Indian classical music is based on the ragas (\”colors\”), which are scales and melodies that provide the foundation for a performance. Unlike western classical music, that is deterministic, Indian classical music allows for a much greater degree of \”personalization\” of the performance, almost to the level of jazz-like improvisation. Thus, each performance of a raga is different. The goal of the raga is to create a trancey state, to broadcast a mood of ecstasy.
The main difference with western classical music is that the Indian ragas are not \”composed\” by a composer, but were created via a lengthy evolutionary process over the centuries. Thus they do not represent mind of the composer but a universal idea of the world. They transmit not personal but impersonal emotion. Another difference is that Indian music is monodic, not polyphonic. Hindustani (North Indian) ragas are assigned to specific times of the day (or night) and to specific seasons. Many ragas share the same scale, and many ragas share the same melodic theme.
There are thousands of ragas, but six are considered fundamental: Bhairav, Malkauns, Hindol, Dipak, Megh and Shree. A raga is not necessarily instrumental, and, if vocal, it is not necessarily accompanied. But when it is accompanied by percussion (such as tablas), the rhythm is often rather intricate because it is constructed from a combination of fundamental rhythmic patterns (or talas). The main instrument of the ragas is the sitar, although historically the vina zither was at least equally important. Carnatic (Southern Indian) ragas constitute one of the oldest systems of music in the world. They are based on seven rhythmic cycles and 72 fundamental ragas. The founder of the karnataka school is considered to be Purandara Dasa (1480).
Eventually, western curiosity for Indian music wed the hippy ethos and (thanks mainly to the Byrds’ Eight Miles High) \”raga-rock\” became a sonic emblem of the Sixties. The popularity of Shankar’s concerts led to a stream of recordings in the Sixties, mostly featuring 20-minute long ragas: several EPs from 1961 to 1964, later collected on Sarod (1969), Traditional Music of India (1962), The Soul of Indian Music (1963), The Master Musicians of India (1964), Classical Music of India (1964), The Soul of Indian Music (1965), Sarod (1965), Two Ragas for Sarod (1967), etc.Sitar player Ravi Shankar, would become the star of Indian music. He first toured the west in 1956, when he was already a veteran and made friends among pop stars (George Harrison of the Beatles became his student in 1966). Among his historical performances are his masterpiece Raga Jog, from Three Ragas (1961), the Raga Rageshri, on Improvisations (1962), and the Ragas and Talas (1964), containing the Raga Jogiya and the Raga Madhu Kauns. Improvisations (1962), a collaboration with flutists Paul Horn and Bud Shank, was the first meeting of jazz and raga.
Shankar pioneered the \”east-west\” fusion with West Meets East (1967), a terrible collaboration with British violinist Yehudi Menuhin containing both a raga and a sonata. Shankar was also instrumental in turning the raga into a product of mass consumption (he performed at both the 1967 Monterey Festival, the 1969 Woodstock Festival and the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh), but he soon repudiated his \”pop\” period and returned to classical music. Nonetheless, he continued to experiment with western music (he performed with western symphonic orchestras and soloists), and, later, starting with Tana Mana (1987), even with electronic keyboards. He is a composer, not only a performer, including two sitar concertos (the second, Raga-Mala, debuted in 1980). The austere, pure vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, a master of the Hindustani (North Indian) kirana style since 1937, moved to the USA in 1970, performing the first morning ragas ever in the USA. His emphasis on perfect intonation and emotional subtlety influenced minimalist composers LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. He only recorded three albums: Earth Groove (1968), containing two traditional ragas, Raga Bhupali Maha Dev and Raga Asavari, Ragas Yaman Kalyan and Punjabi Berva (1972), containing his Raga Yaman Kalyan, Ragas of Morning and Night (1986), containing two 1968 compositions (Raga Darbari and Raga Todi). He also composed Raga Anant Bhairavi (1974), Raga 12-note Bhairavi (1979), Darbar Daoun (1987), and Aba Kee Tayk Hamaree (1989) for voice and string quartet.
Less known are instrumental masters (ustad) such as sitar player Nikhil Banerjee (widely considered the century’s greatest virtuoso), bansur (bamboo flute) player Hariprasad Chaurasia, particularly the Rag Ahiv Bhairav (1987) and the 69-minute performance of his Rag Lalit (1988) and violinist Lakshminarayana Subramaniam. Subramaniam’s brother L. Shankar, who had played in Shakti with John McLaughlin, has often wasted his talent in light, pop efforts, but at least Pancha Nadai Pallavi (1991), which features three fourths of Shakti, is a dramatic and austere work in the classical tradition. In 1989 John McLaughlin hired an Indian percussionist, Trilok Gurtu, the son of vocalist Shobha Gurtu, who had already played with Don Cherry and with Oregon. Gurtu’s own Usfret (1988) offered an intense mix of Indian vocals, jazz-rock and world-music. Ilaiyaraaja (born Gnanadesikan Rasaiya) experimented a fusion of Bach and raga on How To Name It? (1988).