The Musical Language

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.


8 thoughts on “The Musical Language

  1. Aria says:

    beautiful writing.. I agree with your last few lines.. music has the power to transport us where perhaps no other form of art can. Everytime I read you I kick myself for not devoting quality time to Abida Parveen.. : ( I’m reminded of her when I read you and then I forget ..

  2. harini calamur says:

    lovely post.
    when M.S.sings the hanumana chalisa or bhimsen joshi – jo bhaje hari ko sada or pavorotti ‘ave maria’ – it is bliss
    a few years ago the sangeet kendra in ahmedabad released their baithak series – some brilliant stuff from kesar bai – have you heard them ?

  3. asuph says:

    Mahendra: Thanks!

    Harini: Welcome (or have you been here before? well, you’re still welcome) to fine imbalance. How could I have forgotten to mention MSS, but then there are too many who I’ve surely missed.

    No I haven’t heard the ‘baithak series’. Will check out. thanks.


  4. RGK73 says:

    I think music is like breathing.You will suffocate without it.
    When I am listening to great Kishori Amonkar’s malhar malika series , i can actually feel like I am soaked in rain!
    as usual very well written article! i really wonder and of course appreciate your power to express your thoughts very clearly in words!
    i wonder what it will be equivalent in music?

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