Writings About Music

Interviews With Indian Masters

You Say Hindustani I Say North Indian -

Let's Call the Whole Thing woOF(F) and Warp

This title is not intended to be disrespectful in any way, with allusions to Cole Porter and Robert Gottlieb, but if some find it so, I certainly apologize for my awkward attempt at Hasya Rasa.

While considering reasons to chose one name over another for India's classical music tradition of the North, I challenged myself to find a connection that paraphrased a relevant famous line from "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" by Cole Porter, and this is what I was able to produce. Truthfully, Gottlieb has written a superb article that includes comparing the developmental process of ragas to weaving's warp and woof - expansion - and while I cannot locate it at the moment, or even recall the name of the article, it is highly recommended.  (Another vision of infinite melody, Gotterdammerung, the concluding music drama of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, begins with three Norns weaving the warp and woof of Destiny.)

Some, including Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Alain Danielou, and Walter Kaufmann, have preferred calling this tradition North Indian classical music, as opposed to Hindustani music because the latter name leaves the unintentional impression of omitting Muslims, who have formed this magnificent cultural achievement together with Hindus, not to mention that the nation itself has chosen the name India rather than Hindustan, the latter being a Persian invention.  (The Cole Porter song referenced in the title actually includes another Persian word commonly attributed to India: paijamas, pajamas, or pyjahmas!) It was the historic confluence of Muslim and Persian musical influences that caused the music of North India to diverge from the music of South India, known also as Karnatic Music, where there actually exists what I believe (?) is an almost purely Hindu tradition.

Personally, I believe that American jazz, combining improvisers of genius with song composers and lyricists of genius, became the dominant form of classical music in the West roughly in-between early Charlie Parker and late John Coltrane, followed by British and American rock for a brief period, and after that, and now, who knows! Given this perspective, it is extremely relevant to compare and contrast the two great improvisational traditions of North Indian classical music and American jazz, which is a vast undertaking, of course, containing many important differences and similarities.

Previously, I have noted that tabla artist Alla Rakha is the only musician I have ever heard who can match the rhythmic fluidity of Charlie Parker, and vice-versa. I have also noted that Lee Konitz is the jazz artist who most closely shares melodically multi-directional and overall developmental characteristics with leading Hindustani artists - I feel comfortable interchanging the two terms rather than using one or the other exclusively - despite the fact that Konitz almost never engages in modal improvisation, his extemporaneous abilities transcending such relatively superfluous considerations. When I ran my insight by Lee, using the Sanskrit word "vakra", which denotes irregular or "crooked" melodic movement, Konitz smiled, and concurred: "That's right - I'm very crooked," ironically referencing the double entendre. I had the great pleasure of introducing my teachers, Lee Konitz and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy to each other in 1998, after learning that Lee was Nazir's absolute favorite jazz artist of all time, first hearing Konitz's recordings back in the fifties. They were born the same year of 1927, with day numbers reversed, Lee being October 13, and Nazir October 31.

What is evident in both North Indian classical music and jazz, is how technical mastery is only a beginning, and how the music comes alive only when the rasa of the particular raga or song is illuminated, with infinite possible shadings and approaches. In terms of technical specifications, certain ragas have even been known to gradually alter their swaras to almost the complete opposite over time!

This is how I defined ragas in 2002: Ragas are timeless, individual melodic jewels possessing spiritual resonance, and unlimited developmental potential. They have developed over thousands of years, originating in chants for myriad deities, and manifestations of the five elements: water, fire, air, earth, and ether. Ragas embody the organic laws that create interaction between the elements. They offer a vision of immortality, and union with the perfection of nature, being a perfect, limitless pathway for the musical distillation of spiritual and intellectual energies.

Quality is epiphany illuminated by a jewel of the lotus, with jewel representing an individual, and lotus denoting the world.  This definition applies to any form of music, improvised or composed.

Getting past illusory surface impressions, many musicians in improvised traditions repeat predetermined patterns and phrases without genuine spontaneity, something like practiced etudes, and some musicians who interpret composed music thrive on being in the moment, never repeating themselves in crucial elements that go beyond the printed notes, which again, are only a beginning. This rare ability to be truly spontaneous and in the moment, whether improvising, interpreting, or composing, is the quality everyone in music aspires to.

It is important to note that there has been unprecedented cross-pollination between North and South Indian traditions in our time, including towering artists such as Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, and others, with South Indian classical music being an equally great tradition.

