How to discover Indian classical music

Versions of that request were repeated a few times, along with a request for a YouTube or Spotify list.  Given the visual element, I would say that YouTube >> Spotify.  But mostly you are looking to hear world class performers in live concert, there is no substitute for that, most of all for the percussion, but also for the overall sense of energy.

I first heard Indian classical music by stumbling upon the Ravi Shankar section of the Concert for Bangladesh album, at a young age (thirteen or so?).  It seemed obvious to me this was better than “Within You, Without You,” but it was a long time before I really would get back to it.  Shankar never ended up clicking with me, but definitely he was the introduction.

As a young teen I also loved the Byrds song “Eight Miles High,” with its opening riff taken from John Coltrane’s “India.”  Not exactly Indian classical music, but a clue there was much more to discover, and again I took this very seriously.  The raga bits on the Byrds 5D album intrigued me more than the lugubrious Harrison tunes.

I recall my high friend friend (and composer) Eric Lyon insisting to me that Carnatic classic music was better than American jazz improvisation.  I didn’t follow him at the time, but I always took Eric’s opinions very seriously, and so I filed this away mentally for later reexamination.

I also recall Thomas Schelling telling me that his son decided to become a professional Indian classical musician (in fact he ended up as more of a poet and translator).  I had the vague sense this was something quite admirable to do.  So the data points were piling up.

Years passed, and I spent most of my time listening to traditional Western classical music, and with fantastic aesthetic returns.

Still, I grew restless to learn more, and kept on returning to musics I did not understand very well.  My best and most common entry point was simply to listen to a lot of other musics that are (were?) somewhat atypical to Western ears, whether it be atonal music, guitar drone music, or Arabic microtonal tunes.  Nonetheless progress was slow.

In the 1990s, I started going to lots of world music concerts in the DC area, often at University of Maryland or GWU.  These years were a kind of golden age for world music (a terrible term, btw) in the U.S., as post 9/11 visa restrictions were not yet around.

Twice I heard L. Subramaniam play Indian classical violin.  Wow!  My head was spinning, and from there on out I was determined to hear as many Indian classical concerts as possible.  Maybe his melodic lines are not the very deepest, but he was a remarkably exciting performer.  A whole new world was opened up to me.  I also heard Shakti, with Zakir Hussein and John McLaughlin, play at GWU.  That was fusion yes, but it owed more to Indian classical traditions than anything else.  To this day it remains one of the three or four best concerts I’ve ever seen.

The Ali Akbar Khan Signature Series CDs made increasing sense to me, and I grew to love them and many others.  I did go back to Shankar, but decided he was, all along, far from the top of the heap.  Maybe a great marketer, though.

S. Balachandar on the veena was another early discovery, via Fanfare.

Later in the 1990s I read Frederick Turner write that Indian classical music was one of humanity’s greatest spiritual and aesthetic achievements, and around the same time I chatted a bit with Turner too.  I had never quite heard anyone claim that before, but instinctively I realized I very much agreed with him.  I decided that I believed that too.

Shikha Dalmia helped me out with some recommendations as well, and she was the first one to mention to me the Indian classical music festival in what is now called Chennai.  For many years I wanted to go.

Then followed more years of listening.  On my first India trips, I carried back a large number of $2 CDs, high variance but many of them excellent, such as Kishori Amonkar.  I bought as much as I could plausibly carry back home.

About eight years ago, I took daughter Yana to the Chennai Indian classical music festival held every December.  We saw a number of incredible performers, most notably the great U. Srinivas (mandolin!), before his demise.  I can recommend this experience to you all, and I plan on going again.

So what is the lesson of all this?  My path was so inefficient and roundabout!  You can avoid all of that, just read this blog post and be there…voila!

But that doesn’t quite work either.

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