Brahm Naad

November 2, 2012

Early this week, I shared this email with few family and friends:

A friend sent this link to me today … It is a dated creation and somehow did not get the attention (Not many views)!

Not being a musician I did find it interesting (enjoyable); however, some curiosity based questions did come up:

  • Can the Indian Classical Music be morphed in a symphony concert form? 
  • Have any systematic efforts been made by well known or extraordinaire Musicians (East or West) with regards to this? Can a non-musician enjoy them?
  • How would you rate this effort from a (Classical or World – fusion) musician point of view?

The result was a series of exchanges with stimulating dialog. I am sharing this on this blog with primary motivation that you might find it interesting and may be some of you may add to the dialog by additional comments!

I am including initial responses here..


Himanshu Desai <> wrote:

There are a lot of fusion musicians and groups around the world, however few have been deemed as artists of merit- simply because the approaches in eastern and western music have far too many differences, both in theory and practice-

In theory, the main difference in eastern and western classical traditions is that eastern traditions are predominantly melodic (modal) while western ones are predominantly harmonic in structure of the compositions

In practice, most Indian classical music is focused on the fineness of an individual artist (i.e. a leading artist who usually performs along with a few accompanists) to articulate a raga, on the contrary western classical music is often focused on performance of large groups ( of various instruments that tend to strategically harmonize to certain parts of the composition – please note here that in the video you sent there is a huge number of sitarists – in an orchestra all musicians have different instruments that are custom designed for different purposes- piano, violins, clarinets, cellos etc. all have separate roles to play- this diversity is essential to allow richer harmonic movements) – hope this description is not to confusing?

here are some of the names of goof fusion artists (off the hat)- Trilok Guru, Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussein  the Mahavishnu orchestra, Return to Forever, Shakti, John McLaughlin, Jai Uttal (searchable on YouTube)…

It has been noted that the best fusion has happened in jazz music – as it is an open form in terms of composition and structure – and therefore allows space for improvisation with eastern melodic music styles. There is in actually more fusion between Latino, African and western music, than Indian.

In this example of the video you have sent there are also no defined harmonic com-positional elements – all the musicians are playing simply straight leading melodies, in the overall composition there are no harmonic movements (harmonic, troughs, crescendo’s, points or counterpoints) that are essential elements of symphonic music.  The music in this video is un-symphonic  as symphonies are mostly compositions that give voice to narrative structures through the use of harmonic movements and not merely melodic ones such as the ones in this composition.

Indian music (both North Indian and Carnatic) is intrinsically melodic/modal style of music similar to far eastern traditions (in contrast to western classical traditions which are harmonic). This video is of is a futile attempt at fusion- it is like some kind of systematic confusion, it is a very poor production that is severely lacking creativity and artistic merit, not surprising that it didn’t get any attention

In my humble opinion, Indian classical music performance is at its best in its traditional form – i.e. with a maestro, pundit, ustaad and a couple of accompanists, simply because – the artistic intent in Indian music is unique with its ritualistic and spiritual connotations

Would like to quote a true fusion artist and innovator – Pundit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (inventor of The Mohan Vina – a customized Hawaiian guitar created especially for playing Indian classical music). He once remarked to the BBC that “Fusion is not always the answer since it inadvertently happens at the cost of the essence of both the styles of music that one is fusing, therefore the challenge is to fuse without compromising your own roots.”  

Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is considered one of the legends of fusion music simply because he handpicks the style of music he fuses Indian music, while also maintaining simplicity and originality of his unique style of music. He has also won a Grammy Award for a collaboration album with legendary Country/Bluegrass guitarist – Ry Cooder. Since both the musicians were guitarists, the fact that the tonality if both instruments were similar, added greatly to their musical creativity, lest we forget that Bluegrass is folk music therefore had a modal structure that is conducive to ragas too, here is a good example:


Ramesh Patel ( ) wrote:

My knowledge of music is limited, especially in relation to Western music which sounds opaque to me despite efforts to fathom it.  My problem with Western music, classical and light, is perhaps its tempered scale which is good for orchestration and harmony but blurs precision of notes, which is an absolute value for me.  Once you are used to the natural scale with its purity and precision of notes, all other music, however grandiose and sophisticated in outward sounds, simply jars.

