To understand rather than love

I feel like the most heartfelt posts that I ever wrote about music and its nature to me were several years before now. At the time, i described in detail, the experience of being useless as a musician in a world that needs so much. The experience of fitting not really on stage and not really in a temple. Feeling like a quintessential home performer only. Now I am writing from a world that has changed mercurially in a matter of weeks like a bipolar goddess.

For a while now, a bulk of what I write about music goes into “science” instead, into my own PhD dissertation, and the quest of truly – trying to understand rather than love. The thing is – when you try to avoid being in love with music, listening itself becomes so much simpler. A dance party becomes a participatory theatre, a listen-along can become a social activity, and an antakshari trip is but pure nostalgia. None of these experiences are like trying to get inside a song, and internalizing it – an activity i spent most of my childhood on.

At the cost of not engaging, we can listen to a lot. Just trying to think of who made this music, under what conditions, and what was being appreciated. We can listen to our own nostalgia thinking about the time, and the nostalgia itself. We can think about the ideas of the music – as both getting older, as well as academic research – are often about. We can listen to societies, and music-cultures. We can listen to histories – and lives, without ever taking them in. We can listen to ‘authenticity’ of voice, and ‘irony’. We can listen to ‘production’.

To detach, compartmentalize, check-out, doesn’t really come at an immediate cost to the self. Instead, truly entering something with your heart does. And in so far as one never wants to, it is possible to live with a heartless, clumsy joy.

The few moments that are spent with music without cynicism – have to be the moments spent in the world and not about the world. The world is not intimately accessible to detached adults at all times, or at least not without making an effort to making it intimately accessible. And in so far as that is still possible, I am going to make an effort to not forget about this.

Conceptualizing (musical) ‘Culture’

In this post, i am revisiting a an essay critiquing an old ‘important book’ from 1961. The warnings in this essay about conceptualizing musical culture, I think, are still relevant today.
[Youngerman, S. (1974). Curt Sachs and his heritage: A critical review of World History of the Dance with a survey of recent studies that perpetuate his ideas. Dance Research Journal6(2), 6-19.]

I was recommended a read of Curt Sachs’s Wellsprings of Music a couple of months ago by someone who read it 40 years ago, and remembered it to be interesting, forgetting the environment of discourse surrounding musical-cultural discourse then was completely different from the things we now have come to understand. In an essay, Suzanne Youngerman disseminates (read rips apart) Curt Sach’s approaches in a succinct, wonderful manner. I want to look at some key points from that essay especially with respect to the treatment of music in increasingly computational methods. Youngerman issues warnings for writing about musical cultures in this essay. A lot of the analysis from Sach’s book itself is overtly racially motivated, as seemed to be the theme of the time. Youngerman also brings to light the construction of Sachs’s discourse parallelly with Lomax’s. Our methods to understand ‘musical cultures’ and aesthesis may have changed a lot from the times of cantometrics, but do these changed methods achieve a movement far enough away from the time of eugenics and social darwinism? I think some of this critique can be applied to discrimination-type analyses in today’s music-information related studies.

Youngerman warns:  There is one other unfortunate consequence of this study. Lomax
refers to the clusters he uncovers as representing “human subspeciation” (ibid.:232). Whether it was his intention or not, the use of this terminology feeds into racial interpretations of history.

Some fallacies she names:
1. the belief that synchronic data can be used to formulate diachronic theory.
<synchronic: as it exists in one point of time
diachronic: as has evolved over time>
Linearization of historical art-narratives are to a large extent make them sound ‘science-like’ as if creative or cultural production is derived from overt citation, and only one logical pathway survived; although it is as true of evolution as it is of cultural development, that what survives is utterly and completely random.
Third-hand, fourth-hand annotated sources, very broad categories, cultural anachronism are features of computer systems now. Historical treatment of ‘other’ musical cultures is something that most systems spend absolutely no time on, resulting in a lot of glossing over of time periods for all except the western canon.

2. the fallacy of reliance on migration as the explanation for cultural change.

3. the false conceptualization of history as the interaction of a few traditions.

4. the tendency to ignore or to explain away contradictions in lofty theory
(treating data as noise)
Some of this analysis and critique is even more sensitive in today’s time when data paucity on the surface doesn’t appear as a problem, but it actually is.

