An Idiot’s Guide to Music – 2

By Anjum Altaf

Is architecture frozen music?

I asked this question because it consumed many years of my life and in arriving at an answer I discovered things about myself that I now wish to explore because they have a bearing on who we are, where we come from, and how we see the world.

Think back to Macaulay’s child, the babu-in-the-making, desperately looking for architecture in music. Taught only reading, writing and arithmetic (in English) with a polishing of calculus and Fourier transforms, it was natural to assume that music was music was music and it was only a matter of diligent search that would reveal to me the architecture that Goethe had seen.

And so it was a blinding (to an idiot) flash that opened up the possibility that there could be music and there could be music and that the two could differ and therefore the metaphor that applied to one need not apply to the other.

Post-flash the differences that had never occurred became embarrassingly obvious. It also became embarrassingly obvious that anyone who had been decently educated (as opposed to been meticulously trained), familiar with his/her heritage, and comfortable in his/her skin need not have suffered the agony of searching for architecture in music.

It is obvious now that the Indian and Western music traditions differ in their aesthetics, their technical foundations, and their organization. Despite years of dabbling I am still not equipped to say much about the first two because they require a domain expertise that was not part of my education. Based on the bits and pieces I have picked up I can make some semi-intelligent comments mixed up with some horribly misplaced conjectures and I wish now to leave that discussion to others who know more.

The organization of music, on the other hand, requires less specialized knowledge and more application of common sense and I wish (ultimately) to focus on that dimension. To give a preview of the type of question I wish to explore I would ask you to imagine yourself at concerts of Western and Indian classical music. A question that intrigues me is the following: Why is the central figure in the Western concert the conductor and why is there no conductor at all in the Indian concert?

Now these are not the kinds of questions that will radically change the world but they do have some value in exploring. First, they help us to understand the social organization of society that is reflected in the organization of its music. And, second, they open up the possibility that if the organization of music is local and not universal so could the organization of many other things, like politics, for example.

This last is important because Macaulay’s children have interpreted the world through a European lens and assumed European concepts to have universal validity. And this can have far-reaching consequences. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani says the following about Savarkar who in 1923 wrote Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?: “The special frisson of Savarkar’s ideas lay in their translation of Brahminical culture into the terms of an ethnic nationalism drawn from his reading of Western history.” It was only Gandhi amongst the nationalist leaders who saw through the dangers of such a course summing it in one of his enigmatic remarks: “I believe that a nation is happy that has no history.”

Nationalism, the nation-state, democracy – all these were European ideas that assumed an unquestioned universality for Macaulay’s children. How often have we heard Churchill’s famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” The idea of democracy was not born in the Enlightenment; it had been around at least since Plato and Aristotle. So how was it that it did not occur to anyone for almost two millennia that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that were being tried? Did it have anything to do with the social organization that made the political organization of democracy infeasible over this long period?

At the very least this is a question worth asking. Europe is not the world, just another province in the world. This is the thesis of Provincializing Europe by Dipesh Chakrabarty which unfortunately is written at a level that is beyond my ability to follow.

And so I am motivated to attempt something simpler – to explore some musical metaphors and look through the organization of music into the organization of society. From there I would like to work back up to the organizations of art and politics that would be compatible with a given social organization and test these predictions against the reality that exists. And then I would like to discuss what we might and might not borrow realistically from Europe to our advantage in South Asia.

The third post in this series is here.


  • navaid husain
    Posted at 07:16h, 10 August Reply

    If you know how to play an Indian instrument & if tuned to western music you can play along with any composition.

    Secondly not all western music has written notes. Like Jazz is improvised on a certain scale so here it is similar to Indian music

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 07:40h, 10 August Reply

    Navaid: This is an intriguing notion on the relative ease of transition. There are some instruments that are now used in both traditions, e.g., violin, clarinet, flute. If a Western composition for a violin solo is played a number of times how easily would an Indian violinist be able to reproduce it? And would the reverse transition be equally possible? If the transitions are not symmetric, i.e., one is more doable than the other, what might be the reasons for the difference?

  • mithun
    Posted at 08:12h, 15 August Reply

    very nice article

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