Journey to India

My journey is metaphorical and takes place over a number of years. It starts with a jangling sound on a Beatles song. It is a bit like a guitar but has a different feel, I’m interested in the sound which comes from another place, another continent. It is a sitar, I discover: an instrument that epitomises the sound of Indian classical music. Over the years, I listen to the instrument many times: Ravi Shankar in the film of the Monterey Pop Festival and the famous televised performance of Ravi at the Concert for Bangladesh, where the crowd applaud his tuning up. Then years later, on late night journeys back from gigs, my car radio tuned to Late Junction on Radio 3, a rendition of an Indian Raga makes compelling listening for my drive home. I notice it starts very slowly with no discernible beat and then the tabla (drum) joins in and the piece builds up speed and becomes incredibly virtuosic. With increasing momentum and excitement, it finishes with a flourish played three times over.

I am drawn to this music but have yet to comprehend or appreciate its depths at this stage in my Indian journey. Each time I hear this music, I have a feeling of impatience during the slow part, I’m waiting for the tabla to join in and for the fast sections which capture my imagination and take me to a different place. In 2002, I venture with some trepidation to an all-night Indian concert at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. I do not expect to stay awake. The concert starts at 10pm and the programme is to begin with ragas for night time, then move to ragas for late night and finish with early morning ragas. I feel as if I am going on an adventure as I listen to this music of changing moods and as the night progresses, I become increasingly absorbed in the performance. It is surprising and entertaining, so much is going on: not just the music but the interaction between musicians, and between musicians and audience, expressed in body language, gesture, clapping and vocalising. The musicians on stage show appreciation of each player’s performance by shaking their heads, left and right as if saying “no”. I am confused by this, as the music sounds perfect to me, I wonder why they are shaking their heads and only find out later what it means. There are three renowned soloists, taking to the stage in turn throughout the night, Amjad Ali Khan, sarod player, Hariprasad Chaurasia flute player and Shruti Sadolikar, singer. They sit on Indian rugs on a raised platform with two tabla players and two players of a stringed instrument that looks like a sitar but with only four strings and no frets. This instrument is a tanpura, which provides a drone: the players simply stroke the four strings throughout the performance creating an ambient resonance for the melodies unfolding above it. After each slow section, the tabla players introduce a beat and the music starts to accelerate. I witness the tabla-players in turn repeating the melody that has just been played or sung in what seems like a copying game: no matter how fast and complex the melody, the tabla-players always play it back. Passing the melodic line between them in call and response, the musicians reach heights of virtuosic invention and then with a nod between them, they return to playing together and finish with an accelerating phrase repeated three times. It is so exciting that by 6am I am totally captivated, buzzing and more awake than I had been at the start.

My Indian journey progresses in 2009 when I join a sitar class run by an advanced student (who like me is from a Western music background) and I begin to gain an insight into Indian classical music (more specifically North Indian or Hindustani music). I am studying this class as part of my research into learning and teaching but the music becomes the thing I am fascinated by and I continue to play after my research finishes. I take part in workshops with our guru, Mehboob Nadeem, whose teaching stretches my playing. I am concerned about my ability to memorise, but it is the norm to learn by listening and copying, so with guruji’s patience and much repetition, I start to learn a melody in Rag Yaman, an evening rag with a sharpened fourth note. I learn to play alap, which is an improvised, slow, unfolding of the notes of the rag, and I come to appreciate the meditative nature of this part of the music. I learn to play rags with different tunings and characteristics: Rag Bhairivi and Rag Madhuvanti. I take part in a public performance with my fellow students. It feels strange to prepare for a concert without knowing beforehand exactly what I will play because it is mostly improvised. I have difficulty following the cycle of beats played on the tabla whilst I am improvising. I think I need to learn more about tal (the Indian system of beats).

After a few years down this route, I start to learn to play the tabla, attending a SOAS summer school with Sanju Sahai and then joining a class in Edinburgh with Vijay Kangutkar who has been bringing Indian Classical music to Scotland for many years, through his teaching in Edinburgh and Glasgow and his performances with Tabla Alba.

Through Tabla Alba, I enter a world of Indian classical music through the concerts they organise. I become acquainted with the rudra veena, a precursor of the sitar, with a deeply serious, almost reverential sound. Then I hear a sarangi, a bowed stringed instrument with an extremely resonant sound that I love and really want to play until I find out you have to slide your fingernails along the string to play it. Ouch!

I feel I have arrived when I hear two of the ‘rock stars’ of Indian classical music, in concerts at the Edinburgh International Festival, that I have previously only heard on You Tube or television or radio: Ravi Shankar, aged 91, who gives a stunning performance of impressive virtuoso playing and the equally revered maestro of the tabla, Zakir Hussain, who gives a fascinating talk/performance explaining role of the tabla in Indian music and demonstrating its versatility and astonishing range of sounds. Anoushka Shankar (Ravi’s daughter and pupil) also gives a concert in Edinburgh, taking the music in a different direction with a fusion of Indian music and Spanish Flamenco.

Later I discover, at London’s Darbar Festival, an ancient and pure form of Indian classical music played on an unusual Indian instrument, the surbahar, which is like a huge sitar with a very deep sound. The performance is of druphad, a very serious style, the origins of which can be traced back thousands of years. The alap lasts well over an hour and tests even the most devoted listener. I drift away a few times during the performance and realise how much I still have to learn.

Early on in my journey into this world of Indian classical music, I had interviewed an Indian singer, Prakritti Dutta. She explained that you could learn the notes of an Indian raga in one day but to learn a raga really, to understand a raga, to get to know the soul of a raga takes years and years.

My journey continues…


As part of the National 5 music curriculum in Scotland, students learn about Indian classical music. They have to identify characteristics of the music so, because of my interest in and experience of Indian music, I was asked to bring in my sitar and tabla to a local school to give them some first hand experience. I talked about the drone and set my virtual tanpura/drone app and played alap in rag bhairivi. I talked about the tuning for different rags and about performing rags for different times of the day. I played the tabla, showing them tintal: the most common musical metre, a cycle of sixteen beats. When I told them about some of the concerts I had been to (Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain, Anoushka Shankar, Kaushiki Chakraborty and the all-night concert mentioned above) the students wondered how I heard had about them. They’d not seen any Indian classical concerts being advertised. So I recommend subscribing to the mailing list of  Tabla Alba for Indian music in Scotland and Darbar Festival for Indian music in London and in the meantime, there is a wealth of Indian music on You Tube.