5. the use of dubious sources of data
Especially when dipping into ‘other cultures’, it is even more vital to ask: WHO in this faraway country is collating data? What are their politics? Do they come from power? In which case are you helping amplify the power discourses that harm many, again, this time with data?

6. the perpetuation of a static conception of culture based on the correlation,
commonly known as correlation is not causation
even neural network based co-occurrence should not be confused with causation, especially when digitally explaining-away cultural practice.

7. poetic obfuscation
We cannot use poetics to cloud analysis when it suits us.

I think this is a handy summary of what to not think when talking about musical ‘culture’ (or even genre).

Making bread for the troops

(Singular they has been used in this article to refer to the musician to not use a gendered pronoun.)

Recently I had the experience of being at a baithak of a wildly popular Hindustani singer in Oslo, as a part of a prestigious south-asia series, and held in the Nobel peace center. It is not often that you get to hear a good mehfil here, and I went excitedly to listen to this person, whose general hearing accessibility is quite high from social media, coke studio, appearances on popular-classical fora etc. This singer sang raga Jog at 4 pm, saying that it was almost 9 back in India, so it’s no problem. They later proceeded to sing a morning raga, their version of a trite thumri, and an adaptation from carnatic music. All of these pieces had at least 3 youtube versions each, of them singing. And on stage, each piece sounded not only exactly like its youtube counterpart, but also quite like any other raga by this artist. The singer is not only quite famous on youtube and has a known young audience, sometimes also named responsible for getting young people ‘back into’ classical music. I came back disappointed – although –

Despite these strange quirks and youtubey presentation, I find it hard to hate on this artist. They are very vocal about how music and society are related to each other, and affirm constantly how music has to change along with society, which i agree with a lot. The way they want to think about and perform classical music is really their prerogative.  To write idiomatically for their own voice, is their call. To represent vocally the underrepresented class of people they belong to – that is what they will bring to the table in this day and age – and in that sense it truly does not matter what purists will say about them.

One of the strange things about classical musics is the relationship it has with the past. I wrote earlier about nostalgia and condescension together as being two parts of the same bifocal lens of viewing the past at a point like this. The temptation to gloat puritanically about the virtues of music as heard in the olden days must be resisted. But also, there is no classical music without ancient rules, there is none without upholding the words of the wise old (men). There is no classical music without its gatekeepers and guards; judges and pundits. The way in which the aforementioned vocalist tries to rectify this is to make a band of the underrepresented community that they wish to see more of, and perform as a group, making space for more than one of their members at the same time. This thought is radical for classical music, because it also breaks down the hierarchy of the performers on stage, if 6 of them are now on stage, and each has equal weight (instrumentalists are not inferior, etc).

T M Krishna has been widely vocal, and radically informed about the issues plaguing music that mimic societal issues with caste, but also in the children that he decides to bring up to speed, and into classical music – he offers them classical music itself*. The very thing he has devoted his life to. That beautiful thing protected for hundreds of years by staunch brahmins, whose power politics deserve to be hated, and changes deserve to be made. But – Does this music then contain the relics of, the symbols of the social segregation that its practitioners stood for? Do the virtues of the music itself somewhere in their crevices contain the dust from this hegemonic society? That is not a question with an answer.

From what I have understood from the public feed of Prachi Dublay, a researcher documenting and learning desi tribal music from extensive and kind travel through India, it that she would never repeat the songs she has learnt, on stage. Learning a tribal song does not make it hers, even learning it well does not. Getting popular for it will not make her a singer of tribal work. Her work is to document, and not represent. There shall be no appropriation.

In these two examples there is a dual flow of cultural exchange and power. I wish to invoke at this point, an adage used in stand-up comedy, which is to never ‘punch down’. There is always power in the actors in a joke, and punching up – making fun of having is okay, but punching down – joking about not having (money, knowledge, power) – is not okay. If it can be a rule in comedy, it should transpire to music.

