Abhijit Banerjee

We have 72.000 ragas in India but music is one

Interview with Abhijit Banerjee, Bratislava

Could you explain me, please, how do you learn Indian classical music in India usually?
Well, Indian classical music is something we call – oral tradition. Very recently we write music, but before,  it was all coming from the Guru´s mouth. So whatever he teaches you learn it, you memorise it,  practise it and deliver it. That was the traditional way of learning music, culture and dance. It was called GURUMUKHA vidya.

When does the musical education start?
Children should start learning at the age of 3-4. If they want to become a good musician they have to practise 6-8 hours daily for a good number of years. The learning period lasts about 20 years. Then the musician is ready to perform for the audience.

Do you still practice every day?
(laugh) No, now it is not necessary. Not like before. After you become performer you live on your practice from the past. The rigorous practice is not needed that much at that period. Now what we need is mental practice. Which is like thinking about developments of your style, new ways to deliver etc. Physical practice is of course needed but not that much like during your student period though you remain a student through all your life and you learn as long you live.

Where is the origin of this tradition?
The oldest book about Indian performing arts in practice is Bharata Natya Shastra , which was written by the sage, monk Bharat. Actually if you need to know the origin, it is coming the VEDAS and the second part of VEDA is SAAM VEDA where the ARYANs described the chantings through music. You can call that book as the origin of our music. Bharata Natya Shastra is the first one for performing arts in a practical way to guide people about how to entertain through art and what should be the rules of that.

Had been the Indian classical music - Ragas something unique, isolated in Indian subcontinent or there are some relations to other music cultures?
There had been a lot of invasions in India. Starting from Aryans, Greeks and then Persians like all that Genghis Khan, the Mughals, and last was the  Europeans of which British Empire was the one which ruled India for more than 200 years. These invaders mainly stayed and ruled in the Northern part of India and other than the Europeans all of them came crossing Himalaya. India being a vast country, so they mostly stayed in the Northern part of India and did not go deep down South. That is why Northern Indian music, theatre and culture got so much mixture and change. Now there are predominantly two kinds of music in India. One is North Indian Classical music, which has many traces of foreign influences and the most important of them is the Persian influence, while the other one is South Indian or Carnatic Classical music which is very traditional and did not get mix up that much with other kind of music. In Southern part of India they kept their culture more authentic and the music got evolved with the time not with the mixture of other music. The Northern part of India was long time under the Muslim ruler and they came from Persia and stayed back and later became Indian. So the Ragas which were persisting in India already started to be nurtured in Persian way. They style of rendering changed and Persian influences came into existence. In Persia one find MAQUAM which is something like a Raga and in India MAQAM is used as the signature tune of a Raga so a knowledgeable singer sings that portion first to establish the Raga and inform the connoisseurs that he is going to sing that particular named Raga. The names of the Ragas are also changed in North India due to Muslim influence and you find names like Kafi, Yaman, which are not originally Indian names and the same scale you will find in South India with a Hindu name. The treatment and the style of rendering the Raga music also differs in North and South Indian classical music. Then you have the Indian instruments which have got Persian influence like tabla, sitar, sarod. All these instruments had Indian origin and then got influenced, mixed up and got changed their shape and took a new name which has resemblances with Persian names. Some of the main features of North Indian music like Taans, Gamaks etc. are also similar to Persian music or got heavy influences of Persian music.

So are you comparing differences like old and new Indian instruments?
Yes. Famous musician and sufi poet Amir Khusru in 13th century is credited with the merging of Indian and Persian ideas. Like Sarod came from rebab, which was a Persian instrument from Afghanistan and was modified and mixed up with surshringar.The tabla and sitar are definitely new form. The sitar derives from setar (Persian) and veena  (Indian), which is a very old Indian instrument and is still played mostly in South India and not that much popular in North India. A tabla´s ancestor was previously called pakhawaj, a  percussion instrument still used in Dhrupad music which is a North Indian old tradition. All these instruments became very popular nowadays and were influenced by Persian instruments. The traditional Indian vocal style Dhrupad and  Dhamar were sung in a different way than the modern version of Indian Classical music which is called KHAYAL. Though Dhrupad is still practiced but Khayal is the modern and popular form of Noth Indian classical music. The name Khayal itself derives from Persia. Later, the vocal remembrance of God, called Qawwali has also become popular as Sufi singing though it does not come into pure classical tradition. This is similar to the Bhajans of Hindus. Muslim invasion had a tremendous Persian influence on Indian Classical music. Traditional gharanas – schools of  music exist as Muslim and Hindu schools, but there are not much differences in music and you can find Hindu students to sing and learn from Ustad (Muslim title for teacher) in Muslim schools and you can find Muslim students sing and learn from Pandit (Hindu title for a teacher) in Hindu schools. I think that music is one thing, there are no boundaries of religion and class, it is all about one.

