adventures in the library

Today was just one of those days where things clicked one degree further into place.

This afternoon, I went to Delhi University’s Faculty of Music and Arts (in the states, this would be called DU’s School of Music) to meet with my advisor, Dr. Anupam Mahajan.

The last time I had visited was a few days after I arrived, as I ventured out of the Taj Hotel with my friend and fellow fulbrighter, Kelly, on an expedition to get my joining papers from the university. The Faculty of Music is a beautiful oasis of calm in a bustling area of the city. You turn the corner off a wild and noisy main street into a courtyard with manicured lawns lined with thick tropical foliage, completely unpopulated but for an odd student or two walking around or doing yoga on the lawn while talking on their mobile phone (it’s true.) Deeply embedded in the foliage is a huge concert hall, and a building of classrooms that reminded me vaguely of the schools in older foreign movies like the Jaime Escalante classic, Stand and Deliver. There seems to be a distinctly laid back quality about the university – the coursework may be rigorous, but the feeling in the halls is one of ease and friendliness.

I met with my advisor, Dr. Mahajan, who is the Dean of the Faculty and also a well-established sitar player. She has a very commanding presence, which Kelly describes best in her blog post about our first trip to visit her: “She was a beautiful woman, sitting there with great calm and great presence. Her eyes told of wisdom and experience. Although we did not have much time to interact with her, she definitely left a lasting impression on me.” Dr. Mahajan was very generous and helpful – I talked to her about my work, she asked me to sing a few lines of the bandish I have been studying, and she offered me many avenues of exploration: auditing vocal classes at my level at the university, sitting in on higher level classes, and of course exploring the resources of the library.

I started with the library today. Pictures will follow (I feel so self conscious walking into an unknown situation and whipping out my camera), but again, this very much reminded me in the most endearing way of the university libraries in older foreign films. It was warm and airy, dimly lit with very stark rows of tables and chairs, the hum of the overhead fans going full blast, and old, slightly disheveled shelves with a wide range of ancient to modern musical texts in both English and Hindi. University students of all varieties trickled in and out – there was a higher level of formality in interactions between the students and the librarians, but there was also a very homey feeling in the library – it felt much more like a local public library, a place where people come together over books.

I was instructed to visit Mr. Haroon, the librarian, and ask for a card. His first response to my clunky explanation of why I needed a card was simply, “No.” But as my situation became clear (being affiliated with a university is a hard thing to explain), I began to see what a jolly and friendly man he was. We began talking and he asked me what I was studying. After a little while, he came over with a comprehensive catalog of articles on Indian music by topic, and opened it up to a long list of comparative studies of Indian and Western classical music, as he felt it would aid me in my research. The topics were fascinating, from an article about how one Indian composer might have influenced Beethoven to an article about the German reception of indian music in the 1960s. There were even articles by Henry Cowell listed!

It was only when I looked at the cover to write down the pertinent information about this extensive catalog of works that I realized that Mr. Haroon himself had compiled and published it! I also realized that another book I had pulled from the shelves called “Research Methods for Indian Music” was written by him as well. I read his bio on the front flap of this book  which revealed that he had been at Delhi University’s music library since before I was born, and he is an authoritative source on indian music research. I read somewhere today that the first PhD in Indian music was awarded in 1950, so the field of Indian Musicology is relatively new — perhaps that’s why I was fortunate to have one of the groundbreakers in the field right there in the university library. Another glance over the stacks revealed that Dr. Mahajan also had many important and pertinent publications. So cool.

Though my work over the next few months is going to err heavily on the practical side, I feel so fortunate to have this wealth of texts in which to immerse myself, so I can start to put the things I learn practically in perspective. The writing is so different, too – exceedingly direct in certain ways, and decorated in others (actually, much like the music) Once I can check books out, I will post some quotes from them — I had to stop every few paragraphs to marvel at some of the phrasing.

A few interesting things I discovered (maybe only interesting to musicians):

  • They had a small section of books about western classical music – it was an odd selection including older editions of Piston’s Orchestration book, Paul Henry Lang’s Music and Western Civilization (my favorite), and, perhaps most surprisingly, Forte’s Structure of Atonal Music. I cannot fathom what an Indian musician would think upon hearing our twelve tone music.
  • I found a book written by an Indian author, intended to describe western music to an Indian audience. Funnily, it spent excessive time discussing the origins of western classical music (perhaps as a means of linking it to Indian music at a time when they were more similar, though the reason was ultimately unclear.) It included an extensive discussion of tetrachords and medieval modes, and a quotation and breakdown of the words of the entire chant “Ut Queant Laxis” (from which our western solfege syllables originate). The ironic thing is, I don’t think most western musicians would be able to describe these topics in such detail.
  • My favorite part of this book was a huge chart comparing each major and minor scale to a raga. There was one key element that the author missed: the first note of our scale is always the tonic, thus reducing our system to two basic scales: major and minor. The different notation of each key is only because we have instruments with a fixed pitch. Instead, assuming that C was the tonic for every scale (can you imagine a F# major scale with a random C thrown in as the tonic?!), the author proposed some very strange ragas for some of our very mundane scales. How boring he would think we were if he knew the truth about our tonal system…

On my way home, I stopped by my local music shop (there seems to be at least one in every market) to pick up a stand for my keyboard so I can start using it again. I ended up buying a violin, too. It was so inexpensive, and it was a pretty solid violin. I brought it home and have been practicing for the last few hours – it’s really nice to have a familiar instrument in my hands as I work my way through this amazing uncharted territory.

All that plus the awesome rajma chawal Anita cooked for dinner made today a wonderful day.

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