Apr 30, 2020 in Informative

The Music ‘Taste’ of the Indian Raga

Just like languages or cuisine, music is country- and culture-specific. Hence, the tastes for music may differ in a way they differ for food, with the national food always being familiar and usual for the representative of that culture. Even more interestingly, to an untrained ear, the music of a foreign culture may seem odd and even unpleasant. A similar effect is observed when English speakers hear Chinese or Japanese and notice the unusual pitch and intonation, or the German language that may sound too sharp and choppy for an average American. In fact, even between the continents, one and the same language sounds differently, so that people in the U.S. speaking American English would easily distinguish the British English pronunciation that would sound odd to their ear. Thus, everything – be it language, cuisine, or music – absorbs and bears the national traditions and traits. Respectively, tastes for music and the definitions of what is beautiful in music differ greatly. Indian raga with its tempo increase, pillar tones and ornaments may not be understood even by the nearby nations, let alone distant cultures separated from it by the oceans, like the American culture, yet it can be appreciated by any listener with a keen ear and open mind.

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The concept of beauty is, per se, highly subjective and varies from person to person, from century to century, from culture to culture. The phenomenon of beauty in music is even more subjective and complex. It results from many factors, such as a person’s upbringing, music taste, cultural environment, exposure to other cultures, etc. Yet there exists a universal that unites all citizens of one country under the umbrella of a culture. This universal is called the national or traditional music. An individual may not think of it as the first choice in the list of likings, but everyone born into a particular music culture of their land will recognise and love this music as something native, vernacular. Hardly any person would say that their national music is ugly – most would like it and perceive it as a part of their cultural identity. One can even say that people love the national music as unconditionally as they love their parents. Indeed, every nation is born into a music culture in which it grows, and the music culture also grows. The more isolated it is from the outer world, the more unique and indigenous it will be. Hence, it can also be more incomprehensible and cacophonous to an outsider. One of the recent studies on emotional responses to Hindustani raga music found out that raga is capable of arousing powerful emotions in the listeners. Even more interestingly, the emotional responses depend first and foremost on the tonic intervals. For example, ‘minor second’ is found to cause negative valence in listeners. However, even aside from raga’s musical and mood-setting effect, one may say that people can either generally like or dislike raga, and the latter are most likely to be foreigners. It happens because in additional to direct emotional responses aroused by music, there is also a cultural response to it.

Raga can be rightfully called the soul of India and its people. It bears a striking resemblance to the manner in which the Indians talk, sing, or even think. “Music is the language of emotion and is an integral part of the Indian culture”. In fact, raga is a mood played on a particular instrument, be it a sitar, or sarangi, or something else. Each instrument can tell a story, convey and idea and arouse an emotion. “Music has always occupied a central place in the imagination of Indians”. Raga itself is imaginative music – the performers as well as listeners should be able to think through and/or imagine what is being played. As a rule, ragas express the moods and qualities of the time of the day or season, or some natural phenomenon. For example, the raga music piece performed by Sameer Sayani with the Emory University may evoke the images of the rain dripping and playing its song on the small Indian town’s rain gutters, roofs, windowsills, and jars full of rainwater that stand in the back yard. Thus, indeed, raga paints pictures with the help of sounds. In addition, raga is as much about imaginative power as it is about improvisation. To a foreigner’s ear, it may seem like raga has no distinctive structure or pattern. One may think that raga is about repeating itself around one and the same background note, which makes raga dull and formless. In reality, raga is a gradual development with a structure similar to speech or storytelling that consists of words and intonations and flows naturally towards its culmination. It is true that in the Indian raga, both rhythm and melody can be set by one and the same instrument, one and the same performer. It may sound strange to, for example, an American or European person used to rock or pop music where drum beat sets the rhythm and electric guitar provides the melody. Yet some ‘Westerners’ may find a similarity between a sitar and an electric guitar, and European jazz lovers would say that raga improvisations are much alike with those in jazz and, hence, like it.

