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Guided tour into a fabulous world

20 CDs + 1 book
Times Music
Rs 4,900

Alaap, Times Music and Aurobindo Society's 20 CD-project, can gently break the uninitiated and the hesitant into the emotionally nourishing world of Indian classical music

Alaap is vast in scale: it spans 20 CDs and a 275-page book. Earlier introductions released in the Indian market were not as ambitious. Music Today's introduction -- they call it a guide to music appreciation -- is spread over three tapes. HMV's introduction to Karnatak music is two tapes long. Aurobindo Society deserves thanks for planning and executing a project several times larger. Alaap took ten years to complete, and is undoubtedly the most extensive introduction to Indian music available today.

"The first thing which strikes me is that practically nothing in the project has gone according to plan. And yet, when I look back, I feel that perhaps there was a plan after all, though hidden from us, which had been working itself out all the while," says Vijay, in his afterword. He co-ordinated Alaap from Pondicherry, living through the exhilaration and despair of interacting with musicians, writers and record labels. "Commercial considerations were kept on the backburner", he told a TV channel after the project was released on 15th August, 1999 - a day marking the birth anniversary of saint and scholar Aurobindo, and also India's Independence Day. The project is not credited to any single writer or researcher because, says Vijay, many people have contributed their mite to its making.

Alaap is divided into three parts: The Quest and the Lure, where the basics of music, and the concepts of swara, raga and tala are explained, Hindustani Music, which outlines the various gharanas and forms, and Carnatic Music, which is a similar introduction to the southern style.

Among the best parts of the book are the reflections on swara, and the process of learning. Alaap relates swara to the idea of self -- 'swa' is self and 'ra' is that which shines forth -- and says, "The human voice has always a small component of swara in its timbre... Even this natural swara of human voice, when trained in raga and tala, can produce impressive musicians."

But mere skill is not enough to make a great musician: "the musician who has consciously worked towards the acquisition of the full swara produces quite another impact -- a mysterious economy, an assurance of direction, a quality of unbelievable credibility in the tonal essence of the voice, an integrity that is larger and more significant than the raga or the tala or the techinical skill of the musician. Such a musician transcends the plane of the raga and lives and moves on a level above it".

The fire of learning

Alaap then explains many concepts, one of them the penance-like chilla. The chilla is "one of the most austere and mysterious traditions" in the learning of Indian music. This "extreme step" usually lasts 40 days, and hence the name. A musician who performs the chilla isolates himself from the world "to attain a greater excellence in performance, a mastery in technique and sometimes to find the swara".

This retreat can elevate a musician to a higher awareness and temper his music with instrospection. "In some cases its effect can be so far-reaching that the student abandons all desire, even for music, and becomes a mendicant withdrawing from life and turning into a wandering sanyasi. Many illusions about life and its meaning drop away from people who do the chilla," Alaap explains.

The most telling description of chilla comes from Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, shaper of the Kirana gharana. He is reported to have told Pandit Bhatkhande, the famous musicologist, that the chilla is like "lighting a fire under your life. If you do not cook, you will burn. It is better to get cooked so that everyone can enjoy your flavour. Otherwise, you will be a mass of cinders, a heap of ash."

Alaap devotes many pages to the passion that music inspires in the learner and the listener. Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Agra gharana used to recall how Unnao, a little village, "was paralysed for some time when, one winter dawn, a singer merely passed through the village, singing". The stranger's music, says Alaap, sent the inhabitants into a state of reverie and bliss, and no one was able to work in the fields or attend to domestic duties for days.

This of course is the magical, hypnotic power of music, the power that Aurangzeb distrusted -- he believed listening to music would make him effeminate and unfit to rule -- and the same power that the Pied Piper of Hamelin uses to settle scores with the deceitful mayor.

Alaap, like most introductory books on music, talks extensively of the spiritual nature of the musical pursuit, and glosses over its moral ambivalence -- music can inspire as much nobility as meanness in its practitioners. This is almost always left unstated, and it is left to individual travellers to find the hazards on the musical path. At one point, Alaap celebrates the sway of music and obliquely and perhaps unintentionally hints at the idea of music's moral neutrality: "Some, unable to understand what is happening to them and unwilling to let go of their usual moorings, reject the singer completely. A few ... are willing to follow him everywhere and even become his slaves". Music is no automatic gateway to spirituality. Music doesn't automatically fill a guru with generosity and benign caring. A mrindangam player in Chennai once told us that the great artistes paid him a pittance and treated him badly, while the ones who were no stars looked upon him with respect.

