The mandala of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes cover

On modern Tibetan society, Jamyang Norbu has long been a stimulating voice (note his splendid website). Here I’ve already admired his remarks on Tibetan opera, and his article The Lhasa ripper. His novel

  • The mandala of Sherlock Holmes: the missing years (alternative subtitle “the adventures of the great detective in India and Tibet), “edited by Jamyang Norbu” (1999)

is a Rattling Good Yarn, with a serious moral—like many of the best crime novels (Philip Kerr, Tony Hillerman, and so on), both gripping and educative.

Born in 1944 in Lhasa, Jamyang Norbu was sent to a Jesuit school in Darjeeling, where he relished Kipling and Conan Doyle. After an interlude with the Khampa guerrilla group “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” in Mustang to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet (see e.g. Jamyang Norbu’s own recollections, and Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows, Chapter 6), he became a leading light in the educational and cultural scene at Dharamsala. Combining the fruits of his early education and his experience as a Tibetan in exile, he wrote The mandala of Sherlock Holmes there (the Epilogue is dated 1989) before making his base in the USA.

Only in the Preface and the Epilogue does Jamyang Norbu write in his own voice, observing the political context in which we now read the tale.

Tibet may lie crushed beneath the dead weight of Chinese tyranny, but the truth about Tibet cannot be so easily buried; and even such a strange fragment of history as this may contribute to nailing at least a few lies of the tyrants.

Still, he indulges poetic fancy by evoking the discovery of Hurree’s notes, and Holmes’s living incarnation in a monastery.

Given the wealth of later tributes to Sherlock Holmes, the Preface opens with a wry flourish:

Too many of Dr John Watson’s unpublished manuscripts (usually discovered in “a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box” somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Company, at Charing Cross) have come to light in recent years, for a long-suffering reading public not to greet the discovery of yet another Sherlock Holmes story with suspicion, if not outright incredulity.

Holmes having faked his own death at the Reichenbach Falls in 1891, Conan Doyle had the sleuth explain in The adventure of the empty house (1903, set in 1894):

I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhasa and spending some days with the head Lama. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.

The story is narrated by Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a Bengali scholar/spy from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (based on the real-life character of Sarat Chandra Das), who takes Watson’s place as Holmes’ trusted friend and confidant. As Jamyang Norbu explained, “The Sherlock Holmes stories worked because of Dr Watson. You need someone who is sweetly endearing but also slightly dim.”

With erudite footnotes (mostly in the persona of Hurree, on both Holmesiana and Tibetan studies at the time), the novel is a most accomplished pastiche, replete with vignettes—like the use of fingerprinting for identifying criminals, introduced in Bengal in 1896, before it was adopted by Scotland Yard in 1901, or the history of the Thug cult and worship of the goddess Kali.

Holmes arrives in Bombay incognito—or so he hopes—with only a Gladstone bag and a violin case:

This was, of course, suspicious in itself. No self-respecting sahib who travelled to India was without at least three streamer trunks, not to mention other sundry items of baggage like hat boxes, gun cases, bedding rolls, and a despatch box. Also, no English sahib, at least if he was pukka, played the violin. Music was the preserve of Frenchmen, Eurasians, and missionaries (though in the latter-most case the harmonium was a more favoured instrument).

Amidst the “Great Game”, Holmes’s arrival has come to the attention of the British Secret Service in India, and Hurree latches on to him. They soon learn that his life is still in danger.

I commend your energy, Strickland. But I fear that such a direct course of action would prove futile. Colonel Sebastian Moran is a most cunning and dangerous adversary. At the moment the only net we have is too frail to hold such a formidable prey.”
“But, dash it all!” cried Strickland. “The man is an honourable soldier. […] You expect me to believe that an English gentleman, a former member of Her Majesty’s Indian Army, the best heavy-game shot in India, a man with a still unrivalled bag of tigers, is a dangerous criminal. Why, I was with him just two nights ago at the Old Shikari Club. We played a rubber of whist together.”

