The Indian Music Scene


our-kitchen-neweThis essay was written around 1997, when we had already been living together in Varanasi for the better part of 7 years.  Back then we were totally immersed in the local Indian classical music scene, which though not the biggest in the country (that honor probably belonged to Calcutta) had a reputation for being very old fashioned and still intact. (Both Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan started their musical careers in Varanasi.)

It was a wonderful period of our life.  Somehow we avoided the temptation which attacks most long-term expats to go upscale and for the whole time lived a very simple lower middle class Indian life-style. 

We had no glass in our windows but only bars to keep out monkeys and shutters to keep out cold.  There was no running water (we made sure to keep several large plastic buckets full) and only very intermittent electricity.  Our tiny 4 x 6 ft. kitchen had no refrigerator and no sink, we washed our vegetables and dishes on the concrete floor which sloped slightly towards a small channel that cut through a hole in the wall before snaking around the corner to drain into our squat toilet.  Many cute little mice played in our bedroom while in the kitchen area we often saw huge rats.

But despite being materially so primitive, we loved our life in Assi Ghat.  Almost every day started with watching the sunrise down at Gangaji (the affectionate way the locals referred to the Ganges River) while drinking several cups of sweet hot milky chai, and usually after that it revolved around things like visiting friends, preparing meals, swimming in Gangaji, and participating in the local classical music scene.

Unfortunately as the years rolled by we were forced to admit all was not well in this scene which we so loved, and the following essay was written in response to this disillusionment.  Since many of its insights became critical parts of our heretical take on music, we are including it just as it was written.  The only changes we’ve made are to add photos and links to pages in our current website which did not even exist as a dream while we were still in India. 

Certainly there’s stuff in this essay about which we now feel quite differently.  When it was written we were long term expats and our angry words were focused laser like on what we saw happening around us.  But after being back in the West for decades we’ve come to realize its dependence on written notation, standardized instruments and composers, has reduced our own music to an even sadder state Indeed since Indian Music does not share this dependency, we like to think that only recently did it lose its magic, that the problem is not Indian Music itself but the way it’s currently being done.

The Indian Music Scene

tumji-and-bindujicEight years ago when we first moved to India, we were struck by the number of expatriates we met who were serious students of Indian music.  We were impressed by their enthusiasm and industry, and blown away by how they seemed to be meeting with such substantial success.

There were all these people who were learning to play elegant riffs on sitar, to generate complicated furiously fast rhythms on tabla, and to soar through exotic sophisticated melodies with their voices.

And of course we were even more impressed by their teachers who appeared routinely to do all of this almost miraculous stuff.  We heard drum patterns no western percussionist would even attempt.  We listened to melodies where there was all this controlled improvisation within what would be considered a simple half note interval in our own tradition.

But, it was explained to us, such rhythmic and melodic virtuosity really wasn’t all that surprising.  Instead it was the natural result of Indian music being less concerned with harmony than our own classical tradition, and so of having had more freedom to focus on the subtleties of rhythm and melody.

Now all of this sounded and looked so appealing, that my partner Mitsuko, who already was an accomplished Western classical pianist, decided to launch herself into a course of intensive study with a man who had the reputation of being the best singer of light classical music in the city.

For a while everything went just swimmingly.  Mitsuko’s voice blossomed and, since she already had a trained ear and a well developed musical memory, every week she was coming home with new and wonderful songs.

In fact she was doing so well that soon I started to get a little jealous.  Watching her sit so straight and beautiful at our harmonium (an instrument something like a floor mounted accordion, with bellows pumped by one’s left hand and a three octave keyboard played by one’s right), and seeing the ecstatic centered expression on her face, quickly made me feel like I wanted a piece of the action.  Soon it wasn’t enough to listen to her sing, I wanted to sing myself.

flooded-holy-tree-newfOff in exotic India, it didn’t seem to matter that up to that point I’d never managed to learn to sing a song in tune.  In a land where folks took seriously the possibility of transcending their ordinary consciousness, it seemed quite conceivable that even someone like myself, someone who up to then had showed no evidence of any musical ability, could learn to sing.

