Music, Culture, History: A Conversation with David Shulman

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Source: A great article in Tablet Magazine about Prof. Shulman’s new book, Tamil: A Biography

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to interview David Shulman, a scholar whose work and impact is hard to describe in just a paragraph. He is arguably the world expert on south Indian languages, literature, and history, in addition to being a poet, literary critic, and activist. Fluent in Hebrew, Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi, his scholarship and knowledge is exhaustive.

I’ve written about Shulman’s work on this blog in the past; namely, his translations of songs that used to be performed by courtesans (devadasis) in South India. His latest book, Tamil: A Biography, published in 2016, focuses on the cultural history and development of the Tamil language. He is also a founding member of Ta’ayush, “a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership” in Palestine and Israel.

An Iowa native, Shulman is currently the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but each spring he comes to the University of Chicago as a visiting professor, which is where I had a chance to talk with him. Although I was a complete stranger, he graciously agreed to my request for a short interview, and invited me over to his apartment by Lake Michigan. We had a fascinating conversation on Carnatic music, culture, history, and language in South India and beyond. Enjoy!


You began your studies in Hebrew and Arabic, and then shifted your focus to South India. Could you talk a little bit about that?

The thing I most liked in my B.A. years was Persian. I was doing Arabic, and Islamic history, and Islamic studies, and African studies, and things like that. But in my second year, after a year of Arabic, I started Persian, and that was what I truly loved. I wasn’t that serious a student in general, but [laughs] the one thing I cared about, really, was Persian.

I went to Iran and wandered around there for a summer with my brother, and that time I could also speak a little Persian. But I was drunk on Persian poetry—that was the main thing. I went on a pilgrimage to the graves of Hafez and Saadi in Shiraz, and we were in Isfahan, the great Caspian Sea… Actually, from Persian, I drifted eastward into India, through a series of accidents. But it had a lot to do with Persian.

I also loved Persian music right away. They have a raga-like system, what they call the dastgah. There’s associated scales, there are melodic phrases, like in any Indian raga. They don’t have so many—you know there are hundreds and hundreds of ragas. In any case, I loved the music. They often sing delightful verses from Hafez, Saadi, Rumi…

Continue reading “Music, Culture, History: A Conversation with David Shulman”

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“Blink, and there he was…”

This school year, I’ve been taking Persian to fulfill my college’s language requirement, and (unsurprisingly) it’s been my favorite class all year! I’m working on a longer post on the connections I’ve made and some of the mini-revelations I’ve had while learning Persian, but for now I just want to share some verses of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) rendered as a qawwali by the legendary brothers, Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad (who have been featured on this blog before). To my surprise, with just a few months of learning Persian I can recognize quite a few words and make sense of some of the sentences, even though they were composed around eight centuries ago! The video description informed me that “Ayyaar” means “vagabond” in Persian, and love is often described in this idiom in Persian Sufi poetry.

Here are a few verses with translation (please correct me if I made any mistakes). Enjoy!

هر لحظه به شكلي بت عيار بر آمد, دل برد و نهان شد
هر دم به لباس دگر آن يار بر آمد , گه پير و جوان شد

Har lehza ba shakal-aan but-e-ayyaar bar-aamad, dil burd-o-nihaan shud
Har dam ba libaas-e digar-aan yaar bar-aamad, geh peer-o-javaan shud

Blink, and there he was in a different form – that sly Beloved! He stole the hearts of the people, and hid from view.
Every time he came out in a different garb. Sometimes he was young, and sometimes he was old.

خود کوزہ و خود کوزہ گر و خود گلِ کوزہ, خود رندِ سبو کش
خود بر سرِ آں کوزہ خریدار برآمد, بشکست رواں شد

Khud kuza-o, khud kuzagar-o khud gil-e-kuza, khud rind-e-subu kash
Khud bar sar-e-aan kuza kharidaar bar-aamad, ba shikast o ravaan shud

He is the wine flask, he is its maker, and he is the clay used to make it.
He was the drunk who bought that flask. He himself drained it, broke it, and moved on.

The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique

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Painting by E. Ramki, “A Carnatic Music Concert” (2008)

A performance of Carnatic music is referred to as a kutcheri (also spelled kacheri, kacceri). The word “kutcheri”, however, does not simply mean “concert”; rather, it refers to a particular concert format which was developed in the early 20th century and was designed to present Carnatic music in a specific manner.

Carnatic music accords primacy to the voice, and indeed the kutcheri was designed as a vocal concert. The vocalist has full control over the kutcheri; they decide what compositions and ragas to perform, where to improvise, and how the concert generally flows. The vocalist usually receives melodic accompaniment from a violinist, and rhythmic support from a mridangam and sometimes ghatam player, with the drone of the tambura constantly in the background.

