Carnatic keys

What links Bob Dylan and Carnatic music?

The rock era’s poet laureate teaches us an important lesson on the power of music.

My head is full of Bob Dylan as I write this column. As I keep telling anyone who would care to listen, Dylan, at his best, is a genre-bender – he combines poetry and music, verse and melody so seamlessly that they cease to exist in isolation. This is why the furore over him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is redundant. Dylan’s music is literature in motion, poetry in song. It ought to be celebrated, for expanding the conventional notion of poetry.

So what do I bring him up in this column on Carnatic music?

While searching for why Dylan is important to me, and to so many others, I realised something significant. Music travels faster than words – indeed, it becomes the catalyst propelling words into unfamiliar topographies. No wonder then, we have school choirs in the United States paying tribute to AR Rahman in Tamil. Or the fact that in several music establishments, from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh, we can hear Dylan being sung by people whose English differs markedly from the twang and faithful rendition of the rock era’s poet laureate.

Coral Reef Senior High’s Cuda Chorus performs Balleilakka, a song composed by AR Rehman for the film 'Sivaji' (2007).

Another realisation dawned on me, when I heard this faithful rendition of Carnatic music by students of American origin, as it did the rounds on social media a while ago. They are all students of Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and there is an interesting story behind the performance.

Students of Carnatic Music at Wesleyan University perform 'Sri Kamalambike'.

In a dim-lit club, somewhere north of Columbia University in New York, I once ran into a jazz saxophonist. He was playing a haunting tune, at once familiar and strange. The more the music enveloped me, the more I realised I was listening to a melodic structure that resembled Raga Chakravakam (which is similar to Raga Ahir Bhairav). A conversation with him revealed he had listened to the musician Jon Higgins at Wesleyan University three decades ago.

Jon Higgins is one of the most unusual stories in the annals of Carnatic music. An American music scholar, ethnomusicologist and singer, he studied Indian music under T Vishwanathan (Vishwa) and his well-known siblings T Ranganathan (who, along with Robert E Brown, pioneered the Indian music programme at Wesleyan University) and the legendary Balasaraswati.

Jon B Higgins in concert.

Here was an outstanding example of reverse migration, a student of European classical music traveling to India to study and perform South Indian classical music and that too at a time when Skype classes and online music transfers did not exist. Higgins became a respected performer and did much to propagate serious study of Indian classical music in North America, founding the Indian Music Studies programme at Canada’s York University with master percussionists Trichy Sankaran in the 1970s.

The legacy of such wonderful people continues in the programmes and performances of students of non-Indian descent at Wesleyan University and other educational institutions in the United States. Boston and Bhairavi are not that disconnected, and this idea of a small world was created long before technology accelerated the process.

When that crazy poet from Minnesota said “The times they are a changin’”, I guess he knew there were equally crazy folks spreading their oeuvre in the strangest of places, and making the world come together through music.

The writer is a well-known pianist based in Chennai and a music educator.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.