Still, with my history of musical non-achievement it felt a bit presumptuous for me to study with an official instructor, and instead I decided to catch a ride on Mitsuko’s energy, and to make our harmonium my teacher.  And so I started spending perhaps 30 minutes each day playing single notes on the harmonium while trying to match them with my voice.  Since like the human voice a harmonium makes sound by blowing air past vibrating reeds, it has a very vocal quality, which meant that even for me, it was easy to tell when I was getting close.  Then my voice would merge and disappear into the sound of the instrument.

I also decided to follow the practice technique of one somewhat esoteric school of Indian vocal music, and to devote most of my time to working slowly down from what appeared to be the bottom of my natural range.  Since singing such low notes could only be done by relaxation, this was supposed to greatly reduce the risk of injuring the voice.  Furthermore, by setting a task which required very little thought it attempted to reduce the involvement of the student’s ego, thus opening the door to ecstasy.

Both because this approach fit quite nicely with my long standing involvement with various types of yoga, and because singing this way turned out to be as sensually delightful as I’d hoped, I quickly began to make very satisfying progress.  To be sure, it obviously would be quite a while before I could actually sing a song, but for someone who’d considered himself to be tone deaf, merely learning to sing a scale was very exciting.

Unfortunately things were not running so smoothly for Mitsuko.  Within only a few months of her brilliant start, she began experiencing serious problems with her voice.  It was getting smaller rather than richer, and she was losing both the top and the bottom of her range.

Now, as Mitsuko explained to me, this sort of thing happens all the time to serious students of Western Music.  Back in music school she’d known vocal students who’d practiced so hard that their throats bled.

But she hadn’t expected to run into this sort of difficulty here.  After all, according to the myth which all of us expatriates were buying into, Indian musical training with its greater emphasis on relaxation shouldn’t produce so many physical injuries.

Yet it was, and not just to Mitsuko.

Indeed, when we started looking around it became obvious that many others in the local scene were having similar problems.  The singers were losing their voices and the drummers were developing sore shoulders and elbows.

tree-shrine-newSomething was very wrong.

But at least initially it looked to us as though the problem was less with the theory of Indian musical instruction, than with the way the training was actually being conducted.

What we realized was that the emphasis on relaxation and slow egoless development was receiving little more than lip service from our friends.  Clearly most expatriate students were not content with steady slow progress.  Instead they’d brought with them their modern-world hang-ups about achievement, which meant they were judging their own progress primarily by the complexity and speed of their technique and the growth of their repertoire.

So the vocal students after a month or so of humble long slow low tones, of listening carefully for the tension in their voices, were moving briskly on to more advanced pieces which demanded the sorts of leaps and slides which had attracted them in the first place to Indian music.

And the drum students, after a short period of dutifully working with some basic version of thump thump during which they focused on the lightness and bounce of their touch, were all too eager to start counting out more and more complicated rhythms.

No wonder everyone was hurting themselves!

At that point it seemed unnecessary to look deeper.  Clearly the problem was coming mostly from the expatriates.  After all their Indian teachers had bills to pay and families to support.  They had no choice except to give their students what they demanded, and if what they were demanding was information and technique, so be it.

But when Mitsuko tried to explain this to her teacher, when she tried to explain to him that though she was grateful for all the new material he was sharing with her she felt she needed more time to work on the basics, he didn’t seem to get it.  She’d expected that he would breath a sigh of relief that finally he’d found a foreign student who wasn’t in a hurry, but instead he was disappointed and seemed to see her request for less new material as evidence that she was no longer willing to work as hard.

And it was his failure to understand which forced us to start reconsidering our initial theory that the problem was coming mainly from the achievement hang-ups of the Western students.

ugly-newIt prompted us to start listening more carefully to the performances of Indian musicians, and when we did, we were shocked to realize that they too were not doing what they claimed to be doing.

Since we were both trying to learn to sing, not surprisingly we first noticed this with the local vocalists.  What we could not help but hear, once we began listening to them with the same critical attitude we were trying to develop towards our own singing, was that their voices were full of tension.

