“Indian Music Abroad” By Vibhakar Baxi

This paper will seek to trace the evolution of the Indian music scene abroad, its interaction with foreign audiences and foreign music forms, its association and adaptation with the ethnic audiences which had come to reside abroad through migration or being born of migrant parents. The role of concert organizations and individuals associated with this process and the role played by music labels will also be explored. The experimentation that inevitably comes about as a result of such an interaction will also be considered. Given the time constraints, the coverage will at best be somewhat superficial. I would like to acknowledge material contribution to this effort by way of historical information by my colleague Jay Visva Deva.
Historical background and evolution
The role and acceptance of Indian music abroad has evolved considerably since its initial impact over five decades back. Inevitably, there have been two parallel strands of this music genre, namely the Indian diaspora on one hand and the mainstream audience in the West (predominantly) on the other. For the purposes of the present discussion, the term ‘Indian’ will encapsulate the sub-continental context, to also include Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Within the diaspora, there have evolved two strands as well, one of the first generation diaspora and latterly their next generations born in the West and other overseas countries. ‘West’ here shall also comprise the cultural definition, so as to include not only Europe and the Americas but also Australia and New Zealand. While a global perspective will be attempted here, inevitably the anecdotal emphasis will be guided more by the UK experience.
Legendary classical dance maestros Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal were the earlier pioneers of performing arts from India to bring their art to Britain in the 1930’s. In the late 1940’s, following the independence of India, Ustad Vilayat Khan performed before King George VI. However, it was not until 1950’s or so that the provision of Indian music to the United Kingdom became institutionalized. Ayana Dev Angadi together with his painter wife Patricia co-founded an organization, which they called Asian Music Circle. Together with their overwhelming zeal and love for everything Indian they were to produce and present some of the greatest performing arts from India for almost two decades until Ayana went back to India in the late 60’s, never to return again. In the two decades, the Asian Music Circle presented the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the Kathakali Kalamandalam and a host of top Indian performing arts groups.
Indian music became more accessible abroad, when in 1955 Yehudi Menuhin invited Ustad Ali Akbar Khan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The extraordinary performance prompted critics to write seriously about Indian Music. The following year Pandit Ravi Shankar made his first appearance as a sitarist and became nationally popular. Both musicians returned for regular concerts. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alia Rakha moved to the USA in the late sixties to play and teach. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan laid a foundation for the best teaching school outside India, the Ali Akbar College of Music in California in 1965, followed subsequently by a branch in Basle, Switzerland.
Soon music festivals were held – The Monterey Pop in 1967, the Woodstock in 1969, in which Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alia Rakha participated, and the Concert for Bangladesh 1971 in which Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Alia Rakha took part. For most of the sixties, it seemed as though the sitar, sarod and tabla became as popular as the guitar. It was reported that in 1968 more sitars were sold in the West than the whole of South Asia put together. Radio stations and television companies gave away as prizes and hundreds of records were released on labels such as World Pacific, Liberty, Ocora, EMI and others. Universities and colleges in America started classes in Indian music and they became as numerous as Jazz.
Both Ayana and Patricia Angadi introduced the Beatles to Pandit Ravi Shankar. The Asian Music Circle introduced eastern culture to Britain. In the 1950’s, yoga, Indian classical dance and music had hardly been heard of in the West. In the mid-1960’s Angadi met the Beatles who were recording the Rubber Soul album at the Abbey Road studios, when a string had broken on George Harrison’s sitar and unable to replace it, the Beatles had contacted the Indian High Commission who in turn put them in touch with the Angadis. They later introduced the Beatles to Pandit Ravi Shankar and this chance meeting changed the course of Indian music abroad.
From then on followed absorption of Indian philosophy and music which effected the essence of Beatles music in the 1970’s – a watershed from their 1960’s music. There followed the period of the flower people, the drug culture and its unfortunate association with Indian philosophy and music, much to Pandit Ravi Shankar’s chagrin. Monterey, Woodstock, Concert for Bangladesh all happened, as did the Maharishi and many other holy men and their movements. The children of the post-war materially prosperous West sought in the eastern (Indian) thought and culture a salvation, a way ahead for a peaceful and a happier world order and music was inevitably drawn into this equation, not least because of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s association with the icons of this thought process in the west. Where Swami Vivekananda had not managed to succeed, his arguably more market savvy ‘successors’ on the religious front made serious headway.
