Indian music is not an art, but life itself

The performing arts are so much part of Hindu culture that the poet W. B. Yeats was moved to write that Indian music is ‘not an art, but life itself’. To understand that assertion fully we must ponder on the two seemingly simple, but in reality almost unanswerable questions of what is Hinduism? And what is Hindu music?

Hinduism and its sub-traditions
Contrary to popular belief, the word Hindu does not have a religious root. It originated as the Indo-Aryan name for the Indus River that flows through the north of present-day India and Pakistan. The Persians used the name Hindu in the eighth century to describe the people living beyond the Indus River, denoting their geographic location rather than their religion. Today, however, the term Hinduism is used to describe a heterogeneous religious tradition which has evolved on the Indian subcontinent over thousands of years. This tradition is now practised by around one billion Hindus, not just on the subcontinent but in the regions settled by the Hindu diaspora, as far afield as Africa, Indonesia and the Caribbean. Hinduism is a multifaceted and developing tradition that does not exhibit the defining characteristics usually associated with major religions. Unlike the three great religions of the book, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, Hinduism has no founder and is not prophetic; it does not have a creed and its practice is not dependent on adhering to any particular doctrine or dogma. Hinduism does not impose a single moral code and it lacks the central authority of the established churches that are found in the other great faiths. There is no dominant single tradition of Hinduism, but rather a complex set of overlapping sub-traditions. This presents a problem to tidy Western minds, because trying to categorize Hinduism into neat groups such as Vedanta, Shaivism, Smartism and Shaktism simply does not work, as these various sub-traditions overlap and intermingle. But if there is any single root for Hinduism it is Vedanta.

Sacred texts
The body of Sanskrit texts known as the Veda are among the oldest sacred writings, with the earliest dating from 1700BCE. The provenance of the Vedas is unknown, but it is believed that they were originally revealed to sages and only written down after being transmitted orally through generations of teachers. Their status as revealed teachings places them alongside other great sacred writings such as the Torah, Old Testament and Quran. But they predate these other revelations by several millennia and their great age has given rise to the belief that the Vedas were a spiritual instruction manual for the earliest members of the human race. Of the four Vedas, the earliest, the Rig Veda, the ‘Hymn of Creation’, is also the best known and contains prayers and hymns used in worship rituals. The three other Vedas are the Yajur Veda and Sama Veda, which interpret the Rig Veda for priests, and the final Atharva Veda, which contains more hymns and incantations.

The Vedas are important but arcane teachings, concerned primarily with ritual worship. To clarify and communicate their meaning, a new body of texts known as the Upanishads was created starting in the 600BCE, which have been expanded by new additions over the centuries. The Upanishads are sometimes referred to as the Vedanta, meaning the ‘Last Part of Veda’. Together with the Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads form the triple canon of Vedanta. The Brahma Sutras are a systematic explanation of the central teachings of the Upanishads and the 700-verse Bhagavad Gita forms part of the epic Mahabharata, which is thought to have been composed between the fifth and second centuries BCE. The Bhagavad Gita recounts the debate between the warrior hero Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who is actually the Supreme Being. Arjuna has despaired at the prospect of fighting to the death in an internecine dispute and the Bhagavad Gita tells how Krishna wins him over to the cause of fighting a just war, irrespective of the consequences.

The Bhagavad Gita is the most celebrated of the great Hindu texts – Vishnu’s declaration, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’, was famously quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer following the Trinity atomic bomb test in New Mexico in July 1945. Writing about the Bhagavad Gita in his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi tells how ‘just as I turned to the English dictionary for the meaning of English words that I did not understand, I turned to this dictionary of conduct for a ready solution of all my troubles and trials’. The continuing appeal of the Bhagavad Gita is due both to its inspired poetic imagery and its contemporary relevance to the conflict between ethics and action. Krishna’s teaching that selfless action opens the path to knowledge has a timeless appeal, reaching far beyond the Hindu community. Voltaire, Carl Jung and Herman Hesse, Henry David Thoreau, Aldous Huxley and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among those who have been influenced by the Bhagavad Gita. T.S. Eliot’s biographer, Philip R. Headings, has observed that ‘no serious student of Eliot’s poetry can afford to ignore his early and continued interest in the Bhagavad Gita’, while Philip Glass tells the story of the Gandhi’s emergence as a political activist in South Africa through the text of the Gita in his 1979 opera Satyagraha.

