Straight from the heart: Introduction to Hindustani Classical Music

Hindustani classical music is appreciated the world over. But what lies behind its appeal? Perhaps it follows time-tested combinations of notes; maybe it contains repetitions that draw us into its mesmeric effect, or it might have an unexpected turn of scale that captures our attention. The actual reason might be a far more visceral one.

Universally, across time, place and people, all humans have listened to the sounds of nature – birdsong, moving water, the wind through the leaves – and settled on the same set of notes as being tuneful to the ear. Hindustani musical traditions have taken those notes, defined melodious combinations, and set them to the rhythms of nature – the movement of a dove’s wings, galloping horses, and the very beating of the human heart. It is of little wonder then, that the greatest pieces of classical music are felt directly by the heart.

Olompolo Media has planned a series of seminars exploring different facets of the music of the sub-continent. The most recent was an Introduction to Hindustani Classical Music bringing together Ally Adnan, well-known expert, writer and critic of the arts, and Rakae Jamil and Asher Samuel playing the sitar and tabla respectively. These seminars are meant to right the wrong which Ally Adnan describes as the ‘grievous loss of interest, understanding and patronage of our rich and ancient musical traditions.’

In a society that sometimes seems to be becoming more and more puritanical many people are keen to distance themselves from our history of music, dismissing it as something alien or external. However, as Ally Adnan’s seminar shows, this is far from the truth; music is part of the genesis of Islam in South Asia and as old as the people of the Indus. It is part of being Pakistani, being connected to the divine, being human.

Ally Adnan began with an explanation of the structure of music, including how notes (sur) are arranged in chords and set to tempos (lay), how to recognise the beats, and the etiquette required to show you are following it. Each of these aspects was demonstrated in musical pieces played on the sitar and tabla, turning science into art!

This was further interspersed with some of the cosmological philosophy behind the music. Certain raag were to be played only during certain times of the day (paihar). Morning raag had flatter tones, a lighter air, and reflected the morning sounds of nature, whereas evening raag were sharper, darker, in line with the atmosphere of the night. Musical compositions not only reflected the time of day but were also designed to convey and elicit certain emotions (ras), such as playfulness, gravity, heroism, or peace.

Hindustani music has evolved into many types; ghazal, qawwali, tappa, tarana, and thumri, to name a few. But all of them are united by this mix of mathematical precision and the indefinable ability to carry the listener away.

The evening came to a beautiful denouement, with all these elements combining in bhairaviraag, played with the emotion of pathos (ghum), skillfully performed by Rakae and Asher. And though at some level the mind might have registered the notes, the beats, the scales, and tempo, it was the heart that was moved.

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