The onset of Indian philosophy and music became established as part and parcel of the exotica in the West, with somewhat increasing following in the post Sixties world. A number of prominent musicians from India created a major impact and recognition in the West, notably Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, and Ustad Imrat Khan. Venues such as the Edinburgh Festival, Commonwealth Arts Festival, BBC Proms, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Centre, Theatre de la Ville and such like helped to provide an increasing and a credible exposure of the best of Indian classical ‘music. Having initially impacted the younger generation, the more mainstream audiences also began to take notice of this music and dance form. Also, during this period there was a significant migration of people from the sub-continent into the West, followed by the Asians from East Africa as well. This helped to provide a critical mass and a further impetus to the promotion of the Indian music, not just classical but now also the popular (Bollywood) and the light classical (ghazals, qawwalis, and devotional music and regional music).
Consolidation phase
In 1970, a new Festival was established in the UK by Birendra Shankar, the Sanskritik Festival of Arts of India. This Festival gave a platform for the art of India in all its manifestations – dancers, musicians and singers performed in ensembles, solos and duets. This Festival attracted a wider audience. The Festival’s main attraction was undoubtedly the colourful dance presentation and the lesser-known musicians, some of whom have since become household names in Indian music. The Festival also focused on a national touring circuit during the sixteen years of its life giving the wider British audience a colourful insight. The Festival made a large contribution to the arts by providing special programmes to schools, lecture demonstrations and workshops.
Whilst the Festivals continued, a new focus was also being created to foster the aesthetic splendour of Indian arts, when in 1977 an arts organization called the Academy of Performing Arts & Music (APAM) was founded in London by Jay Visva Deva. The aim was to present full-length performances of dance and music allowing the artistes to bring out the real essence of Indian art. Now, the emphasis was not on introducing the art form but to take it to the next level of appreciation and comprehension to the sort of ethos and experience that is obtained in concerts in India. In 1987, APAM was succeeded by Sama Arts Network, which continued a more focused programme on the performing arts from the Indian sub-continent. The concerts became a source of aesthetic satisfaction to increasingly wide, appreciative and discerning international audience, appealing to the sensitive connoisseur as well as the uninitiated. Over the period of some 24 years between APAM and SAMA some several hundred hours of music was recorded and many events were filmed.
Another concert vehicle, Asian Music Circuit (AMC) was born in 1988 under the umbrella of and funded by the government agency, the Arts Council of Great Britain. AMC itself was set up to provide an umbrella role for various UK based cultural organizations enabling them to stage concerts of musicians and dancers brought to UK by AMC. AMC’s role has a wider mandate than South Asian perspective, albeit the dominant part of its activity also tends to be focused towards the sub-continent.
SAMA presented all genres of this music form, ranging from the vocal traditions of dhrupad, khyal, thumri, ghazals, tappa, dadra, jhoola, instrumental classical music, the devotional form of bhakti and sufi traditions, folk music, and contemporary Jazz-to-Jazz Fusion. The archives of APAM and SAMA provided the impetus to launch Navras Records in 1992. Navras was intended primarily to bring out live recordings from selected concert performances of outstanding quality in an aesthetic and rigorous manner with high audio quality. The SAMA and Navras association ensured an active concert calendar of a varied repertoire of classical and traditional music, extending to a wider selection of musicians. The essence of a live performance in a music form that is highly improvisation oriented enabled to experience the genre away from concert halls in a manner that re-creates that experience. In a matter of a less than a decade the Navras Catalogue has come to comprise a diversity of sub-genres – a testimony to not only a wide variety of music programmes being presented but the breadth and diversity of audience tastes. An earlier pioneer label Chhand Dhara in Germany was perhaps a trailblazer even if boasting a narrower repertoire, primarily confined to classical music.
The ability to attract foreign audiences in concerts of vocal classical and dhrupad music is an interesting development over the past decade or so – and also a manifestation that there is now a mature non-Indian audience well initiated into appreciation of the more difficult variants, albeit this tends to be a hardcore audience more reflective of quality than quantity of listeners. Efforts to attract a wider audience through performances of cross over music has been a mixed experience, the tendency among purist Indian classical audiences is to stay away from experimentation or cross-over projects without there being a sufficiently compensatory trade off from the foreign audience. Interestingly, there is a credible interest among foreign audiences, specifically in Europe, towards the more exotic genres such as dhrupad and folk music (specifically that from Rajasthan and the haul music from Bengal), where the ethnic audiences are somewhat more reticent. This mixed mosaic of inclinations makes for an exasperating challenge for the labels and concert organizers in terms of economic implications. It is worth noting that the participation in Indian music of the indigenous populations in continental European countries, notably France, Germany and Netherlands, has far outstripped that by the native British after an encouraging initial response. They appear far more receptive and open minded to world music and have abiding respect for this rich musical heritage.
