experience, soul-stirring and spiritually transformative in the way church is supposed to be. This was the third time I’ve heard Bhawalkar sing in concert, and each time I’ve come away shaken, invigorated, and possessed of a deeper understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
To really appreciate what makes concerts like these so powerful, it helps to understand a little about Indian classical music. For the next few minutes, before returning to Bhawalkar’s performance, indulge me in a brief primer that may, in combination with the next Kalakendra or Rasika concert, repay you with hours of transcendent bliss. If you’d like to listen to Indian classical music and get more out of it than “wow, that was cool,” read on.
To really learn Indian classical music takes a lifetime, perhaps several. The good news is a little learning goes a long way. All of it is based on raga. One definition of raga is “that which colors the mind”—but every musician handles those colors differently. There are different schools, different regional and spiritual traditions, different ways of doing things.
Bhawalkar belongs to a tradition known as dhrupad, the oldest existing form of Indian classical music. To my ear, dhrupad is a lot like medieval art or Greek tragedy—richly colored human experience, stripped all the way down to its profoundest radiant core. That also makes it the easiest to absorb on an emotional-intellectual level: dhrupad is slower, less ornate, and much easier for an amateur devotee (like yours truly) to hear the subtleties of raga and tala (the rhythmic structures of Indian music, and correspondingly more complex than “meter.”)
All raga—not just dhrupad—follows a set of what could be called rules but are more like personality traits. Think of a raga as a character in a book or movie. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, for instance, is not just a starship captain of the 24th century, a late-middle-aged human of French descent and English manners, trim and bald and standing under 3 meters. No, what makes Picard Picard is his bold and intuitive leadership style, his dry sense of humor, his reliance on his officers, his fierce compassion for ship and crew, his eagerness to listen, learn, grow, change—you get the idea. All of this comes from his observed behavior over 178 episodes and four movies, and the charisma of Sir Patrick Stewart.
Same deal with raga. A morning raga like Todi, for example, is easily explained by its distinctive intervallic structure. But what really makes Todi is the subtle treatment of those intervals, how they are connected and emphasized and sometimes omitted. Characteristic melodic gestures, called pakad, tie these intervals together and recur like musical catchphrases through all performances of a raga. It’s an essential feature of Indian classical music with no real analog in any other musical system. The closest we could come might be the four-note Love Supreme motive which opens Coltrane’s Acknowledgement,” or the famous Fate motif that runs through Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and from there to Brahms, Ives, ELO. Ragas also have a bunch of weird little quirks, things like which seasons and times of day are appropriate to each raga.
These features give a raga its personality, and a thousand years of character development through perhaps millions of hours of ritual devotion (musical practice and performance) have raised these musical personalities to the point of—well, if not divinity outright, then certainly some sort of god-like independent spiritual immortality (consider my thesis on the divinity of J.S. Bach for comparison). Much like Picard.
Complexity from Simplicity
Indian classical music is almost exclusively a single melodic line against a drone—in other words, it’s structurally almost exactly like Gregorian chant and other medieval European music. No modulations, no convoluted chord changes, no serialized tone rows. The music is complicated, sure, but it’s rooted in simplicity. For this reason it is fairly easy to get your bearings by ear, if you know what to listen for.
Let’s start at the very beginning — with melody. Sing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Do Re Mi” to yourself, or listen to the goddess. Notice how the first half of the verse covers the major scale’s lower four-note tetrachord: “doe, a deer, a female deer / ray, a drop of golden sun / me, a name I call myself / fa, a long long way to run.” Notice how the music shifts at the second tetrachord: “sew, a needle pulling thread / la, a note to follow sew / tea, a drink with jam and bread” and then the kicker: “and that brings us back to do.” The second tetrachord climaxes on the return to tonic and the first tetrachord (do), creating a standard 8=1 time loop, exactly like the end of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (spoiler alert). If you ever learned solfège—that’s what this sequence of syllables is called—you already understand most of what I’m trying to explain.
