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Music and Musical Thought in Early India.

By Lewis Rowell. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, edited by Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettl. Chicago: The Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1992. Pp. 409; tables, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. $59 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).

For many scholars and teachers of the musical traditions of India, myself included, the ancient history of the subject is something one tends largely to avoid, with the exception of mere passing references to the Vedas and two important treatises, the Natyagastra (?A.D. 200), and the Sangitaratnakara 1240). In general, one's intention is to scurry through to "modern times" (i.e., post-1700), to the inception and development of instruments and musical forms that enjoy wide currency today. The bulk of Indo-(ethno)musicological writing, in fact, deals only with the past one hundred to two hundred years, and is informed largely by the recordings and oral accounts of twentieth-century musicians. In short, for the lack of a comprehensive history and analysis of music and musical thought in early India, the foundations of Indian music are relatively little understood or appreciated. Now I, for one, can no longer claim ignorance as an excuse. Lewis Rowell's masterpiece has redressed the imbalance in historical writing by providing an excellent guide to "the intellectual foundations of India's ancient music culture" (p. ix) up to the mid-thirteenth century.

Rowell betrays an inherently ethnomusicological bias (and a welcome one at that) in attempting to contextualize musical facts and concepts with particular reference to more general ideas in Indian philosophy, cosmology, religion, literature, and science. With the help of many quotations from a number of treatises, some never before translated from the original Sanskrit, Rowell embarks upon a thematic explication of key concepts such as thought, sound, chant, theater, pitch, time, form, song, and style. Each topic is dealt with in a separate chapter, efficiently subdivided into its constituent elements and logically progressive in its manner of discourse. For instance, the seventh chapter, on pitch, opens with a clarification of the often controversial but crucially fundamental terms svara and sruti (which relate to scale degrees and their relative intonation) and progresses through a series of topics relating to scale structures, their rotations, their modal implications (questions of sonance, consonance, dissonance, etc. , methods of manipulating the order of notes, and finally to that most complex of musical concepts, raga. The problem of sruti has been raging for decades (if not centuries) in the Indian musicological domain; whilst Rowell's brilliant explanations will not end the arguments once and for all, I suspect that his common-sense approach will serve as a key reference point for future debates. Of course, Rowell would not wish us to lose sight of the main issue here, and that is how all these components add up to inform a musical system as sophisticated as ever was developed by any society on Earth. As he explains, raga is

... one of the most explicit and unequivocal statements

on musical meaning ever devised by a culture. In its underlying

and self-fulfilling assumption that a particular

melodic structure insures the communication of affect

from person to person, the tradition of raga has become

one of the primary means by which Indian culture has

become sensitized and perhaps even instructed in emotive

life. (p. 179)

At no time throughout the book is the author pedantic: he manages to present a vast array of technical information in a manner that is at once easily memorable and always relevant; he is sparing and tasteful in his choice of colorful philosophical illustrations and arguments from the treatises; and he has a disarmingly urbane way of simplifying complex issues, of explaining all sides of a problem, and of arriving at the most likely scenario without sounding opinionated. The level of scholarship demonstrated throughout this book suggests that it will inspire further detailed studies in this field; moreover, it should also be argued that Music and Musical Thought in Early India ought to be the logical starting point for all studies of Indian music. With its clearly defined chapter layouts, thoroughly cross-referenced notes, a helpful glossary of Sanskrit terms, bibliography, and functional index, this book is as easily accessible to the student as it is informative for the expert. Without a doubt, Lewis Rowell should be congratulated on an outstanding piece of work that has provided a deeper and more thorough understanding of the philosophical and theoretical roots of Indian music.
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Author:Kippen, James R.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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