An evolving tradition
Despite being rooted in some of the oldest known texts, Hinduism is a constantly evolving tradition that is more thinking process than religion. The emphasis on the free flow of thought and inclusiveness, encapsulated in the Rig Veda maxim, ‘Aano bhadrah krtavo yantu vishwatah’ (let noble thoughts come from all directions), is one of the reason’s for the tradition’s appeal in the West. The law of karma is one of the most familiar tenets of Hinduism. It states that our present life is the outcome of past actions; this locks sentient beings into the eternal cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth called samsara, a concept shared with Buddhism and Jainism.

Hinduism is often denounced for being polytheistic, because it is thought to encourage the worship of many gods. This is an incorrect interpretation, because monism, the doctrine of interdependence that denies difference and duality, introduced in the early Upanishads, is one of Hinduism’s guiding principles. Hinduism is a monotheistic tradition that embraces divine unity through multiplicity. It teaches that there are many routes to a single god and that there should be no discrimination between those different routes. It is an affirmative faith that does not identify infidels or heretics and preaches non-violence, ahimsa. Mahatma Gandhi affirmed ‘it was through the Hindu religion that I learnt to respect Christianity and Islam’. However this holistic aspect is undermined by the caste system, which creates untouchables, if not infidels, and Gandhi fought long, hard and not totally successfully to overturn the entrenched caste hierarchies. Hinduism, with its reverence for all forms of life, has strong environmental credentials and it portrays Mother Earth as the consort of Lord Vishnu. This synthesis of spirituality and the environment finds expression in the sacred powers attributed to rivers such as the Ganges and mountain ranges such as the Himalayas.

Sound is god
Just as Hinduism is a heterogeneous and difficult to define religious tradition, so Hindu music is a heterogeneous and difficult to define artistic tradition. Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of wisdom, music and all the arts. Together with Lakshmi, goddess of beauty, and Parvati, goddess of love, she assists the divine trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in their work of creation, preservation and transformation. The Sama Veda notates the hymns first recorded in the Rig Veda with melodies that were sung by priests during ritual worship. Shabda Brahman (transcendental sound) is referred to in the Brahma Sutras and the sacred properties attributed to sound find expression in the Sanskrit nada Brahma (sound is god). In the West the best-known example of nada Brahma is OM; this sacred mantra encapsulates the essence of the universe by combining the audible resonance of the atoms with the music of the spheres. In the Upanishads it is explained that ‘whoever speaks this mantra 35,000,000 times […] shall be released from his karma and from all his sins. He shall be freed of all his bonds and shall reach absolute liberty.’

Variants of nada, the Sanskrit word for sound, found in the Rig Veda include nadi, which translates as ‘stream of consciousness’; this illustrates how in the Vedic tradition sound is linked with the inner self. The creative force in the trinity of gods that together form the single theistic peak of Hinduism is Brahma. He is the creator of all things and is often depicted with four heads looking towards the four cardinal points of the universe. The principle of monism, denying difference, means Brahma is both the creator and created; in Hinduism the manifestation of Brahma known as Brahman provides the prime power of the universe and of the inner consciousness of all living beings. The concept of nada Brahma means that in Hinduism the performing arts are not a mere transitory entertainment, but an integral part of life itself. In the words of Swami Hari Puri Baba of the Naga Baba Hindu sect: ‘when we sing bhajans, hymns to the gods and goddesses, we are inviting their spirit into us so that we may know them and in that way receive their knowledge’.

In Hinduism, the ultimate goal of human existence is the release of the atman (self) from the cycle of life by spiritual enlightenment. The worship of sound, nadopasana, is one of the disciplines used to reach this goal and the liberating power of sound is manifested through sound yoga, nada yoga, which can transport the practitioner to the highest musical experience of ananda (divine bliss). Music has been a valued art form in India for more than 3,000 years and the Hindu art music that we know today is the product of a line of oral transmission that originated in the Vedic texts, passed through the Imperial age of the Gupta dynasties in the fourth to sixth centuries CE and was then transmitted through generations of guilds of hereditary musicians to be heard by 21st-century audiences. Until recent times, the public concert was unknown in India; art music was the product of patronage in an aristocratic society and only performed by court musicians for select audiences. This is a complete contrast to the West where there is a strong tradition of communal amateur music-making.