Okay, now that we’re done binge-watching Julie Andrews videos (these are a few of my favorites), back to Indian classical music and how learning a spoonful of its theoretical underpinnings makes concerts more fun. The immediate goal here is not for you to be able to recognize all these ragas, but simply to provide a minimum effective dose to increase your listening pleasure.
India’s solfège system is nearly identical with ours. Where we sing do re mi fa so la ti do, Indian musicians sing sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa. Where we have major and minor intervals, they have shuddha (natural) and komal (flat, or softened) intervals. A Western major scale has the same interval pattern as the raga Bilaval: all the intervals are shuddha/major. The Western Dorian mode has a major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 6th, and minor 7th, as does Kafi (which sounds only fleetingly similar to Dorian).
Where raga begins to differ from Western tonality is with vadi-samvadi, a pair of emphasized notes generally a fifth apart. Each raga has its own unique vadi-samvadi pair and ways of bringing them out, and even ragas with the same interval structure can have a different vadi-samvadi pair and thus a very different character (consider the case of Multani, if you dare).
The Human Song
What makes Bhawalkar a supreme exponent of dhrupad? His vocal range, powerful and resonant across a two and a half octaves. His unbelievably disciplined and imaginative breath control, which he uses to sculpt utterly refined vocalises. His divinely keen intonational awareness. His sense of drama, his wit, his fine rhythmic subtlety (he kept teasing the drummer, pakhawaj player Pratap Awad). And above all his glorious, meticulous, flowing, emotively intellectual melodic inventiveness, by which he can create a beautiful song out of one note, or a thousand.
The first and longest portion of Bhawalkar’s concert was a performance of the raga Bhoop, a variant of Bhoopali. What I heard that night in May, in the dark amphitheatre out past Beaverton, was The Human Song. That’s what Lou Harrison called the simple pentatonic scale, which so many children know from the black keys on the piano keyboard. It’s international, universal, possibly pre-human. It suffuses Chinese opera, Appalachian fiddle music, African folk songs. Everywhere there’s music, this scale exists in some form.
To say that Bhawalkar took his time developing the raga would be like saying it took awhile for the dragons to show up in Game of Thrones. His voice caressed every note, every melodic motive, every permutation with patient and loving care. A major third (shuddha Ga) would slowly bend toward a tender and exciting major second (shuddha Re); a few variations on that would lead us back to Sa (“which leads us back to do, oh, oh, oh”).
As the long, ametric alap proceeded, Bhawalkar used expanding melodic gestures (those pakads—remember?) to move slowly outward and fill out the raga, one note at a time. I didn’t know which raga it was at first, had in fact been only dimly aware that there must be a pentatonic raga like the one I was hearing. Bhawalkar had brought us a simple gift, a universal raga instead of one of the more exotic ones he might have chosen (like Todi). I lost all sense of time—another of this idiom’s many appeals—but I figured later it must have been at least a half hour before he’d hit all five notes across the two main octaves of his vocal range.
Then the magic happened. Bhawalkar went up beyond high Sa into his upper register, where he started hitting all these gorgeous major thirds, reaching out and plucking them out of the air like the last airbender, tossing them out into the crowd like magical kisses. Gorgeous, luscious, brilliantly tuned major thirds, the kind of beauty that makes a roomful of people gasp with delighted frisson and paralyzed awe, a sense of the numinous descending like an epiphany, like tongues of fire, like the arrival of a goddess. If Christ Risen or a deified Marilyn Monroe walked into the room, glowing in angelic glory like Faust’s Helen, we might gasp like that.
Bhawalkar held onto his high major third, shaping it and turning it as on a divine lathe, returning to it over and over like a lover at midnight, fanning its flames to make it glow brighter, each time holding it out longer, hypnotizing us, evoking The Blazing World all shimmery with aethereal rainbows, coloring the minds of the audience, transporting us into another dimension. Words fail me here, as they always do when confronted with mystical and psychedelic experiences. It was ineffable, that major third.
