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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

My Sampler of Indian Classical Music Pieces for Non-Indians


My Sampler of Indian Classical Music Pieces for Non-Indians

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 11 November, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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Some time back, one of my cousins, an American, who was planning an Indian-themed function in California for a mostly non-Indian guest list, wanted me to suggest a list of Indian classical tracks that she could play for an hour during the function as an introduction to Indian classical music, and which she could then gift to all the guests as a CD when they left. She also requested me to give some introductions for the pieces to be read out before the pieces were played, so that the audience knew something about what they were hearing. The idea was to include the introductions along with the CD as liner notes. One stipulation was that all the tracks should be available on iTunes.


I thought this was an interesting endeavor, and once I finished the recommendations and the write-ups on the different pieces and sent it off to my cousin, thought they were worth sharing with a larger audience. Today, I finally found time to convert that list into an article. I hope you will enjoy reading this list and listening to these pieces, if you haven’t already done so. Keep in mind that the numbering only denotes the play order, reflecting my preference as to how to gradually expose the audience to different pieces, and does not imply that any of these recordings (or artists) is superior to any other in the list. The introductions also ended up being a bit long to read before the recordings were played, so I suggested that an abbreviated version be used in the announcement and that this full version be included in the liner notes.


Keep in mind, as you read this list, that these are not always the “best” possible selections that I could give for all the artists, if I were free to choose the source. I was constrained by what iTunes had in its collection. For example, if I had to give an absolute recommendation for Vilayat Khan, I would always go with his 1960 recording with Samta Prasad of raga Yaman; however, unfortunately, iTunes does not have this recording.

 
Notes: 

Hindustani = North Indian classical music
Carnatic = South Indian classical music
 
Format of the List:

 
Play Order (Number)
Artist: Genre
Raga
Track
Album
Track duration
Description
Youtube link

 
Note 1: I have tried to match the track and album names exactly with how iTunes lists them, even though the latter are sometimes slightly wrong.


Note 2: The youtube links are a later addition. After I posted this article, some friends said they would find it useful if I also gave them youtube links in addition to iTunes references. This proved to be much more difficult than it would seem, because whatever is available on iTunes is not necessarily available on youtube, and vice versa. In fact, if I had been told at the start to give youtube links, I would probably come up with a different list, simply because you can only make a list of what is available. So, in some cases, the iTunes track was simply not available on youtube, and so I gave a different song by the same artist as a replacement on youtube.



 
1.
M S Subbulakshmi: Carnatic, vocal
Raga: Hamir

 
Track: Baso more man mein nandlal 
Album: Meera
4.49

 
MS Subbulakshmi was one of the legends of Carnatic music, and no representative sampler of Indian music is complete without her. Born in 1916 into a musical family in the south Indian temple town of Madurai, MS (as she was popularly known) was a child prodigy, giving her first concert at the Mecca of Carnatic music, Madras, in the most esteemed music society, the Music Academy, at the age of 13. But MS shot to national fame when she sang the songs in the musical on the life of the 16th century saint, Meera, the princess who was a devotee of the god Krishna and spent her life composing songs in praise of Krishna and singing them. MS also acted as Meera in the movie. The movie was made both in Tamil and Hindi, with the Tamil songs being set to Carnatic music ragas and the Hindi songs being set to Hindustani music ragas. MSS delivered brilliantly on the songs in both movies, which became superhits because of her songs. 

 
As a result of the popularity of Meera, MS became a nationally-renowned figure. She was also a great follower of Gandhi, and she and her husband devoted their lives to social causes. Despite being the most sought-after Carnatic musician all her life, MS lived a very simple life and donated a large portion of her earnings to charitable causes. She was Gandhi's favorite singer. Once, Gandhi expressed a desire to hear his favorite devotional song, "Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye" (liberal translation: "who can be called a person of God" – a composition by the saint Narsinh Mehta) sung by MS at a function. To this, MS telegrammed back that her throat was not in perfect shape and so maybe Gandhiji should perhaps ask someone else to sing the song. Gandhi's reply: "I would prefer to hear it spoken by Subbulakshmi rather than sung by someone else."

