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Let there be light, and music too

November 15, 2012

I WRITE this on Diwali day, just the wrong time to reflect on music in religion. With my aversion to doctrinaire beliefs I take comfort from religions that give space to music. That was my instinct even before reading Nietzsche.

A play by Girish Karnad recently reaffirmed my faith in the beauty of the azaan. Someone has translated his 1960s Kannada script on the foibles of Mohammed bin Tughlaq into a high quality Urdu spectacle.

Yashpal Sharma brilliantly played the crazy, conniving and visionary 13th-century ruler. I couldn’t meet the man who delivered the lyrical azaan. The muezzins in my Nizamuddin neighbourhood of Delhi are mostly off key, a flaw compounded by poor maintenance of the loudspeakers.

Amir Khusro relieved us of any residual belief that Islam takes a hostile position towards music. In fact, Muslim musicians define an entire genre of India’s musical lore as they do elsewhere (in Afghanistan, for example) with great credit.

My favourite part of Muharram, only a few days away, is the sozkhwani, which could only be possible with a high premium put on singing by the Shia nawabs of India. Sikh worship is incomplete without the gurbani. This musical worship portrays philosophical poetry and existential ideas to invite stray listeners to the new path.

Arrival of the colourful Holi season marks the end of winter in North India. Many celebrate it as a festival of harvest. To me it brings the gentle strains of Kafi, Khamaaj and Piloo raags, although Lord Krishna’s frolic with the milkmaids of Mathura, which the occasion celebrates, can be rendered in a few other raags as well.

Someone sang a lovely tribute to Krishna recently in Raag Tilak Kamod — very unusual. I can feel the onset of Holi in my pores because of music.

Similarly you can smell Christmas in the air, and it was not unusual for colleagues from different faiths a few decades ago in a Dubai newspaper to hum a poor imitation of Nat King Cole’s carols with the beginning of December.

The season is infused with memories of Jim Reeves, Pat Boone, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson and Frank Sinatra, particularly his version of Noel. Elvis Presley’s Christmas carols were too much like his other songs.

They say that Indian music originates from the anahad naad, the ethereal sound of Om, giving it a spiritual context. The Vedic chants are considered the other progenitors of Indian music.

If there is any historical merit in the claims it is not ascertained by academic authority. But it sounds like a great idea and for that reason alone I wish it were true. A more rational explanation may be that it is an amalgam of evolving ancient folk music blended with foreign influences.

We are more certain of the origins of western music, which came from the chants of the early Christian church. Aesthetic progress from Christmas carols to an appreciation of Gregorian chants is not too forbidding if you happened to be a visitor to the chapel in your school days.

I can’t think of my proximity with the Yuletide spirit without the imprint on my memory of the 18th-century chapel at La Martiniere College in Lucknow.

That memory of music spurred me to discover a matchless repertory of Gregorian chants some years ago. They are rendered by the Benedictine Monks Of St Wandrille De Fontonelle. Two traditional compositions — Nolite Timere and Regem Cui Omnia Vivunt — stand out for their exceptional spiritual aura.

As I write this, deafening firecrackers are exploding all around the house. It is a cruel moment for most pets, particularly for several breeds of dogs.

This year’s Diwali promises to be mellow though. An official appeal by the government has urged citizens to not worsen a bad haze engulfing Delhi for days. An epidemic-like spread of dengue fever and many allergies now arrive with the season. Today’s Diwali unfortunately adds to the pollution.

Several legends are associated with Diwali, or Deepawali as purists call the festival. The lights are a symbolic welcome to Ram and his consort Sita from 14 years of exile in the forests, during which he fought and defeated demon king Ravan.

A more materialist tradition uses the lights to invite Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into the homes of her seekers. But I doubt if firecrackers were ever a part of this celebration in the distant past.

In fact, it is not without a hint of irony that gunpowder — a latter-day variant of which goes into the making of firecrackers — was discovered in China, and China is where Diwali revellers are getting the sparklers and even the lights to symbolically overcome the forces of darkness.

Of the main deities in the Hindu pantheon, my favourite are Krishna and Shiva, also known as Shankar. Both are capable of rocking any contemporary festival of music and dance, which they do.

The range of music associated with Krishna is formidable. Shankar’s dancing image forms the spine of bhaavs and mudras in any number of Indian dance forms. Compared to the fun and joy they give, Ram comes across as a strict disciplinarian with no known preference for music, much less for dance.

We know who Nietzsche would have liked of the three, for it was he who said in a wider context, of course: “If they want me to believe in their god, they’ll have to sing me better songs … I could only believe in a god who dances.” Let there be light next Diwali. But shut the Chinese firecrackers please and put on some Indian music instead.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.