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Salt, pepper and The Beatles

Salt, pepper and The Beatles

ONE doesn’t have to be a music scholar to figure out the difference between a Vedic chant, which has a cadence, and a Gregorian chant, which doesn’t. But, as I learnt last week, you could do with some help in understanding the full scope of the phenomenon that was The Beatles.

To learn that Indian classical music is mostly circular, somewhat like jazz, and not linear like its Western counterpart, you would, of course, need to sit at the feet of Ravi Shankar or perhaps Yehudi Menuhin. Or you could ask The Beatles.

For keen ears, music is not a performance. It’s a way of perceiving the world. A senior journalist recalls with relish how in the middle of an interview, Vilayat Khan, the sitar wizard, stopped the conversation abruptly with the wave of his hand, and trained both his ears towards the window of his home in Kolkata. “Kya gandhaar lag rahi hai,” he smiled, ears locked to the koel’s song from a tree branch in the courtyard. A ‘gandhaar’ would be equal to the Western note ‘mi’ in the shared musical solfège. Ergo: to figure the note of a birdsong you need a guru. To be entranced by the bird’s song you just need to have an ear for music.

Caesar was wary of Cassius who apparently had no ear for music. For Shakespeare it was a feature of villainy, a would-be killer, that he showed Cassius with interest neither in a birdsong nor in the lute. I wouldn’t go that far. Well-meaning people I know see music as a distraction from the serious business of life.

To learn that Indian classical music is mostly circular, somewhat like jazz, and not linear, you could turn to The Beatles.

“Are there many Iranians here?” my mother wondered years ago as we crossed the Dubai creek on the abra boat. I thought it was a political query but her question came from the intonation of the azan she had just heard.

Her interest in music was honed by the sozkhwani in Muharram. A solemn month for many Muslims, Muharram becomes more poignant with music. I learnt so much about ragas by simply conveying my mother’s requests to the knowledgeable sozkhwan in our ancestral kasbah of Mustafabad during the annual Muharram visits. Chhakki Mian learnt his sozkhwani from the Agra gharana stalwart Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. They say Chhakki Mian’s recordings are still around, but I will believe it when I lay my hands on any.

Like sozkhwani in Muharram, which starts this week, music holds sway in nearly all other traditions of India’s religious tapestry. Be it the Brahminical bhajan or the Sikh shabad, it would be hard to expand the frontiers of any faith without music. The communists discovered the advantage of having music on their side and lost no time in setting up IPTA, a platform for writers, poets, singers and actors. Has the quality of music slackened because the communist movement has hit the doldrums? Or is it the other way around — that the movement has stalled because of bad musicians and mediocre poets?

By the time The Beatles emerged on the scene, I had begun to migrate from Western pop — Chubby Checker, Cliff Richards, Connie Francis, Ricky Nelson, Patsy Cline, Nat King Cole et al — to Kesarbai and her treasure trove of classical ragas. It was a few more years before The Beatles returned to me, but that would be through the political route. And they took their place alongside Basvarao Rajguru and Rasoolan Bai. Khurshid Anwar’s talks on the nuanced variety of ragas and S.M. Shahid’s illustrated book on the time protocol of Indian music arrived later.

When a group of Beatles lovers in Delhi got together last week to celebrate 50 years of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with a talk by the knowledgeable Dipankar De Sarkar, it turned into an opportunity to relive a slice of history and politics and music that defined both. (And why was it not surprising to see veteran historian Romila Thapar listening in from a corner seat?)

Having had a run of bad tours in 1966, including a run-in with a vicious Imelda Marcos in Manila, The Beatles decided to return to the studios forever. This marked the beginning of Sgt. Pepper’s. The counter culture they helped spawn had incurred a cost. The Bible belt in America was up in arms against the quartet from Liverpool. Among the factors was their insistence through a legal clause that The Beatles would not perform for a racially segregated audience.

Lennon’s reported comments, for which he grudgingly apologised, that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, didn’t help matters. The foursome planned to retreat from their ordeal to India, only to be chased around there too, they would recall, by scooter-borne media, shouting; “Hello Beatles. Hello Beatles.” They took the title of the album from a reference to salt and pepper, which Paul McCartney misheard as Sergeant Pepper. They used it to hide behind an alternative identity. That didn’t work though it did wonders for their music. 

“For our last number, we’d like to ask your help,” said Lennon at an earlier concert attended by an embarrassed queen mother. “The people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, just rattle the jewellery.” The working class sensibility was wrapped with idealism and, later, brief moments of spirituality too.

A clincher in the Sgt. Pepper’s album is a George Harrison song. ‘Within You Without You’ filters through Harrison’s perception of Hinduism with which he flirted briefly. He had earlier played the sitar after training with Ravi Shankar, and composed the lyrics in Raag Bageshwari for his popular song, ‘Norwegian Wood’. Harrison’s Sgt. Pepper’s song with Hindu motifs is perhaps more relevant today: “We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold/ And the people who gain the world and lose their soul/They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2017

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