 
MS is most famous for her rendition of devotional songs, even though she could sing Carnatic and Hindustani songs of any sub-genre impressively and with elan. She was the first woman to be awarded the Music Academy's highest title, the "Sangeetha Kalanidhi," and the first musician to receive India's highest civilian honor, the "Bharat Ratna." Most temples all over South India, including the famous temple at Tirupati, even today, play her devotional "suprabhatams" (morning wake-up hymns to the gods) on their PA systems every day.

 
I have chosen this selection from the movie Meera because

  1. It is an exquisite rendition which showcases both the technical brilliance of MS (as witnessed in how she sings the phrase "nandalaala") as well her ability to convey emotion, and
  2. It showcases how MS, although coming from a Carnatic background, is able to sing this Hindustani raga, Hamir, in which this song is set, as well as or better than the best of the Hindustani musicians. This is my first reference when I want to explain raga Hameer to anyone, even before such classic renditions as DV Paluskar's. This is why great contemporary Hindustani musicians like Pandit Jasraj bow their heads in reverence when talking about MS even today.
Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3t2Qwp1cF0

2.
Bhimsen Joshi: Hindustani, vocal
Raga: Puriya Kalyan
 
Track: Raga Puriya Kalyan Dhrut Khyal in Teentaal Bahut Dina Beete 
Album: Tapasya
4.45
 
Bhimsen Joshi was one of the giants of Hindustani music. He ran away from home at the age of nine to pursue a career in music after hearing an extended play record of the great Abdul Karim Khan, founder of the Kirana school of singing in Hindustani music.

 
Bhimsen learned from Abdul Karim Khan's most prominent student, Sawai Gandharva, and after his training quickly shot to fame as the greatest Hindustani singer of his time. The name "Bhimsen" comes from Hindu mythology, from a hero in the epic Mahabharata, who was supposed to have "the strength of ten thousand elephants." While the name Bhimsen might have a poor choice for this short and small-built musician in a physical sense, it was certainly highly appropriate for his voice, which is probably the most powerful yet expressive voice ever seen in the world of Hindustani music.

 
The school of music from which Bhimsen graduated was famous for its treatment of the major, "great," ragas of Hindustani music such as Lalit, Todi, Bhairav, Yaman, and so on. The sheer emotional content and note-perfection that Bhimsen brought to his music, accompanied by his inimitable power of voice production and his brilliant technique, was what made him a perennial crowd favorite. Bhimsen organized an annual three-day music festival in Pune in memory of his guru, Sawai Gandharva, in which he would perform as the last musician - the Sawai Gandharva music festival. In 2010, he was too ill to perform, and died shortly after. But I do recall an incident from that year's festival, which I attended, which testifies to his immense popularity. On the last day of the function, between some music performances, there was a dance performance scheduled, and the organizers needed some time to set the stage. To keep the audience entertained, they played a RECORDING of a performance of Bhimsen at the festival from 30 years back for about 15 minutes. That 30-year old recording got more applause than any musician had gotten for the past three days!!

 
The selection I have recommended is another "great" raga, Puriya Kalyan, and this is Bhimsen at his very best.

Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWN0ikMbnYE&feature=player_detailpage#t=2710 (different performance of same raga)

 
3.
Ravi Shankar: Hindustani, sitar
Raga: Bairagi Todi
 
Track: Raga Bairag Todi: jod, jhala
Album: Spirit of India
4.09
 
Ravi Shankar is probably the best-known Indian musician in the world. It is probably no exaggeration to say that if people in the west know about Indian classical music, it is largely because of Ravi Shankar.


