Critical review of "Raga Unveiled" - documentary on Indian Classical Music
- A must-buy film on Indian classical music.
Over the last several weeks, I watched the new documentary "Raga Unveiled" produced by Smt. Gita and Mukesh Desai of Connecticut, USA and Pandit Vijay Kichlu.
India has had a long and beautiful tradition of classical music and dance that originated thousands of years ago. Even today this art form is very vibrant and practiced and performed all over the world. Over the years, this genre has had far reaching and cross cultural influences. Especially in the last 50 years, the best performers and stars of other genres have collaborated with Indian Classical musicians - all the way from the great Indian classical musician Pt. Ravi Shankar who collaborated with the Beatles, the brilliant percussionist Ustad Zakir Hussain who collaborated with Mickey Hart as well as the Jazz guitarist John McLaughlin.
However, despite the great beauty of this music, it continues to have smaller audiences and lesser following among the masses compared to "lighter" art forms. Further, ignorance, misconceptions, myths and misperceptions about this art form abound; a fate it probably shares with many other classical "serious" genres of art.
"Raga Unveiled" is a very engaging and entertaining film that beautifully demystifies Indian classical music for the lay audience. Further, it also serves as a truly substantive and appealing reference for more serious students and practitioners of the art.
The work is systematically organized, starting with the ancient Vedic origins of the music. It then traces its evolution to the vocal and instrumental performance styles that are currently in vogue and continue to be passed down from generation to generation. It describes the "Guru-Shishhya Parampara" - the ancient Indian tradition where a student learns directly from a single teacher for a period of years or decades. It also introduces the viewers to different aspects of the art form such as melody (Raga), rhythm (Taal, Laya) and the different schools of music (Gharana).
Before this work, there probably have been several other works that have also documented these foundational aspects of Indian classical music even more comprehensively and authoritatively than this film has. However, there are several aspects of this work that make it special.
This work provides us the opportunity to hear directly from a plethora of great artists and scholars. It features very recent conversations as well as older historical interviews with literally dozens of artists and scholars, including living legends like Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pt. Ravi Shankar, revered classicists like Birju Maharaj and Ramashreya Jha, respected scholars like Pt. Ashok Ranade and Pt. Vijay Kichlu and rising stars of the younger generation like Purbayan Chatterjee and Satyajit Talwalkar.
These formidable artists share with us excerpts from superlative performances, their thoughts on special elements of the music, interesting impromptu demonstrations on many different musical concepts and disarmingly candid introspective descriptions of some of their most treasured learnings and poignant life experiences.
All this is ensconced very beautifully in a tapestry of visual art showcasing the natural and cultural beauty of India and is presented in state-of-the-art high definition video.
Indian classical music is ostensibly a highly complex, deep and inaccessible subject. To the untrained ear, or lay person, it can be very drab and boring. "Raga Unveiled" truly unveils this complex art form in small digestible size chunks. It is comprised of small length chapters that are complete in themselves. You can actually start with almost any chapter and stop anywhere. You can watch it for 10 minutes or a half hour then put it away and come back to it again after a few days. So quite unlike listening to an actual recital in which a single Raga or melody can last for over an hour, this presentation can be enjoyed in small 10 minute spurts.
For someone like me who is immersed day and night in music, this is not such a big deal. But it is a very big deal for people or even children who may be new to music and apt to suffer from short attention span. My kids who are 10 and 6 actually watched this entire DVD with me, 10-20 minutes at a time, over a period of 2-3 weeks. Imagine getting kids of that age to sit through a multi-hour presentation on "Dad's boring classical music!" It would be unimaginable under ordinary circumstances for any kid to have the patience to watch something like this! But I just exposed them to one chapter a day - and they actually got hooked to the film due to the attractive presentation style, beautiful visuals, interesting conversations and great musical passages. They really enjoyed it and learnt a lot!
However, no work is perfect. There are several things that could have been done better in this work, but here are the few that struck me as being the most important gaps.
The overall presentation is on the longer side - I felt that there are some repetitive pieces that could have been taken out and 20-25% of the length could have been reduced. I watched the longer version of the work - shorter version is also available.
The presentation focused almost solely on the North Indian or Hindustani tradition of Indian classical music. Given the great philosophical similarities between the Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic style of music, it could have easily been and woven into the storyline. Carnatic music was only very briefly represented by the vocalist Sudha Raghunathan - this seemed a half hearted attempt - the film should either have integrated that style more comprehensively, or not represented it at all.
The work did justice to a lot of dimensions of music, but the one area in which it is lacking is in its treatment of melodic accompaniment. The accompaniment section did great justice to rhythm accompaniment, but it completely disregarded and ignored melodic accompaniment. All forms of Indian classical music spring forth from the foundation of vocal music, and melodic accompaniment plays a very important role in any vocal music performance. As such, this was a glaring omission.
Overall, however this truly is a beautiful, educational, entertaining, and substantive work of art. It is as much a collector's item as it is an introductory music appreciation course for those who wish to be introduced to Indian classical music. I truly enjoyed it and recommend it to all of you!