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Raga-Spirit in the Digital Age

Essay by Yogendra
(January 2011)

2010 was a very quiet year for the scene of Indian classical music in Central Europe. There were neither great highlights to celebrate nor special setbacks or losses to mourn. The scene seemed to be in a sort of slumber - not completely dead, but not really alive either. The sale of Indian musical instruments on the other hand has developed quite stable - no sign of stagnation or even a break-in. How can this seeming contradiction be explained?

The majority of the instruments sold by India Instruments are not the hard-to-play solo instruments of the raga tradition like sitar or sarod. Mastering these technically demanding instruments is a long, arduous process that requires many years of learning and practicing. Not only progress and success is bound to be on that way, but also disappointment and frustration. Getting through those phases and coping with them contributes significantly to personal and musical maturing of the student. Today very few people seem to be interested in such a challenging, long-term and generally open-ended musical learning process. Attractive and salable in larger numbers are easy-to-play instruments like harmonium, tanpura and shrutibox. They are used as accompanying instruments for singing, relaxation and meditation and provide immediately appealing sound experiences without technical skills or prior musical knowledge. People are not so much interested in music as a complex art form, but in means of enhancing their current well-being. What are the reasons for this trend?

The past decade has seen a tremendous congestion, commercialisation, acceleration and virtualisation of daily life in developed countries on many levels. In the short run this global development produces more and more material wealth, but it also leads to increasing pressure, stress, over-stimulation and loss of freedom and meaning for the individual. In return a need for deceleration and sensualisation at all levels has grown in broad circles. Wellness trend and body cult, mysticism and yoga boom reflect this need. I see the search for harmonious, pleasant sound experiences for the relief of suffering from the economic, cultural and social mainstream of our time in this larger context. However, these positive experiences but must be available instantly and effortlessly - after all, everybody already has more than enough permanent stress. Nobody wants even more challenges.

For the performers, students and friends of the raga music an interesting perspective might be taken from this diagnosis. Maybe we do not have to remain sitting in the corner with frustration, complaining about the bad times. Perhaps we can instead reflect more on the core of the raga tradition: Raga is what colours the mind. It's not about the fastest Tana, the purest Shruti or the most complicated Tihai, but about a subtle, basically very simple mental process between music and listener, which can transform the sensual musical experience directly into a deep inner bliss - and that is exactly what so many people are looking for! Of course, a certain sensitivity and openness is required - even ragas can not produce instant happiness at the push of a button. But maybe we should emphasize less how difficult, strange and complicated this music can be, but rather focus on its lightness and beauty. Maybe we should make it more clear how much joy a raga can generate so simply and directly. Instead of lecturing, ignoring or even dispising our audiences, we could open doors for them and try to convey the sheer joy of the raga-spirit! If we succeed in that, the colouring of the mind definetely still has its place in the digital age.