Born in a family of talented people - his elder brother Uday Shankar was a world-renowned dancer - Ravi Shankar picked up the basics of music touring with his brother's music and dance troupe. But what made him one of the greatest Hindustani sitarists was his seven-year tutelage under Allauddin Khan, probably the most influential instrumental Hindustani musician of the 20th century.

 
Because of his experience touring all over the world with his brother, Ravi Shankar understood the west better than any other musician in India and, after establishing himself as a sitar player of repute in India, set his sights on conquering the west, which he proceeded to do remarkably well, because of his ability to connect with his audience. Not only did he give a lot of concerts in the west, he also took the trouble to conduct innumerable lecture-demonstrations in which he explained the basis of the Indian musical system to his audience. He also took on westerners as his students and started teaching them how to play the sitar. But probably what made him a superstar in the west was the fact that the Beatles were enamoured of him and one of them, George Harrison, actually became his disciple. And then there was no turning back.

 
Ravi Shankar also started the trend of giving importance to the accompanying tabla player. Before Shankar, the only role of the tabla player was to stay in the background and keep time. Shankar started the tradition of a "sawal-jawab" (question-answer) as a routine feature in instrumental concert, in which the main instrumentalist would play a phrase and the accompanist would try to imitate it on the tabla. Shankar also, probably inspired by the Carnatic tradition, gave the tabla player an occasion to play the tabla by himself during his performance, without having to accompany the main instrumentalist, so that he, too, had a chance to showcase his virtuousity.

 
This selection showcases what was special about Shankar's music. The raga chosen, Bairagi Todi, is a very austere and serious raga, and Shankar brings this mood alive with his "dhrupad-like" treatment of the raga (more on this later in the discussion on the Dagar brothers). The bass notes of the sitar are highlighted in this treatment, which is deep and meditative in spite of the fact that the tempo increases.

Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-DFv3gWex4&feature=player_detailpage#t=480

 
4.
TR Mahalingam: Carnatic, flute
Raga: Kathanakuthoohalam
 
Track: Raga: Kathanakuthoohalam in Adi Raghuvamsa Sudhambudhi
Album: TR Mahalingam
6.22
 
TR Mahalingam (popularly known as Mali) was the greatest player ever of the South Indian bamboo flute, and probably the most creative Carnatic musician ever. He was also a child prodigy who gave his first concert at the age of 7 and stunned the musical world with his absolute command of the flute at that tender age. Not only was it remarkable that he could play the flute so well at that age, but also that a young child like him was capable of opening up new vistas with the instrument. Before Mali arrived on the scene, the flute was not considered capable of rendering the melodic richness of Carnatic music. Specifically, characteristic "bends" known as "gamakas" were considered impossible of production with the flute. Mali changed all that by innovating, untutored, a new style, in which the flute was capable of rendering all the nuances of Carnatic vocal music.
 
Mali also managed to give concerts which delighted a hugely diverse cross-section of listeners. He was capable of extraordinary technical feats, such as maintaining his control of rhythm in exceedingly complex patterns and in very slow tempo; and, at the same time, he would always include crowd favorites in his concerts, which both the lay listener and the connoisseur could appreciate.
 
The selection I have included here is one such example of a crowd favorite. "Raghuvamsa sudhambudhi" is a very popular composition that is often rendered in high speed; yet Mali plays this in a slow tempo, thus bringing out the beauty of the raga. One of the highlights of Mali's music was his originality; he rarely played the same phrase twice in different performances of the same composition.

Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvEj00ShMA4
 
5.
Vilayat Khan: Hindustani, sitar
Zakir Hussain: Hindustani, Tabla
Raga: Bhairav Bahar
 
Track: Raga Bhairav Bahar: Gat in fast teen tal (excerpt)
Album: Dawn to dusk: Aftaab-e-Sitar Vilayat Khan
9.58
 
Vilayat Khan was born to a family of hereditary musicians. His father and grandfather were both musicians at royal courts, and were both recognized masters of the sitar as well as innovators.
 