Now it may seem arrogant for beginning students to make such a judgement about professional performers, but once you start listening for it, vocal tension is unmistakable.  It shows itself in roughness, in a harsh not sweet tone, in a lack of fluid motion between the notes.

And this was precisely what we were hearing, not only in the voices of the local musicians but also in those of the current crop of recording stars.  Even more disturbing, as we listened we realized that many of them had been singing with so much tension for so long, that they’d actually destroyed their voices, that they sounded somewhat like Janis had after a hard night towards the end of her career.

Clearly the problem wasn’t just with the foreign students.

What really seemed to be going on was that the Indian musicians were themselves no longer living creatively within the deepest and most interesting parts of their own tradition.  And that of course meant they were no longer taking their own best advice.

So traditionally Indian music had been primarily devotional in character, which meant that the musicians, or at least the ones who really got it, viewed their art as spiritual exercise in which “they” were not producing the music.  Rather it flowed from god, and they were merely serving as conduits, acting as his instruments.

From this came their emphasis on relaxation, on tonal subtlety, on starting slow and soft.

By contrast, contemporary Indian musicians preferred to see themselves as professionals.  For the arrogant among them it was a way towards fame, reputation, and wealth.  For the more humble it was a job.  But for precious few, was it worship.

Which meant that almost all of them were much more interested in performance than they were in music.  They were more concerned with demonstrating their skill, than in getting lost in the magic of sound.

So naturally they were no longer interested in long slow warm-ups.  No audience would listen to that sort of stuff and no one would pay them for doing it.

And during their performances they were more concerned with creating the illusion that they were proficient in the various wonders of their art, than they were in actually being able to use them.  It was more important for them to successfully act “musician” than it was for them to actually play beautiful music.

For example, one somewhat spectacular technique in Indian vocal music requires the singer to rapidly oscillate between a note in the melody and one a full octave lower.  But when we started listening carefully we realized most of the time when they were supposedly doing this, in reality they were going down only to the fifth or the third and allowing the harmonics to create the illusion of the full octave interval.

laxmi-newThen there was the practice in one school of vocal music of sketching the shape of the melody with graceful precise hand motions, the idea being to help the singer modulate his voice during the most subtle passages.  When the voice was supposed to slide smoothly between notes, it could follow the hands which were moving with the same sort of continuity.  When the voice made surprising leaps, the hands popped around.  When the voice was supposed to close in on itself to a point of ecstatic silence, the fists dramatically tightened until they were clenched firmly around nothingness.

Which sounded like a very wonderful idea, since these motions of the voice were very subtle and difficult to grasp with the mind, whereas the equivalent hand motions were external and so easier to explain, to teach, and to learn.

But once more when we started to listen critically we were disappointed to realize that often while the performer’s hands were making the motions quite correctly, his voice was failing to match them.  Rather than being used as an aid to produce beautiful subtle music, the gestures were being used to hypnotize the audience into hearing things that really weren’t there.  Not surprisingly this stagecraft was often supplemented with facial expressions of faked ecstasy.

Unfortunately, to make the sort of music that sets the hairs to tingling on your skin, the ecstasy can’t be fake.  To actually make all of those subtle motions, the voice must truly be relaxed.  Otherwise you hear the tension and the voice sounds forced.

But we seemed to be among the few who missed the tingle (or who even remembered that it was supposed to be there, that tingle was part of the promise of Indian music), or heard the tension.

Which made it difficult to avoid thinking that there were a lot of folks who weren’t listening very skillfully.

And I suppose having allowed ourselves to consider that possibility, it didn’t surprise us so much when we began noticing that all of the expatriate students, most of their teachers, and many of the current recording stars, were often out of tune!

But how could this possibly be?  How could people possibly get away with a mistake this fundamental and obvious without it being noticed?  Especially since Indian music prides itself on melodic sophistication, on being tonally more sophisticated than western music, on using in a controlled way intervals that are much smaller than a quarter note.

For example, one local teacher made a point of explaining to his pupils how the Indian equivalent of “G” must differ slightly in different melodies to properly express the melodies’ different musical moods and qualities.

