(Yehudi Menuhin’s thoughts on Indian Classical Music, from his autobiography, Unfinished Journey.)
Life and death are not all and nothing, but stages in a process, episodes on an infinite river to which one trusts oneself and all other phenomena. So it is that Indian music reflects Indian life, having no predetermined beginning or end but flowing without interruption through the fingers of the composer-performer: the tuning of the instrument merges imperceptibly with the elaboration of the melody, which may spin itself out for two, three or more unbroken hours.
Despite predisposition in India’s favor, I have to acknowledge that Indian music took me by surprise. I knew neither its nature nor its richness, but here, if anywhere, I found vindication of my conviction that India was the original source. The two scales of the West, major and minor, with the harmonic minor as variant, the half-dozen ancient Greek modes, were here submerged under modes and scales of (it seemed) inexhaustible variety. Even the arcane rules of dodecaphonic composition had been anticipated and surpassed, for where the dodecaphonic system requires – somewhat arbitrarily, in my view – all twelve notes to be sounded in a given sequence and forbids their repetition within it, any given Indian raga chooses five or six notes, never more than seven or eight, while the hundreds of ragas between them exploit all possible notes in permutations of a subtlety and flexibility we can scarcely conceive. Melodically and rhythmically Indian music long ago achieved a complex sophistication which only in the twentieth century, with the work of Bartok and Stravinsky, has Western music begun to adumbrate.
What the Indian music has not, and Western music richly has, is, of course, harmony. This is not fortuitous. Just because the Indian would unite himself with the infinite rather than with his neighbour, so his music assists the venture. Its purpose is to refine one’s soul and discipline one’s body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one’s breath with the breath of space, one’s vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos. Outside the family, the Indian’s concern does not easily fasten on the group. Europe’s genius, on the other hand, has been to form individuals into communities, each accepting loss of freedom in the interests of the whole. Hence collective worship, hence armies and industries and parliamentary democracy, and hence chorales in which each voice has a certain independence but is nonetheless severely constrained by other voices.
When I was invited in 1965 to collaborate in the Commonwealth Arts Festival held in several British cities that autumn, I was granted a first close view of the music of yet another culture which added perspective to the links between social and musical organization. If Indian melody and Western harmony had seemed to provide matter for comparison, Indian individualism and African collectivism set the poles of the issue further apart. The African music was tribal, the music of a society which worked, worshipped, celebrated, mourned, and brought up its children together, without any European compromise between the one and the whole, and without need of a harmonic structure. Complexity of rhythm, equally a mark of Indian and African music, is based in an African ensemble on the division of labor, different players keeping their own beat against each other, and contriving to pull off this difficult feat by playing in a kind of hypnotic trance. The sum of the divisions is a subtlety of rhythm which so far not even jazz has reproduced.
In contrast, Indian rhythmic complexity is primarily one man’s doing. Before beginning to play, the Indian group – consisting of some combination of three solo players providing drone, melody and rhythm (in order of sound) – chooses a raga and a tala, the warf and woof of the fabric about to be created. A raga is a scale-cum-melody, a given sequence of notes whose interrelationships are already determined, so that each note may be approached only from particular directions and in particular ways. The tala is the rhythm. Dozens exist. The Indian pulse beats to our basic 3/4 and 4/4 time, and beyond that to every conceivable odd and prime number (some variations of which were also discovered by Bartok in Hungarian and other folk music given by him to the world at large). To make the whole exercise more intricate, the Indian, having chosen a tala of, say, eleven beats, will then improvise in groups of ten, leaving to the audience the responsibility of beating the basic rhythm; which, unperturbed, it does with unfailing accuracy. It becomes a game in which each tries to put the other off his stroke, a sort of intellectual motor race in which the concentrated precision keeps apart two rhythms which start close, separate, then converge. The excitement mounts until, at the 110th beat, when at last the two rhythms meet, there is a tremendous Ha! of glee from the audience. As if the Indian rhythm player’s task were not already complicated enough, he also contributes to the melody. The tabla, or Indian drum, is an almost melodic instrument, the pressure of the player’s hand altering the tension of the skin and therefore the pitch; the player can slide between notes with precision-tool accuracy, asserting the rhythm with inflections of pitch, attack and volume, varying from the most delicate to the most powerful.
Indian music thus accommodates the group, but the individuals within it remain soloists, never coalescing into a harmonic statement. To form orchestras of Indian musicians would be to run counter to nature. I have been spared such bastard growths, but I have suffered the excruciating experience of hearing the Indian Sitar or Vina or Violin accompanied by a Harmonium, a relic of Christian missionaries’ misunderstanding of the culture they were attempting to change.
The West had to invent the tempered scale, each note adjusted up or down from its true center to reconcile the different keys and to permit modulation from one to another, thus advancing the development of harmony. I can’t pretend to regret a development which has fed my whole musical life, but equally it is impossible to deny that the tempered scale corrupts our Western ears. The perfect fifth, set by the drone in Indian music and established as the overture to performance, is a criterion of all the other intervals, its continuing presence preventing absent-minded sliding out of the given key. As a result of such meticulous preparation, Indian musicians are sensitive to the smallest microtonal variations, subdivisions of tones which the Violin can find out but which are outside of the crude simplifications of the Piano (or Harmonium).
I once enjoyed a striking object lesson in Indian musical priorities. It occured in Delhi, at a congress assembling musicians from all parts of the country. Most venerated of all participants were singers of eighty years of age and more, whose voice, in our meaning of the word, had gone, but whose accuracy of intonation would have shamed celebrated coloraturas, and whose intelligence in improvisation was, of course, a virtue which Western singers are not generally called upon to display. These ancient singers joined the ancient gurus in my mind, joint symbols of a system of values which put time at the service of accomplishment.
…….I have heard Indian music played by the untalented and the insufficiently trained: it is the most tedious thing imaginable, safely strait-jacketed within the laws and observances of the raga, never straying from the worn banalities of the cliche. I have also heard, and indeed helped introduce to the West, the masters – Ravi Shankar, who plays the Sitar, Ali Akbar Khan, whose instrument is the older, perhaps less brilliant Vina, Chatur Lal, the tabla player who took the United States by storm, then died tragically young of cancer. None of the instruments in the Indian classical range, developed for temple performance to the greater glory of God, has great carrying power, a shortcoming which nowadays is got the better of by electrical amplification permitting performance in stadiums holding several thousands of listeners. But to be present, as I have been, at a “chamber music” recital by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, each goading the other to new heights of invention, is an experience more magical than any in the world. One is in the presence of creation.
Given his form and the meter before he starts, like a poet commissioned to write a sonnet or a ballad, the Indian musician resembles more a medieval troubadour than a composer sitting before blank paper at his desk. He does not interpret; he is. An oral tradition is a wonderful thing, keeping meaning and purpose alive and accessible. As soon as an idea is confined to the printed page, an interpreter is required to unlock it. The Indian musician requires no intermediary; he creates in public and does not keep a record. Naturally I am a novice in the matter, having neglected at the age of three to begin the necessary schooling and to anchor myself in the tradition; when I play with Ravi Shankar, I must learn my lines beforehand. But even at this subordinate distance from improvisation, participation in Indian music means much to me – urging in sequences which will never be repeated the savoring of each note; heightening the ear’s perception of the notes, the rhythms and the flexible tensions between them; increasing, as some drugs are said to do, awareness of phenomena; safeguarding against the staleness of repetition.