Cross fertilization
John Mayer’s Indo Jazz Fusions, a double quintet he formed with the Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott in the 1960’s, was ahead of its time. A fertile ground was being prepared for East -West musical encounter and it was the Guitarist John McLaughlin who initiated perhaps the most successful fusion of the two modes. Teaming up with Zakir Hussain, L Shankar and Vikku Veenayakaram the group ‘Shakti’ realized a synthesis that sounded neither Indian nor occidental. The group recently revived Shakti after a twenty-year gap.
McLaughlin’s guitar and Shankar’s violin wove around each other and the percussion of Ustad Zakir Hussain’s North Indian tabla and Vikku Vinayakram’s ghatam with Dravidian metric scheme gave birth to Shakti which led the way to many such experiments. Each of the band members went on to carve an international career. L Shankar continued to perform more fusion music with the creation of his ten-stringed electric double-violin. Ustad Zakir Hussain established a percussion ensemble, which received a worldwide acclaim. A number of musical collaborations sprang up following the success of Shakti.
An area where crossover music experimentation has worked has always featured prominent percussionists, such as Ustad Zakir Hussain, Trilok Gurtu, Talvin Singh, Sivamani and Vikku’ Veenayakram. The phenomenon of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the legendary qawwali maestro from Pakistan, especially in the re-mix format attracted massive international following and together with his more traditional fare, so popular with ethnic audience, has been an experience to behold. In some instances, the success has been artist-centric and does not translate generically to the same degree of fervour. Among the traditional instrumentalists in a cross over format, the notable successes of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, L. Shankar, L. Subramaniam, U. Srinivas and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt in the wake of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin and with other Western musicians, composers and orchestras are interesting, with often fascinating musical outcomes. In different periods in time the influence of Indian music, be that through its raga and rhythmic patterns or its improvisational characteristic, affected a variety of musicians and composers in classical and jazz music, notably Claude Debussy, Oliver Messian, John Cage, La Mote Young, Karl Stockhausen, John Coltrane and David Brubeck, to name a few.
In the UK, Talvin Singh, Britain’s home grown tabla phenomenon won the prestigious Technics Mercury Music Prize for his album OK, consisting of British dance rhythm with Indian classical music. He is having a remarkable influence on the young music lovers around the globe. Talvin has also played with Madonna, Bjork and is working on other projects such as the Sounds of Asian Underground and Sounds of Asian Overground. Another outstanding British Asian crossover musician to make a big impact is the current Mercury award nominee Nitin Sawhney. This tremendously talented musician has made significant contribution to contemporary jazz-fusion, crossing boundaries and making innovation in the process.
The Indipop
The phenomenon of Indipop is very much a recent foray into India’s mainstream musical culture. The diversified sounds of eclectic musical influence from raga to reggae and to bhangra and the styles of singing have broken musical frontiers across the world. It has a unique style of its own and there is a tremendous mass appeal, primarily in the younger generation of the diaspora but not excluding the Western audiences.
Kuljeet Bhamra, Malkit Singh, Kamaljeet Sidhu, the Sahotas, Alaap and Balli Sagoo, to name a few, have had great influence on the British music scene as bhangra became as popular as reggae music and still continues to play a major role in the world music.
Melody and harmony
If Planet Beat is the grand intersection of the globe’s popular music traditions, then Pandit Ravi Shankar, the man George Harrison called ‘the Godfather of World Music’, is surely the pioneer and reigning patriarch of this modern artistic convergence.
Pandit Ravi Shankar created an immense body of work for an unprecedented international audience for his raga based repertoire via landmark concerts and collaborations with the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, flautist Jean Pierre Ramphal, minimalist composer Phillip Glass, saxophonist Bud Shank, and conductors Zubin Mehta and Andre Previn.
Dr. L Subramaniam’s work as a composer and soloist in the Fantasy of Vedic Chants heralded a new body of works.