The spiritual impact of Indian music, classical or light, is due to the natural mathematical scale that is grasped by the brain after initiation and training.  But it is far from a product of indoctrinating training, it is discovery.  And that is the beauty of Indian music, which you find only rarely outside.  Western solo violinists like Yehudi Menuhin at times are able to produce it simply because they as individual instrumentalists playing on strings can break free of the artificially and conveniently equalized tempered scale of a keyboard.  Sometimes you even hear pure notes from singers, a real rarity.  I have heard pure notes from Barbara Streisand (“People”).  Of course, Lata (Mangeshkar) is the epitome of precise notes, even micro-tones  which she produces spontaneously and effortlessly.

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is right.  Fusion is more a fad than real creative genre.  It sounds like combination of ill-fitting aspects of both style of music.  But I like Zakir Hussein a lot.  Western orchestration is grand and glorious, with its own enchanting features.  But just listen to what Ravi Shankar has done with London Symphony Orchestra: his sitar sounds highly ornate even playing simple melodic notes. While the orchestra produces bland tempered notes.  Orchestration is made for tempered scale, or the other way around.  Pure notes cannot be mass produced.  But even here there are exceptions: my favorite is Moldau (Vltava) but conducted only by Leonard Bernstein.


Himanshu Desai <> commented further:

Certainly the recording is a wonderful work – and the real joy of such a work is in the interplay between the different styles. One can derive the same elated spiritual feelings from both the sitar and the orchestral accompanists. But to do that one would urge to view such international collaborations, also from the point of view of Christian Religious pedagogical discourses, as much as that of Hindu (Indian) context.

Western cultures are as spiritual as any eastern ones – but their spirituality is different – we somehow tend to chose not to see it that way.  Composers like Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Vivaldi etc. were lauded not only for exceptional talent, but were also hailed as gifted artists who went to lengths experimenting with tone, timber, volume and texture of various instruments – not only to have perfection of the musical form – but indeed also to bring out ‘the spiritual quest of God in man’ into a realizable narrative. Renaissance artists and composers often worked with priests to justify things like – why certain parts of symphonies were voiced through such and such instrument, or such and such harmony etc.- in fact the whole business of writing an opera or concerto was a spiritual one from start to finish. Did you know that Beethoven wrote his magnum opus after he lost his hearing – don’t you think that there must have been some spiritual operatives that he must have relied upon? I am sure if you refer to western artistic concepts and processes, western instrumentation will sound as melodic, emotional and alive as any Sitar or Sarangi etc.

Why Indian classical music appears to be more spiritual and emotive is also because it is overwhelmingly ridden with phantasmal religious banter – i.e. ragas are usually used as meditative practice to evoke Gods and Goddesses . Such pedagogic traditions have crippled the scope for experimentation in Indian classical music for centuries. The main reason why Zakir and Shankar both are famous is exactly that – they were the first classical artists who went to the west to collaborate freely with international artists, e.g. The Beatles, The Mahavishnu Orchestra etc. They brought Indian musical language into the international mainstream, away from the closed world of hardcore Indian classical gharanas and shailis that exist even today in much of northern India (Varanasi, Mathura, Brij, Allahabad, Bundeli, Bhojpuri, Lucknow to name a few).


Kirti Vashee ( wrote:

There is a wonderful documentary made by a woman I just met (Gita Desai) called Raga Unveiled (

It is an in-depth look at the foundations of Hindustani Sangeet and a little on Carnatic Music and I strongly recommend it. We can all learn something about Indian Classical Music (ICM) from it. If you watch this you may understand why this fusion is difficult, as it provides an excellent overview of the multiple dimensions of Hindustani Sangeet.

From my viewpoint the differences between ICM and Western CM make it hard to really get successful fusion, as one side often gets shortchanged in a fusion experiment. Both are complex and highly developed art forms in different ways and it is not possible for one to learn the other instantly. Fusion that involves years of experimentation and collaboration might work and the best stuff I have seen is from Indian kids who have grown up in the U.S. e.g. Shankar Tucker

Shankar Tucker
Shankar Tucker is an American clarinetist and music composer. He rose to fame with the popularity of his online music series called “The ShrutiBox”. 

