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classical music

31st October 2004 permanent link

Further thoughts on Indian classical music, inspired by going to hear Pandit Shiva Kmar Sharma this evening.

The boundaries of what Indians call “classical music” seem to be much more fluid than in the west. This seems healthy to me. The first piece is a formal raga. The second piece Sharma describes as “semi-classical”. Apparently it’s a Himalayan folk tune, played in something like raga style, but it’s more melodic and the improvisation is much freer. It ends in a whirlwind of call and response riffs between Sharma’s accompanists, his son Rahul Sharma also on santoor and Vishnu Sanju Sahai on tabla. Shiva Kumar Sharma sits in the middle, holding it all together, throwing in ideas, looking with his shoulder length mop of grey curly hair for all the world like Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve also heard Hariprasad Chaurasia, the most famous classical flute player, start a concert with a formal raga and finish with folk songs and film tunes as encores.

Sharma’s instrument the santoor, say the programme notes, was an obscure Kashmiri folk instrument until Sharma started playing classical music on it in the 1950s. Just imagine – this is as if one of the most famous and respected western classical musicians in the world today played something like banjo or slide guitar. (Of course, Ry Cooder is one of the most respected serious western musicians, but because of arbitrary genre boundaries we don’t regard what he does as “classical”)

When western classical music was healthy, people played with folk tunes, improvised lots, and experimented frantically with new instruments too.

If I had a lifetime or two available to learn a musical instrument (and who knows, perhaps I might) I would learn tabla. Or electric bass.

The concert was organised by Asha for Education, a group of Indians working abroad who organise fundraising events for schools for deprived kids back home. Seems like a thoroughly worthy cause. I didn’t see any of the guys from my office. Will have to give them a hard time about that – they were out in force for Hariprasad Chaurasia last year.

related entries: Music

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