Evolution in Modern Indian Music

Salil Chowdhury

Against modern Indian music there has been an accusation by a certain select  group - that modern Indian music is not Indian at all. Additionally some would be reluctant to concede that it is even music. About this second opinion I withhold any discussion. But as to the comment that modern Indian music is not Indian - that is an intriguing point of view which in my opinion deserves to be discussed. The reason being that this charge has been made by a select and quite influential group of music aficionados. This group is of the firm opinion that: a) modern Indian music does not follow any of the raag note patterns of Indian music, b) this music has none of the characteristics of being typically Indian – in other words Indian folk-music, and c) for accompaniment with this music, it is all too easy to use foreign 'orchestral' music.
We need to keep in mind especially that the above accusation has been made primarily around Indian Film music. It is through Film music that Modern Indian music finds its most popular expression. Among the above mentioned group of critics is a section which has cultivated the strong viewpoint that the melding of Indian music and western music and the joint use of these different styles of music is not possible. A similar view is held even by Aakaashbaani (All India Radio), in whose light classical music department (not denoted as modern music) the harmonium is considered to be an 'untouchable' instrument.
Here I would like to say a few words about that unfortunate instrument, the harmonium.
Developed through a fusion and modification of the 'accordion' and the 'organ', it is by far the most popular musical instrument in India. The use of this instrument is universal; it finds favour from leading exponents of classical Indian music, the lowliest of music students and even the street singer. Thus it has become our national musical instrument. Talented classical musicians (prominent among these being Ustaad Abdul Kareem Khan, Fayyaaz Khan and Akhtari Bai) have given us such disparate styles of music as Thumri, Bhajan, Qawwaali and Gazal; these as well as artists of 'adhunik' (modern) music have and continue to use the harmonium to accompany their music.
I believe that it was Kobiguru Rabindranath (Tagore) who first opined against the use of the harmonium. He understood that a student of music just beginning would become a slave to the fixed chromatic scale of the harmonium and would thus suffer a loss of spontaneity in the expression of melody and voice. The logic of his pronouncement is of course undeniable. However, why it is that the harmonium is condemned for consideration even for the purpose of accompaniment, is beyond my understanding.
It is of course the sole prerogative of the composer to choose the musical instrument that will accompany musical works of his own creation. The 'organ' has been used as such an accompaniment in almost all of the popular gramophone recordings of Rabindrasangeet.
It is my belief that if soft chords (using two or more notes) were to be used in the ‘organ’ as part of the background music, it would greatly enhance the expressive beauty of RabindraGeeti and make it simpler and more beautiful. But even if today's composer believes that the accompaniment of the 'organ' or the 'harmonium' will enhance the expression of his music, he will be unable to use them. Why ? Because it is a foreign instrument. The destroyer of all that is characteristic of Indian music. In order to accept this premise to be true, we would need to eliminate hundreds of recordings made by artists that we consider to be 'ustaads' in our musical tradition. If these classical artists could conclude that the harmonium helped rather than hindered their musical expression, then why should modern composers not accept the harmonium as accompaniment.
On the other hand Indian instrumental artists (as with the violin) have with the harmonium been quite successful in creating a new kind of sound which is heard nowhere else in the world. I know many such instrumentalists who have achieved such dexterity with the instrument that they can, while maintaining the expressiveness and particular characteristics of Indian music, assert their equality with the world's leading 'accordionists'. It is solely an attitude of 'status quo' and orthodoxy that is responsible for the ban on the 'harmonium' at AakaashBaani. Music composers and artists surely would not ignorantly use this instrument if it did not facilitate their expression of musical beauty.
Although there is no such ban in Film music, here too perhaps only one song in a hundred will use the harmonium, and even then only if the song is by a Baijee (courtesan style) or in Qawwaali style. Oh well, as a result of AakashBaani's animosity towards the harmonium, it is not the harmonium which is losing appeal; rather, it is AakashBaani whose popularity is consistently being eroded. Now let us return to our topic. Before embarking on an extended discussion of the theoretical possibilities resulting from the melding of Indian and western music, it is necessary to assess the practical impact that such a melding has had. Since the last century, just as India has assimilated western culture via its language, arts, dress, etc., so has it absorbed and assimilated the western music in exactly the same way.
