Education · Indian Culture

Music, Fast or Slow

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure and privilege of attending some amazing concerts by some of the leading lights of Indian classical music. These concerts were part of the the 2nd International Convention organized by SPIC-MACAY and held at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

While the whole experience of immersing into the vast and deep ocean of Indian classical music was magical, I wish to share through this and some follow-up posts a few key highlights that I personally found insightful and deeply satisfying.

Very briefly, founded in 1977, SPIC-MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture amongst Youth) is a voluntary movement with a unique mission to provide Indian youth with a meaningful exposure to Indian cultural heritage through various forms of classical music, dance, theatrical arts, as well as a wide range of folk traditions in these art forms. They do this by organizing thousands of lecture-demonstration programmes throughout India at various colleges, universities, inter-college/university cultural festivals, as well as several higher educational institutions abroad. I have had the privilege of attending several such programmes in India and abroad.

A typical SPIC-MACAY lecture-demonstration is a bit more casual performance, with an aim to bring out some salient features about the particular art form for the specific purpose of facilitating some learning by the audience, especially the youth attending the programme. Before the performance, the performer generally gives a brief explanation about his or her specific art form and speaks directly to the young audience to engage them meaningfully in some of the nuances and unique aspects of the art form they are about to witness. Of course, each performer individualizes this approach based on his or her nature, style, the demands of the particular art form, the nature of the specific performance he or she is presenting, and many other factors. There is no one right formula. Quite Indian in a way 🙂

This time around, I attended only selected programmes at the SPIC-MACAY convention at IIT-M, as a member of general audience and not as a convention participant or delegate. But even in that very limited experience, I was very pleasantly surprised that each of the performances I attended brought home for the audience a unique aspect of Indian classical and folk traditions.

At the concert of Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the great Mohan Veena player, we got to hear about the fact there is often a misconception among some Indian youth that Indian classical music is slow and therefore boring. Saying that while Indian classical music can match any other musical tradition when it comes to speed, Pandit ji made an important point that in Indian culture music has been considered a means to connect with the silence within. So its purpose is not to give the audience or musicians a “high” but rather to gradually facilitate a slowing down of their inner movements (thoughts, sensations, everything) and bring them to a place where they can experience a quietude within. And this led him to explain the role and significance of Ālap in a typical Indian classical music performance, both vocal and instrumental.

Accompanied by the noted Tabla player Pandit Ram Kumar Mishra, he then went on to demonstrate what he was explaining through his performance in which he mesmerized the audience, especially the young ones, by the great intensity and the high “speed” in some portions of his performance (after Ālap of course). If I remember correctly he played raag Maru Bihag for his main performance. But what I do remember very correctly is that the music was absolutely captivating and enthralling, to say the least.

He didn’t seem to mind when the young audiences applauded and clapped in between to show their appreciation for the particular notes he played and the amazing skill with which he played them. This is an important point because such applause in the middle of Indian classical music performances is not considered appropriate, and there have been instances of performers getting very upset over such behaviour from the audiences. It seemed to me that he perhaps even played a bit to the young audiences when he saw them getting so enthused over his music.

But all this didn’t take away anything from the key point he wanted to illustrate through his performance. That Indian classical music, despite its vigour and high energy, is primarily meant to help the listener and musician connect with something much more quiet within, more silent. And that’s what this experience was for me. A few minutes into his performance, it seemed as if the audience didn’t matter, the slightly uncomfortable chair didn’t matter, and even the interruptions from the youngsters in form of applause didn’t matter. The eyes were closed and it was only music. Only music.

Panditji concluded his performance with a track from his grammy-award-winning world music album, A Meeting By the River (with Ry Cooder). And of course the intensity of that piece enthralled the audiences, especially the younger ones who probably gained a new admiration, love and regard for their ancient heritage, their classical music which is as modern and new as anything can be. Timeless, really. What a great way to encourage youngsters to want to delve deep into the precious gems of their culture!

It is only appropriate to close this post with some music from the maestro. How about this? 

~ Pandit ji’s photo by Suhas Mehra
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