Along with Ravi Shankar, the other man who also dominated the world of Hindustani sitar for the second half of the twentieth century was undoubtedly Vilayat Khan. The two were considered rivals. Playing in a style totally different from that of Shankar, Vilayat Khan dazzled listeners with his matchless technical mastery of the sitar. This mastery manifested itself in two ways: an ability to play breathtakingly fast passages without the slightest flaw; and an ability to coax so much melody and beauty from the strings of the sitar that it sounded like a human voice's inflections. In fact, one of the things that Vilayat Khan routinely did in concerts was to sing a phrase (he could sing very well, too) and then reproduce the same phrase on the sitar perfectly, upon which the audience would burst into applause. For this reason, his style is often referred to as the "gayaki" ang - "gayaki" means "like singing."
 
Zakir Hussain, who accompanies Vilayat Khan here on the tabla, is India's most famous tabla player, and is usually capable of astonishing pyrotechnic displays, but usually plays in a more subtle and understated way when accompanying Vilayat Khan. This is actually one of Hussain's strengths as an accompanist: to change his playing style to suit the main artist.
 
This selection showcases a fast piece which allows us to understand why Vilayat Khan was considered such a phenomenon for his control of his instrument and his skill in extracting such nuances from it.

Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TACzDvw50o
 
6.
MS Gopalakrishnan: Carnatic, violin
Raga: Nata
 
Track: Raga Nata: Mahaganapathim manasa smarami
Album: Masterworks from the NCPA archives: MS Gopalakrishnan (remastered)
8.54
 
One of the most interesting cross-cultural observations in Indian music is how the violin, an instrument totally alien to India before the arrival of western influence, has become an integral part of Carnatic music. Among the many extraordinary practitioners of Carnatic music on the violin, if one must limit oneself to discussing one person, as I am forced to by time constraints, then that person has to be undoubtedly MS Gopalakrishnan, popularly referred to as MSG, in the usual fashion of referring to Carnatic artists by their initials.
 
MSG learned Carnatic music from his father before going on to learn Hindustani music from the famous Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur at Benares and then going on to improve upon his father's style with innovations of his own to create a new style of violin-playing now often referred to as the "Parur" style, Parur being the name of his ancestral town. This style is characterized by a very light touch on the violin; extraordinary control and fidelity of playing; astounding displays of skill and speed; and a generous use of staccato.
 
This selection is a popular introductory composition played often at the beginning of a concert, and has considerable scope for the violinist to play purely improvised note-passages (known as "swara-prasthara"). The full range of the MSG repertoire is in abundant display here.
 
Owing to his training in both styles of Indian classical music, MSG has recorded several albums in Hindustani music as well. This is extremely rare - for a musician to be in the top echelon in both Carnatic and Hindustani music.

Youtube:


I could not find this Nata recording on youtube. A different recording of the same piece was too short to appreciate the beauty and skill of MSG's violin-playing. So I found a different piece – quite a rarity, in fact – in another raga. This is a recording of raga Nalinakanti, the piece being the famous “Manaviyalakincharadatay” of Tyagaraja, and what makes it so rare is that it is a recording of MSG playing with his father, Parur Sundaram Iyer).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=823uFFoaLGc&list=PL9Pv-NfsEItkt5n6_No0Z9QLSHLVe2WnV&index=20
 
7.
Hariprasad Chaurasia: Hindustani, flute
Shivkumar Sharma: Hindustani, santoor
Brijbhushan Kabra: Hindustani, Hawaiian guitar
Raga: Nat Bhairav
 
Track: Raga Nat Bhairav - Call of the Valley
Album: Kohinoor single
6.20
 
Hariprasad Chaurasia is one of the most popular Indian musicians today. His skill in playing the north Indian bamboo flute, the Bansuri, is legendary. He was a student of Annapurna Devi, daughter and disciple of Allauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar's guru.
 