There is an old idiom in marathi: लष्करच्या भाकर्‍या भाजणे (lashkarchya bhakrya bhajNe).
It stands figuratively for work that you do on behalf of others, standing up for problems that are not yours. Working on any kind of social issue by being in Classical music is a giant double edged sword – an conceptual oxymoron. The balance – between propagating something with historical bindings to socio-structural problems, and not appropriating somebody’s problems by trying to be a proponent coincidentally making money for yourself by capitalizing on somebody else’s cultural heritage, or labor – is delicate.  To not bake bread on behalf of the troops, is to not appropriate that which does not belong to you.

Enthusiasm about the greatness of something doesn’t come really from bemoaning the lack of that greatness in other things, but the curiosity and excitation of that thing itself. Perfect sur, great tihais, wonderful calculation – are things worthy of exaltation, not least because they are better than imperfect sur, and pre-planned tihais, but because they are wonderful in themselves. We do not, really do not need to condescend to appreciate.

This is what democratization means. Guardians are the people who have never ended up protecting, nor propagating heritage. We have to know this. Insecurity for a stream of music by its guardians, and blaming generations for every constituting member being wrong are immature and inaccurate, are claims that are designed to not make space for others.


Nostalgia, condescension, and gender in Music

We live a lot of our life on the premise that ahead means better, and that somehow better and ahead are related. We view the past sometimes in part with these dual lenses of nostalgia as well as condescension together, making our own unique stereoscopic reconstruction of how things were – in our own lives, and in history. In a tradition such as in Indian music, one is condemned to repeat history as faithfully as one can. This means that historic engagement with the text of the material is a given. This text helps me create scenes of how life might have been, how relationships were constructed, and how love was negotiated.

I am generally upset by the thought that most of the khyal material, which is very commonly the first person account of a woman – is all written by men. This is the inverse of the male gaze in a way, men filling out the woman’s narrative, the female gaze – the Lacanian woman who is the ‘symptom of man’, the necessary route of fantasy. The woman, up all night thinking about her man – who is at the other woman’s room. The woman waiting for her husband, the merchant, to return from years and years of travel. The actual example of a woman tawaif, her song chastised for the classical stage. Writing a song on someone’s behalf is a severe way of putting words in their mouth, and appropriating their feelings.

While being a musician, it has been a wonderful thing to observe from a distance, the changes in women’s voices across decades of use and disuse of microphones, allowance and prohibition of physical beauty on stage, in classical and in popular music. The woman with the item song, her free sexuality symbolized by a low alto voice, and the severe soprano damsel in distress. It has barely been barely a hundred years from the time that men had to play women’s parts in musical theater.

I research body movement and music – and in the study of texts, a lot of the time , I find things like this quote: ‘exaggerated gestures that distract the attention of the audience from the music to the body are discouraged, especially for women’, that make me disappointed, to say the least. When i find interviews by modern women singing the same tradition boldly on stage looking as beautiful as they bloody wish to, I am reminded of the limits of nostalgia.

With all that I can feel about the past, the simple beauty of unrequited and lifelong longing and love, the poesy in waiting and in patience, all of it is based on old poetry. The same old poetry that lets me forget for a very short amount of time, that the time that I wish I was in was also a time that was deeply, deeply, deeply unfair to all women.

Seasonal music

I have been living in Norway for abouat six months now. Its cold summer weather, chilly open waters, and infinite beauty are all alluring, but new. img_4861I traveled here from a hot summer in central India, where we were between dry rivers and a possible drought. The anxiety and expectation of an abundant monsoon, my checking of the satellite images of clouds – anti-climaxed into cold weather and occasional light rain. An unexpected end to a tropical summer. When I came here, I found a song by Abhisheki, that had me listening to it for weeks thereafter – Kashi Tuja Samajavu saang.

One line that really got me was here-
Hasyahuni madhu rusava- Hemanti ushna hava. Sandhyecha saaj nava‘.
‘Playful frowning is sweeter sometimes than laughing – like the hot loo in midsummer, the new beauty of a balmy evening’.
I am no stranger to extreme emotional reaction from song. But here I really want to think about what we bring to our relationships from geography? An overhead sun heating to a fifty degrees, setting into pink and purple colours. How do we search for satiation in this heat? Clay pots to cool water, and the sweet taste of the cooling leaves of khus (vetiver), how do we make peace with our loved ones and conflict in the same way that we make peace with heat. There is no way that this song is not tropical. It also screams of the time it was written in. A time when you had to live through the heat, instead of using electricity to bypass it, when you experienced the seasons intimately.

