Listening, Enjoying and Learning

(Desi News February 2016)

In December, as 2015 came to an end, Mohamed Khaki met with two of Raag-Mala Toronto patrons, Ilan Kapoor and Kent Murnaghan, to discuss what makes a rasik, a lover of Indian classical music (ICM).


The chat with Kent, who has a Masters’ degree in English Literature, and Ilan, who teaches Environmental Studies at York University, was to explore how some people are drawn to ICM, and to get these music lovers’ insights on how to expand the audience for this music.

“I came to the music through the cinema,” said Kent. “After moving to Toronto for university, I went regularly to Ontario Cinematheque. When I saw Jean Renoir’s film The River, right away I went looking for the soundtrack. Then I heard more classical music in Satyajit Ray’s films like Jalsghar (the Music Room). I like many kinds of music, so I was fascinated to find folksy elements as well as avant-garde touches within the music in many Ray films.”

Throughout his childhood, Ilan heard classical music daily, because his father played recordings of all the “greats” of that generation—Vilayat Khan, Pannalal Ghosh, Ali Akbar Khan, Bade Ghulamali Khan. “But my father also enjoyed western classical music, so I grew up liking that, as well as jazz. This early start in music gave me an ear for what was good and not so good.”

One pathway into ICM is through the arts in general, e.g. writing, paintings, music and cinema, in their countless expressions across many cultures.  Ilan argues that having an aesthetic sensibility towards an art form inclines one to appreciate other art forms more easily. Not surprising then that Kent’s introduction to ICM was through his passion for film.

Ilan took sitar and tabla lessons when he was young and he still plays the piano. Kent reads widely. Both are active consumers of the arts (“culture vultures”, as some would deem them be), and go to plays, films and art galleries – Ilan’s brother is the very famous artist Anish Kapoor. Ilan and Kent are also avid foodies, stretching somewhat the meaning of the term aesthetic appreciation!

“You ever notice how poetry and music share terms like rhythm, mood, pacing and imagery?” asked Ilan. “To build a wider audience for Indian classical music, try reaching out to people who are already keen on other genres of music, and perhaps more broadly, other art forms.”

These two lovers of ICM agree that being culturally informed is important, and recognize that the arts play a vital role in daily life. Listening to ICM in his car makes bearable Ilan’s long commute to work each day. As well he sees art linking the intuitive side of humans to their intellectual side.

“You can study the structure of a raag, to know its different parts,” said Ilan, “to know if it’s a morning or evening raag, to know which gharana it comes from.  Or, you can just sit back and listen, and let your emotions respond, ‘Ah, that brought tears to my eyes.’”

For Kent, participating in baithaks has helped him better appreciate ICM.  “The smaller venues let the music fill the room. There’s a warmth and intimacy that you don’t get in larger halls. The audience is physically close to the artist, which lets him/her pick up on the daad (or “verbal applause”, as Ilan refers to it) from the audience, and respond accordingly. As well, in a smaller space, a listener can’t drop out as easily as in a bigger hall. In the end, you get to become a better listener!”

For audiences new to Indian classical music, Ilan and Kent suggest that organizers explore how to add an education component to concerts. Indian classical music is a hugely “structured” form, so people should listen for the beginning of a raag (it serves as a marker), track the “standard” and improvised parts of the raag, note how the accompanying instruments function, and anticipate the raag’s apex, when all the musicians come together in a climactic finish.

And you, what do you think goes into making a lover of Indian Classical Music?


Paul Yee