In India, the bansuri is associated with the mythology of the god Krishna, who is said to have charmed all the cowgirls of Vrindavan by the sound of his bansuri. If anyone can bring that story to life, it surely is Hariprasad Chaurasia. Someone closing his eyes and listening to Chaurasia could be forgiven for thinking that he had died and gone to heaven to hear the god Krishna play.
 
The person who was responsible for taking this cowherd's toy and making this a concert instrument was Pannalal Ghosh, who made several innovations and improvements to this instrument. Ghosh modeled his playing on vocal styles. But Chaurasia changed the way the bansuri was perceived. He started performing on the bansuri the way one would perform on a sitar, a sarode, or a rudra veena: with an alap-jod-jhala structure, a solo extemporization that involves a slow, rhythmless improvisation (alap), a rhythmic improvisation without table in medium speed (jod), and a fast rhythmic improvisation without tabla (jhala). In stringed instruments, the jhala is achieved by fast repeated strumming of the strings. Chaurasia achieved the same effect on the flute by using an innovative combination of fast staccato blowing and flutter-tonguing.
 
Accompanying Chaurasia on this recording are Shivkumar Sharma on the santoor and Brijbhushan Kabra on Hawaiian guitar. Shivkumar Sharma was singlehandedly responsible for elevating the santoor, a hammered folk instrument of Kashmir, to the status of a classical instrument. This was no mean feat because the santoor is inherently a discontinuous instrument, and so to coax the bends that are an indispensable part of Indian classical music out of the instrument required Sharma to develop innovative techniques such as fine trilling using minute hammering on the strings to approximate the bends (gamakas). In this endeavor he has mightily succeeded, as his immense popularity as a Hindustani instrumentalist has proved.
 
The album from which this track has been taken, "Call of the Valley," was a landmark album when it was released in 1967. The hallmark of this album is that even though it is based on traditional Hindustani ragas, the melodies presented and their pleasing treatment by Chaurasia, Sharma, and Kabra made this album one of the most accesible to the layperson. "Call of the Valley" has been described as the one Indian classical-based album that a person should listen to if he or she could listen to only one.

Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIxAZ-VISQI
 
8.
Sheik Chinna Moula: Carnatic, nadhaswaram
Raga: Kapi Narayani
 
Track: Sarasa sama dana 
Album: Paddhati: live in concert 1973
4.44
 
Sheik Chinna Moulana was one of the most eminent performers of the nadhaswaram, an instrument traditionally associated with the temple. Nadhaswaram performances were normally held with no amplification because the nadaswaram is a very loud instrument. This made it ideal for use in street performances with no amplification. For this reason as well, it is not accompanied by the usual drum of Carnatic music, the mridangam, but by a much louder drum, the thavil.
 
Sheik Chinna Moulana was probably the most skilled nadhaswaram artist of his time. The nadhaswaram is an exceedingly difficult instrument to play flawlessly. Small imperfections in note production are almost inevitable even in the performance of legendary nadhaswaram artists. But I have never personally heard Sheik Chinna Moulana play a false note in any recording of his, regardless of the tempo of the piece being played, which is a staggering achievement. You can hear his astounding technical skill in this recording. This is in addition to his ability to convey the soul of every raga he played with unerring precision.
 
It is also an interesting social comment to note that this instrument, which is so closely connected with the temple and with Hindu religious practices (no South Indian Hindu wedding is complete without one, for instance), has been embraced so fervently and has been played with such perfection by a Muslim musician.