The only truth in a season is that it ends, and another desirable period comes by and that desire for the next is as temporary as the season itself.

Other marathi poems refer to ‘madhu chandane‘, honey moonlight – which is impossible to think of in the norwegian autumn – the harsh night is no relief outdoors. There are references to ‘sharad raat‘, which would be an outdoors nightmare in this part of the world. Stating the obvious – but how are our relationships like the climate we physically respond to each and every day. How pleased should sun make me? What is a ‘nice day’?


Indian music is entirely full of openly referencing to the season, as well as the time, anyway. Some of it is thought of as an convenient way to suit the state of the vocal chords and the ease of singing intervals at different times of the day, putting for example flat intervals for early mornings when the vocal mechanism is not yet ready. It sometimes is also the ‘mood’ of the raag itself. In Marathi, we refer to twilight as katarvel, ‘tremble-time’. My grandmother and i used to sit at our verandah, waiting for the evening tremble-time to pass us by – and she used to explain to me how the air gets cooler and does not move freely. How our feelings clutch us during twilight – and refuse to breathe.

The practice of adhering to these prescribed times makes the symbology of raga so iconic that its correspondence to a season slowly becomes second nature. It is impossible to hear malhar and think about anything other than the rain, when you grow up associating the poetry of the raag and the nature of it.

When you leave the country though – it is not clear what the times of the day signify. Twilight is sometimes at 3 pm. Or 1 am. What should I be singing?

I wish i felt a malhaar feeling in the autumn rains of Oslo. See – rains are not respite when you are not tropical. I could not find relief without a serious downpour of several milimetres in an hour. I have to settle for general moisture and a few drops. Cold is not comforting when it turns stormy and biting. Weather wise, we want what we do not have – and is there even any point in translating songs?

Our music and poetry is our bodies. Our bodies are our geographies and climate.


How it feels to study music in this world.

The news everyday has a tendency to get progressively depressing. That, one might say is a characteristic, or an intrinsic property of it being the news. Climate change, droughts, famines, extinction, terrorism, shootings, oppression, domination, extinction of languages, cultural imperialism. It is an endless list. I also realize that pretty much none of these things is new. We have been, as a people, actively fantasizing about the death of the earth and of humanity for at least a hundred years. We have used the best numbers we can get our hands on to predict a doomsday. We have always used change as fear. And in those numbers, always coded our own biases, as we still do.

I am a PhD student in the musicology department, but my family consists of  2 conservation biologists, and 2 medical doctors. My uncles who were soldiers, felt that the nation was something to fight for. My mother performs life saving surgeries on most days in every week. At my previous institute, I have had professors who worked closely with an information network for farms. I grew up in a small town, and was well connected to the impossible problems of the quicksand nature of global cultural investment and the speedy erosion of local sensibilities. The contributions of all these people to the world are extremely obvious, and extremely important.

A result of this background is that I ask myself the question everyday. Why am I studying music, whose life am I seeking to better? How does this affect anyone anywhere? What is the point? I am not a performer, delivering direct entertainment to anyone. I am not actively working as a music teacher either. Am I participating in a game of privilege? Not the producer but the inauthentic connoisseur, the passive ivory tower theorizer?

Last week, the voice asking these questions was stronger than ever. Xenophobia and perverse narratives of people seeking to throw others out occupied the news. Shitty climate, more dams, more drought was there as usual. What am I doing for anything.

Until recently, I had been searching for all kinds of evidence for how the arts, music included benefit your life. And there are a lot of great and important points to be made regarding the close link of us being human, and us being capable of artistic expression. I heard Ben Cameron’s talk and Martha Nussbaum’s book, and I found assurance in Adrienne Rich’s poems on poetry. I sought these lofty answers out again. Any solace to justify my move outside my poor, beautiful country to a faraway rich beautiful country. Why. And yesterday it hit me.

Music is the one of the few things we do well, we as in mankind.

It is the thing that in and of of itself can possibly not push an agenda, it is not meant for converting and convincing, even if it is used as a tool sometimes. In and of of itself, it is semantically void without words. It is not possible to produce a thing of music that is not a thing of surprise, and beauty. I am meant to die feeling impossibly lifted and absorbed in musical content. I was born to feel utterly unrequited forever, in how amazing music is, how diverse, how many things it has to say.