Holmes Tibet map

All along their arduous journey via Bombay, Delhi, and Simla on to Lhasa, pursued by Moriarty’s well-trained, dastardly henchmen, “Sigerson” solves baffling cases. Even in Simla, “a delightful and sophisticated town”, he is not inclined to relax; as Hurree observes,

I was really at my wits’ end trying to make him enjoy himself. […] Knowing his liking for music, I thought it would not be improper to suggest a visit to the Gaiety Theatre, where at the time a comic operetta by Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan was being performed. It was only much later that I learned that his musical interests leaned towards violin concerts, symphonies, and the grand opera.

Holmes frequents the Antiquarian Bookshop run by Mr Lurgan—another character from Kim—and enlists Hurree to teach him Tibetan. Another period note:

But I will not burden my readers with any further digression into the subtleties of the Thibetan * language, for such a subject can only be of interest to a specialist. Nevertheless, for those readers who would like to know more about the Thibetan language I can recommend Thibetan for the beginner (Re 1) published by the Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, and the Grammar of colloquial Thibetan (Rs 2.4 annas), by the same publisher.

Colonel Creighton fills them in on the situation in Lhasa:

“This is a secret report I received from K.21 just a week ago. His monastery is, as you know, close to the main caravan route from Kashgar to Lhassa, and is therefore a good place to pick up news from the Thibetan capital. Evidently things are not as they should be in Lhassa. There are rumours that two senior ministers have been removed in disgrace from the cabinet, and a much respected abbot of the Drepung monastery jailed like a common criminal. K.21 feels that the Manchu Amban is behind these events, and it is probably an attempt to undermine the position of the Grand Lama and strengthen Chinese influence in Thibet. It seems that these particular ministers and the abbot wanted the young Grand Lama to be enthroned before his constitutional age. They were opposed to the Regency, which has acquired the reputation of being influenced by the Chinese representative, the Amban.”

So in late spring, once the passes are no longer snowbound, they set off, joining the Leh-Lhasa caravan near Mount Kailash.

arrow missive

Sigerson’s passport into Tibet: da-yig arrow missive. **

Reaching the fortress of Tsaparang, Hurree tells Holmes the story of the Portuguese Jesuit community there, founded by Antonio de Andrade in 1624:

“Did the good father succeed in converting many of the natives?” asked Holmes, knocking the ash of his pipe against the side of a broken wall.
“Not very many, I would think. Thibetans are notorious in missionary circles for their obstinacy in clinging to their idols and superstitions.”
“They revel in their original sin, do they?” chuckled Mr Holmes. “Anyhow, there is a surfeit of religion in this country already. Why should the missionaries want to bring in another?”

Lhasa 1904

Lhasa, 1904. Source.

Eventually, with sherpas in tow (shades of The ascent of Rum Doodle?!), on 17th May 1892 they reach Lhasa. In another nice note Jamyang Norbu comments on Hurree’s text: “Only one white man, Thomas Manning, had ever set eyes on it before”:

Hurree is mistaken. John Grueber and Albert d’Orville visited Lhassa in 1661 and saw the Potala palace, although the construction was not fully completed until 1695.

For early Europeans in Tibet, see here.

Holmes Lhasa map

As observed by Tibetscapes in this Twitter thread, the novel critiques the exoticisation of Tibet, bringing to focus Tibetan voices and perspectives. Lhasa is described not as the reified Buddhist utopia of Western imagination, but as a thriving metropolis:

Merchants from Turkestan, Bhootan, Nepaul, China, and Mongolia displayed in their stalls a ruch array of goods: tea, silk, fur, brocades, turquoise, amber, coral, wines, and dried fruits and even humble needles, thread, soap, calico, spices, and trinkets from the distant bazaars of India. Lhassa is a surprisingly cosmopolitan town, with merchants and travellers from not only the countries I have just mentioned, but also Armenians, Cashmiris, and Muscovites.

Holmes and Hurree are ushered into

a well-appointed chamber, decorated in the Thibetan fashion with religious paintings (thangka) and ritual objects, and the floor covered with rich carpets and divans. We were served tea and Huntley & Palmer’s [sicapostrophe pedant] chocolate-cream biscuits.

