Monday 13 July 2020

H is for Horns

It is hard to conjure up a typical Indian landscape in the way that you can for Switzerland, say. And beyond the Taj Mahal, most people would find it difficult to define representative examples of Indian architecture. But everyone knows what Indian music sounds like. For most westerners, an image of India always comes with a soundtrack.

In particular, things Indian immediately evoke the distinctive combination of a sitar's twang and the thwup of a tabla. This is justified to a certain extent. Even if other strummed and drummed instruments exist with similar sounds in neighbouring countries, it is still true to say that the use and interplay of the Indian versions are unique.

Partly this is a function of the way Indian music has evolved. It is fundamentally monophonic, with the tabla's role that of a complex rhythmic commentator. Unlike Western music, which develops vertically through harmony, a raga-based composition can progress only linearly, both in terms of length and ornamentation. Tension is achieved between the two main players, and between each player and the limits of their medium.

The sitar may be replaced by other melody instruments, but the approach remains the same. The composition is an improvisation on the scale which defines the particular raga. The codification of ragas, and their allotment to specific hours and moods is another example of the Indian penchant for systematisation, be it in Sanskrit grammar or the Kamasutra.

This lack of western-type development, the timeless dwelling on a few notes, seems appropriate for a civilisation which has always rooted its philosophy in what lies behind, what remains. Playing a raga is not so much a performance as a joint meditation, active on the musicians' part, passive on the audience's.

Given this apparent centrality - to western minds at least - of music to the Indian spirit, it comes of something of a shock to find practically no trace of classical Indian music in India. There are no concerts advertised in the papers, nothing on television, and few records or tapes in the shops. It is as if it were all a huge hoax played on the gullible outside world.

But it is not just classical music which is conspicuous by its absence. Wandering through the bazaars and down streets in Delhi and other cities, there is very little music of any kind to be heard. No trannies blaring away, not even a cat-whiskered Bakelite wireless, some venerable relic of the Raj. True, the popular Indian cinema draws heavily on songs for its appeal; but even these seem to have little currency outside the cinema and a few clips shown on television.

They may care little for music, but the Indians are besotted by noise. Everywhere you go, there are people hawking their wares, children shrieking, and cars, buses and rickshaws blowing their horns. The most characteristic sound in India is not the sitar, however apt that would be; it is the huge, raucous, many-voiced cacophony of motor horns.

A Partial India A to Z

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