I want to continue to study music forever. It is a one sided love. I just sit by my desk and ruminate about how it is possible for it to do such things to us. Before we all perish forever from our own deeds, I want to be a part of the forever infinite beauty of music.

Musicians in Costume (Rajasthan)

Every stage has always demanded a corresponding ambient visual creation. The setting in which any music is performed is meant to be an appreciation of the history of the artform. The black coat-tails of the conductor, bow ties, tuxedoes of the western world, the etiquette of a concert goer and their clothes, everything is a part of the formal requirements of concert going. In a way, it is also what classical western music owes to the church – what Carnatic music owes to the temple.

Appropriate costumes and setting reminds us of the reason that the music is this way. I have always struggled with the costume aspect a little. I had to be dressed differently for classes or for music exams. Formality and appropriateness with the guru is an implicit requirement, but those clothes are not my clothes of choice on a daily basis. Salwar suits are fine, shorts are unthinkable and pants are disrespectful to the cultural weight of Indian music, I was made to believe. It’s hard to know what sarees bring to the music itself, especially when you are still training or you are practising.

cr-3-630Once I went to something like Classical Revolutions and saw the power that dressing down has on relatability of classical music itself – how much more acessible Saint-Saëns becomes when he is played in a coffee shop by guys in jeans, who are able to smile at each other. How nearby Ravel seems in the park when violinists stomp when they want, and coordinate a little dance. Questions arise about musicians in costume. Who asks us to wear them, how do they build the atmosphere of the music, and how do they change who listens to the music.

By definition, the daily dresses of folk musicians should suffice as an appropriate costume. But somehow, that doesn’t seem to be true. What cultural memory does folk music sustain within itself? How has photographing folk music, and the outside-inside viewing of folk music contributed to this trend in costuming? I recently traveled to Rajasthan, the hub and home of folk music in India or better put – culture tourism in India.  Because of the different nomadic peoples of Rajasthan having their own musical and dance cultures, the state has an amazing amount to offer in terms of variety in music and dance.


There is the dance of the nobility, with women who wear (veils). The dance of the commoners, much more free in spirit.The dance of the bells, performed sitting down.


Around Mehrangarh fort, I met musicians (lots of musicians) who were sitting alone, or with their wives and sometimes a little baby, singing. It brought the historic weight of the fort to life.20151228_130510 When the city of Mehrangarh was full with bangle sellers, food carts, clay toys, nobility and servants alike, all roaming through the streets of the forts – the musicians in the alcoves of the palace must be sitting around, singing all these desert songs. Playing really loud drums to announce the happenings of the court. It was beautiful to see this in action.


I also met a musician on the bridge at Udaipir, an old man he was – playing and selling his Ravanhatta. It had a beautiful sound, and his playing had immersed in it, all the years of his experience as well. His wife sold silver trinkets right next to him on the bridge. In the evening, we saw the two of them walk back to their home again, the pagdi, the ghaghra, the ravanhatta and a woolen jacket on the dhoti, protecting against the bite of a chilly Udaipur night.

In Mehrangard though, when the day was over, we saw the musicians change from their lehariya turbans and fresh white pathani suits, to chinese made jeans and rubber printed t-shirts. The whole majesty of the fort, that was recreated by the simple pathani, was washed far down by a mustard t-shirt screaming ‘UCLA Cool Boys’. The musicians now sitting in their regular comfortable garb, were chatting with each other, twisting the mustaches they had grown either out of will or to fit into the requirements of the costume. Their lives during and after work are entirely different. Unlike the life of the man on the bridge. And unlike their women.

The women, were still in their ghagra-cholis even after work. They didn’t wear costumes while singing, their whole life was costume. The historical weight on them is not just of the music, but of chastity, honour, servitude, it still is on their ghaghras, embroidered in fine silver zari, their pale blue eyes piercing the thin veiled ghunghats. Their lives didn’t change as much, whether they sang or not. The music they were responsible for, was not the lofty sufi music, about a lover and a god. The pieces they were responsible for handing out were only lullabies. Ones they never got to sing outside of home – the same ones that did not require costume.