A project commenced in concept in 1996 by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia led to the writing of a score of a Concerto for flute ‘Adi Ananf. Composed by Chaurasia and performed in collaboration with the Orcehstre Transes Europeennes, this substantial work was first presented at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris in February 1999. This raga-based Concerto in six movements is a fusion of Indian melody with the harmony of an orchestral performance with Western instruments that bring an incredible degree of dynamic. (Released on Navras label, titled Adi Anant – NRCD 6003). Chaurasia has attempted many more innovative departures in crossover music.
The diaspora and the musical roots
There cannot be a corner of this earth where an Indian is to be found where the strains of Bollywood music are not heard. The first generation migrants revel in the works of Lata, Asha, Rafi, Talat, Manna Dey, Mukesh or Kishore. For the next generations the new voices of today provide a compatible refrain. The popularity of this music often transcends the Indian community. Of course, the influence of foreign music forms is also to be found but the essential Indian-ness of it is what marks the most enduring of it all. The music of the folk, devotional and classical traditions have been distilled into few moments of delightful, popular and hummable melodies regardless of the mother tongue of the average Indian.
The attempt by Andrew LJoyd Weber to bring in A. R. Rehman’s Bollywood sounds into West End musical scene in London is the ultimate acknowledgement that the music of India has begun to whet the appetites previously only achieved by the curries. Little did Ravi Shankar and Beatles realize what they may have set off – and the Raj has a lot to answer for too!
Future directions
What is the future of Indian music abroad? Will the prevalence of classical music among the diaspora, such as it is, retain its tenuous grasp? Will the second and third generation succumb to the pressures of the peer group culture and sounds, as we are so prone to do? Will it become rather more than one removed, as is the case in the Caribbean? Will the attraction of this music form and its spiritual and cultural underpinnings continue to attract the Western souls in pursuit of self-discovery? Will the future for crossover sounds fusing the best and the most exciting of cross cultural musical nuances thrive going forward or be left to be of historical interjection? Will Indian classical music retain its purity in the manner in which it attracts audiences abroad or increasingly become part of that amorphous indefinable ‘World Music’ culture? What will also happen in many of these respects to the fate and destiny of Indian music and culture in its homeland where increasingly the influence of the ‘Coca Cola and MTV’ culture is taking a pervasive grip and where the names of foreign ‘pop’ musicians more than compete for attention with the indigenous ones? Must we for ever continue to admire our own only after it is feted abroad even while we go on blindly adopting the Western sounds just because it is ‘hep’ to do so? Will the distant pockets of classical music following in Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamilnadu coalesce to form a bigger mass of listeners? Is the world headed towards some kind of homogenous culture, arising from the influence of the cultures of the predominant economies, in this world of instant gratification, hype and superficiality lacking in depth and thought?
These are issues that merit some discussion, but if the answers to these rhetorical questions are to betray the cynicism feared by implication, then the profundity of human emotions, spirituality, and thought that is Indian classical music, will have failed in its ultimate effort to conquer the mind over matter. The power of the raga and tola scales manifest so much of thought and research (exemplified in the treatises such as Sangeet Ratnakar, Natya Shastra and others) that was applied in understanding the impact of sound on human emotion, mind and experience. For me it has been a most rewarding journey in making an insignificant contribution towards the preservation and transmission of this most crucial of cultural heritages – the sound that is submerged in the rasas that create and describe the state of mind!

Disclaimer : The content may have some copyright material. The purpose is to share education. If anyone has any objection regarding the published material on this website, kindly contact us for removal. It will be immediately removed. We are also ready to acknowledge owners reference.

Leave a comment

Support for a cause
Support for a cause

NAD-SADHNA INSTITUTE FOR INDIAN MUSIC AND RESEARCH CENTRE is a place where researchers in music education, professionals in related fields, as well as undergraduate, post graduate and PhD scholars, students and enthusiasts, can get together in a virtual exchange of information and knowledge in the field of Music Education and Musical Performance. Besides, our purpose is to work in areas as diverse as academic research, music and sound production, exhibition services, and the delivery of cinematic, music, and arts events. Nad Sadhna was founded in 2010 and is based in Jaipur, the city better described as the cultural capital of the Country. Having dedicated study facilities, extensive holdings of published and unpublished materials (books, journal and newspaper articles, scores and recordings), collections of recorded music and an audio visual laboratory.