Writings about Music
A Towering Giant of Hindustani Music
Ram Narayan (Nonesuch Records publicity photo)
Ram Narayan, a towering giant of Hindustani music alongside Pandit Jasraj, Ravi Shankar, Anindo Chatterjee, Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Aashish Khan, Ali Ahmad Hussain Khan, and other greats, studied first with his father, Nathuji Biyavat, followed by Uday Lal, Madhav Prasad, and Abdul Wahid Khan of the Kirana gharana. Narayan's sublime Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors album was my introduction to Indian classical music, later inspiring "Pink Moon" from the Tendrils album.
Amazingly, Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors, originally released by Nonesuch for their Explorer Series in 1968, doesn't appear to be available on CD, or any of the major audio platforms. Someone had the musical acumen to include it with the Best Recordings of All Time, where is truly belongs. There are LP recordings of the album available, and hopefully someone will at least enter the entirety of this monumental album onto YouTube.
Fortunately, my favorite track on the album, Nand-Kedar, a raga created by Ram Narayan, was found on YouTube. As you will hear, there is nothing in all of music remotely like Ram Narayan's sarangi playing! Even within the realm of Hindustani music, he remains entirely unique both in instrumental sound and expressive characteristics. His is an incredibly subtle and nuanced music showing directions others may follow in. I am ecstatic to be reunited with this legendary performance embedded just below. In truth, even with my subsequent immersion into Indian classical music, Ram Narayan's playing of Nand-Kedar still sounds just as fresh and otherworldly as when I first heard it while an undergraduate. There is so much to learn from it.
Close-up of Ram Narayan playing the sarangi (Nonesuch Records publicity photo)
It is a grave injustice to the art of music that Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors is not better known today. Recording the sarangi properly is no easy task (there is a tendency to make the tonal quality overly strident), and my sense is this was best done in that momentous Nonesuch recording. No doubt, there are other important Ram Narayan albums that are in danger of disappearing. Here is an existing discography for Ram Narayan.
This is one of only a few inadequate images for the album cover found online. Peter K. Siegel produced the album, and Peter Granet is the recording engineer.
The bowed sarangi is arguably the instrument closest to the human voice, and is exceedingly difficult to play. There is no instrument that better captures the exquisite nature of Indian classical music.
Mahapurush Misra (tabla), Shirish Gor (tamboura) and Ram Narayan (sarangi) made a legendary 1968 recording together titled, Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors, produced by Peter K. Siegel for the Nonesuch Explorer Series, an imprint of Elektra Records founded by Jac Holzman who also gifted the world The Doors and Judy Collins among others. (Nonesuch Records publicity photo)
I attended a concert given by Ram Narayan in Manhattan at what I believe was Carnegie Recital Hall in 1984, and was one of many on a long line of people after the concert to briefly say hello. There was no way in those few seconds to convey to the great maestro how deeply his music had touched me.
But his music is there, immortal; a divine expression of the heights to which Indian classical music may aspire.
Ram Narayan (Nonesuch Records publicity photo)
Ram Narayan's older brother, Chatur Lal, is a legendary tabla artist, and his daughter, Aruna Narayan, follows in her father's tradition, as does his grandson, Harsh Narayan. Even more, Ram Narayan's son, Brij Narayan, is an eminent sarod artist.
Together with Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors, the entire original Nonesuch Explorer Series is a priceless musical gift to the world, and all of it must be restored on CD along with all major audio platforms for our collective aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual consciousness and experience.
I had not realized before writing this and the following paragraphs that Nonesuch Records is still very active, initially given the opposite impression by the disappearance of Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors, a label discontinuing their greatest release being incomprehensible. It appears there were a total of 92 albums originally in the Explorer Series, with around 50 of these currently available as MP3 files directly from Nonesuch, or in CD form from ArkivMusic. Hopefully they will decide to release Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors together with all the other neglected releases.
Of around 17 recordings from the original 92 focusing on the music of India and South Asia, sadly only one title among them is currently available. This is stunning to me especially given how Indian classical music transformed both American jazz and Western composition. Perhaps this music is now considered overly potent and esoteric, and not commercial enough, I don't know. It brings to mind a colleague recently telling me how one leading American university music department doesn't teach Indian classical music because it is regarded as being too intellectually and expressively challenging. Fortunately, Conlon Nancarrow, John Coltrane, George Harrison, and The Doors, with John a primary influence upon Steve Reich, were among those who were inspired rather than intimidated by this nonpareil musical art form and continuously evolving tradition.
More digging online revealed how Nonesuch announced in 2002 that they will gradually rerelease all 92 of the original Explorer Series albums, so I hope that is still true. It appears their original intention was to rerelease all the recordings within three years, but something has apparently slowed or halted that progression. Here are fascinating details about the genesis and history of the Explorer Series.
- Michael Robinson, April 2021, Los Angeles
Please note this is a brand new essay, with additions and edits still being made.
Publicity photos shared by Peter K. Siegel, photographer unknown.
© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).