Another crucial development in our time is how the rhythmic dimension of North Indian music was liberated largely due to the influence of Allaudhin Khan, and his disciple, Ravi Shankar -- again both inspired by Karnatic Music -- introducing a wealth of phenomenal new rhythmic cycles, and granting musical equality to the tabla player, with Shankar uncovering in Alla Rakha a musical partner of equal genius. Together, Shankar and Rakha brought the interplay between Raga and Tala, or Melody and Rhythm, or Shakti and Shiva, or Female and Male to unprecedented heights, and by doing so, helped release a musical tsunami of incomparable instrumentalists including Nikhil Banerjee, Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, L. Subramaniam, Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Chaudhuri, Vikku Vinayakram, Bhavani Shankar, the aforementioned Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar, and many others too numerous to list here. It would appear that even Pandit Jasraj, the Sun of Music, is among myriad gatra vina artists (vocalists) inspired by Shankar and Rakha. Another disciple of Allaudhin Khan, his son, the great Ali Akbar Khan, is an important part of all this, and he formed his own distinctly profound musical identity, as did Vilayat Khan.

Some have criticized Shankar for his innovations, including synergizing sarod, surbahar, and rudra veena techniques into his sitar playing, and sharing Indian classical music with the rest of the world, but Shankar together with Rakha were as revolutionary and substantive as Beethoven was to Western classical music, and their individual and combined melodic, rhythmic, and expressive output remains a pinnacle of Indian classical music. Here is an article about Ludwig von Beethoven and Ravi Shankar.

In his original recording of Invitation, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane expands upon the warp and woof of the song, while simultaneously connecting with its rasa, which may be compared to a metaphysical consummation of the relationship between musician and song.

Indian classical musicians also seek a union between themselves and the Divine by accessing the elusive rasa of each raga after learning its mechanics.

The concept of rasa, which remains the life-blood of Indian classical music, arose from a time when Music, Dance and Drama were considered One, without any separation.

Perhaps the most famous example of musical rasa in American popular culture occurs in the film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, when high school band director, Mr. Holland, tells his floundering auburn-haired clarinet student, Gertrude, to put away her music because it has already been memorized. Then, being told by Gertrude that her favorite personal quality may be her hair (my grandmother used to say my auburn hair was my best quality too) because her father often compared it to a lovely sunset, Mr. Holland convinces Gertrude to close her eyes, and play the sunset rather than notes, which brings splendid results. Similarly, when I asked Lee Konitz during one of our walks through Central Park what he is actually thinking while improvising, and if that ever includes chord progressions, he replied with a touch of sadness, as if even the thought was unpleasant:  “D Minor 7, G7, E Minor 7, A7 [like he was reading an obituary]... if that’s what you’re thinking when playing not much is happening.” I also had the distinct feeling Lee was hiding some musical secret too by not wishing to pursue my line of thought beyond his obvious if well-phrased response. Mel Powell once told me that Paul Hindemith at Yale University had advised him not to give away important musical secrets to composition students. Maybe the secret of music is to develop something so magnetic that others wish to know what your secret is...

The time theory of Indian classical music originates from the belief that presiding deities of individual ragas, also related to aspects of nature, are most available to grace the musician or devotee with their presence at particular times of day and night.

Hearing Pandit Jasraj intone the name of Vishnu, Shiva, or Maa Kali at the beginning of various ragas, one does not doubt that it is true. Nor does one doubt John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme, dedicated to God, noting that a similar transcendence shines in his stellar recordings of the aforementioned Invitation, and also Lush Life, both from 1958, six years prior to A Love Supreme.

Some of Paul Francis Webster’s lyrics for Invitation, with music by Bronislau Kaper, allude to separation from the beloved, and seem interchangeable with poetry that graces songs from India’s ancient musician saints addressing God:

How long must I stay
In a world of illusion?
Be where you are
So near yet so far apart

Wishing to provide an example of a "Gat" in Western music, along with the "Alap" suggested by Coltrane's Invitation, a recording of 500 Miles High from the Captain Marvel album by Stan Getz comes to mind, offering an ecstatic illumination of both Shringara Rasa and Adbhuta Rasa. Chick Corea, who joins with Getz on electric piano, also composed the song, with lyrics by Flora Purim, describing it being "about a spirit flying high."

Brewing a cosmic sonic chai flavored with richly complex essences distilled from Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, pianist Nat King Cole, Red Garland, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz, pianist Bill Evans conjured an ambrosial rasa of luminous ecstasy, reverie, and serpentine inventive joy, which proved to be one of the most pervasive expressive sweeps in the history of Western music, transforming not only jazz, but touching just about all other musical forms of our time. His You Must Believe in Spring album was introduced to me at a seaside home in Maui, and it still evokes the interwoven breezes, moisture and ethereal pink saltiness of the vast Pacific past the currents of Shark Pit.

Lee Konitz has a black and white framed photo of Evans on the grand piano in his apartment on West 86 Street in Manhattan, which I've had the pleasure of playing together with Lee on alto saxophone. There are no other photos in view.

It's not very easy to put all these things into words, but at least you will have a hint, and may be inspired to explore more, forming your own preferences, opinions and conclusions. Most importantly, experiencing the music!

- Michael Robinson, October 2014, Los Angeles


© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 170 albums include 150 albums for meruvina and 20 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.