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.