Visiting the Norbulingka (“Jewel Park”) for an audience with the Dalai Lama’s Chief Secretary, they learn that Sigerson’s true identity has been revealed by the Grand Seer. As the Chief Secretary explains,

Thibet is small and peaceful country, and all that its inhabitants seek is to pass their lives in tranquillity and to practise the noble teachings of the Lord Buddha. But all around us are warlike nations, powerful and as resilient as titans. […] To the east is our greatest peril and curse, Black China—cunning, and hungry for land. Yet even in its greed it is patient and subtle. It knows that an outright military conquest of Thibet would only rouse the ire of the many Tartar tribes who are faithful to the Dalai Lama, and who are always a threat to China’s own security. Moreover, the Emperor of China is himself a Buddhist, as are all the Manchus, and he must, at least for the sake of propriety, maintain an appearance of friendly amicability with the Dalai Lama.
But what he cannot achieve directly, the Emperor attempts through intrigue…

So Holmes assumes the task of rescuing the young 13th Dalai Lama from the plots of the Chinese, in a climactic encounter with the arch-fiend himself. Finally the true numinous identity of Holmes himself is revealed. While Jamyang Norbu has long been a dispassionate critic of the Tibetan religious mindset, the dénouement indulges esoteric mysticism to the full, with the mandala of the Great Tantra of the Wheel of Time and mudra hand gestures playing a crucial role. Lhasa is free to celebrate the coronation of the young Dalai Lama.

Such intrigues can only remind the modern reader of the events leading up to the current Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959. His predecessor himself fled from the Chinese in 1910, returning from exile in 1913 (for more on the intrigues of the day, see e.g. this post by Woeser). In the Epilogue, Jamyang Norbu cites the 13th Dalai Lama’s last testament:

It may happen that here, in Tibet, religion and government will be attacked from without and within. Unless we can guard our country, it will happen that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Father and the Son, and all the revered builders of the Faith, will disappear and become nameless. Monks and their monasteries will be destroyed. The rule of law will be weakened. The land and property of government officials will be seized. They themselves will be forced to serve their enemies or wander the country like beggars. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and overpowering fear; and the nights and days will drag on slowly in suffering.

Like Tintin in Tibet (1958–59, sic) and Twin Peaks, one hopes that such popular works will lead the casual reader to explore the troubled modern history of Tibet. Here’s a roundup of my posts on the topic.


A couple of notes of my own [dated 1st April 2021] in homage:

* The aspirated initial might seem to suggest that Tibet was “discovered” by the Irish, the “h” disappearing from orthography as other Westerners heard them evoking the country. Cf. Denis Twitchett’s theory that Li Bai was an Irishman called Patrick O’Leary (n. here).

** Could it be that emissaries called out “da-yig!” to announce their arrival, a custom that eventually found its way to Venice via the Silk Road, becoming the gondolier’s cry of O-i? [No it couldn’t. Stop it.—Ed.]

Shaanbei: spirit mediums

Lingguan miao 99

The Lingguan temple, Yangjiagou, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

In a post on gender in Chinese religious life I suggested a bold, nay revolutionary, idea:

I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?!

Spirit mediums are common throughout China; note the useful bibliographies of Philip Clart and Barend ter Haar. Among many posts, I’ve introduced studies on activity in Henan; Guangxi, Wenzhou, Hebei, and north Shanxi, focusing on the latter region hereShanghai; and Amdo (here and here).

A recent article,

  • Adam Yuet Chau and Liu Jianshu, “Spirit mediumism in Shaanbei, northcentral China”, in Caroline Blyth (ed.), Spirit possession and communication in religious and cultural contexts (2020),

supplements research on both spirit mediums and Shaanbei-ology, building on Chau’s previous work.

In many regions women comprise the majority of most mediums, but in Shaanbei they are mainly men; their tutelary deities may be either male or female. The Shaanbei mediums (generally known as “horse lads” matong 马童—horse imagery is often heard) belong to two main categories, wushen 巫神 (“medium deity”) and shenguan 神官 (“divine official”). The wushen are possessed by “proper gods”, often wielding a three-pronged sword; the shenguan are vehicles for “low-level” deities, and often use a heavy drum of wrought iron and goatskin, suggesting a link with Mongolian shamanism just north.

Among many problems for which mediums are consulted, they are mainly consulted for “wayward illnesses” (xiebing 邪病)—as well as for protecting children, a circumstance that Chau and Liu illustrate with a vignette about a family consulting a wushen for help curing the eye ailment of their young son.

Mediums often initiate the building of temples for their tutelary deities; séances are held both in domestic settings and in the temple.