But wasn’t it unreasonable for him to expect them to learn to produce differently flavored “G’s”, when if you just listened carefully you heard that they couldn’t even produce a “G” that was consistently and convincingly different from a “F#”!

What follows is the most important point on which our opinion has changed since we wrote this essay.  We’re no longer inclined to credit Western musicians with a more accurate sense of pitch.  Perhaps we were just reacting to the arrogant stupidity of expat students who couldn’t properly sing a Western note, but still felt qualified to sneer at well-tempered scales as being somehow inferior.  However after having been back in the West for decades, we’re now more struck by the way our standardized scales and instruments have in fact dulled the sensitivity of our own musicians.

Clearly the claim that Indian music sought greater tonal subtlety than Western music had become nothing more than a myth, a story about what used to be.  At least now, the absence of harmonic demands, rather than freeing Indian musicians to concentrate more on melodic precision, was merely giving them a license to be sloppy.

It was almost as though since Indian music had been a little freer, it was now a little freer to fall.

Furthermore, when we thought about it, it didn’t seem impossible that the demands of harmony actually forced Western musicians to develop their listening skills.  So in Western music, when several musicians are playing together, or even when a single musician is playing a chord, if anything is out of tune, it’s immediately and painfully obvious.  But in Indian music, where usually there is only a single soloist playing a single melody line, one could get away with all sorts of inaccuracies.

gai butt galieIt also seemed possible that the tendency of the Indian tradition to favor instruments which are difficult to tune, made the situation even worse.

So except for the sitar, most Indian stringed instruments are fretless, and without frets there’s no way of mechanically checking the tuning of one string against another, which means the tuning of the entire instrument is only as good as the ear of the person tuning it.

While Indian wind instruments, unlike many of their Western counterparts which are designed to produce only a specific pitch with a given fingering, require everything beyond the most approximate tuning to be accomplished with lip, tongue, and breath control.

To be sure within the Western tradition there are instruments such as violins and horns which present these same difficulties, but these are also precisely the instruments which are most likely to be played out of tune and which are the most troublesome for beginners.

For Indian vocal students the situation is similarly difficult, since the instrument with which they are encouraged to accompany themselves, the tampura, in addition to being fretless and so difficult to tune, is played only with the right hand, and so at the very most can produce only four or five different notes.

Which means that the tampura gives the student minimal tonal guidance.  It does a magnificent job of producing a cosmic sound space to cradle the music, but as a tool for learning, it’s not nearly so useful as something like a guitar or piano with which one can play and then listen to the melody.

Of course when we suggested to some of our vocalist friends that this might be a difficulty, their instant reaction was, “oh no, if you listen carefully to the tampura, you can hear all the other notes in the harmonics.”  However while theoretically this may be true, since these were the same people who could not consistently produce a F# that was convincingly different from a “G”, (and who were not aware that they were having this problem) it was difficult to have much faith in their ability to hear overtones with such subtlety.

At this point I think I’ve written enough to explain how and why Mitsuko and I became disillusioned with the supposed tonal sophistication of Indian vocal music as it is practiced and performed today.

But I still want to at least briefly indicate how we experienced a very similar disappointment when we began listening critically to Indian percussionists.

Here, once we gave ourselves permission to listen critically, what we started to hear was that the percussionist was seldom together with the soloist he was supposed to be accompanying.

Now to be sure, since neither one of us has great confidence in our own rhythm sense, we often were not sure of with whom the problem lay.  But the brute fact of being grossly out of synch is another of those things like vocal tension, which once you start listening for it, is absolutely unmistakable.

Indeed only rarely did the soloist and percussionist seem to be helping or even listening to each other.  More often they each seemed to be independently doing their own complicated and impressive thing.

And here too they often appeared to be trying to hide this most fundamental failure with quasi-hypnotic stagecraft.

