It all started at work on Friday night. The floor was dead, which fortunately gave me the freedom to escape the customer service desk and find the time and opportunity to quiz and discuss with my manager, N, on what or whom he would consider being seminal classical Indian pieces and performers and where I could find hear them. N was very enthusiastic about my endeavour to explore the sonic history of India and mentioned a few pieces and wrote a list of performers he considered important on a piece of scrap cardboard, which I would later lose in a brain explosion; however he made it clear that it would be difficult to find examples of these pieces and artists as they were more than likely never recorded to tape let alone converted digitally, explaining that he enjoys his subscription to the World Music Network as they aggregate a variety of Indian music, but he was unsure if I would be able to find classical Indian music through the service.
It was 10:30 pm on Friday night when I sat down to explore and hopefully begin my adventure into classical Indian music, open to the fact that I may not find exactly what I was hoping to experience but would find a piece of Indian music I’d never imagined existing. I began by Googling the World Music Network, and explored their website, finding their Rough Guides to world music. I found it interesting that there were separate classifications of Indian and Bollywood music. Finding guides to Psychedelic India and Psychedelic Bollywood peaked my curiosity, however, I managed to hunt down a title called The Rough Guide To Indian Classical Music. Being a student I tossed up the idea of signing up for the paid subscription service or purchasing the album outright, eventually deciding to do neither of those two things and attempt to find the album on Spotify. Thankfully for my back pocket, the collection of songs was there.
Before I listened to the album, I took my time taking in the cover art. Depicting an elder Indian man wearing a red religious head scarf, playing what I assume is a flute in a what looks like a temple. The guide features nine songs, lasting a duration of 74 minutes; but includes a bonus ‘disk’ six track album by Debashish Bhattacharya which if included as part of the collection doubles the duration of the album. The last decision I had to make, given it was now 11 pm was whether I could listen to the full album or simply the guide then and there, weighing up the pros and cons I decided that I should listen to just the guide as the team who designed the sequence of the guide and the inclusion of the bonus ‘disk’ intended for them to be separate entities before streaming services entered the mainstream and altered the way people experience recorded music.
The guide opens with Annapoorne an instrumental track which I found sounded familiar yet jarring like folk music exploring crazy temporal elements and utilising violin, hand drums, bells and what I think is those drums that have a beater on a string attached which make noise when shaken. Track two represented the most familiar musician on the compilation, Ravi Shankar, performing Devgiri Bilawal Dhun, a track I’m confident I have unconsciously encountered in Hollywood film soundtracks, I definitely appreciated this track a lot more than the first, while it is another instrumental track it features use of hand drums and sitar. The track sounds like acoustic psychedelia composed using an unorthodox scale much higher than what I am normally comfortable with but ultimately it is a very enjoyable listen. The next cab off the rank was a live performance of the El Taal by Allah Rakha & Zakir Hussain. This is the first Indian classical piece I have consumed which features a vocal of sorts, while it is difficult to describe the vocal seems to be used as more as a rhythmic element rather than a melody or narrative driver; however, I could be misinterpreting this as I am not familiar with Hindi or the genre of Indian classical. The melody seems to be created through a flute or a stringed instrument I am unfamiliar with, the melody is looped throughout the track while the rhythms created using drums and the human voice intertwine, and drive the track toward a crescendo to finish. El Taal is an interesting track which leaves me looking forward to researching instrumentation and Sadhathava Pada is the fourth track on the guide, and is the first track to recongnisably incorporate human voice as more than just a rhythmic element and allow it to act as a narrative device and lead the melody played on violin. Ahir Bhairav represents the biggest surprise as what I consider to be traditional instrumentation is intertwined with piano passages I did not expect to hear in this sonic adventure. Thumri Bhairavin and Dhun Punjabi Ang are similar in nature to track two, heavily centred upon sitar use but sound more soulful than psychedelic. The closing track to the guide, Raga Chhaya Nat, is the longest song on the album, it features an English narration as well as all other instrumental elements and rhythmic devices heard throughout the guide. It is an incredibly nice way to summarise my first experience of Indian classical music.
I’ve thouroughly enjoyed ‘The Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music, and will definitely seek out more and dive deeper into the genre. I am in love with the psychedelic elements present in what I have heard so far. I would like to further understand the difference between Indian and Bollywood music. I look forward to finding out more about the instrumentation and speaking to N about my experience and begging him to give me another list I should check out.