Youtube:


(Note: I could not get this particular piece on youtube while searching for it. So I have chosen another excellent recording by Sheik sahib, of the great gem in raga Abheri by Tyagaraja, “Nagumomu.” I have given the link from the start of the krithi, but you are of course welcome to hear from the beginning of the alapana. This song showcases Sheik-sahab’s incredible skill – note the passages near “khagaraju.”)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-ch6XtrT7E&feature=player_detailpage&list=PLgdbLnfoyI7_8Upl2viQECzyHdQp4Xr1r#t=791
 
9.
Dagar Brothers: Hindustani, vocal, dhrupad style
Raga: Bhatiyar
 
Track: Dhrupad in Chautala, raga Bhatyar
Album: Shiva Mahadeva
6.21
 
Hindustani vocal music has two major sub-traditions: khyal, which is the predominant tradition, and which is sung by the majority of vocalists today, (including the late Bhimsen Joshi, mentioned above), and which is characterized by a jazz-like free-form improvisation structure within the framework of a rhtyhmic cycle; and dhrupad, a tradition that is more structured than khyal and does not permit as much creative freedom, but compensates for this by perfection and beauty in melody. Dhrupad was the predominant tradition 400 years ago in the golden days of Hindustani music in the Mughal courts. In the last century and half, dhrupad has gradually given way to khyal in popularity.
 
There are very few surviving practitioners of dhrupad, and the most prominent practitioners of dhrupad in the last century have been the Dagar family of hereditary musicians, who have preserved an unbroken tradition for 20 generations. The Dagars are the custodians of one of the four major schools ("vani"-s) of Dhrupad singing, known eponymously by their family name, Dagarvani. The other three traditions are the Gauharvani, the Nauharvani, and the Khandarvani. 
 
This recording is sung by Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar, also known as the "junior Dagar brothers," as a contrast to their two elder brothers, Nasir Moinuddin Dagar and Nasir Aminuddin Dagar, who also performed as a pair, and who were known as the "senior Dagar brothers." The four Dagar brothers were the most famous dhrupad singers of the second half of the twentieth century.
 
This particular piece is sung in the highly austere raga Bhatiyar, and is a hymn in praise of the god Shiva (known also as Shankar). The perfection of melody that is seen in any Dagar presentation of any raga is evident when they sing the base note (sa) of the higher octave - the phrase "kailasi" in this song which goes higher than the sa and ends on the sa note at the end of this phrase. 
 
A dhrupad performance in any raga is generally considered to be the definitive interpretation of the raga, and this recording is no exception. One cannot find a better example of raga Bhatiyar than this - so beautifully have Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Nasir Faiyyazuddin Dagar rendered this raga in this piece.

Youtube:


As in other cases, I could not find this exact piece on youtube. So I have a chosen an alternative – raga Malkauns, “poojana chali Mahadeva.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMJcP7oUCrY
 
10.
Bismillah Khan: Hindustani, shehnai
V.G. Jog: Hindustani, violin
Raga: Mishra Khamaj
 
Track: Raga Mishra Khamaj in Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye
Album: Gandhi: speeches, bhajans, and inspirations
7.08
 
Bismillah Khan was one of the iconic figures of Hindustani music. He was responsible for single-handedly elevating the status of the shehnai, a reed instrument that was only used as an accompaniment to marriages, to a classical concert instrument. 
 
He did this by applying the techniques of vocal music to the shehnai and by his sheer technical brilliance, which helped him to play the shehnai with the full expression of a sitar, a sarode or the human voice.
 
Bismillah Khan also took popular "dhuns" (folk songs) and often played them with elaborate improvisations, something that delighted both commoner and connoisseur alike.
 
In another salute to India's syncretic traditions and to the tremendous respect that all Indians had for Bismillah Khan, he was a regular performer at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in the city of Benares, one of the most sacred temples of Hinduism and a highlight of the city of Benares, where Bismillah Khan lived all his life, even though he was a Muslim. Khan has said on record that the two reasons he would never leave Benares (and indeed, he died there) were the river Ganga and the Kashi Vishwanath temple, which to him was a second home.
 
VG Jog was one of the most important and distinguished violinists of Hindustani music in the last century, having learned music from Allauddin Khan, who taught many other greats including, as mentioned earlier, Ravi Shankar.
 
The composition they play here is the same "Vaishnava jana to" alluded to earlier that was so beloved by Gandhi.

Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ii0Xt0bgKA4