A Great Tree Has Fallen: Asad Ali Khan, R.I.P.

This Tuesday, June 14, the world of music lost a great spirit.

Ustad Asad Ali Khan, one of the few remaining performers on the ancient Indian stringed instrument called the Rudra Veena, passed away after suffering a heart attack in the early hours of the morning.

He performed an austere and sober style of music, an instrumental version of the vocal style known as Dhrupad, which dates back to the 11th century or so. The Rudra Veena, or Been, is considered to be one of the oldest instruments of Indian tradition; it has its own origin myth, which states that the instrument sprang full-blown from the forehead of a meditating Lord Shiva. It is interesting that Asad Ali Khan, whose name makes his Muslim ancestry evident, saw no religious conflict in embracing this story; ecumenicism in Indian musical traditions is alive and well.

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Month 11, Day 20: Doin’ The Subcontinental

The San Francisco Chronicle runs an AP story on the likely effects of climate change on India:

A new report says India could be 2 degrees Celsius (3.8 F) warmer than 1970s levels within 20 years — a change that would disrupt rain cycles and wreak havoc on the country’s agriculture and freshwater supplies, experts said Wednesday.

More flooding, more drought and a spreading of malaria would occur, as the disease migrates northward into Kashmir and the Himalayas, according to the report by 220 Indian scientists and 120 research institutions.

Saturday’s letter was written mid-morning on Friday; I am getting ready to fly out to Madison, WI to do a lecture-demonstration on Indian music tomorrow, so I won’t have time to write later today.

As we look towards a future in which global warming alters coastlines, sea levels, storm intensity, monsoon patterns, and the availability of groundwater, it’s painfully evident that the Subcontinent is going to be battered as never before in its long history. A drastic change in any one of the factors listed above would be enough to trigger profound effects; when they’re all happening at once, we’ll get a slow-motion disaster that probably won’t end during our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children. And, of course, it’s not just India; it’s all of us. The upcoming summit in Cancun is crucial for the world’s survival in the coming decades, but you’d never know it from the discussion of the issue in this country. Now that the party of denial assumes the majority in the House of Representatives, the rest of us will just have to assume the position.

Warren Senders

Musical Journeys in India: An Audio Travelogue

I must have been eight or nine when my Uncle Russell began taking me, once a month, to a lecture series at the university where he taught; each month a different world traveler would do a grownup version of show & tell. Slides, movies, anecdotes, facts. Exciting? I loved those outings, and I wish I remember more. But they certainly made their impression: as a boy, I knew that I wanted to travel, to see at least a few of those places first hand. Uncle Russ’ career as a management consultant for the Ford Foundation had taken him and his family to live in places far from the Boston suburbs where I grew up. One of those places was Hyderabad, India, and the souvenirs he and my aunt brought back from their years there were my first introduction to Indian culture.

I was seventeen when I encountered Indian music, and from the moment my ears opened to the sound of Hindustani ragas, I knew that this was something I had to do. Over the years that followed, I collected LPs and cassettes of Indian music with zeal; by the time I actually went to India, I had steeped myself obsessively in its classical and vernacular music. Now, thirty years later, I’ve got some show & tell of my own.

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In Memoriam: Gangubai Hangal, 1913 – 2009

A tiny woman with a preternaturally deep voice, Gangubai Hangal achieved national fame in India as one of the greatest singers of the ornate improvisational artsong called khyal (“imagination” in Arabic). She died on Tuesday, July 21st, 2009, at a hospital near her home in Hubli, Karnataka State, India. She was ninety-seven years old and had given her last public concert two years before.

She overcame the dual barriers of caste and gender to become a nationally revered and respected artist. Her life was marked by rejection and sorrow, but her extraordinary voice and powerfully emotional singing brought her acclaim and international recognition.

Her story spans almost a century; her life as a professional performer lasted at least seventy-five years. Keep reading, and find out about Gandhari “Gangubai” Hangal, a woman who triumphed over tragedy to become one of the century’s greatest voices.

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