How would you explain Indian classical music briefly, is it possible at all?
The main is melody. The melody is played by solo instrument or vocal artist. We do not have so much points and counterpoints, harmonisation  or an orchestration like in Western Classical music. We harmonise in a different way, like we have a drone instrument e.g. tanpura and according to Raga we tune it, so that the drone gives you a continuous support like harmony. So it is linear.
We have thousands of Ragas which came out permutation and combinations of 12 notes (major and minor). Raga basically is a scale and it depicts a mood. The Ragas have ascending and descending notes and then it has got certain ways and rules of improvisation which should be maintained using those notes to depict a particular mood. It is said that there are 72000 Ragas.We have Ragas and Talas. The Talas are rhythmic structure and this system is very complicated. We have more than 150 Talas in North Indian Classical music. Main Tala is 16 beats, then we have like 7, 10, 11 and other like 7 ½, 8 ½, 9 ½  etc. The Raga is sung according to the time of the day. There is a time cycle, main 4 periods like morning, evening, late night and noon. We stick to the time of Raga. Melody structure is compiled as each note has a meaning. Indian swaras (basic notes) Sa- Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-Da-Ni we may compare with Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do. SA symbolises the infinity, so where ever we go, we come back to SA. RE symbolises the sun. The morning Ragas have very slow movement on the RE, at the noon the RE is very prominent, because the sun is very strong. In the evening Ragas we play the RE in a different way, prominent but at the same time, there is a very tired feeling. There comes the concept of Shrutis (micro tones) which makes a morning RE different from an afternoon RE. That is why Indian Ragas are very hard to be sung with chromatic scaled instruments and we also tune our instruments according to the Shrutis of the Ragas. We have also seasonal Ragas like monsoon Ragas or the summer. Summer is a big thing in India and so is the monsoon.  Very popular are the autumn Ragas too, because this season is beautiful in India and has inspired lot of musicians. The Talas have their own personality, some are really slow like elephant movement, some Talas are really fast, like a horse movement. The elephant movement we generally do not play fast, we use a very heavy kind of sound here. Some Talas are like a rabbit, always jumping kind of thing. Generally there are 3 stages in the performance, first is Alap, which is kind of introduction to the Raga, without any Tala, only the melody form. After that the rhythm comes, which is slow at the beginning gradually leads to faster movements. This section is called the Jor. Then Tabla or the percussion joins which is called Gat. It is a part when percussionists interact with the soloist spontaneously and leads to Jhala section which is very fast. Generally we go from slow to fast, the common tendency is to go to the crescendo. North Indian Raga rendition can go up to 2 and ½ hours. Carnatic Ragas are generally much faster in tempo and shorter.

So when you improvise and perform with Western musicians the conditions in music are simple and playing easy?
Yes, we generally collaborate with Western Contemporary musicians or Jazz musicians. These kinds of music have similarities in certain norms and so we can do the improvisation. As there is not so much of restriction of Ragas we find it easier to improvise and specially in rhythm as Indian rhythm is really a very well developed subject and if you have mastered it, any rhythm or combination becomes easy.

What you keep in mind during the performance?
Indian classical music is essentially devotional. The musician is supposed to be played with a feeling of worship through Raga and not that much of playing for the gallery. It is good when the music initiate meditation and some specific emotion in the listeners. Tansen, legendary musician is reputed to have had such power in his music that he could light lamps and bring rain by his singing. At the same time, after the Raga music came out of temples and became the instruments of King’s entertainment, much of its devotional purity is diminished. Still the essential of Indian music is devotional and a musician when sits for the concerts whether in public or in private or in temple, he or she has a feeling of worshipping as he or she learnt in that way and the mood depicts that.

You are the founder of the Dhwani Academy in the USA and India. How many students are there and what was your main intention?
We have in the USA chapter about 70 students learning tabla. In India mainly students who are professionals come to me to learn other than our children section. Students from all over world come to India to learn tabla. They stay there and take lessons mainly in the winter when I am in India. I was in England for outreach program and I played for physically challenged program in a school and the way they reacted to our music was very unique experience for me. I wanted to do something for them in a way that they get some pleasure out of our music. So I started Dhwani Academy in India with the intention to teach percussion art form of India both classical and folk. I gradually understood that it is not possible to teach the physically challenged music due to their physical disability so I started with visually students. In India if you are not normal and challenged with something you get very less opportunity to expose yourself and especially when you are coming from a downtrodden family background. So I along with my students teach them free of cost every week and pick up two of the most talented of those and give them scholarship so that they can buy instruments and come for special classes. In the USA however visually challenged does not need these kinds of help. There we have the program to going to schools and expose the elementary and middle school children about India and its different music. Broadly speaking we also show them different instruments from Far East. It’s an outreach program for kids to expose them with East and Far East. Other than that we have second generation Indian kids who are born and brought up in the West and they should not forget their original culture.

What is the feedback of the work with disabled children in India and USA, how they react on music?
We have outreach program in the US with physically challenged students and they mostly react to the music very nicely. Some of them also react in an unusual way but there are special teachers to control them. We have two physically challenged students in the USA chapter and they are capable of playing tabla. They obviously have their limitations but they love the instrument and when they look at you after they get applause from the audience since we always give them chance to perform at our annual conference, you feel a heavenly feeling and nothing can be more than that.
In India we also place the visually challenged students in front of the auspicious audience and the feedback is enormous. Some of them want to take it as profession and became so serious that they are now going to Universities with music as their major.

What are your music plans for the future?
We want to extend this kind of activity more. We want to give more scholarships to visually challenged students. We also want to start exchange program so that they can be self sufficient. We want to make important music books transformed in Braille system so that they can learn from books also.
Other than that music is a difficult subject to take it as a profession. We want to create more opportunities worldwide for the music students to become self sufficient. Right now we have four to five students who are teaching in different places and in our academies.

How you perceived the Slovak audience and your stay in Bratislava?
This was my second time to come to Bratislava. The people here are very art loving and they respond to our music with open heart which gives us more impetus to perform well on stage. The city itself has so much of history and well known for its cultural background. For decades it has absorbed so many cultures into its heart that it is a privilege to perform in such a great city in front of a learnt audience.

Thank you.

Jarmila Vlčková • www.shiraz.sk