Indian Music and Meditation

I have frequently been told by (new) listeners of Indian music, especially North Indian music of how soothing it is to their ears, how meditative the experience is, and how it makes them feel as though they can concentrate and focus. Contrary to what most performers willl feel about this after having sung a long and serious rendition of a Bihag, for example, these listeners, of course, mean it is a huge complement. Even educated listeners of different kinds sometimes collapse the many moods and functions of indian music into what is first available from its form.

Understandably, this can become frustrating. If the form (the structure) of a piece of music is inseparable from the functions, but the form occludes the function, it is hard to get involved in the properties of the function afresh. Different ragas in Indian music are meant to evoke and represent emotions ranging from happiness in the monsoon, to sensual interaction with the beloved, to righteous anger, to supplicating devotion. How does the walk from these intended emotions to one ‘meditation’ affect take place?

I have thought of some properties in the structure and presentation of Indian music, that might just be a challenge to grasp, way before moving on to the functional nuances:

  1. The Tanpura Drone, and the sounds of the overtone
  2. Fixed tonic position
  3. Long open vowels (for vocal music)
  4. Beginning and exposition in an extremely slow tempo
  5. Absence of rhythmic repetition for a large part of the performance
  6. Melodic detail (which is sometimes easy to miss because of intricacy and speed)
  7. Getting used to feeling the differences of minor variations on the mood
  8. Not understanding the language

At first brush it is clear that this music is not meant to dance to, not dance in the club sense. It offers one or two memorable lines at most. There is no refrain, no bridge, no return section – all the structural markers are missing. It is difficult to understand and get into a new melodic ‘mode’ with new intervals, as their functions are unclear. A very good question to ask is especially for ragas is the range of mood that people can identify as being different between ragas that are even close to each other, such as bhairav and kalingada. What, also, makes the moods of faraway ragas seem similar for untrained audience. Also, if the intended emotion is not universally comprehensible, what prior experience is required to understand the nuance? Is this prior exposure sufficient if its only in the sense of musical training, or does linguistic and prosodic nuance add up?

I guess several of these are straight up research questions / might be hard to answer even if data is present. But what I want to say is this: No type of music is meant for one thing alone – never for one type of musical affect. Once we can get over the form and structure of any genre, then there are things to see, outside is only an aura, a farce, and no nuance.

Historical Performance – and Unfair Comparisons

I’m currently reading Taruskin’s Text and Act – essays on Music and Performance. A part of the beginning of the book is all about the intersections of musicology and music performance. Musicology in part is important to the western tradition also because of the concept of historical performance – to reproduce, as accurately as one can, the music from a time period not their own. This, as one can imagine, includes many many disciplines – people who study scores to find out what different things mean, instrument makers and repairers – who can decipher from text – the technology from a different time and recreate it, experts on intonation – those who can interpret how intonation might have been from the score and the hints in writing, historians – who can interpret the mood and the setting of the music, and lastly conductors, theorists and teachers, interpreting how the music must have sounded from score. This means that music performance majors also specialise in particular times in history.

Several of these disciplines that emerge from the insistence on Historical Performance, are not fundamental to the study of music in a cultural performance studies like Indian music. In part, this is perhaps what makes it very easy for Indian musicians to undermine the importance and strength of the entire discipline of musicology. The history that we are trying to reproduce doesn’t exist from any time period in particular, but is a reference to a common, homogenous, historic ‘whole’, that may or may not have been in the past. A trope such as ‘why write about music if you can practise it’, and ‘if you write that must mean you are actually no good at performance’ can come about only because of a different angle of historical performance.

This meanwhile, is true for most musical cultures. As they start to get objectified, their nature changes. They are sometimes viewed from the outside, sometimes their agency shifts, as in the case of Indian folk music, from social functions and rituals, to catering to the tourists. The subjects that the songs are about, instead of changing to match the new life of the people, become inwardly – sticking to archaic themes in apparent attempts of preserving historicity. This is visible not just in folk music but also in part in the newly composed khyal material in Indian classical music. Non-canonized new compositions self-censor their language to not be contemporary on purpose. The subjects to reflect an imagined time in ‘history’, but without a date and a place. In this sense, the new themes are often lost entirely, and never spoken about in song.

So – what is the position of musicology in such a setup?