The West’s Affair With Indian Classical Music

It was one Thursday afternoon, on the porch of the Center for the Study of the American South, at my university. I was listening to “Hindugrass“, an American band, who were performing an eclectic blend of Appalachian folk and North Indian Hindustani music.

As an interdisciplinary scientist, I always found fusion music captivating. It’s a musical laboratory where you can bring different musical forms together, creating new sounds. I liked Hindugrass’ performance, and I was rather intrigued by a group of American musicians enthusiastically embracing the Indian instruments, and its very characteristic improvisation techniques.

The western fascination with Indian music is not new. It rather dates back to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. That was the time of the hippies, who were trying to separate themselves from the mainstream culture. In their search for a ‘spiritual elixir’, a section of the ‘60s hippies were drawn to India and her music. This perfectly aligned with the efforts of the Beatles’ George Harrison and Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who were trying to bring the essence of Indian classical music to a western audience.

Ravi Shankar started touring Europe and the United States in the early 1950s. In the beginning, the estern audience was mystified by the unique sound and shape of the Indian instruments. While receptive, they were profoundly confused by the extremely sophisticated music, which was slightly similar to modern Jazz. Soon enough, capitalizing on the appeal of his music to jazz musicians, Shankar started teaching a class on Indian music in the ‘60s. TIME noted in 1964, “local jazzmen are standing in line to enroll” in Shankar’s class.

Not only budding musicians, but Shankar’s appeal also touched jazz composers such as Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, and Bud Shank. Shank observed, “Everybody says how free our music is, but in comparison with Indian music we are terrifically restricted.” Coltrane’s inspirations ran deeper than Shank, and his meetings with Shankar helped him learn about the ragas (melodic patterns) and talas (rhythmic cycles) of Indian music. Deeply indebted to his influences, Coltrane named his child Ravi, after Shankar.

As Shankar found an audience in the west, he couldn’t initially drop out from the ‘drop-out’ culture accompanying the hippie movement. He performed before huge audiences in the Monterey International Pop festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. However, pretty soon, Shankar started regretting his participation in early rock festivals and the use of the traditional music he represented as a backdrop for recreational drug abuse. In his words, “I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad — something that is very common in western countries.”

Shankar was sidelined from the hippie movement, but that didn’t stem the tide of the western excitement in Indian classical music. He found a collaborator and a friend in a Beatle, George Harrison. The Beatles recorded ‘Norwegian wood’ using a sitar, which was only the start of a long history of unique collaboration between Harrison and Shankar. By the time of Shankar’s death in 2012, he left behind a lasting influence and legacy. He was decorated with many accolades over his lifetime, including five Grammy awards.

Shankar’s efforts largely facilitated the western world in appreciating the intricacies of complex Indian music. He opened the door, and numerous Indian musicians came over the years to the west and continued Shankar’s legacy forward. One of the other significant influences worth mentioning here would be ‘Shakti,’ a group composed of English guitarist John McLaughlin, Indian-born American violinist L. Shankar, and tabla (an Indian percussion instrument) player Zakir Hussain among others. ‘Shakti’ came together in 1974. The formation of ‘Shakti’ was a key milestone in the meeting of the west with east. It not only represented an eclectic fusion of Euro-American and Indian music, but it also drew inspiration equally from the North Indian Hindustani and Southern Indian Carnatic musical traditions.

One of the most celebrated violinists of the 20th century, Yehudi Menuhin, also did his fair share in the promotion of Indian music and philosophy. This American artist was also one of the early ambassadors of yoga in the west, but that is out of the scope of this article. Menuhin recorded a three album series with Shankar, titled ‘west meets east.’ He also invited Ali Akbar Khan, a virtuoso ‘sarod’ player to the US in 1955. Unlike sitar’s sweet timbre, sarod has a deep, resonant texture, and offered entirely new tones to the ears of the American audience. Khan received his fair share of prominence as a performer and teacher, and along with Shankar, he was instrumental in popularizing Indian music in the west.

Times have changed though. The pulsating days of the ‘60s, under the backdrop of the political and countercultural movements are beyond us. Today, Indian classical music, although not in the mainstream, has secured its place in the west and no longer requires the clutch of a ‘hippie’ fad to move forward. However, newer trends challenge the experimentations with Indian music in the west today. Movies out of Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry of India, are fast gaining prominence in Europe and the Americas. It is capturing the imagination of the western society as these films are filling the gap of the much necessary emotional and colorful experience amiss in Hollywood. However, with the immense popularity of the Bollywood songs and dances, comes the inclination to look at Indian culture through the prism of a single movie industry, which is nowhere close to being representative. As a result, attention is diverting from traditional Indian music.

However, there’s a lot to be hopeful about. New technologies have flattened the world and ushered in a new era of world music. Today, American musicians like Shankar Tucker are getting trained in Indian classical music under the tutelage of maestros like Hariprasad Chaurasia (a celebrated Indian flute player and composer) and sharing their music through online platforms like YouTube. The influence of Indian classical music is spreading beyond jazz and intermingling with a multitude of ethnic and popular musical forms. There has been an emergence of startups like IndianRaga, which are coming forward and seamlessly trying to synchronize Indian classical music with the western pop culture. If you frequent social media, it will be hard to overlook an Indian classical version of “Despacito” or a Carnatic cover of “Shape of You.”

“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” Shankar once said, “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.” Gone are the days of Ravi Shankar. In an increasingly globalizing world, cultural imperialism is erasing indigenous and ethnic traditions around the world. There’s a whole new generation out there, and the journey of conveying the richness and diversity of Indian music to the west must be started anew. Fortunately, an ensemble of energetic budding musicians, from the west and the east alike, have already recruited themselves to this task.

When I see groups like Hindugrass nowadays, I do not always get concerned about a cultural invasion. I see these musicians coming to the stage with a deep admiration and rigorous training of Indian musical traditions. I see them collaborating with musicians from India, creating exquisite melodies. I feel better about the future of my heritage and the fluidity of my musical roots.

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