At this year’s Salzburg Festival, musicians from the classical Northern Indian (Hindustani) and Southern Indian (Carnatic) traditions performed ragas for the break of dawn and sunrise, as well as Hindustani vocal music and instrumental music from the Dhrupad and Kyal genres. The British-Ceylonese art historian and metaphysician Ananda K. Coomaraswamy may have been exaggerating when he wrote that for a listener to appreciate Indian music ‘he must enter into the inner spirit and must adopt many of the outer convictions of Indian life’. However an understanding of the fundamental differences between Western and Indian music greatly aid appreciation of the music of the subcontinent.

Indian music depends entirely on melody and the only harmonic accompaniment is a drone; traditionally this was supplied by a tanpura, but increasingly electronic tanpuras (tone generators) are used as a substitute. The absence of implied harmony makes Indian music sound unfamiliar and ‘difficult’ and this difficulty is compounded by the use of a different tonal language. Key changes are an integral part of Western art music and to facilitate these the equal-tempered scale evolved. This reduces the tonal possibilities to 12 fixed notes by merging very similar intervals such as D sharp and E flat. By contrast, there are no fixed scales in Indian music. Instead the pitch of a note depends on its relation to other notes in a progression, not on its relation to a tonic. The 22 microtonal intervals (shrutis) in Indian music are simply a summation of the notes played; a chromatic scale spanning the 22 intervals is never heard in performance and there is no use of modulation. As performance convention dictates that scale notes are not played in succession, the microtonal interval is a nuanced rather than prominent feature of the music. Another differentiating characteristic of Indian music is the prolific use of ornamentation; this adds the light and shade that would otherwise be missing due to the absence of conventional harmony.

Although the raga is the best-known form of Indian music there is often confusion as to what a raga is exactly. The word raga translates as ‘shades of colour’ and ‘mood’ and a raga is the schematic that improvising Indian musicians follow. Indian music is said to be in a particular raga in the same way that Western music is said to be in a specific key; but whereas the Western key signature is limited to defining pitch, a raga defines both relative pitch and rhythm. The rhythmic basis of Hindu music, both instrumental and vocal, is taal. This provides the pulse of the music and, in a raga, the defined rhythm is repeated in cycles. In Indian music the convention of summing beats means that a taal can specify a maximum of more than 100 beats and within these complex rhythmic patterns the emphasis is placed on the first beat, which is known as the sum. The tabla – a pair of drums consisting of a small right hand drum called the dayan and a larger metal one called bayan – is the most common rhythm instrument in Indian music.

Pitch is the second component of a raga. A raga is a sequence of five, six or seven notes; but whereas a Western mode is limited to defining key, a raga also specifies progressions between the notes and identifies a home note to which the musicians repeatedly return. A raga has two parts: the alap is performed by the soloist without rhythm, introducing the main arguments and moods of the piece; the gat that follows is a rhythmic development of these arguments, increasing in speed as it follows the specified rhythmic cycle of the taal. Within each raga there are multiple raginasragina being the feminine form of raga – which summarize and develop the main theme of the raga. Mathematically, the number of possible ragas is almost infinite. But tradition has narrowed the possibilities down to more manageable numbers. In the Hindustani tradition ragas are linked to specific themes – time of day, seasons, sacred, geographic etc. – whereas in Carnatic music ragas are defined more by mathematic possibility. The raga is an evolving art form and contemporary masters have contributed new examples; one is the Raga Mohan Kauns, which Pandit Ravi Shankar composed in 1948 in memory of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Indian musician Gita Sarabhai declared that ‘the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences’; ragas remain devoted to this purpose, whereas Western classical music has increasingly become a way of expressing existential angst. Ragas, with their subtle connotations of colour and mood, are often associated with specific times of the day and night and it is believed that these ragas only work their true magic if performed at their allotted time. Ragas to greet the break of dawn and sunrise were performed at this year's Salzburg Sumnmer festival in the Kollegienkircheat six o’clock in the morning, while there were also concerts of Dhrupad and Kyal music at more conventional times.

Dhrupad is the oldest form and most elaborate form of Indian classical music and comes from the Hindustani (Northern Indian) tradition. It originated with the chanting of Vedic hymns, but gradually evolved as an independent genre which follows the alap and gat structure of the raga. Dhrupad is deeply spiritual and meditative and its performance is considered to be a form of nada yoga. However the art of Dhrupad is under threat due to the global shift away from musical as spiritual sustenance and towards music as entertainment. This means that today there are only a few remaining Dhrupad practitioners of the highest order, such as the young Dhrupad musician, Uday Bhawalkar who played in Salzburg.

