What is ‘unity in music’? Insights from the masters

“Consider the flowers of a garden: though they differ in kind, colour, form, and shape, all are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun. Their diversity increases their charm, and adds to their beauty.”

Ragatip is founded on a belief in the unifying power of music – a force like no other, capable of reaching across religions, cultures, and continents. But what does ‘unity in music’ really mean to those who practice it? Is it more about similarity of experience, or celebrating what makes us unique and different? We run through what some top artists have had to say…

Common ground: unity in shared experience

Music’s connective power manifests most clearly in the live setting. We all know the feeling – a shared, unspoken awareness that everyone sitting in the room with us is focused on the same artists, on the same stage, while absorbing the same vibrations, at the same time.

Bansuri maestro Pandit Rupak Kulkarni describes how he seeks to bring himself and his listeners to become “at one with Sa” (the music’s droning root note, unchanged throughout a whole raga) – bringing everyone present closer to the fundamental, vibratory nature of their immediate reality, through sharing his flute’s primal textures.

For santoor (hundred-stringed hammered dulcimer) pioneer Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, this shared spiritual essence is the heart of his music. Uniting an audience in distinctive, uninstructed response has provided him with some of his most remarkable moments – applauding together is one thing, but there is something uniquely special about being in a place where thousands share in the same stillness and silence:

“It was my dream to play such a kind of music which will make listeners forget to clap, which will make them silent. My dream came true once…the listeners immersed deep into meditation and I experienced a state of thoughtlessness. This silence was so nourishing, so fulfilling…”.

Broader empathy: unity through time & space

Music’s intuitive, perceptual essence allows it to transcend the need for a shared language – and can also bridge the divides of geography, history, and religion. Begum Parveen Sultana, one of North India’s finest khayal (Hindustani vocal) artists, described her thinking to me in a 2018 interview:

“My husband is a [Muslim] Ustad, and I have been bestowed with the title Begum [a Muslim woman of great accomplishment]. But my first guru was a [Hindu] Pandit, and I sing songs to Hindu goddesses such as Shakti. My music must always directly connect the individual self with the divine, and the divine does not, I believe, recognise such boundaries as these.”

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, a towering figure of 20th-century sitar, described the history of North Indian classical music as “the most wonderful story of a long and sublime integration”. He describes how the sounds have responded to successive waves of invasion and colonisation through assimilation and adaptation, rather than by seeking purity and stasis: the “vitality of our culture…assimilated them, enriched its own treasure, and enlarged its own dimension.”

Similarly, music allows the artist to empathise with others around the world – and even with the experiences of their distant ancestors. Tabla maestro Pandit Sanju Sahai, a prolific global fusioneer, touches on both of these points, describing how he must “find common ground, and a language that can be understood by all” – and also how his music “is not really mine”, because “the ideas span thousands of years…I always ask myself what [my ancestors] would think – they have given me so much.”

Slide guitar supremo Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya recounts how his journey of musical learning helps him to connect with creators of the future as well, who share in something of the same mission: “Imperfection is your walk in the path of perfection. This is a lifelong journey, which will eventually end with you and start with someone else.”

Celebrating difference: unity in diversity

While music does in many respects resemble a universal language, it is still an unpredictable, highly subjective mode of emotional transmission. You can share something undeniably profound with the person sitting next to you at a concert, but you’ll still never really know what they’re experiencing inside (…or, indeed, quite how you’ll feel the next time you put on a familiar old record.)

For just one example – I’ve noticed how the very same performances of Raag Bhairavi (the ‘queen of ragas’) can conjure a range of moods among friends. As noted by the late vocalist Tanarang, “to some [Bhairavi] can evoke ‘awe, terror, and chaos’, and to others ‘a pleasant sobering atmosphere of love and piety’”.

Perhaps most significantly, the artists on stage are certainly experiencing something very different to their audiences. After all, they have to listen and focus on the sound in a different manner, with the added weight of choosing how to manipulate and sequence it, which brings a different type of immersion.

Parveen Sultana’s voice can unite an audience of thousands in shared bliss (something I can attest to directly), but her own headspace is far away from the physical room by the time she steps off stage: “It is very difficult to come down to reality. I need at least 15, 20 minutes after a performance. Then, I can speak again.”

In the end, music and sound cannot help but reflect the unified, interconnected nature of the world it came from. In the words of mridangam master Dr. Trichy Sankaran “Laya [rhythm] is a part of life and must reflect its ups and downs, tensions and releases, and so on. It’s not always smooth, not always happy. Like life, rhythms are ambiguous…”

Next: see Ragatip’s ‘Spiritual Bridges’ project, uniting disparate devotional traditions of the East and West…

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