By ALEX LYALL
Photos by SYLVIA BARNETT
Since arriving back in New Zealand, one question has followed me around like a lamb. Everybody wants to know how India was. I don’t struggle with the frequency because I’ve grown tired of answering – I struggle because I don’t know quite how to sum it up.
India is lots of things, and I tell anybody who asks that it is ‘intense’. No one word does India justice, but I try my best. Appropriate synonyms also include ‘frantic’, ‘stunning’ and ‘unbelievable’. However, the real close second to ‘frantic’ is ‘loud’. India is a country extreme in its projection, and it declares itself in noise. Over the course of my two week journey, through the Golden Triangle and more, I learned to sift through the layers of sound and conclude that India is remarkable in its musical richness.
Of course, the first sounds you hear in India are not that of music, but of noise. Sharp and excessive honking marks the drive from the airport to the hotel. In New Zealand we associate honking with one emotion only: anger. Honking tells idiots to speed up, slow down or go. In India it simply means “I’m behind you.” Honking became the defining feature of the trip, it is a country where driving on the footpaths is accepted and if you’re walking too slow you’ll know about it. But the screams of waiting cars is only a small price to pay for the musical beauty deeply woven into the fabric of the country, the roads are painted by the realities of city life but the music in the temples reflect the spiritual ease living there.
Spiritual life in India is officiated by the number of temples and other places of worship found in each city. While Dehli, Jaipur and Agra had their fair share of beautifully coloured temples, they all found themselves in the shadow of Varanasi, where manmade structures find themselves redundant against the length of the Ganges, the sprawling 2525 km river that passes through Bangladesh as well as India. Gliding across this river on boat offers a glimpse into the cultural sounds of the country, as bells and chants accompany bright pink confetti and the whiffs of ceremonial smoke. Masses of people congregate across the stairs and in the boats, but the spiritual sounds can be heard well above the chatter and the prayer.
The spiritual sound is an integral part of the experience. In the Amber Palace in Jaipur (see feature photo), men sit on the floor and blast a sound that is lush yet thrilling in its dominance and projection.
Still, while the Ganges stuns in its size, Varanasi is awash in everything else that is brilliant. Museums, temples and former military forts dot Varanasi’s surprisingly lush cityscape. In the Sarnath ruins there is a startling silence but it does have its musical quirks.
A young man offers to me a singing bowl. He instructs me that in order to unleash its piercing moan, the stick must be delicately traced around the rim at the top. It works! And suddenly I’m spending way too much time on an obscure instrument that was never meant to be used for anything other than a quick demonstration. Patience is a necessity in India, and the young man has plenty of it as he waits, and waits, for me to lose interest.
A musical highlight for sure was attending a traditional wedding. Colours mirrored the flamboyant nature of the music coming from the speakers. An Indian gathering, it seems, requires music loud. Their weddings are principally massive affairs. An open and green space is rented out for ours. It’s huge, yet every second inch is filled with people. The fact that you can’t hear the person next to you is testament to the sheer volume of the speakers.
A socialist friend I made on the trip tells me that it’s called Punjabi music. It’s a style that at its core consists of frantic or bouncy drumming, horns and various types of strings. The radio in the car had alerted me previous times on the trip what the music sounded like, but it’s much different hearing it at this volume. For the better. It was beyond a delight to see the attendees race to the dance floor – illuminated by bright spots. It is astonishingly upbeat and I find it hard not to join in.
It is a style popular in India. A few days later I ask my tour guide, Ashish, what his favourite music is. On his cell phone he shows me a singer, Palash Sen, who specialises in this heartfelt romance music that is digestible through its dance qualities.
When I met my friend she was quick to ask me about what I listened to. I gave her a jumbled list of alternative bands from the 80’s who I shamelessly mope to. While she didn’t recognise any of these bands, she was able to see that I was an energetic music lover and she wasted no time telling me about what she liked too. We had this conversation at the wedding, both yelling so that we could hear each other over the booming speakers.
She told me that she was a singer-songwriter, but teasingly refused to let me listen. Like the pestering music journalist I am, I asked until she finally gave in – taking me to a quiet place where I could properly hear her voice and see her lyrics. Her music joined the two themes of Indian culture I had grown to know – politics and love.
The first she sang described an unmet companion who would enter her life and improve it. The second followed this theme, but the love was the great nation of India. The young socialist declared a pride in her country like an adoring fan. Her music swooned over the independence succession made in 1947 yet, acknowledged the work that needed to be done in order to bring its citizens out of poverty.
All of these elements blend, and because of it India is a country in a constant state of chaos – an organised chaos, if you like. It’s hard to relax when the entire population of Gore* is on the bus next to you, and dogs run wild on the street. But it makes up for it in its sounds, and the many forms in which they take. Some, like the constant tooting, are alarming but the frequently found explosions of culturally rich instrumentation will soundtrack your travel to the most riveting and heartfelt country in the world.
So yes, while India is a country that needs to be seen to be believed, it is a country that needs to be heard to be believed as well.
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*Editor’s note: The population of Gore is currently approaching 10,000 people. In case you were wondering.
ALEX LYALL, long-time curator of The Weekly Music Haul, has been obsessed with music since Green Day’s American Idiot. Until then he genuinely thought it was illegal to call anybody that word. Alex studies Law at Canterbury so can confirm that actually, it is perfectly legal to do so. Anyway, here are some more of his articles:SHARE THIS POST...