Tuesday, May 1, 2012


At times we argue with Missus about the ascendancy or otherwise of  Indian Classical Music over its Western counterpart. Of course, comparisons are odious, futile, Dad used to say, a way of insulting two at a time…We recall the argument we had with Dr. M. Sakuntala , Professor of Nuclear Physics, somewhere in the 1970s, at the once venerated Banaras Hindu University, the BHU, Varanasi, Madan Mohan Malaviya’s mind child, not brain child. “Basi hai Ganga ke Ramya Tat Par, Ye Sarva Vidya ki Rajdhani”. What is this blog about if not about mindless digressions, stumbling into thorn-ridden Briar Rose pathways, slashing away at those thwarting bushes, scythe in hand…in quest of Sleeping Beauty, he,he,he...! Ya, she was a Telugu, an intellectual in the CVRaman tradition, like they don’t make any more. She researched at Princeton, where the Americans in their endearing ways called her Sak…

Madhur Manohar Ateev Sundar , Ye Sarv Vidya Ki Rajdhani,
Yeh Teen Lokon Se Nyari Kashi , Sugyan Dharm Va Satyarashi,
Basi Hain Ganga Ke Ramya Tat Par , Ye Sarv Vidya Ki Rajdhani
Madhur Manohar Ateev Sundar Ye Sarv Vidya Ki Rajdhani….

Ya, then, so we had this argument about the ‘ascendancy or otherwise of our music and ‘theirs’, and were on a winning spree as always, ha,ha,ha,…Mince, like playing the Devil’s Advocate’ or something haan..! YF was the only devil who could beat Sak at Scrabble, and we both really played it dirty, you understand what that means, not the content part...

It had started with yours faithfully quoting disapprovingly Nirad Chaudhuri on the subject of Classical Music. NC, about whom shyamal Ashok Mitra had remarked “how much learning…and how little wisdom.” Khushwant Singh was in those days doing something like a hand-holding for NC, hoping to justify his entrée into the Illustrated Weekly. “ Indian Classical can’t hold a candle to the Western variety” or something like that we don’t remember the exact words of course.  Sak offered her unstinted support to the belief, whereas YF plumped for ‘depends’..  de gustibus, non disputandum est (Cicero, I believe), which means, `There is no arguing taste'.

By the way, here is a quotation from a very important book, siding with Indian Music, which is melody based, in contrast to Western Classical, which is based on harmony:

“Although I am myself very fond of harmony, and it cannot but be acknowledged that it is a very sublime stretch of the human mind, the reasoning on harmony will perhaps convince the reader that harmony is more conducive to cover the nakedness, than shew the fertility, of genius. Indeed, perhaps all the most beautiful successions of tones which constitute agreeable melody are exhausted, and this is the reason of the poorness of our modern melody, and the abundant use of harmony, which however in a good measure compensates by its novelty. At the same time, we are constrained to allow that harmony is nothing but art, which can never charm equally with nature. " Enthusiastic melody can be produced by an illiterate mind, but tolerable harmony always supposes previous study,"—a plain indication that the former is natural, the latter artificial.” (from A Treatise on the Music of Hindoostan by Capt. NA Willard, written in 1834- one of the first books on Indian Music by an Englishman)

Okay, forget it. That leaves us with our old and favourite subject. What is immutable in this universe? Any shashwat satya there, hello, hellooo…..? As they say, we are mere “clods of organic matter crawling on the surface of the earth”. Even the Gods do not know the full story, for the Universe pre-dates them etc., etc., iti Rigveda…For Decartes the immutable truth was “I think, therefore I am”. Russell applied further rigour and declared all that could be said with certainty was “I think therefore thought is”, for ‘am’ remains an undefined variable in the Cartesian belief…

YF, follower that he is of Einstein, always suspected that (i) Music and (ii) Mathematics could be counted as immutable, not answerable to any ephemeral agency.  Suspected. Why they appeal to the human-kind is another story. Something to do with Darwin’s Law of Survival of the Fittest. We are just outlining-adumbrating- another hypothesis of ours, which will certainly metamorphose into another blog one day. We have even named it, as one names a child on the way. “The Fifth Element”, meaning the Element of Surprise. Theory goes like this: Species develop in the organisms’ quest to adapt to the changes in environment, if any. Therefore, ‘variation’ in the genetic set up or in the gene pool helps the process of adaptation. The more ‘startling’ the change, the more exciting it could be. That’s why the ear responds to a surprising taan, or an unexpectedly introduced swara, or a departure from the ‘sum’. The phenomenon of ‘sum’ is nicely brought out on this site:

“Indian music recognizes 3 key elements of rhythm, from which most vocalists/instrumentalists judge where they are within a rhythmic cycle. The most emphatic beat is known as sum (literally "equal" or "together"), which usually occupies the first beat of a tal. It is the most important beat of the tal because it commences the cycle and provides the center for exposition. Many compositions are set so that their emphasis is also on this particular matra. In a performance, great care has to be taken so that the soloist and the tabla player come together on the sum. Even during flights of improvisation, a soloist must skillfully render the melody such that the end of the cascade of notes falls on sum properly.”

In the context of our discourse, it is the ‘flights of improvisation’ that we refer to as the ‘variation’. On the platform of Darwinism, the commonplace “change is the spice of life” acquires a different facet, isn’t it?

So, what does that have to do with our nice little tiff with Sak? If what is stated above is true, a clever variation makes for good music, whether it is Western, Hindustani, Caranatic, or a bird-call, or an African drum-beat. The more mature the ear, the greater will be the sophistication required to hold her or him. Something like the Relativity Theory, or Integral Calculus, or Topology.

As Missus says, even a simple raga like Kalawati has immense potential for firework- if likened to a ride through the hills, unexpected valleys suddenly appear before you at a turning.  Startling flora, exotic smells, and spells of utter peace. Listen to two favourites: first Dr. Prabha Atre, then a cerebral 1969 composition by Malinitai. By the way, Malinitai was a Mathematician, and Prabhatai, a Lawyer, so was Pt. Bhatkhande- a practicing criminal lawyer!


The Shillong Water Supply: On the subcontinent, be it Delhi or Mumbai, from the Municipal main pipe which runs along the length of the road, each house taps water in series. This leads to unhealthy competition. The upstream guys enjoy a privileged position.  Someone installs a Tullu and then a host of Tullus spawn, for the Tulluless households are losers. Then the consequent conflicts. In the Khasi territory, at the end of each street is the Municipal main, and each house draws water by a one-inch pipe (strictly one-inch) in parallel. No question of the upstream ones drawing more water and the next one having to put a Tullu. Looks odd, but conflict is avoided, so is the waste of precious electricity. 

We are best left to ourselves, we do it better man!

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