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Peerless introduction to non-Western music
on October 21, 2000
Even in this supposedly digital age, all most Americans know about India beyond turbans and the Taj Majal is the sound of the sitar. I've never understood how anyone could hear this beautiful music and not want to learn more about it, and the tradition it comes from.
To me, classical Indian music has no equal as a source of solace and inspiration. It's impossible to give it a serious listen without closing your eyes and drifting off on a journey of imagination. It's truly an auditory narcotic: the mind simply refuses to be tied down.
It isn't just Indian, either, it's pan-Asian: the basic instruments come from ancient Persia; in the tremelos and melting notes of the lower range, one hears the echoes of a Moslem cantor. At the opposite end of the register, the plucked note progressions are reminiscent of Oriental lutes that float about like auditory calligraphy.
There are a few things that make it truly Indian, though: its origin as the artistic medium of religious expression at the intersection of all the Old World religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. It's the perfect melding of the eastern- and westernmost musical traditions of Asia. This is best realized not even in the sitar, but in the tambura, that never-ending, metallic, atonal drone in the background which performs roughly the same function that bass does in Western music. But while so much simpler in form -- every work is based on a single chord -- it's so much more in fact: it's eternal; it never changes. It's an auditory umbilical to antiquity.
In a world where lip-synching during a choreographed dance routine qualifies airheaded teenagers as "superstars," Shankar's reputation as "the Godfather of World Music" (George Harrison) is genuine. He is a visitor from another time, a thousand years ago, when one man could embody an enormous artistic tradition and a vast, ancient country.