When Carl Sagan, the scientist guy who was better known for his efforts to popularize science, in billions and billons of ways, shortlisted music from around the world to go on the Voyager Golden Record — from diverse cultures — of all the recorded music from India he picked up Surashri Kesarbai Kerkar‘s Jaat Kahaan Ho.
Kesarbai Kerkar, although well known to the connoisseurs of Hindustani Classical music, is hardly a household name even back in India. Not many would have heard the bhairavi, for instance, and many like me got to know about it in the context of the Voyager Golden Record! Make no mistake about it: I’m not contesting Sagan’s selection at all. I doubt many would, after listening to the piece. I’m in fact marveling at Sagan’s selection — from a rich, diverse tradition that Indian music (classical and otherwise) is, he’s picked up an absolute gem, that’s as alien to many on earth (and the country of its origin), as it would be to any passing alien who might happen to listen to it (in whatever way, the word listen makes sense, in an alien context).
And yet, the longing that’s characterisitc of the bhairavi, is beyond language. Did Sagan, then, believe that even an alien, who has presumably no common emotional experiences to share with the human race, would be able to feel that longing (or did he actually believe that even aliens would share what we think to be very human experience)? For, one has to assume, that with the shared emotional experience of human race, Kesarbai Kerkar’s voice should easily be able to surpass the human languages barrier — languages that are hardly capable of capturing some of the finest human experiences, anyways.
We all are able to feel, even when we don’t understand a word of the song in another language. I was memerized by Nat King Cole‘s Quizas Quizas long before I finally got around to reading the translation of its Spanish lyrics (which, are lovely as well). When a cousin introduced me to Magda El Romy‘s Kalemat, it blew me over, and I never even checked out its lyrics. Or when I first listened to Meiko Kaji‘s Flower of Carnage, after being numbed by the violence in Kill Bill 1, I was transported to another mind zone, where the violence faded away into oblivion, along with the numbness (not to mention, it gave me a premonition that the second part would be more nuanced). There will be innumerable examples, indeed. Much of music is even accompanied by no words, and lets us find our own meaning, without having to ever ‘invalidate’ it, or just surpasses what the words are saying, even when there are words accompanying it.
Many people believe the Vedas to be more than the words, and that with right intonations, anyone should be able to get them, even without knowing Sanskrit. That might seem far fetched to the rationalist in each of us (count me in, of course), but then, how do we understand the pain and the helpless (and yet dignified) rage in Beethoven’s Seventh symphony — particularly the second movement. Would anyone need to understand English to be soothed by Roberta Flack’s Jesse, or to feel the camaraderie in Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World or Hello Brother?
And then there is the issue (decidedly not minor) of divinity: of music surpassing all language and conveying to us the idea of divinity, or making us feel its illusory presence. The cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words begs a question: how much more worth is a piece of music, if it can transcend all that language can capture, or all that (even) the visual arts can inspire — although I agree that I’m not really a guy who is qualified to even begin to make that assessment. Undoubtedly, there is much that visual arts can communicate. But being a form, is it constrained when trying to communicate the formless? The perfection of form that Michelangelo’s David conveys probably would never be expressed in language either, but there are rare moments (or not so rare, when Kumar Gandharva is singing, for instance, or Abida Parveen) in music when God talks to atheists like me, and makes me believe that there indeed is the seed of divine in each of us. That formless, nameless, territory, at least for me, is ruled by music and music alone.