Tirukkokarnam Subbarama Bhagavatar: Ni ri ni ri ga ma

In my last post, I wrote about a piece of Javanese classical music performed on the Gamelan. I fell in love with that piece back in my senior year of college in 1976 when my friend Thom Klem played it for me. It came from an anthology of world music called “Music from Distant Corners of the World” on the Nonesuch label. This album had 33 track of music from just about every continent.

Each piece on that album had a special quality to it, whether it came from the Peruvian Andes or the mountains of Bulgaria. Listening to any one song on that album was like hooking up to the collective conscious of an entire culture. Before the Internet, music was one way of surfing the web of human accomplishments.

The producers of this double album had devoted one whole side to Indian classical music. Back in 1967 when the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band,” I was electrified by one song, “Within You. Without You.” It featured a sitar solo played by George Harrison who had studied with Ravi Shankar. After that, Shankar became somewhat of a pop star in the late 1960s. He got a psychedelic light show and played the college campus circuit, composed a few sound tracks and even recorded an “East Meets West” album with Yehudi Menuhin.

I loved the sound of Indian classical music–the twang and drone of the zither-like sitar, the intricate drum patterns, the mournful violin, and the human voice which often imitated them all. This music so moved me that in 7th grade, I made a number of number of signs which read “I like Ravi.” On these, I substituted a small drawing of a sitar for the letter “I”. Few people in my provincial Midwestern middle school had a very strongly developed visual sense or knowledge of music. A few came up and said, “Who’s Rav?”

So several years later, on hearing the recording of Ni ri ni ri ga ma, I was immediately drawn to it. What’s more, realizing my college friends also appreciated it made me feel like I had finally come home.

Indiana University, where I was a senior at this time, had a very fine film studies department. I believe this semester they had a course on Indian cinema, which featured the works of the great Bengali film maker, Satyajit Ray. I went along once to a screening of Pather Panchali which is the story about a poor boy growing up a family in rural India. The father is a head-in-the-clouds scholar who refuses to come down to earth long enough to do anything about the miserable state to which his family has sunk. His wife nearly goes mad at her husband’s attitude and is left disconsolate when she realizes she has to send her son, Apu, off to live with relatives in Calcutta. The relatives, it turns out, live in a bare stucco house on the banks of the Ganges without a stick of furniture. They are as poor as Apu’s parents and are unhappy with the boy’s arrival.

I seem to remember that the film was autobiographical for Ray, who grew up to be a real renaissance man. He acted, wrote plays and novels, composed music, penned verses of poetry and became a film maker and political gadfly. His films weren’t box office successes in India, but he developed world recognition as one of the great 20th century art film makers-right up there with Fellini. As everyone knows, India churns out more films than any country on the face of the earth. Most of these are musical action/adventure/comedy/romantic farces. This must fulfill some escapist fantasy need of the general population. In a country with so many poor and destitute people, who want to watch a movie about poor and destitute people?

Satyajit Ray either wrote or collaborated on the music for Pather Panchali with Ravi Shankar, who recorded the sound track.

That semester, Thom and I developed an interest in Indian cuisine. We started buying and experimenting with all the exotic spices. Spices with names like fenugreek, asafetida, turmeric, fennel and star anise. Strong flavors like ginger, clove, mace and nutmeg. For us, the subtle blending of these flavors into a meal was like composing an olfactory and gustatory symphony.

Nowadays, if you visit an Indian grocery store, you’re bound to find they rent videos and sell cassette tapes. Unfortunately, the music is rarely classical. It usually is the film score and songs from the videos on the wall.  This is really too bad because the voice in Indian classical music is as important as any of the instruments. This is demonstrated in the song, Ni ri ni ri ga ma. The vocalist sings intricate duets and counterpoint with almost every instrument-the sitar, the tabla, violin-often imitating the instrument perfectly. I’m not sure if the instruments are imitating the voice or vice versa-that would be an interesting question for a historian of Indian music. The effect is quite striking, however, and even has a meditative effect. For that reason, the Nonesuch label originally put this piece on an album called “Dhyanam/Mediation.” Unfortuantely, it’s out of print.

Once again, I marvel at the power of music to connect people and allow us to get inside the head and minds of those from other cultures and demonstrate how we all are truly interconnected


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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