A progressive culture is never afraid of foreign influence. Even when an excessiveness of imitation does manifest itself, our culture will ultimately reject it and progress towards an all encompassing unity. The long history of India is full of accounts of our defeats at the hands of foreigners and tales of their reigns. However none were successful in uprooting our civilization and culture and sowing the seeds of foreign influence in our soil; rather, India has always managed to enhance its own greatness by absorbing what’s good in them.
Then followed the age of British rule. The Indian mind was especially attracted to the western way of thinking. European culture and its influence on Indian literature and art found an appropriate expression in the age of the Renaissance of Bengal.
In the field of literature, in Kobiguru Rabindranath, we found the joint expression of both cultures and in painting it was Abanindranath. In music, though the analogy is not that straightforward, the influence of western music is none the less present in a similar way. We will discuss this later. But as to the question of whether it is possible to meld Indian music with western music, we have already found the answer in recent times and in the tremendous popularity of ninety-nine percent of 'adhunik' (popular) songs of the last half a century. Proof of this is in the fact that our population has accepted the 'adhunik' songs composed using a successful synthesis of eastern and western melody.
In the creation of art it is not only the personality of the creator (artist) which finds expression; also reflected and evident in it is the contemporary age and the influence of the prevailing environment. Our classical vocal and instrumental artists are themselves the creators of melody. At the moment of delivery, they improvise 'extempore' melody, and based upon the individuality of the artist the same raag/raagini finds unique expression. Despite restrictions on the notes of a raag or raagini, they elicit different expressions of mood according to the moment or time of day. The technique of development of a raag used fifty years ago is not at all the same as the method used today. If you listen to the voice of Ustaad Salaamat Ali elaborating on the raags in 'Darbaari Kanada' or 'Baagesri' you will understand what I want to say. The spontaneous manner in which he uses 'chordal' and 'chromatic' variations in voice while singing the Thumri, I would characterize as a completely modern style, but the purity of raag-based music is present in full measure in it.
In every age, music not only expresses the style of the times, but is also engaged in the creation of new styles. Thus Khayal was created from Dhrupad, and Thumri was created from Khayal, followed by other forms of light music. But the source of all of these musical forms is still the traditional Indian folk music.
The freedom of the individual and freedom of expression that manifested itself towards the end of the nineteenth century has culminated in today's 'adhunik' (modern) music. The inspiration behind this lay in Indian popular music. It is this freedom of expression which has been successful in breaking the narrow bonds of musical grammar, and to enable the use of new instruments such as the violin, clarinet, harmonium and piano.
We acknowledge of course the fact that the attitude to life, viewpoints, aims and ideals of our music composers of today are completely different from their predecessors. The composer of today is trying to express these new values and ideals through the medium of his own musical creations.
Even after a thorough research of the old classical Indian musical forms today's music composer may conclude that these ancient practices, scale patterns, etc. are inadequate for his own expressive needs. The (Indian) Five Year Plans, giant dams under construction, and the succession of new events - all of these might be the subjects of his music, and will naturally require news methods in their expression. He may conclude that in the area of melodic development, only the presence of 'contrapuntal' or 'polyphonic' characteristics will give full flight to his imagination; and in this matter the composer must be given complete freedom and encouragement. No creator (artist) can tell what final form his creation will assume, in other words whether the music will retain a grammatical purity or not. Every art form according to its own needs is changing its form; and the job of the artist is then one of following the art and transforming it into a set of grammatical constraints. As an example we may cite the popular music composed in the second half of the last century and the first part of this century. An analysis of the prevailing times and its historical background shows that these songs echoed the growing desire for freedom from foreign rule, and an increasing development of national consciousness. This national awakening found flaming expression in the form of these songs sung in processions and public gatherings and even behind the barred doors of prison cells.