See this:  …  O Re Piya / Rolling in the Deep

Also:  … Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo

And: … “Mere Saajan Sun Sun”

  • ICM is focused on melody and rhythm mostly and has very elementary harmonic concepts – there is also a lot of improvisation, especially in Hindustani Sangeet. I would argue that it is more developed in both these key aspects than any other music form in the world. Improvisation by definition is difficult to organize into the precision and form required by symphonic music, especially since ICM rarely use written music to guide a performance.
  • ICM is taught through oral traditions – the writing systems are very limited and most consider them useless for anything other than basic skeletal stuff. The Guru-Shishya param-para is very much part of the tradition for knowledge transmission. WCM has an accepted and widely used written tradition which makes it easier for groups to reproduce it as it was written and originally conceived.
  • In ICM the performer is the composer, though this is rarely true in WCM, but it is true for Jazz and Rock music solos.
  • ICM links back to the Rig Vedas and thus the link to spirituality and Hindu religious ideals.
  • In the ICM tradition music is considered sadhana. The most serious musicians consider themselves sadhaks rather than musicians. It is very hard to translate the word sadhana.
  • WCM has more developed ideas on harmony and multimusician collaboration and has considerable organizational and support infrastructure to facilitate this.

Most serious ICM musicians consider the Ravi Shankar experiments as interesting but not real fusion, as neither side really learnt the others in any real depth. Rhythmic experiments tend to be more successful.

Finally, I would ask why should ICM try and express itself in a form like symphonic form. It makes very little sense to me and akin to asking why can’t a tiger be more like a lion? For me the answer is because they are fundamentally different and that is OK. Tigers travel alone and stay hidden – lions live in packs out in the open and they are both magnificent in their unique ways.


Tushar Desai ( wrote:

I do not have deeper knowledge of musicology as some of you. So I will give you my perspective as a listener. I have been blessed with ability to enjoy all kinds of music. I believe that whether we listen to Indian Classical Music (ICM), Western Classic Music (WCM), Jazz, Hip Hop, or popular music; all of them produce a physiological response, some sort of chemical release, perhaps endorphin  which enhance our pleasure. One experiences an altered state, which is far removed from the routines of our life. We all are blessed with the ability to experience the phenomenon and all of us are able to train ourselves to understand various disciplines of music, thus enhance our experience. Frankly, I like to respect each pathway to this experience and simply benefit from it at a given moment. If we learn to understand fusion, we will get similar experience from fusion as well. Raas Garba are classic example of the music-induced chemical release. Relatively sedentary individuals are able to dance for hours, becoming completely oblivious of fatigue or the surroundings. I say, let it all be!


  1. My knowledge of music is very limited but I have excellent ears i am lucky that I can pick up detune music immediately I have observed in my life that western musicians have more attractions for Indian music I have noted Indian music effect in many musicians like yanni Richard clayderman and others Indian artists can sing or play any instrument sponteniously while western musicians play instruments with reading notes this difference I have observed in many programs

  2. Here is a jazz trio where the sitar is played mostly like a western instrument – some like it and some don’t — not really fusion to just use Indian instruments if you don’t bring some of the musicality in as well

  3. Here is one that may consider a successful fusion as the musicians are all playing in their own tradition but play at a level of excellence and seek to build bridges constantly between each other — but many ICM musicians find the fusion unsatisfying

