I was walking past a closed door at work when I was brought to a dead halt by a voice. The full-bodied control was unmistakable; the Carnatic singers had arrived for the sound check. I poked my head into the auditorium and listened in awe at the snatches of song projected to test the microphones. And that was just the student who was opening the show. “Imagine what the teacher must sound like,” I thought.
Listening later to the celebrated singer Bombay Jayashri in concert, the difference between her and the student was significant. Jayashri’s voice exuded a canny wisdom that was almost cunning in the way it was modulated — little embellishments thrown in here and there, seemingly off-hand, but working as reminders of theme, or as a touch of lightness when things got too heavy.
Sadly though, my reaction to Indian classical music is more intellectual than emotional. I’m astounded by the musicians’ virtuosity, the decades of work that ensure even a single note sung or played on a violin is beautiful and thought-provoking. But I lack that true identification with the fabric of the music. Such a pity that when I could have been watching some of the world’s greatest musicians performing live in my own city, I was listening to scratchy tapes of music from another land, another culture.
Though the blue notes of western improvised music sound almost childish and simplistic next to the microtonality of Indian classical, it’s those that get my heart beating faster. A Carnatic violinist loads a single riff with more subtle emotion than entire jazz or blues songs (and yet is never melodramatic), but instead of being moved, I am merely awed. A single bent note from a blues harmonica and the emotion wells up inside of me. (While on the subject, I should say that no music leaves me colder than western classical. I find its rigorous structure and formality stifling.)
My wife, who identifies powerfully with Indian culture, especially the devotional aspect that is prevalent in its classical music, was transported by the concert. At one point, tears just started rolling down her cheeks and continued for an entire song.
If she was alone, she said, she’d have started sobbing. I couldn’t help being envious; of being able to identify that completely with a great art form, of being so rooted, of having self-consciousness fall away in that manner — these are powerful, important experiences. In the days after the concert, she had a relaxed bliss about her and she kept singing snatches of the song that affected her so much. I know I’ll hear her sing it at quiet moments for years to come.
When she sings, again I’m envious, she can carry her music with her, note perfect, wherever she goes. She can hear a song once and sing it perfectly. I often stop what I’m doing to listen to her go about her work, singing anything from western pop songs to Hindi film hits to Kannada folk music.
The female voice is often badly reproduced by electronic music systems, or badly processed by recording engineers, so it’s wonderful to hear it in close settings — either at an intimate live concert or totally unadorned at home.
With the surfeit of electronics, amplification and auto tuners, as well as the old standards of reverb or compression or double-tracking, it’s easy to forget the magic of the roughness of humanity in our music.
The arch diversions, the tics, the little mistakes — all create an imperfect perfection that we need to grab at and hold. The tears must be able to roll freely down our cheeks.