Hindustani Music: Let It Go
When I began to study Hindustani music, I treated the recording of each lesson the way I would have treated the score of a Beethoven sonata, meticulously learning and memorizing each phrase, with all its subtle twists and turns. It took me years to realize that most Hindustani musicians do not practice this way.
During Hindustani vocal lessons, my audio recorder is always close at hand. At the start of each lesson I usually turn it on and nudge it across the floor towards my teacher, strategically positioning it to pick up more of her mellifluous rendition of each phrase she sings, and less of my tentative attempt to recreate it. Each week, I pore over these recordings as I practice. With fingers poised over the keyboard shortcut for the five-second audio rewind, I repeat each little patch of notes over and over, listening for the tiniest nuances of each phrase my teacher has sung.
My training began in Western music, as a pianist, where practicing meant observing each detail in the score of a pre-existent composition, and drilling it incessantly until I was able to render it without error or hesitation. So when I began to study Hindustani music, I treated the recording of each lesson the way I would have treated the score of a Beethoven sonata, meticulously learning and memorizing each phrase, with all its subtle twists and turns, exactly as it was sung by my teacher.
It took me years to realize that most Hindustani musicians do not practice this way. As I know now, Hindustani practice is closer to an act of meditation than Western practice is. It begins just as a meditation session might—vocalizing on the tonic note of a drone, establishing a firm connection with the central pitch from which all subsequent material flows. The practice of Western music requires an actively focused mind that allows a musician to dip into a piece of music at any point and immediately contextualize the material, or repeat tiny passages out of context to increase accuracy or speed. However, Hindustani practice requires a different, looser kind of focus. As the mind sinks deep into an exploratory flow, each phrase blooms organically from the previous one, bringing the essence of the raag slowly into focus. The recording of a lesson, then, is simply a suggestion of how and where each phrase can be opened up—the material that comes into that suggested space must be generated spontaneously.
A great deal of emphasis is placed on spontaneity in Hindustani music. The word khayal which is the term for the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music (since the 18th century), has been translated in English as a “thought,” “opinion,” or “notion”—in Hindi, the term always carries the additional implication that such a thought has come spontaneously to mind. During a khayal performance, phrases are created in the moment, and the singer fashions the structure of the work in real time, in front of the audience. The shelf life of any given phrase is only as long as it takes to become sound and leave the singer’s lips. The singer never revisits it exactly, nor is it put into any concrete notation for others to recreate. Once it has been uttered, it is gone.
In Western art music, if composers work through many iterations of a passage of music, it is often for the purpose of finding the “best” one—the one that will be preserved through notation and will be reproducible by generations of musicians to come. I have always felt that part of my job as a composer is to capture the most ephemeral moments so that they are available to be experienced again and again. I find it so difficult to let a beautiful phrase pass undocumented. I remember being at an incredible performance of the renowned singer Begum Parveen Sultana in Delhi when, about halfway through the concert, the audience began applauding after every phrase she sang. Every single phrase. She deserved all of it and more—every note was absolutely stunning. And even as I relished each moment, half of my mind was panicking, thinking, “I should be recording this right now. Why didn’t I bring a recorder? This is too amazing not to be preserved.”
I felt the same sense of panic at a recent lesson. My teacher was singing a variety of possible variations of one phrase, and I was repeating them, one at a time. We went back and forth at least ten times, after which I paused my trusty recorder and we chatted for a moment. When we returned to singing variations on that phrase, it took me about a minute to realize the recorder wasn’t on—I could already feel those undocumented variations slipping from my mind.
As I reached for the recorder, she stopped me. “Don’t fixate on recording every single thing. If you record these variations, they will stay inside the recorder—they will never find their way into you.” I was taken aback for a moment. Of course they would find their way into me, because I would spend the next week meticulously learning and memorizing every single one of them.
