My introduction to Satyajit Ray: “The Music Room”

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me…

Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) is regarded not just as the greatest Indian filmmaker, but as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. You can read his biography on Wikipedia, but this quote gives a sense of his reputation:

Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or the moon.

— Akira Kurosawa, “one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema”

After reading a lot about him and hearing about his films, I decided to experience him for myself by watching his 1958 film, Jalsaghar (“The Music Room”). I partly chose this as my first Ray film because it’s known as “a showcase for some of India’s most popular [classical] musicians of the day,” and it indeed lives up to its title. In fact, the sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan, whom I wrote about in my first blog post, composed the film’s soundtrack.

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In Bengali, the upper text says “Music composed by Ustad Vilayat Khan”

Continue reading “My introduction to Satyajit Ray: “The Music Room””

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Improvisation and the #aesthetic of Carnatic music

One major difference between the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions can be seen in their treatment of improvisation. In his book A Southern Music, Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna explains improvisation in the context of Carnatic music:

The [Sanskrit] word manodharma has two components to it: mano, meaning ‘one’s own will’, and dharma, which refers to a certain righteousness in the path… Improvisational music is what is referred to as manodharma sangita, or the music that issues out of the individual musician’s very own and personal musical sensibility.

In both systems of Indian classical music, improvisation within a raga (melodic scale) is seen as the highest level of musical skill; in no musician is qualified to perform if they are not proficient in improvisation (which is why I have a while to go until I give a concert, lol), and indeed improvisation plays a central role in Indian classical performances.

In Hindustani performances, improvisation makes up the vast majority of the concert; there may be a few compositions with defined lyrics and melodies that are performed, but the rest of the concert is raga-based improvisation. In a typical Hindustani concert, the performer will say, “I will now play/sing Raga ___”, (or they might not say anything) and they will begin a certain type of improvisation in that raga. They will then move on to another raga or two, and then end the concert with some short compositions.

In contrast, Carnatic performances are typically driven by compositions, not freeform improvisation. Instead of just announcing the name of a raga, the artist would typically say, “I will now perform the song ____ in ____ raga, set to ____ talam (rhythm), dedicated to Lord/Goddess _____ and composed by _____.” They would then begin by improvising in the raga in which the composition is set, and then they would sing the composition itself, which would have defined lyrics set to a specific rhythmic cycle. Within Carnatic compositions, there is plenty of scope for improvisation, but the artist cannot deviate from the lyrics of the composition.

This reliance on compositions with set lyrics presents listeners and performers of Carnatic music with this question:

Is Carnatic music “art music” or “devotional music”?

Continue reading “Improvisation and the #aesthetic of Carnatic music”

Someone please teach me sitar

Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004) was one of the greatest sitar players of the 20th century, praised as Bharat Sitar Samrat (“India’s Emperor of the Sitar” in Sanskrit) and Aftaab-e-Sitar (“Sun of the Sitar” in Persian). In this 1976 recording, he is playing Alhaiya Bilawal, a morning raga. He is accompanied on tabla by Pandit Kishan Maharaj (1923-2008).


For the past year or so, I’ve been listening increasingly often to Indian classical music, and I’d say about 60% of the music I listen to now is Indian classical. Usually, I listen to South Indian classical music (called Carnatic music), because that’s what I learn and play on my violin. Yet, for some reason, ever since I started college, North Indian classical music (aka Hindustani music) has had an increased presence in my life.

Aside from learning tabla for a couple months when I was in second or third grade, my experience with Indian classical music has almost completely centered around the Carnatic tradition. However, being in my university’s South Asian music ensemble has changed that; we have a sarangi player and a tabla player, and we’ve been working on a variety of Hindi / North Indian songs. Additionally, a couple of guest artists have come and given lecture-demonstrations for the ensemble, including Portland-based sitarist Josh Feinberg and the first all-female Indian classical music and dance group, SAKHI (who came and talked to us the day after they performed at Carnegie Hall!).

Coming from a Carnatic background, being exposed to so much Hindustani music has been like meeting a distant cousin who speaks the same language as you, but with a very different accent. Carnatic music (karnataka sangeetam) and Hindustani music (hindustani sangeet) are the two distinct traditions that make up Indian classical music. They share a common ancestor, but while Carnatic music, just like medieval South India in general, remained relatively untouched by foreign influences, Hindustani music emerged as a distinct style in North India due to various Muslim invasions that began in the 12th century or so, bringing Persian and Arab influences into India.

Listening to Carnatic music and Hindustani music today, it is obvious that they are very distinct musical traditions. To begin with, they use different instruments. The sitar and sarangi are the stringed instruments of choice in Hindustani music; Carnatic music uses the violin and veena. Also, although they share some common ragas (melodic scales), the way in which ragas are sung or played is very different for each tradition. For example, during the opening improvisation of a raga (the Hindustani alaap and the Carnatic alapana), Hindustani artists tend to rely on slow, meditative phrases, dwelling on single notes for extended periods of time, while Carnatic musicians place a much greater emphasis on complex oscillations between different notes. I might have been previously biased towards Carnatic music, but now I honestly can’t say I prefer one style over the other.

All of this was basically just to say: I’ve fallen in love with the sitar. Gone are the days when I scorned it as being too “stereotypically Indian” so I would refuse to listen to it (true story). Pandit Ravi Shankar, his daughter Anoushka Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Shahid Parvez, Josh Feinberg, and many other sitarists have shown me the light. It’s such a beautiful and complex instrument and yeah, I love my violin, but… if someone’s feeling particularly generous and wants to buy me a sitar that would be a pleasant surprise.

Thanks for reading — hope you enjoy the Vilayat Khan recording!