For example one of the great crowd pleasers in a performance of classical Indian music is the so-called “question and answer” section where the soloist plays a complicated passage and then the percussionist demonstrates his skill by repeating the same often somewhat long pattern.  Unfortunately when we began listening carefully to these dialogues, we started noticing that the “answer” often bore little similarity to the “question”, and yet after each exchange the performers would smile at each other in triumph, as the deluded audience grew more and more excited.

gangaji-palace-newThere would be all this broadly acted deep eye contact between the performing musicians who, especially at the end of fast complicated passages, would beam at each other with satisfaction and mutual respect, when in fact embarrassment would be a more appropriate emotion.

Now at this point one might reasonably ask, “if the situation in the contemporary Indian music scene is really this terrible, why isn’t everyone talking about it?  Surely others must have noticed these same problems? ”

In part the answer must be that since almost everyone in the scene is guilty of the same sort of musical sloppiness, no one is willing to speak up.  Since they share a vested interest in maintaining the myth, musicians continue to go to each other’s performances and to applaud;  teachers continue to compliment their students and to give them more and more difficult material;  students continue to pay their teachers and to offer them every possible external token of respect.

But I’m afraid the problem goes deeper than this.  It’s not just a question of self interest.  It’s not exactly like the story of the emperors clothes where everyone knew he was naked but didn’t dare to say it.

Because while certainly there are those in the Indian music scene who know full well that standards have plummeted, but who say nothing because they don’t want to hurt friends or rock the boat, there are many others who actually fail to perceive the full extent of the decay.  Though I suppose this is not surprising since part of the decay is a decline in the ability to listen skillfully.  So the students who can not consistently produce convincingly different F#’s and G’s, fail to hear their failures and certainly fail to notice anything wrong with the music of their teachers.

But why is all this happening?  What’s going on?  Why are modern Indian musicians failing to understand and live up to the greatness of their tradition?  Why are they, their students, and their audiences losing the ability to listen critically?

One partial answer, as I’ve already suggested, may be that Indian music is no longer primarily devotional, that musicians are no longer willing to give themselves the time that it takes to relax and get lost in ecstasy, (though certainly it would be unfair to blame the musicians for this.  If they’ve lost their taste for ecstasy, they’re only behaving like other Indians who in general now find TV and life insurance more important than contemplation), that they now tend to be more interested in performance than in music.

But then there’s also the problem of the increasing uniformity of the scene.  Prior to the spread of modern recording techniques, when you heard music it was live.  Every Indian city, and even many large villages, supported their own group of musicians who played at devotional services, public concerts, and in the homes of wealthy patrons.  Since only occasionally did these musicians hear performers from far away, they naturally developed distinctly different regional styles.

Nowadays, most of the time people just listen to cassettes, and everywhere in India these tend to be the same.  Which means all of that creatively precious variability has been lost.  Now every young tabla player wants to sound like Zakir Hussain, and every young flute player like Hari Prasad.

But of course it’s impossible for them to ever sound as good as the people they’re imitating, because their music isn’t bubbling up from inside.  Instead it’s learned technique and so it sounds flat and lacks soul.

And then there’s the physical fact that there’s now so much ambient noise in urban India that it’s impossible to hear anything with any subtlety.  Mufflerless vehicles, amplified “religious” and wedding music, out of control boomboxes, all contribute to the cacophony.  Standing on the street one inevitably finds oneself shouting, and after living here for a while one can’t escape the impression that many of one’s Indian acquaintances are somewhat deaf.

And finally everyone in India is now very busy.  So who has time to learn to listen?  Who has time to get up daily before dawn to sing long slow low tones?  Who has the peace of mind to make sweet ecstatic music?

Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

In Western music too we’ve seen a shift from inspiration to technique.  Which means we have “jazz” musicians who can play Coltrane note for note, and who learned to do it in conservatory classes.  We have classical performers whose tempo is so perfect and rigidly unchanging that all emotion is squeezed out of the music.  We have pop musicians who, rather than creating their own sounds, are still rehashing rock and roll.  We have Blues singers who have never been broke.

In the West too, performance has become more important than producing beautiful music.

In the West too, there are a small number of superstars who dominate the scene and establish the styles which everyone else tries to follow.

In the West too, musicians tend to be too uptight and to not have enough time to actually do it right.


After all it has become one world.


Music and Magic
Emperor Has No Clothes
The Street Singer