It took me weeks to realize what she meant, though. Hindustani music is about developing flexibility, a malleable working relationship with a raag. It’s true, few singers reach the level of Parveen Sultana, where every phrase that comes to mind demands an ovation. But by letting go of this rigid learning approach, I was also opening my mind to a state where it could create without inhibition, which is something I have struggled to achieve in my life as a Western musician. Without the constriction of a ruler to constantly measure myself against, the directions I could take in my explorations were endless. As my teacher so beautifully phrased it, “Music is a vast ocean—every day we stand at the shore and dip our toes into the water.” Perhaps a few of the directions could tap beautiful areas I would never have traversed. And then, letting even these new, beautiful phrases go in order to stay in the creative flow would allow me to explore even more deeply. Practice does, of course, have an important element of refinement, but it is only through a balance with this boundless exploration, that the creative spirit of the art is truly engaged.
The glorification of letting go is much more common in all areas of Indian tradition than in the West. Many Indian holidays end with fire or water: hundreds gather to watch huge effigies of Ravana go up in flames; throngs of people carry statues of Durga through the streets to immerse her in the river. The release of the celebrated objects is embedded deeply into the celebration itself.
Similarly, the concept of canon as we know it in the West does not exist as such in Hindustani music. I was surprised to learn, as I studied with different teachers, that most compositions (the small portions of fixed music that guide the rest of the spontaneous elaboration) were created either by my teachers or their teachers. There are very few compositions that every Hindustani musician will know, that have been handed down exactly through the ages. Hindustani notation is, at best, a shorthand that will help someone who already knows a composition to recall it. But it can hardly capture the full breadth of the music and therefore cannot be relied upon as a learning tool. And it is just as well: the limited scope of notation is an accurate reflection of its importance in the tradition.
However, the fact that there is no reliable form of written preservation means that the onus is on each performer to reestablish the tradition in every performance. For this reason, the Hindustani tradition has not evolved as rapidly as the Western tradition has. For instance, the khayal style of singing came to prominence around the time of Bach and has, to the best of our knowledge, been executed using the same basic structural principles ever since. In that time, Western music has gone through so many changes, so many eras and movements. Because Western music is so meticulously notated, we don’t need new composers to preserve the tradition as much as innovate upon it. In fact, the establishment of stature in the Western canon is contingent upon innovation. However, if Hindustani musicians were to alter the basic structure of their tradition this drastically, it would immediately lose its grounding and context.
It is the constant reaffirmation of this tradition on the larger, structural level that allows complete freedom on the local level. The structure is designed to invite the audience in, to teach the ear as the performance unfolds, and to do so organically, through the unique direction and character of the performer.
It is still the most difficult thing for me, as a Western-trained musician, to practice letting go. It takes patience and determination to detach from the first beautiful notes I create or hear, to focus on the entire ocean instead of the water that is touching my feet. But to the extent that I have been able to let go, both the music I create and my musical experience itself have become that much richer.
1. The drone is created either by an instrument called the tanpura, which the singer strums as s/he sings, or in the modern day, is created by a shruti box, or even an incredible iPhone app called iTablaPro that is widely used, even among professional musicians.
2. It is difficult to define the term ‘raag’ in Western musical terminology, but I have recently taken to calling it a “scale with personality”. It is somewhere between a scale and a collection of characteristic melodic motives which are used to generate a wealth of improvised material.
3. With one notable exception—often the first portion of a composition is repeated exactly to anchor the music after an improvised phrase. However, this is a short phrase of a few notes, that serves as a beacon in a sea of improvisation.
4. In last week’s post, “Recitals of Gratitude,” I spoke about my late teacher Lakshmi Shankar. Currently I study with Saili Oak Kalyanpur, which is who is quoted here.
5. Oak attributes this beautiful saying to her teacher, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. It should be noted, though, that Hindustani musical literature is full of beautiful, poetic sayings like this, which Hindustani musicians quote often. Some of my favorite musical quotations come from the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.