By comparison with the venerable Dhrupad style, Khyal has evolved comparatively recently and gives the musicians greater freedom to improvise. The word Khyal comes from Arabic and means fantasy. Khyal is a Hindustani tradition that has its roots in Dhrupad and uses the raga structure, but it has also absorbed elements of the qawalli style from the Sufis of the Muslim world. This incorporation of influences from Islam was important to the development of Khyal and two of the instruments most closely associated with Hindu music, the sitar and sarod, have their origins in Muslim Afghanistan. Possibly because of this multicultural component, Khyal has proved more resilient than Dhrupad; today it is the most popular genre of classical vocal music in Northern India and also exerts a strong influence on Hindustani instrumental music. As part of the Salzburg Festival’s survey of Hindu culture, acclaimed Indian classical singer Shruti Sadolikar performed Khyal supplemented by Stotras (Sanskrit hymns), Bhajans (religious songs) and Abhangas (mystical songs).

Today in India the word sangita means music, but it originally meant drama and dance as well and all three performing arts are closely associated with spiritual life. Hindus believe that Shiva, in the form of Nataraja Lord of Dancers and King of Actors, is the creator of sangita. Shiva is the cosmic dancer and the sculpture of him dancing in an aureole of flames over the demon Apasmara is one of the iconic images of Hinduism. The classical Southern Indian dance style of Bharatanatyam originated as a temple dance and was revived as a secular art form in the mid-20th century using temple sculptures depicting the various movements, karanas, as reference points. Today Bharatanatyam is a form of natya yoga (dance yoga) that transmutes the physical into the spiritual. Performing Bharatanatyam during the Salzburg Summer Festival was the dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli who has said that ‘for me dance is a prayer for my entire being – a transforming experience, a joyous celebration of life’. In Scent of the Earth she drew on eclectic sources ranging from ancient Vedic hymns to pre-Aryan Sangam poetry. Her performance were be introduced by a fanfare played on traditional instruments from Southern Indian temples.

Indian theatre is represented by the Kutiyattam tradition from Kerala in Southern India. Kutiyattam, which translates as ‘playing together’, is one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions and brings to life through dance stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Kutiyattam originated more than 2,000 years ago and its synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and Southern Indian culture uses a stylized and codified theatrical language of netra abhinaya (eye expression) and hasta abhinaya (the language of gestures) with spectacular costumes and masks. The traditional venue for Kutiyattam was the theatres called Kuttampalams found in Hindu temples. But like Bharatanatyam dance, performances have migrated from sacred to secular venues. However a sacred dimension is retained in the form of an oil lamp placed on stage to symbolize a divine presence. Kutiyattam is the only remaining traditional Sanskrit theatre form on the entire subcontinent and performances are rare because less than fifty actors and musicians practise it in India today. The musical impetus comes from a range of rhythm instruments, including massive copper drums which provide a sonorous bass line. Kutiyattam wasbrought to Salzburg this year by the Ensemble Nepathya, directed by Margi Madhu Chakyar and his wife. The Ensemble Nepathya is one of the small academies keeping the ancient dance tradition of Kerala alive today. Kutiyattam involves complex improvised elaboration and in its extended form a single act can last 24 hours and a complete performance more than 40 days.

In Hinduism, the ultimate goal of human existence is the release of the self from the cycle of life by spiritual enlightenment. Music and the other performing arts are so closely integrated into this striving for release that they become, as W.B. Yeats explains, not art but life itself. In his collection of essays, The Dance of Shiva, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy expresses the view that each race contributes something essential to the world’s civilization in the course of its own self-realization and that the essential contribution of India is simply her ‘Indianness’. This year’s Ouverture spirituelle at the Salzburg Summer Festival, with its programme of Hindu music, dance and theatre was a vivid portrayal of that unique gift.

That text is a slightly amended version of the essay I contributed to the programme book for this year's Salzburg Summer Festival. The accompanying photos were taken by me in Kullu in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. My essay was accompanied by the following footnote: 'Author Bob Shingleton has retired from a career with the BBC, EMI and other media companies. He now spends his time pursuing his interest in music and comparative religion. In 1976 he married his wife Sorojini in accordance with Hindu rites.'

On An Overgrown Path will now take a break while I am travelling - take care.

Text is (c) Bob Shingleton 2015. Also on Facebook and Twitter.


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