Transcending the mundane

While transcendence of the mundane is something both listeners and musicians experience in music, we must also remember that the guru's power enjoys the unqualified sanction of tradition. Many gurus use this sanction benignly, treating their pupils like their children, feeding, nurturing and disciplining them into learning the art. One hears also of gurus who deliberately drive students to depression and madness, gurus who humiliate brilliant students who they fear may surpass their own children, and gurus who cynically turn students with no musical potential into handy, unpaid errand boys.

That seems to be the biggest danger of overemphasising the spiritual aspect of music: it turns us into narcotised "slaves" unable to understand how we are being gypped. Much can be said for a down-to-earth approach to music instruction, at least at the elementary stages. Surely there is a world of difference between the chilla that a musician enters into of his own volition, and the distraught state that a guru with hypnotic musical power wilfully pushes his disciple into?

That, of course, is a question of emphasis. Alaap offers many sections that aid an understanding of music. Its detailed glossary is a boon, thanks especially to the demonstrations on the companion CDs. Various kinds of graces, however well explained in words, become much clearer when you hear them sung or played. You can read what a sthayee means in the book, and then play the accompanying CD to understand how different sthayees sound: five sthayees (octaves) -- anumandra, mandra, madhya, tara, atitara -- are demonstrated on the veena by Jayanthi R Krishnan.

Similarly, you hear well-known names performing the dhrupad, dhamar, khayal, thumri, tappa, dhun, ghazal, bhajan, kirtan and jugalbandi. The various gharanas are illustrated with recordings of their stalwarts. You hear samples of various instruments, including some rare ones like the esraj.

Fantastic galaxy

Alaap offers a fantastic galaxy of singers and instrumentalists - from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Dagar brothers, Amir Khan, Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi and Jasraj to the younger musicians like Zakir Hussain and Shubha Mudgal. In the southern section, we hear veterans like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Lalgudi Jayaraman, A K C Natarajan and D K Pattammal and youngsters like Unnikrishnan and U Srinivas. In both the Hindustani and Karnatak sections, Alaap has managed to get invaluable archival material from All India Radio. HMV also pitched in with material from its rich catalogue. Alaap also commissioned some original recording.

Some drawbacks: the voiceover (it's in English throughout) sometimes makes mistakes that change the meaning of Sanskrit words: 'aadhaara shadja' becomes 'adhara shadja' ('aadhara' is basis, and the reference is to the basic key, while 'adhara' means lips!); similarly 'swarajati' becomes 'swarajaati' and 'jaavali' becomes 'javaali'.

Modern musicologists like Bhaskar Chandavarkar believe that the ragas in Indian music actually came from the folk tunes of various regions. That's how we have ragas named after regions (Multani from Multan, Goud Malhar and Goud Sarang from the Goud - meaning Bengal - region, etc). Alaap does not talk about this connection with the non-Sanskritic traditions, preferring to leave the impression that the grand Indian music tradition came totally from the Vedic past. The marga and desi interaction of Indian culture finds no mention anywhere, but such a study is important to an understanding of Indian music, which continues to thrive in its oral, unwritten, and in that sense folk, form. The music of the 'classical' Jaipur gharana, for instance, is strikingly close to the music of Rajasthan's 'folk' singers. Many folk tunes are even now being codified and adapted into the classical repertoire. Raga Bihari, a favourite of masters like Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, is full of the swirling phrases that we hear in folk songs.

Alaap is huge in scale and sweep, and hopes to address an audience that may have been denied exposure to its cultural roots. Needless to say, an introduction such as this has the potential to lure many of us deep into the wondrous world of Indian music. The landscape we see on our journey may differ from what is described here, but we would still be grateful to Alaap for showing us the first turning.

S R Ramakrishna

We selected pieces that touch the heart: Interview with Vijay, who co-ordinated Alaap

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