Among the composers of these songs, Jyotirindranath, D. L. Roy, and later, Rabindranath and Kazi Nazrul Islam created a new style of music. The freedom movement of Bengal also provided inspiration for a new and revolutionary style of music. The population was awakening to national consciousness and yearning to break the chains of foreign rule, so the composers obliged them by composing 'break the chains' songs. These songs which were sung during processional 'marches' were indeed composed in imitation of the western 'marching song' style. Songs such as "Ak Sutre Baandha Aachhi", "Utho Go Bharato Lakkhi", "Bolo Bolo Bolo Sabe", "DhanaDhanye Pushpe Bhara", "Desh Desh Nandito Kori", "Byartho Praaner Abarjana" and others, including our national anthem "Jana Gana Mana Adhinayak" and more than a hundred other songs have been influenced by western music.
Some critics believe that the tunes of the above mentioned songs fall within the ambit of Indian raagas. Their opinion is partially true. Because the ancient creators of our musical system used all possible combinations of the addition and elimination of the twelve basic notes, and denoted these various combinations by different names, it is possible to classify any melody from almost any part of the world as belonging to one of our raag/raagini or 'mixed' raags. It is not enough to consider simply the use of a certain set of notes; the individuality of the melody thus created, as well as its expression and mood must also be judged.
The style of orchestration used in Indian music is also borrowed from the western tradition. The tonal quality and instrumental precision of foreign musical instruments have won the hearts of our people, and these instruments have also made it possible to orchestrate Indian music. Orchestral compositions also include Indian musical instruments. Our instrumental artists have always been careful in improving their style and the quality of their playing. While playing in an orchestra it is vitally important to follow systematically the "registered notation" method. For this reason these artists feel greatly the need for utmost precision in the recording of musical notation, even though we have not yet achieved our desired goal in this matter, and our system of notation is not universally used.
Unfortunately, the western method of "staff notation" has not been found to be so easily usable to our instrumental artists. In the composition of Indian dance music (Ballet Music) I must of course mention the use of orchestral instrumental music by the pioneers Timir Baran and Pandit Bishnudas Shirali, and in this connection also eminently notable is Raichand Boral, who has been extremely successful in composing background music for movies and in creating melodies combining western and Indian instruments to accompany songs. Even without amplifying on the topic of the continuous improvement of Indian 'Orchestral Instrumental Music' it may be said that it has developed in response to new needs. And at the root of this innovation and transformation have always been our music composers. All of the efforts to maintain the integrity of Indian music and to effect its improvement are a source of continual inspiration to me. The efforts of the Indian government to hold classical and popular musical conventions and the institution of systems for conferring certificates and titles upon talented and knowledgeable artists are all steps full of hope in the advancement of Indian music. I feel greatly encouraged when I see that arrangements are being established to preserve our architecture, ancient sculptures, famous art, and handcrafted fine arts creations. But my joy is truly unbounded when I see that new cities are being built and we are progressing rapidly in the fields of arts and science. I believe that present India is carrying forward the legacy of the ancient India. So it is in the area of music. All the compositions of our modern composers contain expressions of the same progress in the music of ancient India.
Our modern composers expect encouragement in this matter from the state and from the people at large. But even if this encouragement is not offered their music will, through a process of trial and error and experimentation, achieve accomplishment and fullness.
There is no need for us to be directed by the traditions of western music. On the other hand in going forward it would also be wrong to tolerate any kind of orthodoxy. I personally believe that Indian music has a great deal to offer to the music of the world because it has a rare depth, dignity, and above all a beauty of mood and expression. Behind all of sophisticated techniques of world music today lies a reflection of the individual. Into this, Indian music will infuse life - by bringing to it a reflection of the soul. Indian music will send a message of peace and tolerance. And this noble responsibility will have to be borne by the modern Indian music composer.
The sources of Indian music are endless and its potentials are without limit. In the past Indian music obtained its inspiration and its ingredients from generations of inherited popular and classical music, as well as from western music. Today, as nations have achieved a much greater degree of closeness and cultural exchange has become so much easier, the opportunity for Indian music to disseminate widely and to expand its vision presents itself.

Published in "Sangeetika" magazine, 1st Year Puja Issue (1959).

Translated from the Bengali original.