(As published in India Currents)
Raga Unveiled, a movie on the history and essence of Hindustani classical music is a perfect storm of filmmaking, narration, editing, music, and the key element—a singular, unselfish passion for the art. Set to debut in California this month, the documentary made its Indian debut in February and was screened in Connecticut in spring.
The film’s story unfolds through interviews, jam sessions, and concert footge, and includes some old archived gems. Watching this movie is like spending an evening with maestros Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, Amjad Ali Khan, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Vijay Kichlu, Bhimsen Joshi, and Ravi Shankar, among others, in one go.
In a systematic demystification of Hindustani music using the raga as the driving force, Raga Unveiled is a documentary that splashes the mind with musical color or rang, the Sanskrit word from which the word Raga is derived. “I felt Hindustani music was appreciated only superficially, so decided to introduce listeners to the deeper nuances,” says filmmaker Gita Desa.
The greatest attribute in performing a raga is that it is all improvisation; a spontaneous rendering of a melody. When artists improvise, they are in effect gradually awakening streams of consciousness within themselves, and vicariously, in us. Desai guides us to this realization through many roads. For instance, there is a highly captivating nine-minute segment that gives us a “live” view into how a performance comes together—six musicians including Pandit Vijay Kichlu (vocal), Debashish Bhattacharya (slide guitar), and Debojyoti Bose (sarod) jam on camera, unfolding Raga Todi as a live and spontaneous collaboration.
Raga Unveiled is as much a journey through music-making as it is a journey of music realization by its viewers. Even as we’re getting familiar with the artists, the narration familiarizes us with the nuances of Hindustani music appreciation, such as keeping an ear out for the sum, the first beat of a rhythm cycle.
The artists harness the notes and take them down explorative paths; the more the musicians, the more the paths. The mystery of the performance is revealed every once in a while when they all meet at the sum. This is a heady and suspenseful experience to be able to intuitively meet at the sum without missing a beat or the losing oneself on the sometimes slippery slopes of the raga.
Raga Unveiled nudges us awake to the beauty of the sum, and continues on to illuminate every aspect of Hindustani music: the science behind the raga “sound,” the mathematics supporting the various ragas, the guru shishya (student) tradition, “moods” of ragas, rhythms, various substyles within Hindustani classical, instruments that form the fulcrum of this music, and even the industry that creates the instruments.
Liberal use of rare black-and-white film footage of masters such as Allaudin Khan, Allarakha Khan, and Ahmad Jan Tirakhawa gracefully adds a third dimension, that of timelessness to this movie and the music tradition it talks about.
The most to benefit by watching Raga Unveiled are the ones among us who are as yet uninitiated—the prejudicial among us, who haven’t been able to relate to serious looking artists performing with eyes closed and arms flailing. The most to enjoy the movie will be the avid listeners among us. Gita Desai, a self-proclaimed professional listener and housewife-turned-filmmaker, has made the movie from her perspective. It is a vista of honest reactions to music deeply felt by her, and will echo parallel notes in all listeners.
Saturday, Aug. 22; 3 p.m. Performing Arts Theater, 550 E. Remington Drive, Sunnyvale. $10. Tickets: (408)733-7442; firstname.lastname@example.org,email@example.com.
Filmmaker Gita Desai will be present at the screening for a Q&A period after the film.