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Music gurus from the West

Dharitri Bhattacharjee | March 5, 2011

Richard Wolf Richard Wolf

There was a time when lovers of Indian classical music had to come to India to pursue their passion. Today, avenues are opening up across the US for them to study, research or learn a wide range of Indian performing arts

A skinny seven-year-old Afghan boy walked into Zakir Hussain's tabla class in the Bay Area in northern California in 1988. For over two decades, he trained rigorously and today, among his many accomplishments is the tabla score for the stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner. Salar Nader is now teaching at the Afghan national Institute of Music in Kabul, the only music school in that nation.

Indians can never quite get over the fact that many of our celebrated musicians, be it Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain or much before them Ali Akbar Khan, left India to practice their art in the US. Fewer Indians know how this move vitalised the Indian classical music scene there and shaped the careers of many others like Nader: khayal singer Matt Rahim, shankar guitar player Kelli Eagan, musicologist Sonia Gaind or fusion vocalist Crystal Rose, for example.

In the late 1960s, when the Ali Akbar College of Music was founded in California, there were not many such schools. But over the years, many new institutions have sprung up across the US. Not just music schools, there are good ethnomusicology departments in universities across the US that support research into Indian classical music. Also, there is generous funding available to pursue Indian music in India itself. The American Institute of Indian Studies, Fulbright, Qayum Family Foundation and Mellon Foundation are some of the major organisations that give out fellowships.

The situation was very different five decades ago. "Two months in 1965, we traveled thousands of kilometers around the Indian sub-continent by third-class train. Experiencing India in many different ways made me decide that, upon return to real life in the US, I would devote myself to the study of India's music in the field of ethnomusicology. Neither I nor anyone I knew in the US had ever heard Indian music. But when I returned to the US I was shocked to discover that Indian music was the rage due to George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. A career in research into Indian music made sense then, " says Bonnie Wade, of the University of California, Berkeley.

Back in the 1970s, many experienced Indian music only through the great rock icons of the decade. "Like many others in the US and Europe I experienced Indian music through the music of the Beatles and acid rock groups. But the concert of south Indian music I heard in 1980 was very different from all that I had heard before, " says Richard Woolf of the music department in Harvard University.

In 1980, an extraordinary performance of Carnatic music stirred Richard into taking up ethnomusicology and focusing on this stream. He also plays the veena. Bonnie and Richard had to find gurus in India.

Salar found the best guru one could ask for in tabla, sitting in northern California. "As a five or sixyear-old boy I did not even know how big a superstar my teacher was, " admits Salar.

This growing fascination for classical Indian arts did two things. It made teaching in the West a viable profession for classical Indian musicians. And this, in turn, offered Westerners an opportunity to study Indian classical arts at home. Soma Sarkar from Serampore, West Bengal, is one such teacher. She offers lessons in Indian classical music in New York and Maryland. Soma was the first Indian classical musician to have applied to the New England Conservatory in Boston.

"The availability of a guru has been one of the main reasons why Indian classical music and dance saw the popularity that it did in US, " she says.

Can an artiste from the West grasp the subtler and more culturally-rooted nuances of Indian music? "Western music has a different approach to sound, to rhythm and melody, and to musical aesthetics generally. The fluidity of pitch in the Indian classical system is something the Western musician has to adjust to, " says Sonia Gaind, a New York University PhD student who is working on a dissertation on Sufi music.

Salar says he had it easy because ethnic Indian and Afghan music have deep-rooted connections. "In the late 1700s Indian musicians became full-time court musicians in the Afghan Darbar and eventually those musicians stayed in Kabul. So rhythmically there is much similarity, " he says.

Western performers and music academics often face comparison with Indians, the point of reference being authenticity. "That assumption was and probably still is widely held. The questions I could ask would be limited to those I could imagine from my experiences with Indian music;I'm not sure that is different from the situation of an Indian student coming new to the music, " says Wade.

Wolf occasionally finds Indians patronising about his skills. He points out that quite a few musicians in the Indian professional music sphere here excel over their desi counterparts. The fact is that art music is a difficult career to pursue anywhere in the world. Boston-based Kelli Eagan says that serious students of Indian music, be it from India or the US, have to deal with a long struggle. But it is a struggle worth the effort.

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