Seance

Evening séance at the home of a medium (possessed by the Ancient Buddha 古佛).
His wife (on the left) serves as the attendant, burning incense and paper money and preparing ritual implements. The medium has in his hands a cleaver and a dough-kneading rod; he also uses the three-pronged sword for exorcism. Shaanbei, 2016. Photo: Adam Chau.

The authors describe a kind of managed spirit possession:

The initial choice by the deity to possess a person is not willed or predictable, but once the person agrees to serve as the medium of the deity, subsequent possession episodes are all managed; the deity is invited to “come down” and possess the medium for planned séances, such as during a general consultation session or at the bequest of a particular client/worshipper.

The chapter also discusses the process of “medium succession”:

Becoming a medium is not a matter of personal desire. Only the deity can choose who will serve as his or her medium. Sometimes a person suffers from a serious and inexplicable illness (the kind that cannot be diagnosed or treated by the hospitals) [cf. Henan], and a deity might ask him or her to be the spirit medium in exchange for getting cured of the illness (in other words, the person is fulfilling a vow once they are cured). Sometimes a person is chosen by the deity because of karmic connections between the two. Even though serving the deity as a medium is seen as an honour for the person and the whole family, most people would rather not have such an honour because the medium is perceived to suffer a lot, especially the frequent exhaustion resulting from séances. Sometimes the deity decides that one family will have two or three generations of mediums serving him, in which case one of the male descendants will “take up the baton” when the older medium retires, in which case there is no need for a fresh search for a successor medium.

Palanquin

A divination palanquin carried by four men. A worshipper, kneeling, consults the Sanguandadi outside the temple hall. Standing in front of the palanquin, behind the worshipper, is the temple cult leader, who addresses the deity with questions. Shaanbei, 2016. Photo: Adam Chau.

When the previous incumbent becomes too weak or dies, a ritual consultation is held, led by the temple cult leader with the aid of a divination palanquin (as in rain rituals).

An individual chosen by the deity to be a medium may sometimes try to decline the privilege. During the Maoist period, [the deity] Sanguandadi chose a [villager] to be his medium, but this person pleaded to Sanguandadi to let someone else do the job. He was working for the government and was afraid of any conflict between his work and his medium duties due to the government’s attitude towards all “superstitious” practices. Sanguandadi let him off the hook and eventually chose another person. But normally, it is very difficult to refuse “the calling.” Although high social status is not an official prerequisite for becoming a medium, there are times when the community refuses to accept the deity’s choice of medium by virtue of the person’s questionable repute or some other factors. In these cases, the deity’s choice can be challenged, such as by insisting on further confirmations of the choice by divination. Sometimes the person chosen can be so obsessed with the idea of becoming a medium, or the potential profit to be gained from this role, that he will defend his newly-acquired status against any challenges.

During the 1960s and 70s only a few courageous spirit mediums and yinyang masters practiced their trade clandestinely. Whether they had to be jailed and re-educated depended on the relationship he (usually he) had with local officials. One medium claimed that, while nine out of ten “practitioners of superstition” had to go to jail, he did not because he had cured the relatives of many of the top officials so they protected him. Also, very poor (thus of good class background) yinyang masters and mediums were not bothered too much by the campaigns. Chau also outlines the ability of mediums and their patrons to circumvent state control.

In another article, yet unpublished, Chau and Liu explore the theme of the attendants who serve the mediums’ deities, providing notes on a temple complex in Hengshan county and a local family of mediums, as well as a 1962 rain procession during the brief lull between campaigns.

As they describe (spoiler alert…), the role of attendant is largely voluntary. He will be a pious devotee of the temple association, quite active in helping with all its affairs. Serving as attendant is a rather onerous task: being around the temple so much, and sometimes traveling away from the village, the chores of his own family will often be left unattended; he should be brave enough to work with both the deity and the medium, as well as to confront evil powers; and he should be comfortable communicating with people. Normally he will be at least semi-literate, since an important task is to take down all the instructions from the medium during the séance. The attendant serves as intermediary between the medium and the client, translating the utterances of the deity, and acting on the medium’s instructions.

