When I first came to the SF Bay Area, I knew only one thing about India: its music was amazing. Critics would often refer to these astonishing structures of melody and rhythm as “ethnic music” and, of course, I knew I was more likely to get hired playing at Indian restaurants than anywhere else.
Even though I knew where this music came from geographically, I didn’t really experience it as coming from anywhere in particular. For me, it existed in a kind of abstract possibility space, like gravity, numbers, and justice: profoundly beautiful, and beyond any one location in space and time. To some degree I still believe that, but India Currentstaught me to love the culture as much as the music it produced.
When I saw my first copy of India Currents, concerts by Indian musicians were usually ignored by both the mainstream and underground media. This was before email or websites, which meant I had to rely on word of mouth and posters in store windows to regularly find Indian music concerts. I was delighted to find a publication that did for Indian music what the East Bay Express did for alternative rock groups: provide a monthly listing that tells you who’s playing when, and a little something about who the artists were. In the beginning these listings were the main content of a 30-40 page black-and-white pulp newsletter. There were also, however, a few articles each month. After I’d filled up the free spaces in my calendar, I found myself reading the articles from cover to cover, even as the size of the magazine tripled.
I discovered a broader diversity of opinion in these articles than I had ever seen in any other publication.
Then, as now, most other journalism was divided along political lines. India Currents’ policy seemed to be that it would give a voice to anyone in the Indian community. These voices not only spoke their minds, but talked to each other. On one page, academics argued over the colonialist connotations of the word “exotic.”
On the next page, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur was defending free market libertarianism. And what other publication would have editorials defending both gay marriage and arranged marriage, written by the same editor? Not only was this variety refreshing, it effectively dissipated any stereotypes about Indians. At a time when the most widely seen Indian face in America was Apu on theSimpsons, India Currents ran articles about Indians who were doing everything from working in the Clinton White House to abstract painting to building factories.
This was the second factor that made India Currents such a great read. Any other magazine or newspaper writing about India, or pretty much anywhere else, devotes almost all of its space to bad news: corruption, riots, wars etc. If you don¹t live in the country being described, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a playing field for disaster and tragedy. India Currents believes that all Indians should feel proud whenever any Indian does something noteworthy. So every month, there are articles whose subtext is, simply, “Indians are doing lots of cool stuff.” It was in India Currents that I first read about the small business loan program of the Grameen bank in Bangladesh, over a decade before its founder won the Nobel Peace Prize, and about the woman prison supervisor who developed a meditation program for the inmates. It was in India Currentsthat I learned Salman Rushdie is a great writer, not just an international political football. It was in India Currents that I learned that Indians played cricket and made more movies than any other country in the world. And most importantly for me, I learned that Indian music existed in more forms, both light and profound, both commercial and traditional, than I could ever have imagined.
I finally got up the courage to send the editor a press release about my own music, with a much greater emphasis on my teachers’ than on my own accomplishments. They liked it enough to publish it, and so I continued to send them things. Eventually they were asking me to write articles on other musicians, and when founding editor Arvind Kumar decided to pass the reins to his partner Ashok Jethanandani, I agreed to write a monthly music column. I was now, apparently, an expert on Indian music, at least in the sense of the old joke that analyzes the word into two parts: X: an unknown quantity and spurt: a drip under pressure. I was an unknown drip under pressure, with a monthly 1,000-word deadline to keep the pressure up.
At first, I wrote about whatever recordings were sent to the editor’s office, and this required me to study music I had known almost nothing about: bhangra, qawwali, ghazals, bhajans, film music. I had to teach myself what was common knowledge to most Indians, as well as write about obscure corners of Indian music known only to ethnomusicologists. I developed a network of musical advisors: friends I met at the Indian restaurants where I played music, musicians on whom I’d written previous articles, and academics I found on the Internet. One of my best sources is an Anglo who played in the 60s with people who eventually became rock stars, and now lives in his parents’ basement listening (but not playing) every kind of Indian classical music for over eight hours a day. I was fortunate to interview some of the greatest Indian musical artists, and/or popular performers, and to ask them questions to help improve my own playing. When I asked Pandit Jasraj how I could make my music more emotionally expressive, he suggested that I pray. Zakir Hussain and Anoushka Shankar independently told me that the best way to keep taal under complicated cross rhythms was to tap your foot; not an easy thing to do when you are sitting cross-legged and playing alternating patterns of seven and nine with your hands.
Can I sum up in a few fundamental principles what I learned after fifteen years of monthly columns? I can try.
Despite widely held stereotypes, India, like America, is a country that feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization. The essential difference between the two cultures is that Americans believe in making up the rules as you go along, and India is a country with lots of rules and traditions. What the Indian stereotype ignores, however is that Indians are more than willing to break those rules when it seems necessary.
Most Indians see this as a weakness which causes corruption and an inability to make trains run on time. I believe, however, that this is one of India¹s greatest strengths. The American view of rules creates a society which is often spiritually rootless, and addicted to novelty for its own sake. The Indian view of rules creates a society which is in constant flux, but not one that is fragmented and cut off from its past. All the Indian musicians I have interviewed have said the music they play is thousands of years old, and their only goal is to preserve the tradition. However, any comparison between those musicians and their gurus always reveals extensive innovations in melodic and rhythmic material, playing technique, even in the construction of the instrument itself. Indians always speak as if obedience to tradition was their highest priority. But when push comes to shove, it is always the inner voice of intuition that wins out—an intuition that, at its best, inspires each individual to preserve the essence of the tradition as he or she changes it.
Indians may be embarrassed by, and non-Indians skeptical of, such effusive praise from an outsider. While I am talking about stereotypes, I realize that I embody a stereotype myself—the starry-eyed westerner who completely loses himself in some other culture. Gilbert and Sullivan mocked this character as “The idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone, every century but this, and every country but his own.” India attracts a lot of people of this sort, and I do count myself among them. However, I try to put my own spin on this stereotype in two ways. First of all, I am more attracted these days to the similarities between my own culture and India’s—partly because I’ve discovered that the difference was not as great as I once thought, and partly because I have been changed by the culture as I have studied it. These days I would probably feel more at home in Calcutta than in Idaho or Georgia, despite the fact that the latter are politically part of my native country. Secondly, unlike many western Indophiles, I am not afraid of India changing. I know that modernization is not the same thing as westernization: that Bollywood movies are as uniquely Indian as ragas and yoga. India’s uniquely ambivalent attitude to tradition and change will insure that the India of tomorrow will be as Indian in its own way as the India of the Guptas and the Mughals. That is why I am interested in how India’s past transforms into India’s future. I’m very grateful to have a ringside seat to observe these changes as a writer and reader of India Currents.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.