Traditions in Movement

India’s classical music and dance remain relevant abroad

by kim filipinas

Traditions start with people, bring people together, and hold people together. India’s classical arts, rarefied they may be, are no different. When considering Indian classical music or dance, it’s not just the virtuosity of
the performer or composition that matters, but also the people and communities that have arisen about them.

Srinivas Reddy played in rock bands before practicing classical Indian music. Twelve years ago after moving to the Bay Area, Reddy began to learn the sitar, and has been playing professionally since then. Reddy learned the sitar the “Indian way” – one-onone with his teacher, a method which allows
for a very rich, personal experience.

The sitar’s form is analogous to a guitar. Both are stringed instruments, but the sitar is much larger and more complex due to its second bridge for “sympathetic” strings. These are not plucked by the musician, but vibrate with the playing of the instrument, producing sonorous and complex music.

I was fortunate enough to hear Reddy play the aalap (opening section) of the sri raga in a UC Berkeley lecture hall. A raga can be simplistically defined as a musical mode, specifying tone, rhythm, and melody with a piece. Ragas are associated with specific moods, deities, seasons, or even a time of day: the sri raga is associated with the setting sun. The aalap can be broken up into three parts: a freeform beginning, a section that builds up the rhythm of the piece, and a climax. Reddy explained that the aalap is completely improvised – although not without guidelines governed by the raga. An entire raga from beginning to end may be up to 85% improvised.

Traditional classical Indian music is chamber music. Ragas are conventionally performed by as few as two to five people, with a main vocalist or instrumentalist, accompanied by a drummer and a person
who controls the melody. The experience benefits from such intimacy, although modern performances have been given in big halls with microphones. In any case, listening to classical Indian music certainly provides a striking contrast to the homogenized pop music played on the radio today.

Third-year Soham Chaudhari learned to dance Bhartantyam in a similarly personal setting as that under which Reddy learned the sitar. Bhartantyam is one of eight classical dances in India, consisting primarily of footwork and hand gestures. The dance scene was so small when Chaudhari began in her hometown of Las Vegas that lessons were conducted at her teacher’s home,
although the instructor has since upgraded to a studio. The intimacy that characterizes her experience echoes Reddy’s. The scenes for these classical traditions may be small, but there is something to be said about the type
of education a person receives in a personal setting, which provides fertile ground for the growth of interpersonal relationships.

For Chaudhari, Indian dance has provided an alternative method to learning
about Indian culture, one that isn’t predicated on reading and writing. In Bhartantyam, a religious and cultural history is conveyed through hand gestures and expressions. Chaudhari learned a lot about Indian epic
stories, which explain why her family practices the rituals that they do. Moreover, learning classical Indian dance has enriched her dancing in other sectors. “Learning the more traditional way adds refinement,” Chaudhari
says, to more modern forms of dance that she is interested in. Certainly classical Indian traditions are not the only way to learn and articulate Indian culture, or even the most popular. Rajiv Khanna, co-president of the
Indian Student Association, explains that those who gravitate toward classical forms typically have had that exposure at an early age. To be sure, professionals of classical Indian music are more likely to be Indian, indicating a degree of insularity in the tradition. But Khanna also stresses the importance of traditional Indian holidays like Holi that hold universal appeal. Holi is the spring Festival of Colors, and participants throw colored water or powder on one another. Events like these are a chance to reach out and educate the non-Indian community about traditional Indian culture.

Reddy will teach a History of Indian Music class during summer 2010 at UC
Berkeley, and his goal is to teach and maintain the classical tradition of music. Although not averse to modern fusion movements, he feels wary “when classical music [artists] feel that they have to make their music fusion-like to make it acceptable to Western audiences.” Why compromise such a rich musical heritage to insecurity? To contrast, Reddy’s experiences in concert have been the opposite – the audiences are of a mixed demographic, with perhaps less than half Indians, and they are always accepting and enthusiastic.

It is impossible to keep classical traditions from mutating – but that isn’t the
bottom line. Their transmission is a practice rather than an end-point. We can look to the ragas of Indian classical music as an example. Ragas are traditionally left unwritten, so there is no way of knowing whether the music
played today is the same as what was played hundreds of years ago. But, that doesn’t mean that contemporary musicians don’t continue to play in the same vein as did those of the past. Indian classical music still has the power to move audiences, in India and abroad.