Various Artists: A Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music

[5 August 2014]

By Benjamin Hedge Olson

Attempting to summarize in two CDs a musical tradition as vast, complex, and ancient as that of Indian classical music is, at best, a daunting proposition. At worst, it’s a totally lost cause. To start with, Indian classical music tends not to function in quick, compact three minute ditties, or even in highlighted movements, like Western classical music, that can give the listener a sense of a longer piece of music’s high points. Indian classical music is usually expressed in long, slow build ups that intensify gradually over 20 or 30 minutes. A classical Indian raga will start off seeming languid, pretty, almost narcotized, and then will ever-so-slowly build up in both tempo and intensity. By the time you are helplessly headbanging in the middle of the living room with your face melting all over the carpet, you are not quite sure how you got from point A to point B. In order to appreciate a really brain-busting piece by someone like Ravi Shankar or Zakir Hussain, you can’t just pick out the best bits and toss them on a compilation CD. You need that slow build up to really appreciate the wild, virtuosic majesty of Indian classical music. Although this is a formidable problem for anyone putting together a compilation CD, A Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music does a tolerably good job of giving the listener a healthy taste of what this tradition is all about, without drowning the listener in five or six CDs.

Another very difficult problem facing a compilation like A Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music is:  what exactly falls under the heading “Indian classical music?” Does Indian classical music need to be tied to very traditional, religious music?  Where can we draw the line between Indian folk music and Indian classical music? Is this an important distinction? Should Pakistani music be included, and if so, what branches? These are all very good questions, but they are far too complex and polarizing to be fully unpacked on two CDs. A Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music can be seen as a gateway drug; a tiny taste of an amazingly old, amazingly rich musical tradition. For people who are curious about Indian classical music but do not know where to start, you could do a lot worse than A Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music, but this compilation, or any compilation really, cannot present the full scope of this glorious music.

Several years ago, I was entertaining a Western classical music snob in my home. The snob in question was simpering about how Mozart and Beethoven were music as such; that all other forms of music were not really music at all, and that Western classical music was the only form of music that rose to a sufficient standard of complexity and virtuosity to deserve the name music. Instead of pointing out to her the ethnocentrism, racism, and basic stupidity of this perspective, I put my copy of Ravi Shankar’s Live at the Monterey Pop Festival on the stereo at top volume. A look of confusion stole over my guest’s face, followed by expressions of fear, anxiety, and eventually despair. By the time Shankar really got cooking around the 20 minute mark, my guest burst into tears, wailing, “He’s going too fast! He’s not following the rules! STOP IT! STOP IT!!” She then fled my home, never to return. I laughed and laughed, and then I laughed some more. A Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music may not be the best choice for a maneuver like the one I just described, but it is a fine place to start.

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