  4. Brahma-nada can be of two types. Nirguna Brahma-nada is called anahata, meaning the unstruck sound, like one hand flapping. Saguna Brahma-nada is caused by the striking of two entities, like energy and existence. Cultivating it in its pure form is the ultimate aim of Indian classical music. An Indian song can say “svar ki sadhana parameshvar ki”. It means cultivating pure notes is a path right up to Divinity. There is nothing anywhere in any other music that can compare with this level of lifting music to the highest spiritual achievement.
    But a key distinction needs to be made between the social, cultural and institutional religion and personal, penetrating and bonding spirituality. It takes a lifelong discipline spanning decades to realize pristine purity of musical notes that no razzle dazzle of feisty sounds of music can command.
    That is what made the great maestro vocalist Amir Khan to cancel his impending concert on hearing a nearby recorded song of Lata Mangeshkar. He asked his audience to listen to her rather than to his own arduously cultivated notes of music. He said that Lata was able to produce spontaneously and effortlessly what he could not produce after decades of dedicated discipline. Maybe Lata cultivated it in a previous life. So also may be the case with prodigies like Mozart.
    Pandit Omkarnath Thakur has meticulously shown in his Pranav Bharati how microtones were precisely calibrated on Veena in Bharata’s Natya-shastra. This mathematically precise calibration was bastardized by the tempered scale. Yes, I am not a purist but I can acknowledge where purists are coming from. They won’t accept an automatic hegemony of Western classical music, relegating Indian classical as merely ethnic.
    Purity of notes brings up an uplifting spiritual experience that a tempered scale, however grand in execution, just cannot deliver. When experienced, pure notes of music are different from flashy sounds of music like, say, the Gopis’ simple love of Krishna is from Uddhava’s elitist pride in his intellect.
    Western religions with their exclusivist creedal emphasis have largely eclipsed whatever little spirituality they originally possessed. Hinduism in contrast has retained much of its spiritual emphasis even amid a plethora of religious rituals. In terms of spirituality there is no equation between the two.
    Yes, Indian classical music has inherited the guru-shishya type of tortured way of learning from its religious culture. I will be the first to condemn its excesses and lack of humanity, not to speak of pedagogic contortions. Servility to a human teacher is also outrageous. But the reason why Hindu and Muslim musicians in the last six centuries constructed a wonderful musical bridge between the Hindu and Muslim spirituality was due to the natural mathematical scale with which both worked with great care nurturing the culture of pure notes. That both sang religious songs has no relevance on the heart of the matter. Ravi Shankar having a Muslim guru is itself quite significant but a routine matter that drives the point home.
    I taught Music, Meditation and Mysticism of India for about fifteen years. Whenever I played Ravi Shankar with London Symphony Orchestra the students in class, many of whom were music majors who knew their Western music and were just being introduced to Indian music, pointed out how bland the orchestral instruments sounded. I once bought a CD that claimed to be the best of Western melodies. I could not even finish listening to it for it sounded very bland, like eating unsalted rice with raw peanuts. Maybe I am spoiled by the ornate structure of Indian melody but that is where traditional Indian music lives. Even at the popular level of light or folk music, Indian music assumes that the listener’s brain is in tune with the mathematical proportions between notes, which generates deep aesthetic spirituality by its nature and not in virtue of the meaning of the words being sung.
    On the other hand, nothing can take away the grand magnificent sounds that Western music creates. Its harmonic patterns are meticulously developed, even as its melodic patterns remain elementary. Trying to “analyze” ragas on the basis of culture, religion, myths and folklore misses the aesthetic foundation of raga. The best way to render the untranslatable word “raga” is “melodic form.”
    Similarly, the ornate structure of Indian rhythm is not just complex, its melodic tuning with the instrument or vocalist is of vital importance in creating the patterns of melodic precision.
    I specifically came to devalorize use of terms like drone, tonic, improvisation, pitching and meter. “Drone” fails to bring out what is involved in tanpura which, for example, hides an array of precise microtones that a trained ear can hear. Without the keynote or the so-called tonic all Indian music would be noise. “Improvization” robs the creative freedom of the perfomer, making one feel as if the artist is just tinkering with a preexisting piece. “Pitching” is a term that trivializes the years and years of arduous work of the artist in perfecting the purity of notes. Without the sam or first beat and the artful way returning to it the Indian meter would become a timekeeper as in Western music.
    I agree that fusion of these two great but widely diverging traditions of music can be “successful” in tantalizing the ears, or even making some money for that matter. But real aesthetic fusion would remain elusive. And as someone commented in this blog, it is unnecessary. Both water and oil have great uses but that is no reason to mix them up. Ananda or bliss is an unseparable part of Brahma-nada at any of its two dimensions. And that is the heart of aesthetics blending with the ultimate.

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