Friday, April 27, 2012
K.S. Narayanaswami, Narayana Menon, Palghat Raghu: Classical Indian Music introduced by Yehudi Menuhin, 1963
Today's pick is ethereal, with the two Narayanas on vina and Raghu on mridangam, but this is not your typical Carnatic record. The album is supposed to be an introduction to Indian music for Western listeners, literally presented by Yehudi Menuhin who gives a spoken explanation of the music and quick summaries of the musical structures of each song. His speech covers the history and components of Indian music and includes a fair bit of praise for the tradition.
Menuhin is an interesting musical figure: he is an accomplished concert violinist considered by many to be among the best of the 20th century and was born into a prominent rabbinical line as the son of Eastern European immigrants in New York. According to wikipedia, he gave a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic two years after the end of the holocaust as a gesture of reconciliation, (he was the first Jew to do so,) and defended himself by saying that the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler had never joined the Nazi party and had helped Jewish musicians. He apparently also went beyond the bounds of Israels' comfort zone by performing benefit concerts for both Israelis and Arabs in the wake of the 6 Day War. Menuhin's controversial and at times activist use of classical music was motivated by a belief that nationalism and the global complex of competing governments inhibits peaceful coexistence. Along these lines, the Encyclopedia of World Biography credits him with a strong role in encouraging a cultural exchange between the US and USSR in 1955. With an eye to the international, it's no wonder that he was drawn to Indian music. Interestingly, some of his early exposures to Indian culture were not strictly musical but also through yoga.
Of Indian music in general, Menuhin suggests that performances are not finite because the beginnings and ends of songs are lost in the past and future as the music flows from tradition as from a river. He opposes it to Western music, which he says develops through a series of "actions and reactions," often expressions of present social circumstances more than a respect for past work. He stresses that before the advent of recording technologies, the music was transmitted exclusively through the didactic relationship between student and teacher. This history of Indian classical music follows a very typical narrative about the music's continuity. Menuhin's presentation (especially the hype at the beginning of the speech) gives the impression that this record contains a prime example of the kind of studied traditions that he describes, and the music delivers. This narrative is particularly interesting in the context of this record, because Narayana Menon was the Deputy Director General of All India Radio, Delhi, at the time of this recording. (He is credited simply as the All India Radio director in Peter Lavezzoli's The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi, and he apparently also held high posts at a number of other official music organizations.) Menon must be a fascinating figure in his own rite: he has published books on music, dance, and the poetry of William Butler Yeats, whose work he studied intensely in his pursuit of a poetry doctorate at Edinburgh University. And it was Menon who introduced Menuhin to Ravi Shankar, beginning a friendship that spawned multiple albums.
Menon's appearance on this record of exemplary Indian music got me thinking about his place in the world of Indian music. He presumably had a rare level of control over the shape of Indian music, because in addition to defining the music by playing it masterfully, he had some influence over what kind of music was recorded, broadcast, and sold. As I say in a previous post, I have heard that many musicians abandoned their resistance to the harmonium as an accompaniment instrument after All India Radio agreed to include it in recordings. I wonder how strongly music is guided in certain directions when a group of individuals, whose tastes are ultimately subjective, decide what music is fit for circulation.
Although Indian music emerges from a long, deep, and powerfully expressive tradition, it actually exists in the minds and practices of individuals who define it in their own ways, and these individuals learn from individuals within the stylized framework of a gharana. While the music might flow from tradition, it is difficult not to read that tradition as an interconnected web of similar but separate practices rather than a single stream. The general differences between Hindustani and Carnatic styles not to mention the variations from gharana to gharana would seem to indicate that there is no ultimate form of Indian music, that artists with carefully crafted sets of musical tools pursue musical and often spiritual depth with rare technical virtuosity. And while the commentary on the record and the jacket avoid the pitfall of calling this music an expression of the purest Indian music, one has to imagine that this recording falls comfortably within the official, standard vision of Indian music. When Menuhin implies that millenia of tradition led to the creation of this very record, other visions of Indian classical music with less official recognition get edged out.
The truth is that some gharanas not only look down on other gharanas, some don't even recognize others as true practitioners of raga. And where does such a subjective system for determining legitimacy leave musicians like Lacchu Maharaj, who does not fit exactly into any one gharana but appropriates elements from many? As far as I can tell, there is no universal judge of true raga, but organizations like All India Radio have nudged public opinion in one direction or another by crystallizing certain styles into monuments of culture in the process of transforming them into recordings. But to avoid sounding too critical, let me close by reiterating how masterful and serene the music on this recording is.