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The teaching and transmission of North Indian classical music is, and long has been, achieved by largely oral means. The raga and its structure, the often breathtaking intricacies of tala or rhythm, and the incarnation of raga and tala as bandish or composition, are passed thus, between guru and shishya by word of mouth and direct demonstration, with no printed sheet of notated music, as it were, acting as a go-between. Saussure’s conception of language as a communication between addresser and addressee is given, in this model, a further instance, and a new exotic complexity and glamour.

These days, especially with the middle class having entered the domain of classical music and playing not a small part in ensuring the continuation of this ancient tradition, the tape recorder serves as a handy technological slave and preserves, from oblivion, the vanishing, elusive moment of oral transmission. Hoary gurus, too, have seen the advantage of this device, and increasingly use it as an aid to instructing their pupils; in place of the shawls and other traditional objects that used to pass from shishya to guru in the past, as a token of the regard of the former for the latter, it is not unusual, today, to see cassettes changing hands.

Part of my education in North Indian classical music was conducted via this rather ugly but beneficial rectangle of plastic, which I carried with me to England when I was an undergraduate. One cassette had stored in it various talas played upon the tabla, at various tempos, by my music teacher’s brother-inlaw, Hazarilalji, who was a teacher of Kathak dance, as well as a singer and a tabla player. This was a work of great patience and prescience, a one-and-a-half hour performance without any immediate point or purpose, but intended for some delayed future moment when I'd practise the talas solitarily.

This repeated playing out of the rhythmic cycles on the tabla was inflected by the noises- an irate auto driver blowing a horn; the sound of overbearing pigeons that were such a nuisance on the banister; even the cry of a kulfi seller in summer- entering from the balcony of the third floor flat we occupied in those days, in a lane in a Bombay suburb, before we left the city for good. These sounds, in turn, would invade, hesitantly, the ebb and flow of silence inside the artificially heated room, in a borough of West London, in which I used to live as an undergraduate. There, in the trapped dust, silence and heat, the theka of the tabla, qualified by the imminent but intermittent presence of the Bombay suburb, would come to life again. A few years later, the tabla and, in the background, the pigeons and the itinerant kulfi seller, would inhabit a small graduate room in Oxford.

The tape recorder, though, remains an extension of the oral transmission of music, rather than a replacement of it. And the oral transmission of North Indian classical music remains, almost uniquely, a testament to the fact that the human brain can absorb, remember and reproduce structures of great complexity and sophistication without the help of the hieroglyph or written mark or a system of notation. I remember my surprise on discovering that Hazarilalji-who had mastered Kathak dance, tala and North Indian classical music, and who used to narrate to me, occasionally, compositions meant for dance that were grand and intricate in their verbal prosody, architecture and rhythmic complexity- was near illiterate and had barely learnt to write his name in large and clumsy letters.

Of course, attempts have been made, throughout the 20th century, to formally codify and even notate this music, and institutions set up and degrees created, specifically to educate students in this “scientific” and codified manner. Paradoxically, however, this style of teaching has produced no noteworthy student or performer; the most creative musicians still emerge from the guru-shishya relationship, their understanding of music developed by oral communication.

The fact that North Indian classical music emanates from, and has evolved through, oral culture, means that this music has a significantly different aesthetic, and that this aesthetic has a different politics, from that of Western classical music. A piece of music in the Western tradition, at least in its most characteristic and popular conception, originates in its composer, and the connection between the two, between composer and the piece of music, is relatively unambiguous precisely because the composer writes down, in notation, his composition, as a poet might write down and publish his poem. However far the printed sheet of notated music might travel thus from the composer, it still remains his property; and the notion of property remains at the heart of the Western conception of “genius”, which derives from the Latin gignere or ‘to beget’.

The genius in Western classical music is, then, the originator, begetter and owner of his work-the printed, notated sheet testifying to his authority over his product and his power, not only of expression or imagination, but of origination. The conductor is a custodian and guardian of this property. Is it an TF-MS-PP-01-0109 15 © www.TestFunda.com accident that Mandelstam, in his notebooks, compares- celebratorily- the conductor’s baton to a policeman’s, saying all the music of the orchestra lies mute within it, waiting for its first movement to release it into the auditorium?

The raga-transmitted through oral means is, in a sense, no one’s property; it is not easy to pin down its source, or to know exactly where its provenance or origin lies. Unlike the Western classical tradition, where the composer begets his piece, notates it and stamps it with his ownership and remains, in effect, larger than, or the father of, his work, in the North Indian classical tradition, the raga-unconfined to a single incarnation, composer or performer-remains necessarily greater than the artiste who invokes it.

This leads to a very different politics of interpretation and valuation, to an aesthetic that privileges the evanescent moment of performance and invocation over the controlling authority of genius and the permanent record. It is a tradition, thus, that would appear to value the performer, as medium, more highly than the composer who presumes to originate what, effectively, cannot be originated in a single person- because the raga is the inheritance of a culture.

Saussure’s conception of language as a communication between addresser and addressee, according to the author, is exemplified by the

  1. teaching of North Indian classical music by word of mouth and direct demonstration.
  2. use of the recorded cassette as a transmission medium between the music teacher and the trainee.
  3. written down notation sheets of musical compositions.
  4. conductor’s baton and the orchestra.
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