The kutcheri, which was pioneered by the vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), follows a rather rigid format intended to highlight a variety of different ragas and types of Carnatic compositions. In my annotations for each track, I try to give an explanation of each composition, and the role it plays in the kutcheri.

Recently, the kutcheri format has been critiqued extensively by the vocalist T.M. Krishna, and I strongly agree with Krishna’s critique. I do believe that, if we view Carnatic compositions as truly artistic creations, and not merely as just religious songs, then the kutcheri does a disservice to the music. For example, some compositions (like varnams and padams) are simply deemed unfit for extensive improvisation.

In addition, the kutcheri includes items called “fillers” and “tukkadas” which are meant to be “lighter” and less melodically complex, thus giving the audience some “relief” from “heavier”, more complex ragas and compositions. Krishna argues, “Let’s take a Western classical concert. Every item is an intense piece of composition and music. Every item is presented with the same intensity, and the experience is as intense with a Schubert as with a Beethoven. You don’t have Beethoven being given as a filler, and you don’t have pieces towards the end just to tingle you before you head back home.”

However, like it or not, the kutcheri is the format in which Carnatic music is presented today. So, for those listeners who may never have been to a kutcheri before, here’s my attempt to recreate that experience.

One last note: this playlist is much shorter than an actual kutcheri. A real kutcheri would likely contain more compositions, and more extensive improvisation on some of the parts. For example, in this playlist, the ragam-tanam-pallavi is only about 20 minutes long, whereas in a live kutcheri it may be closer to an hour.

Hope you enjoy, and let me know what you think. History of the kutcheri and more of T.M. Krishna’s critique after the break.

The playlist

Continue reading “The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique”

Getting lost in Bahudari

I have a summer research job where I mostly work on my laptop at home, so I’m free to listen to music, podcasts, lectures, whatever. Lately, I’ve been listening to Carnatic concerts, since it’s otherwise kind of inconvenient to listen to two-and-half hour-long YouTube videos during my everyday routine. So, while listening to a 2015 performance by TM Krishna, one of my favorite Carnatic musicians (for a variety of reasons), I was pleasantly surprised to hear him render a composition in one of my favorite ragas, Bahudari.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Bahudari, because why write about it when you can listen instead? But I will say this: Bahudari is a unique Carnatic raga, in that it doesn’t contain rishabham (the equivalent in Western solfege is the second note, re). Partially because of this and a few other details in the raga, Bahudari lends itself to bright, expansive melodic phrases. It’s a feel-good raga, in my opinion. (Also, a detail that has no relevance to the raga itself: the word “bahudari” means “many paths” in Telugu.)

In Carnatic music, Bahudari is generally seen as a minor raga, rarely selected for extensive improvisation. There aren’t too many compositions set in Bahudari either, but one of the few is “Brova Bharama,” which happens to be one of my favorite kritis composed by Tyagaraja. In the TM Krishna concert I was listening to, “Brova Bharama” was the composition through which he explored Bahudari.

There’s something playful and (dare I apply this word to Carnatic music) fun about TMK’s exploration of Bahudari and “Brova Bharama”. At 37:07, Krishna begins with a tanam (improvisation with more of a rhythmic focus) that starts out delicately, becoming increasingly forceful. He is mirrored almost perfectly by the violinist RK Shriramkumar, whom we’ll be paying more attention to soon. Today, it’s unusual for vocalists to sing a tanam before a composition, but I remember reading somewhere that it is/was common for veena players to do so. Anyway, Krishna’s tanam explores the lower octave of Bahudari, increasing in complexity over time.

Now, it’s the violinist’s turn to shine. At 40:55, Shriramkumar begins a short alapana in Bahudari, and the very first phrase he plays is so well-crafted that it elicits an appreciative “Oh!” from Krishna. At 41:33, he then switches to a tanam (I think…), just like Krishna did before. That goes on for a minute or so–and then at 44:13, without any warning, the violinist decides to begin “Brova Bharama”!

This is a break from traditional protocol: usually, the violinist would end his improvisation and then allow the vocalist to begin the composition, but here the violinist headed straight into the composition from the tanam itself, with a smile on his face. Krishna is visibly surprised, but he goes with the flow, joining in soon after the violinist begins. This cheeky move by the Shriramkumar sets the tone for the entire composition, and it makes the whole thing fun and a real treat to watch. So, finally, here’s the video:

Finally, the part that really caught my attention was a short phrase at 46:05, when the Shriramkumar begins the charanam (third and final verse of the song). This sequence is just played so sweetly that I had to take my violin out and play along with the recording. Which I then did, on repeat, for like an hour… as cliche as it sounds, I think that was the first time I really experienced “getting lost in a raga.” That one phrase played by the violinist actually inspired me to write this whole post.

