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Wire Playlist: 20th century sounds from India

November 2018

Expanding on his Epiphanies column in The Wire 418, US musician and researcher Robert Millis compiles a playlist of essential classical records found on trips to the Indian subcontinent

India is a country seemingly in love with sound… or inured to it. There are not enough playlists in the world to do justice to the music and sounds available in South Asia. Recently I released a cassette (on the Excavation series of the Power Moves Library) of traffic sounds from various Indian cities. The cascading symphony of horns has to be heard to be believed. But this playlist is not that. It focuses mostly on classical music – from radio, film, 78 rpms, LPs and even CD. It is these sounds that shaped my fascination with India. This music needs time to unfold and work its way into your subconscious, time we rarely have these days. This does not mean you need to pay strict attention and understand the ragas and ooh and ahh over difficult technical feats, seemingly impossible control and impressive improvisation. Let it breathe around you and find your own way. It is all just melody and rhythm, as complex, as psychedelic and as simple as anything you have ever heard from the past or the future. Context should be put aside in favour of pure sound.

Vyas Brothers “Raga Bhupali” (78 rpm record, His Masters Voice, 1929). A duet between a jalatarang – a circle of water-filled tuned porcelain bowls – and a mandolin.

Ustad Bundu Khan “Raga Darbari” (78 rpm record, His Masters Voice, mid-1930s) Sarangi master Bundu Khan moved to Pakistan after the Indian partition in 1947. This was recorded in the 1930s before all of that horror. He died in 1955.

Gauhar Jan “Thumri In Raga Pahari Junjowti” (78 rpm record, The Gramophone And Typewriter Ltd, 1906). The voice that launched the music industry in India, Gauhar Jan was already a famous performer when Fred Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company fetched up in Kolkata in 1902 to make the first commercial recordings in Asia. She was born in 1873, of Armenian, Indian and English heritage. Notice how she announces her name at the end of the track, like a signature.

Chittibabu “Reverie” (from the LP Chittibabu And His Disciples, The Musings Of A Musician, The Gramophone Company Of India,1972). Chittibabu played the vina in the Carnatic or South Indian style.

Keserbai Kerkar “Raga Kukubh Bilawal, Devi Durga (In Praise Of The Goddess Durga)” (78 rpm record, His Masters Voice, 1949) Described to me by a collector in India as being “too good”, hers was the only Indian voice included on the Voyager I golden record. When I first heard Keserbai on the Sa Re Ga Ma Golden Milestones collection I could not stop listening: over and over on a dark bus ride up Long Island, New York, on my way to visit my parents on Thanksgiving. Every time I hear her it’s like I am hearing for the first time. And I am back in that cold New York night, heading towards the warmth of my parents’ home. What else to say? Even with the lousy transfer, clean-up and mastering job on this MP3 she is too good.

Ravi Shankar “Pather Panchali” (theme from the 1955 film by Satyajit Ray) I was overjoyed when an Indian musician, Satyaki Banerjee, somehow improvised this theme into a version of “My Blue Heaven” we were performing together in Kolkata. The internet is full of people telling you what to watch or listen to or eat or whatever. I’ll add to that pile: everyone should watch Ray’s films, it is as simple as that. Ravi is of course justifiably huge, though also worth seeking out is Annapurna Devi, his ex-wife, who played the subrahar (bass sitar) and died recently at the age of 91, a legendary guru-teacher.

RD Burman “Dance Music” (from the 1979 film Abdullah) Don’t believe any list anywhere that purports to be “the ten best RD Burman tracks” or whatever – he has composed too much music in too many styles so disparate it will knock you out, and you’ll come back for more. After which you can go in search of music by his father, the great SD Burman… and yes, he stole a lot or maybe borrowed is a better term, but the original composers should be honoured, he usually made their music better.

Lata Mangeshkar “Chalte Chalte” (from the 1972 film Pakeezah, music composed by Kaifi Azi and Ghulam Mohammed – though the film was begun in 1958 which is a story in and of itself). Lata’s voice is heartbreaking in this film about a nautch girl and forbidden love. Nautch girls were often called dancing girls, but this does the tradition a disservice, many were truly talented artists – such as Gauhar Jan – trapped in a traditional hierarchy. Or maybe they were not trapped, as these women were allowed to do things other woman generally were not in India at that time. It is all a matter of perspective. Perhaps we are all trapped… and so concludes our little foray into film music.

Zarin Daruwala “Raga Janasanmohini” (Swarashree Enterprises, 1982). I saw Zarin in 2013 in Mumbai the year before she died. A tiny wrinkled Parsi lady hunched over her sarod, enveloped in her shawl. She absolutely shredded. I swear I hear part of the riff from Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” buried in this track. I am sure she did not fear the reaper. She had met him at the crossroads years before.

Jai Chand Bhagat & Babu “Bhajan” (recorded by Deben Bhattacharya near Bombay in 1955). An itinerant street performer and his son describe the spirit flying away like a bird from the funeral pyre. Released on Paris To Calcutta: Men And Music On The Desert Road (Sublime Frequencies, 2018).

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar “Raga Yaman” (Nimbus Records, 1991). An alap (introductory solo improvisation) from one of ZM’s last recordings, played in the dhrupad style on the rudra vina.

Robert Millis is a musician, Fulbright scholar and sound artist. Performing solo and as Climax Golden Twins he has numerous records including the soundtrack to the cult horror film Session Nine from 2001. He has created installation works such as The Music Room at Berlin’s Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt in 2016, radio pieces including The Gramophone Effect for Documenta14, and authored Indian Talking Machine for Sublime Frequencies and co-authored Victrola Favorites for Dust-to-Digital. He has curated many releases and films for Sublime Frequencies, the most recent being the book Paris To Calcutta: Men And Music On The Desert Road.

Read Robert Millis's Epiphanies column in The Wire 418. Subscribers can access the full article via the online archive.

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