Ahem. Anyways, the whole concert was like that. The drummer came in for a while, laying down a slick 14-beat pattern which I and several of the Indian audients tapped out on our knees. I can’t recommend that highly enough, by the way. Even if you don’t know what the tala is called, noting the beat pattern and counting it out with your fingers can increase your enjoyment of a concert. For one thing, the meters usually make pretty compelling characters all their own: even the standard 4/4 backbeat common to all music everywhere gets it own special treatment in the 16-beat Indian teentaal. Awad’s 14-beat groove was dhamar, which has an unusual but simple pattern (5+2+3+4) that afforded him and Bhawalker plenty of rhythmic space to play around in.
Once you’ve got the finger-counting pattern going (try it at home!), you can feel where the musicians are playing with the cycles and the downbeats. No rhythmic system on the planet can match the Indian system for complexity and grooviness (Swedish math metal band Meshuggah gets close sometimes, but they’re plainly nuts). Get the tala in your body as a sort of rhythmic drone, with metric equivalents of vadi & samvadi in those claps and waves, and you can feel where a singer like Bhawalkar spins out long melodies that come together every third cycle, every fifth cycle, every seventeenth cycle, and so on. It’s like if you crossed the medieval talea-color model with Andy Akiho. And if you’re paying close, physical attention, the impending arrival of a climax can build up a charge in your body, so that when the melodic-rhythmic variations arrive together on tonic and downbeat, you heave a big heavy sigh with the other listeners, chuckling along the way.
Oh yeah, and that’s where all the best jokes are hidden too: in the rhythm. Indian classical concerts always rustle with amused giggles, because Indian musicians like to tease each other and the audience, throwing out little challenges and making goofy jokes through delayed downbeats and weird cross-rhythms that shouldn’t work but do. The most sophisticated modern jazz is approximately a century away from achieving this level of musical humor.
Throughout the concert, Bhawalkar played around with all this, joshing Awad, seemingly almost making fun of him at times, like when you tell a campfire story about a haunted forest and add, with a wink towards your kid brother, “it was a forest just like this one.” And then they’d lock into some groove or tihai or something and go rumbling on back toward the downbeat, the tonic, the sa, the one.
I could go on. I could tell you about what happened when Bhawalkar, in a later raga, swept above that high major third to hit the fifth above it and then bent it all the way back down through tivra Ma and shuddha Ma to shuddha Ga, filling the Millennial Whoop with an infinity of notes, lifting most of us out of our seats with awe. Or when he held onto his lowest note, a low Sa down at the ground of all being—and then snuck in the note a half-step below it, a boomingly delicate shuddha Ni that rocked the auditorium’s foundations.
But you missed it. Study up, friends, and get ready for next season.
Kalakendra only has three shows on the calendar for this fall, but they’re all going to be stellar. On September 9th, The Old Church hosts santoor player Chiradip Sarkar and sarangi player Pankaj Mishra, with Abhishek Basu on table. I don’t know any of these musicians, but I’ll go hear live sarangi any time I can; the unassuming little bowed instrument has only a few strings on the outside for playing the raga, but has over 30 sympathetically vibrating strings inside its body, making it one of the richest-sounding instruments in the world. Vocalist Ajoy Chakrabarty performs at First Baptist Church on September 28, and although I don’t know his music that well I can tell you that in my experience every Indian classical musician I’ve seen who’s popular enough to have a wikipedia page has put on a blazing concert. On October 6, Kalakendra returns to First Baptist with the trio of sitarist Vidushi Mita Nag, shehnai player Janab Hassan, and tabla player Subhen Chatterjee. And on October 27, sarod master Amjad Ali Khan comes to First Congregational Church.
Go. There might even be samosas.
All this music theory is laid out in various raga guides, my favorite of which are Ali Akbar Khan’s book Classical Music of North India, Rajan Parrikar’s informative and often acerbic essays, and the handy cross-indexed online list maintained by Krsna Kirtana Songs. When I first started getting into this stuff I was lucky enough to be working indoor desk jobs where I could choose my own music to get me through a day of tracking packages or filing insurance claims (what, you thought I was always the jovial music critic?), and so I used that KKSongs list to devise playlists for each of the times of day, which is how I eventually came to know Todi as the “between coffee break and before lunchtime” raga.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.