The case of Indian music in the West is unique. Neither before nor since has one man had so much influence over how one culture’s music has been perceived by another culture. That man, of course, is George Harrison. When the casual Westerner thinks “Indian music”, they think sitar and Ravi Shankar. Both of those were introduced into pop music, and thus the popular consciousness, by Harrison. It’s entirely probable that millions of people’s only experience with Indian music is “Norwegian Wood” and “Within You Without You”.
Harrison’s innovations have led to innumerable positive developments in music. Would we use the term “world music” if not for Harrison’s efforts? Would we have been treated to the cultural melding of everyone from the Clash and Paul Simon to Gorillaz and MIA? But Harrison’s Indian legacy has not been without its downside. Shankar has openly expressed disillusion, even resentment, at being turned into a “pop star”. And the door to Indian music beyond Shankar and his instrument of choice has been mostly left closed.
The Rough Guide to the Music of India hasn’t become a surprise best-seller since its release in June 2010. But it does aim to provide a broader sampling of Indian music than most might have heard before. Actually, this is the second edition, the first having appeared in 2002. This edition attempts to rectify a couple perceived shortcomings of the first. One of those, ironically, was that Shankar, who has an entire Rough Guide dedicated to him, was not represented. Here, he appears in all his glory on “Megh”. A couple artists are carried over from the first edition, though none of the tracks are repeated.
All stereotypes have some truth to them, and that of Indian music is no different. As the extensive liner notes point out, India has two traditional music systems stemming from its major religions, Hindu and Muslim. Both are centered on the heavily rhythmic drone of the raga. So, yes, you do get lots of pitter-pattering tablas here. The sitar is featured on several tracks, as is the emotive, moaning type of vocalizing you might expect. This all comes together more effectively on Vishwa Mohan Bhatt & Musicians of Rajastan’s “Helo Mharo Suno”. The rolling rhythm is particularly catchy, while a violin provides melody and enlivened vocals deliver effortless energy. The result is like aural sunshine in the best sense, easily the collection’s most accessible track. From a West-centric point of view, it could be Dead Can Dance in a good mood.
India’s own popular culture is represented as well. That would be the most prolific film center in the world, Bollywood. “Playback” or soundtrack legend Asha Bhosle, immortalized in Cornershop’s XXXXlink, opens the album. Her sister, Lata Mangeshkar, another playback star, closes it. Both these tracks are pleasant yet cheesy in the Bollywood tradition, with the most interesting point being the use of electronic instruments to complement the more traditional sounds.
The best parts of The Rough Guide to the Music of India, though, are the unexpected surprises featuring lesser-known instruments. T.H. Subashchandran provides a brief yet charismatic solo on the moorsing or jew’s harp. Sohan Nath “Sapera” features on the been, or snake charmer’s pipes. Imagine bagpipes with tablas laying down the rhythm. It’s pretty interesting. On “Mishra Tilang’ In Keharwa Tãl”, Shivkumar Sharma plays a type of zither called a santoor. Suffice to say it’s like a shimmering, mesmerizing harp, and it’s sublime. Best of all is Seeta Doaiswamy’s “Vatapi Ganapatim”. While Indian rhythms tend to be thick and dense, this one is light and sparse, nothing but jalatharangam, or tuned water bowls, floating in the breeze like wind chimes.
As a bonus, this set also comes with a second disc featuring a live set from Debashish Bhattacharya. Accompanied by rattling tablas and droning tanpura, he etches out stark, resonant figures on hand-made slide guitar. The often-mesmerizing effect recalls none so much as Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly.
What The Rough Guide to the Music of India doesn’t do is explore the ways in which this traditional music has intersected with pop. The likes of the Monsoon Wedding soundtrack and Dan the Automator’s Bombay the Hard Way have done a good job of this, and it’s too bad the Rough Guide doesn’t bring things into the present. But for a good overview of the past, it works pretty well.