Westerners like to think that the West is rational and articulate, and that the East is intuitive and incapable of expressing its deepest knowledge. Of course, any generalization about the so-called “East” is suspect, given that it has to be true of Punjabis, Tamils, Koreans, Vietnamese, and hundreds of other cultures, which have nothing in common with each other. Would any Westerner try to make a generalization that applied to both Norwegians and Spaniards? Hopefully now that Asians are prominently involved in every aspect of science and technology, the stereotype that Asians are not rational will no longer be plausible even to the western “man on the street.” But this stereotype still has some popularity among those western devotees of Indian music who consider rationality to be a Western disease, and who listen more with their hearts than their heads.
The fact of the matter is, however, that the Indian classical music world has both rational and intuitive people, and a few rare individuals with both virtues. The Indian scholar V.N. Bhatkhande, who developed the system of 10 thaats to explain Indian scales, codified the principles of Indian classical music with a scholarly thoroughness that rivaled Kant or Hegel. And although most Indian classical musicians teach the thaat system, they usually prefer an intuitive approach that involves teaching more by example than explanations. Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, however, is one of those rare individuals who is both articulate and musically skillful. He now shares both of these virtues with us, thanks to a CD ROM/Book package that features his words, his music, and the sight of him carefully demonstrating each technique in a computerized video format.
The book itself would be well worth having, even without the CD ROM. It has handsome and artful photos, printed on high quality paper, many of which are protected by interleaved sheets of thin tissue. But this is not a mere coffee table book, for it also has detailed instructions about those aspects of Jaffer Khan’s playing which have made him an important pioneer in the history of the sitar. Many of Jaffer Khan’s innovations are impossible to notate in any kind of sheet music, for they involve radical changes in the use of what are called sitar bols. The term bols is usually used to refer to drum sounds. They are the names given to each tone color that can be produced on a drum (or set of drums, in the case of tablas). Drum students are taught new patterns by reciting bols, but usually melody instruments are taught by reciting sargam i.e. the names for pitched notes that correspond to the Western solfagia systems. But melody instruments also have bols, for each note can have a radically different quality depending on how it is played. This is why a single melody instrument can produce a variety of tone colors, thus making it unnecessary to create different tone colors by combining several instruments together (as is done in the West.)
The book gives names for each of these different sitar bols and detailed instructions for producing them. From the descriptions, some of them seem to correspond to American guitar techniques. Thekhatka is called a “hammer-on” by guitarists, and the kured is called a “pull-off.” What Jaffer Khan calls the “echo” is called “harmonics” when played on classical guitar.
But because Jaffer Khan can sing the Indian names for these bols in the exact rhythm that they are played, he can teach a complicated series of these bols to his students, describing as many variations in tone color as there are in pitch. And in the video portions of the CD ROM, this is exactly what he does. Thanks to the video, the student doesn’t have to speculatively reconstruct the sound from the descriptions in the book. He can watch the teacher’s hands to get the exact wrist angle and plucking motion, and hear exactly how the parts cohere into an expressive whole.
Is this the same as actually having a teacher present? Well, you can’t ask the CD ROM questions, or have it explain exactly what you’re doing wrong. But it is far better than listening to records or reading a book. Not only is the visual information present, thanks to the video, but each technique is repeatedly slowly and carefully, and accompanied by Jaffer Khan’s explanation. And because of the interactive structure of the CD ROM format, the lessons can be conducted at whatever pace is best for the individual. The video runs in a frame in the upper quarter of the computer screen, and the rest of the screen contains a table of contents with a description of each lesson. The automatic function enables the viewer to see the entire program from start to finish. Each time a new technique is discussed, new text appears on the screen summarizing Jaffer Khan’s lecture demonstration. This is especially helpful to those who may have trouble understanding Khan’s heavily accented English. But after viewing the CD-ROM with the automatic function, the table of contents makes it possible to directly access those parts of the video that the students wants to review. In other words, we have the best of both worlds: The visual detail of a video, and the quick accessibility of a book or computer program.
Once one is tired of analysis and study, there is also the opportunity to experience Jaffer Khan’s artistry in its full organic glory. Several concert pieces are presented in video from start to finish, and here one can finally see why all this technique is worth learning. Even for those who have no intention of playing the sitar, watching the lessons teaches how to hear with more discriminating ears. Jaffer Khan does not, of course, teach you all of the techniques he has developed in over sixty years of playing, and the concert footage on this video makes that even more obvious. But he does make you realize that mastering a raga is far more than merely learning the notes of a scale.
Teed Rockwell is president of the Multicultural Music Fellowship. He has studied classical Indian music for 15 years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.