Raag time melodies

“Having no recourse to notation, Indian music is created before your very eyes, conjured as it were, out of the void.” This was how Yehudi Menuhin advertised the landmark concert he arranged in April 1955 for the sarod master Ali Akbar Khan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The event attracted huge attention and is believed to have been the first major recital of Hindustani music in the US.

The pair had met in Delhi three years earlier, and Menuhin was keen to introduce Khan’s genius to the western world; after New York Khan embarked on a European tour, making the first of many visits to London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Menuhin went on to enjoy a long and rewarding association with the sitar player Ravi Shankar but it was not until the Beatles met Shankar in 1965 that Hindustani music entered the western popular consciousness. In the years since, there have been many fruitful collaborations but, just as frequently, Indian classical music has been misused by mainstream musicians seeking countercultural kudos – or by armchair tourists on herbal highs. In fact, some might question whether it is even possible for western-trained musicians to grasp the deep complexity of Indian classical music, or for uninitiated audiences anywhere fully to appreciate live performances.

Sandeep Virdee, son of the revered tabla master and educationalist Bhai Gurmit Singh Virdee, and artistic director of the Darbar Festival, believes that everyone can enjoy Indian classical music on a fundamental level. “Music transcends all man-made barriers, and I think if you listen to fantastic music from any culture you will be moved by it. But in terms of enjoyment,” he concedes, “the more you put into any form of music, the more you learn.”

This month the Darbar Festival celebrates its seventh year with a return to London’s Southbank Centre, where, significantly, it has been programmed as part of the venue’s wider classical music series. Virdee explains that the festival began in 2006 as a one-off tribute event to his father but that it is now the largest of its kind outside the Indian subcontinent, and one of the few festivals anywhere that gives equal exposure to both Hindustani (north Indian) and Carnatic (south Indian) music.

George Harrison (left) with Indian classical dancer Uday Shankar, brother of sitar maestro Ravi, in 1972

While Carnatic music has, generally speaking, preserved its pure traditions, Hindustani music has long been shaped by foreign influences: first, through the Turko-Persian-Moghul rulers of the 13th to 18th centuries, and more recently through the influx of western culture. But in speaking to a number of distinguished classical musicians in Mumbai (a great centre for Hindustani music), many of whom have performed at Darbar, I am struck by a sense of ambivalence about modern influences, and a concern for the future of Indian classical music in a fast-changing world.

At her rehearsal space in the Dadar district, a neighbourhood famous for its musicians, the revered vocalist Dr Ashwini Bhide offers a tantalising insight into the conventions of Hindustani music. Seated on a patterned rug, alongside a student accompanist, she performs raag “Vachaspati” – her vocal line floats above the plucked strings of the tanpura and the rhythmic tabla beat, a radiant soundscape punctuated by the near-constant tooting of car horns from the road outside – and then provides a patient explanation.

Centuries ago, she says, Hindustani vocal music gradually emerged from a strictly devotional context into a courtly setting, and with it came the development of the khayal (a Persian word meaning “thought” or “imagination”) genre. Within the khayal format, the performer will select a raag, a cluster of seven notes, around 36,000 of which are mathematically possible but only 250 to 300 musically pleasing. The chosen raag can then be set to any number of compositions, or bandishes, and each of these offer “enlightened” artists endless possibilities for improvisation.

It is these strict structural traditions that allow creativity to flourish: “It’s like a colour spectrum: you can see seven colours but within the seven colours you have how many shades? Perhaps an infinite number.”

Bhide, whose achievements include a doctorate in biological sciences, describes herself as “not very religious, not very spiritual” – and yet her description of this “enlightenment” is shrouded in ambiguity (“if you have the belief that it will come, then it will come”) and she speaks of her own moment of realisation in almost Damascene terms: “I had planned to sing this raag and was singing in the way I usually practised .. and suddenly I realised one day that I was starting to get it. I went back to my guru, who happened to be my mother, and I said, ‘This is against what you have taught me but this is what I want to do. Do you approve?’”

At his house in central Mumbai the tabla master Pandit Yogesh Samsi, son of the great vocalist Pandit Dinkar Kaikini, is taking a class. The room is rammed with young tabla players, each with their twin hand drums, reciting the sequences that are used to teach this sophisticated percussion instrument. In the two-hour session there is barely a word spoken between Samsi and his students, just the quick-fire chanting of syllabic patterns and the sound of fingers mirroring the beat.

Afterwards, Samsi explains to me the importance of the guru-disciple relationship. “When I was very little I would see my father’s students prostrate in front of him, and gradually I came to realise that this action of prostrating or touching someone’s feet is more to do with the tremendous and profound knowledge that is present in that person, than the person themselves.” This act of surrender, Samsi explains, is critical if musicians wish to become artists rather than mere practitioners. “Unless you surrender totally to your guru, grace can never descend on you, and if grace does not descend you cannot be enlightened in that art.”

Since the 1940s, when amplification enabled performers to reach larger audiences, instrumental music has grown in prominence. And latterly, a growing number of classical instrumentalists has been drawn to fusion music, for Bollywood soundtracks or corporate events, by the opportunities and rewards it offers.

Classical bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia

Rakesh Chaurasia, a young classical bansuri (bamboo flute) player, has embraced fusion music. Over chai and snacks at Vrindavan Gurukul, a musical institution established in northern Mumbai by Chaurasia’s guru and uncle Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, he says he believes fusion can offer a gateway into classical music. Something of a charmer, he grabs the bansuri and gives a short, flashy introduction to the instrument before sliding into the Titanic theme tune.

“In fusion we play pieces based on raags but we might call them ‘Moonlight Piece’ or ‘Romantic Piece’,” he says. “We play a lot of corporate shows as evening entertainment.”

This change is also reflected in audience tastes. In the past concerts could last hours, and audiences would arrive with rugs and tiffin, and sometimes stake out a spot overnight. Today, these events have been curbed, partly by security concerns in the big cities but increasingly because modern audiences lack the patience. It is a trend that Bhide recognises. “As a musician, my loyalties haven’t changed, I am still singing the same things that I sang 25 years ago but, yes, it is becoming compressed, in the same way that five-day cricket matches are being taken over by 20/20. It is becoming more entertainment-orientated.”

Even serious cultural venues, such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts, in the business heart of Mumbai, are starting to favour shorter programmes of Indian classical music. Devina Dutt, an arts writer based in Mumbai, who is currently filming a documentary about the small town of Dharwad, one of the most important centres for Hindustani music, believes “better musical experiences are usually to be had outside the ‘concert as spectacle’ context, at Sunday morning concerts, at music mandals (associations of music lovers in a neighbourhood) or foundations set up in memory of a great musician.”

The Darbar Festival (the word darbar refers to the audience chamber in a maharaja’s court) situates itself between these two extremes, with concerts, supplemented by a classical music appreciation course and yoga classes, in one of London’s top music venues. “From day one, we have not simply called in the great maestros but focused on great quality musicians, irrespective of caste, religion, gender,” Virdee says. “We’re hoping that, just like Womad, the name Darbar will be associated with a certain schedule and a certain quality of music.”

Darbar Festival, September 27-30, www.darbar.org

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