If someone had to determine one peculiar feature of raga that would define it as a distinctive and truly Indian music style, it would probably be the plangent, pending sound suspended in trembling and vibration. Such a sound is born from nearly any national string instrument and is essential to the raga tradition. Interestingly enough, the representatives of other cultures may find something familiar in this sound. To an American, raga melodies and tunes may resemble the music tradition of the Western films (their soundtracks). To the Yakuts, Indian instruments playing raga, such as sarode or rudra veena, may resemble their own national music instrument called khomus. To the Buddhist monks, raga may feel like their oral and instrumental vibrant chants during meditation/prayers. To Muslims, Raag Bhimpalasi may resemble the Islamic call to prayer. The list goes on. It is noteworthy that if people find a resemblance of a foreign instrument or music to something from their own culture, they tend to classify it as good-sounding, appealing, or beautiful. Thus, it is the sense of the familiar that predetermines people’s judgments and reactions to foreign music tradition. Those who do not recognise anything familiar or resembling one’s own culture are most likely to demonstrate negative reactions to unknown music and label it as ugly, incomprehensive, or not a music at all. In other words, they experience a cultural shock and cannot endure more than a couple of minutes of the ‘alien’ music play, let along enjoying it.

Indian raga is cardinally different from the Western music, which may explain its misperception by many Americans and people from other Western cultures. The Indian raga scales are essentially different from the Western scales. Compared to the traditional Western twelve notes within each octave, traditional Indian music has twenty-two – all too many for the Western music culture with which the globalised world is well familiar. Moreover, the majority of these notes fall out of the frequencies of the Western music. In fact, they fall between the notes of the Western scale. Consequently, playing raga on a Western music instrument would be impossible. Hence, the perception of something so distant and different from the typical would be impossible or nearly impossible for a Westerner. In addition, different Indian scales are associated with particular moods and phenomena, and such an intrinsic association is unknown to a foreigner from the music culture of the West. It makes the meaningful perception of the Indian music extremely complicated or, again, impossible. Indian music is even said to affect the brain differently compared to the Western music. Yet some researchers found that even a “Western” brain is capable of recognizing the intended raga music moods. It gives a foreign listener a chance to comprehend raga at least intuitively and emotionally if not spiritually or aesthetically.

Among the ways to make foreigners recognise and love one’s national music is making it international. For India, the so-called Bollywood Filmi music is a compromise between the music tradition and the Western trends popular worldwide. It is not a secret that nearly all Indian films are musicals of their kind. However, the most recent ones contain music pieces that, on the one hand, borrow from ragas and, on the other hand, from the American pop music. An example to illustrate this statement is the movie Kismat Connection. Even its very title unites both cultures, American and Indian, by using a word from each of the languages. In essence, the film – and its music – is also a fusion and duality of the two cultural traditions. In the music clips, it is evident that the protagonists sing in a manner somewhere in-between what is popular in India and the USA. Their moves are more progressive than the Indian culture allows and yet less indiscreet compared to the moves of some American pop stars. Most importantly, they sing a bilingual song, and the music is also a crossbred of the American and the Indian. Thus, one may say Bollywood films like Kismat Connection are products of two cultures, which guarantees their popularity in both of them. Here, the familiar (i.e. American music styles and principles) makes the viewer open to the new (i.e. Indian national music like raga). Although, it would be appropriate to say that the introduction of the Indian music to the Western world has begun long ago, in the 1960s, inter alia, through the albums of The Beatles. Thus, the U.S. public had time to get used to it and even like it. The so-called “influence of the West” on India and its music culture dates back even earlier, to the nineteenth century. As a result, Indian film music has a “locally produced identity” yet a global appeal.

In conclusion, raga may speak to the outer world – even speak well with an American English accent – but its tongue will always be Indian. Even if a foreign ear or a foreign mind likes the raga, they will most probably be culturally unable to perceive and understand its true quality and full depth. Raga is the musical soul of India, and only an Indian can truly appreciate it, hear it, comprehend it. It does not mean that national music is something exclusive to the nation of its origin. It only implies that just the children of a certain culture are historically and socially more open and prone to being affected by the music so that it reaches not only the ear but also the soul. After all, music speaks not only sounds but also a sacral meaning. The listener should share its peculiar language to understand it. Otherwise it may sound cacophonous, meaningless, and bizarre, like a foreign language one does not understand.


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