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Indian music a universal language

By Mu Qian (China Daily)

09:18, May 17, 2013

The name Bombay Jayashri might not be too well known in China, but if you say "singer of the theme song of the film Life of Pi", many realize who she is.

Jayashri recently completed a six-show tour of China, and was warmly welcomed everywhere she went, in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Shenzhen and Beijing.

Her workshop at Peking University drew Chinese musicians such as singer Zhu Zheqin, and guzheng player (a kind of Chinese zither) Chang Jing to participate. "She naturally possesses what we try so hard to look for in music," Chang says.

Jayashri says that for Indians, music is a way of communicating with the Gods, and whatever you want to say to God, you can express it through music.

The philosophical nature of Indian classical music is perhaps what Chang means when she says she seeks what Jayashri "naturally possesses". The popularity of Life of Pi and the positive feedback from Jayashri's concerts in China indicate a hunger for spiritual art among Chinese people.

Jayashri represents the Carnatic tradition, the classical music of southern India that few Chinese music lovers had heard before. Many people's impression of Indian music is influenced by Bollywood.

Chinese audiences who do have some experience of Indian classical works are more familiar with music of the Hindustani tradition from the Northern parts of the country, such as the work of the late master sitar player Ravi Shankar and percussionist Zakir Hussain.

Unlike Hindustani music that had Persian and Islamic influences, Carnatic music is more indigenous.

The main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music, and Jayashri is the center of her ensemble. But the instruments are very important: Tempuras provide a sustaining, meditative sound; mridangam and ghatam form the rhythm section; violin follows the vocal like a shadow.

Especially of interest is the violin. Though originally a European instrument, it has been Indianized. Indian musicians play the instrument with a different tuning and position, and perform it with the characteristic ornaments of Indian melodies.

China has not localized Western instruments but there are Westernized Chinese instruments. Chinese fiddles such as the erhu or matouqin, are no longer played as they were 50 years ago when they had distinct characters, but have become increasingly influenced by the viola or cello in timbre and technique.

Big Chinese orchestras formed on the structure of Western orchestras have not achieved the harmony of symphonic music, but lost the immanent beauty of Chinese music.

The continued connection of Indian musicians to their musical heritage sets Indian music apart in a globalized world. Although India has far fewer symphony orchestras than China, their traditional music is heard internationally more than Chinese music is.

Another lesson China's musicians might learn from Jayashri is the power of film. The world has become increasingly visual, and a successful film can be more efficient in promoting music than any other means. Thanks to Ang Lee, the popularity of Life of Pi has helped to bring Jayashri to China. Otherwise it would have taken several years for a Carnatic musician to tour China.

Perhaps a successful Chinese film could promote Chinese music internationally? The Chinese film industry is doing much better than the Chinese music industry. If Chinese filmmakers put some efforts to commission high-quality music, the music will return more rewards. After all, music is a universal language.

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