I remember when I used to fall asleep during the improvisational parts of Carnatic concerts. How I’ve changed! (Ok, that still happens sometimes. I’m working on it.)

Do any of you have similar experiences “getting lost” in music or art in general? I’d love to hear about them!

Kanakamayam Ayidum: a game of “Who’s That God?”

In the busy calendar of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, Kerala, there are two major festivals. The Painkuni utsavam takes place in the Malayalam calendar’s month of Meenam (March/April), while the Alpashi utsavam is held during Thulam (October/November).

Both of these festivals are ten days long, and each day, an idol of Lord Padmanabha (a form of Vishnu), accompanied by other deities, is taken on a procession in a different type of vahana, or vehicle. It is said that originally the deities were taken out on elephants, but after an elephant ran amok one year, the temple decided to use vahanas which are carried by temple priests instead. These include a throne, Vishnu’s eagle Garuda, and a palanquin, to name a few. The festivals culminate on the tenth day, when the deities are taken to the Shankumugham beach for a holy bath in the ocean.

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A portrait of Swati Tirunal

Swati Tirunal, the 19th-century king of Travancore, was a prolific Carnatic and Hindustani composer whose compositions I’ve written about before. One of his most interesting works is the Utsavaprabandha. It’s made up of twelve compositions: an introduction, a conclusion, and ten main songs, each one describing a specific day of the festivals. They are set in a variety of ragas, some popular and some rare, and their lyrics are in highly Sanskritized Malayalam.

The charming song “Kanakamayam Ayidum” was composed for the third day of the festival, when Lord Padmanabha’s idol is taken out on procession atop the kamala vahana (lotus vehicle). It describes a conversation between two devotees who are watching the procession go by, but aren’t sure who the deity is. It’s kind of funny; Hindu kids are often teased about the seemingly endless number of Hindu deities, but as this song reveals, plenty of Hindus also find them hard to keep track of!

This song is set in raga Huseni and is in rupaka talam (six-beat cycle). Here’s a rendition by the wonderful Rama Varma, with a translation of the lyrics below:

Continue reading “Kanakamayam Ayidum: a game of “Who’s That God?””

Telisi Rama: goats and milkweed and God

In the cheerful, bright song Telisi Rama (in the raga Purnachandrika), Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847) showcases his skill as a vaggeyakara (poet-composer). He quotes various Telugu homonyms to make a point about language and devotion to God. The video above is a rendition of this song by the Malladi brothers.


telisi rAma cintanatO nAmamu sEyavE O manasA

talapu lanni nilipi nimiSamaina tAraka rUpuni nija tatvamulanu

Tyagaraja begins by appealing to one’s mind (O manasa) to “keep thoughts of Rama,” and to “recite his name steadily, even for one minute”. He continues by saying that, having stopped all unnecessary thoughts (talupulanni nilipi) even just for a minute (nimisha maina), one should concentrate on Rama’s attributes and sayings (tattvamulanu).

rAmAyaNa capalakSula pEru kAmAdula pOru vAru vIru
rAmAyaNa brahmamunaku pEru AmAnava jananArtulu dIru

The Telugu word rama can have two meanings: either “woman” or the god Rama. In this (sexist) couplet, Tyagaraja disapproves of those who say rama thinking of women. He says that saying rama while thinking of God will remove the hardships and troubles from one’s life.

arkamanucu jilleDu taru pEru markaTa buddhu leTla dIru
arkuDanucu bhAskaruniki pEru kutarkamanu andhakAramu dIru

Similarly, arka can mean either a poisonous milkweed tree, or another name for Surya, the sun god (technically one would say arkudu if referring to the god). Here, Tyagaraja asks, “When saying arka, if the mind thinks of milkweed, how will one’s monkey-like thoughts go away? / When saying arka, if the mind thinks of the Sun, the darkness of unnecessary thoughts will disappear.”

ajamanucu mESamunaku pEru nija kOrika lElA gIDEru
ajuDani vAgIshavaruniki pEru vijayamu galgunu tyAgarAja nutuni

Finally, the word aja can refer to a male goat, or to the creator god, Brahma (like above, technically one would say ajudu if referring to Brahma). Tyagaraja asks, “If the mind thinks of a goat while saying aja, how will one’s real desires be achieved [meaning moksha/liberation]? / When saying aja, if one thinks of Lord Brahma, they will attain success.”

(source)

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!