It turns out that India has classical music!
I was extremely ashamed that after studying music for almost all of my life, I did not know India has Classical music. The Western European tradition that gave the world Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Copland (and I can go on forever with that list), is not alone in the world! WHAT a revelation!
Even back in Russia, then part of the insular Soviet Union, long before I met anyone of Indian descent, I was fascinated with Indian Culture. It started with young Buddha in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, then the beautiful poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, and more recently, The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. I have learned about Indian culture through literature, book clubs, talented, hardworking piano students, and well-educated, refined members of the San Antonio Indian Community.
Indian music is melodic and beautiful, much like Indian saris, with layers of vibrant color and texture. It would be a challenge for the western woman to figure out how to properly put on a sari, as it would be challenging for a western musician to properly play Indian Music. Although Indian Music uses a notation system, all of the magic happens in between written notes, in between tones, just like in good poetry: the meaning is in between words. As if this would not be enough to totally mesmerize the western ear, the colorful earthy rhythm of the ancient percussion instrument, the mridangam, has a life of its own, providing a complex and sensual cushion for beautiful, lilting melodies.
Indian Classical Music dates back to the Vedas, a large body of sacred Hindu scripture, written in Sanskrit approximately 1500 B.C. Traditionally, Indian Classical Music leaves a lot of room for improvisation. Every artist follows the general direction of the composed piece, but has the opportunity to interpret it in their own way, making it more personal. One of our guest performers in our October concert, Indrajit Banerjee, is a third generation sitarist, learning the art of improvisation from his mother. It almost sounds like learning a language of family traditions, which he shares through nuanced improvisation.
Acquaintance with this enchanting music made me realize that the word “Classical,” for me, is rooted in academia, and the strict mathematic construction of European Classical music. I remember those five voiced fugues we had to write in a Polyphony class as a part of our master program, and my fascination with the analysis of musical forms — my all time favorite subject. The art of improvisation is the envy of many classical musicians, and in the past, used to be a part of the trade; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and many, many others were brilliant improvisers and basso continuo, a bass part accompanied by numbers to indicate the chords to be played, was not actually written down in stone. It is a shame that over a few centuries the art of improvisation practically left the kingdom of western classical music, while flourishing in all of the genres rooted in the traditions of old cultures like Jazz and Indian Classical Music.
After a few sleepless nights and passionate bargaining with myself about the semantics of the word “Classical,” I came to the conclusion that I only can take my hat off to the Indian musicians and their ability to purely, and personally, express their musical heritage. I am looking forward to my trip to India in the summer of 2013. I envision a fairy tale like land filled with bright colors, spicy smells and beautiful people. I cannot wait to pay my homage to the culture that gave us the Buddha, fantastic literature, the best food and sensual music.