At the beginning of the 20th century, nice Indian girls did not sing in public. Female musical performances were restricted to tawaifs, of a slightly sulfurous reputation, during soirées frequented by cultivated male patrons. If the tawaif wound up getting married, the husband almost invariably required his bride to abandon her art. Men, on the other hand, had for centuries been honored as musicians, patronized by padishahs and maharajas. Their craft was handed down from father to son, and still is today.

Songs of Memory: Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle, Victoria Vorreiter (Resonance Press, July 2022)
Songs of Memory: Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle, Victoria Vorreiter (Resonance Press, July 2022)

High in the mountains of the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar once knew no boundaries, lives a rich multiplicity of traditional peoples. Prominent among them are the Karen, Hmong, Iu Mien, Lahu, Akha, and Lisu, six distinct groups who have maintained their independence, identity, and worldview to a high degree.

In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra boarded a Pan Am 707 plane in Philadelphia for a once-in-a-lifetime journey: a multi-city tour of Maoist China, months after Nixon’s history-making visit. There was drama immediately after they landed in Shanghai. Chinese officials asked for a last-minute change to the program: Beethoven’s Sixth. After protests that the Orchestra didn’t bring scores with them, officials returned with copies haphazardly sourced from across the country, with different notations and different notes, forcing the orchestra to make do.

In the early 1970s, sports may have sparked a thaw in Sino-US relations, but it was classical music that had more lasting influence and would bring Chinese and American musicians together for the first time in the People’s Republic. In 1973, Zhou Enlai invited the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform in Beijing and Shanghai, thus becoming the first American symphony to play in China in a quarter of a century. At the time of Zhou’s invitation, the US table tennis team had already made the term “ping pong diplomacy” a household name and Nixon had already made his secret trip to China. As Jennifer Lin writes in her new book, Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China, this trip not only marked a turning point in Sino-American relations, but also helped set the future direction of classical music in China and around the world.

Dismissal, in fact, is the default response to khayal (the preeminent genre of North Indian classical music), well before we get to know what khayal is, and vaguely term its strangeness “classical music”. Those who later become acquainted with its extraordinary melodiousness forget that on the initial encounter it had sounded unmelodious.

Books, alas, don’t always come in the right order. Having recently reviewed Oliver Craske’s excellent biography of Ravi Shankar, I found myself wishing that I could have read Finding the Raga before undertaking that task. Amit Chaudhuri, well-known Indian novelist and essayist, is also a singer and a musician, but not just any musician. Thoroughly-versed in both Indian and Western classical music, he also has a wide experience of Western popular genres (particularly American folk music), Indian film music and the songs of Rabindranath Tagore.

At 10:20pm on 15 August 1969, Ravi Shankar—then, and still, the most famous practitioner of the sitar and Indian classical music—takes the stage at Woodstock. It’s arguably the zenith of Indian music’s popularity in the West, with musicians like the Beatles, the Byrds and Led Zeppelin embracing elements of Indian music. But this was merely the middle-point of Shankar’s artistic development, nor was it a personal highlight in a long and storied career. For many musicians in several different genres, both in and outside of India, Shankar is the most important messenger for the ideas and concepts of Indian music.