Saturday, 29 May 2010

Rajasthan - Positively Transcendental

One of the most exciting things about India, for me, is the music.  Folk, classical and Bollywood songs that go circling around in your auditory cortex for days afterward, defying definition or interpretation.  From The Beatles to Alannis Morrisette, Western pop stars have flocked to India, seeking inspiration, instruction and Indian rhythms to inform their own musicality. 

India has been a real melting pot of musical styles - Buddhist chanting and incantations not unlike the languid tropicality of the music of Siam and Bali, mixed with the screeching, stringed instruments of Central Asia and the soft, pounding drums of the Qawwali.  Indian classical music has a very long and proud tradition and has produced some of the world's greatest musicians, such as Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

There's quite a lot to learn about Indian music, so I've started with a select range of styles and instruments that are popular in Rajasthan and somehow caught my attention.  I've been listening to lots of Bhajans, devotional songs sung by both men and women and venerating Hindu Gods such as Shiva, Krishna and Ganesh.  It's all about strings, drums and voice and it's incredibly relaxing music, especially for a Saturday morning, after a long and hard week at work!  I found a great album on iTunes called The Best Bhajan Collection.  I was tempted to download the whole album, a mere 83 Bhajans, but decided against it, reasoning I would become more familiar with the three Bhajans I eventually chose. 

The two instruments most associated with Bhajans are the Ektara and Dholak.  The Ektara is a curious instrument, I still haven't quite figured out whether it's a percussion instrument or a stringed one.  A bit of both, I guess.  It's usually made with a single string between two parts of a split cane and with a large gourd-type weight at the bottom, covered in animal skin and functioning as a kind of drum.  What's interesting about the Ektara is that, by compressing the two halves of the split cane, you can change the pitch of the string, which is plucked rhythmically.  It's traditionally an instrument of travelling minstrels.

The dholak is familiar to most people as a typical Indian drum and very much defines our stereotype of what an Indian rhythm is.  I'm sure most people who've been to India, will have walked along the street, at one time or another, to the beat of the dholak.  It has two sides, one side being larger than the other, giving a deeper tone to the overall sound.  It can be carried with a string around your neck, or simply held in your lap, again very conducive to wandering and nomadic lifestyles.  Of course, these instruments are not only to be found in Rajasthan, but are popular all over Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

I also learnt a bit about the Sarangi, a classical instrument which is said to be the instrument which most closely ressembles the wavering tones of a human voice!  The sarangi has been played for centuries in the palace of the Maharana of Udaipur.  The sound reminds me a lot of Central Asian instruments, like the Rubob, which I heard when I was living in Uzbekistan. 

A contemporary master of the sarangi is Udaipur-born Pt Ram Narayan.  Pt is short for pandit, a title that is given to talented musical teachers.  Narayan studied under Ravi Shankar and has been, arguably, just as successful with Western audiences.  He comes from a long tradition of court singers and I love this idea that music is handed down from generation to generation.  Narayan's daughter, Aruna, is also a well-known sarangi master.  Narayan is associated with the Kirana tradition of sarangi, which is more traditional to Utter Pradesh.  The sarangi of Rajasthan, the Jogiya Sarangi, is the music of Jodhpuri and Barmeri snake-charmers.  I can understand the connection.  A morning of Sarangi has me positively transcendental!

I'm going to leave you with a Bhajan devoted to Ganesh, a god I have an inexplicable attraction to.  I was genuinely surprised to see how much devotional Hindu music is available on YouTube, it's well worth an afternoon of exploration, if not for the music, then the stunning religious paintings and imagery.  Enjoy!

Image credits

The photo of the larger drum, the Dhol, is by flickruser Swami Stream a.k.a. Swaminathan.  Swaminathan is from Pune, a city I've visited once and is an amateur photographer with a great eye for detail.  You can see more of his photos at
Post a Comment