Echoing his remarks in Religion in China: ties that bind, Chau observes:

Some scholars and readers will look upon the religious practices discussed in this chapter as “magic,” “sorcery,” or “superstition,” not quite belonging to the category of “religion.” However, this kind of distinction between “proper religion” and “primitive magic” is a product of epistemological biases that privilege particular “modalities of doing religion” and hinders greatly a broad-based understanding of religious life in any society. Such a bias grants more dignity and legitimacy to religious traditions that are believed to be “higher” on an imagined evolutionary trajectory of religions, denigrating those that are supposedly less institutionalised, less systematic, more “ritualistic,” therefore “primitive” and “lower” (if not barbaric and repulsive). This is a well-known Protestant triumphalist prejudice that unfortunately still pervades most understandings of religion. Discarding this prejudice is essential for any sympathetic yet objective understanding of religious life.

Twilight of democracy

Twilight cover

  • Anne Applebaum, Twilight of democracy: the failure of politics and the parting of friends (2020; subtitle for US edition the seductive lure of authoritarianism)

serves as a useful survey of disturbing trends around the world, notably in Europe and the USA, making a slim and accessible tome with its own seductive lure. *

As a historian, Applebaum has long been a noted critic of the Soviet system, with her thoroughly-researched accounts of Stalin’s gulag and the 1930s’ famine (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain). Such work is easily co-opted by “anti-Communist” conservatives in the West, and until quite recently Applebaum, happily aligned with the centre-right, didn’t care to argue; like many liberals, she only felt compelled to confront the wider issue when authoritarianism began posing a threat to democracy around the world.

With her media profile as a journalist (e.g. in The Atlantic and on Twitter), Applebaum is prominent among the legion of vocal critics of Trumpism (including, from her own field, other public intellectuals such as Timothy Snyder, as well as committed democrats like Robert Reich), and she’s just as engaged with related global trends, notably in Europe and the UK. By virtue of her own background, her warnings seem, at once, all the more telling (it’s good to find erstwhile conservatives defecting) and flawed.

A 1999 New Year’s Eve party that she hosted with her husband Radek Sikorski at their Polish home prompts her to reflect on the imminent “parting of friends”.

What, then, has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millenium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades?

Along with anecdotal passages, the book also provides excursions into earlier debates over democratic values. Applebaum suggests:

Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity; there is nothing intrinsically “left-wing” or “right-wing” about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates. Whether those who have it ultimately derive their ideas from Marxism or nationalism is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.

Following World War Two,

British Tories, American Republicans, East European anti-Communists, German Christian Democrats, and French Gaullists all come from different backgrounds, but as a group they were, at least until recently, dedicated not just to representative democracy, but to religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and speech, economic integration, international institutions, the transatlantic alliance, and the political idea of “the West”.

Such values seemed to have triumphed after the collapse of Soviet regimes from 1989. But recently, “by contrast, the new right does not want to conserve or to preserve what exists at all”; liberal democracy turns out to be worryingly fragile.

Noting the role of political entrepreneurs and propagandists, Applebaum cites Julien Benda’s 1927 La trahison des clercs. Having cautioned us that “there is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution”, she begins her discussion of right-wing populism, its lies and conspiracy theories, with east Europe (notably Poland and Hungary), where two illiberal parties have monopolies on power: in Poland, the Law and Justice Party, and Vikor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary.

Applebaum finds hypocritical the grim warnings over the influence of “Communism” that retain an appeal for the right-wing ideologues of her generation. Her explanation of the crisis in Poland is informed by her own involvement with the leading political figures there. In Hungary, she has a run-in with the historian Mária Schmidt, whose House of Terror Museum she had found impressive, but who later espoused Orbán’s nationalist cause.

Observing that these movements are not particular to the former Communist countries of east Europe. Applebaum turns to the UK and the rise of Boris Picaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, whose “outsized narcissism” complemented a “remarkable laziness” and penchant for fabrication. Her encounters in 1990s’ London with “nostalgic conservatives”, and the jocular atmosphere at the Spectator, seemed like harmless fun. She harangues effectively against the Brexit débacle, but again, given that she consorted happily with Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton, one worries about her social circle.

Nostalgia took the form of belief in a world where England made the rules. In The future of nostalgia Svetlana Boym distinguishes “reflective” and “restorative” nostalgia: the former miss the past, without wanting it back; the latter want to live in it, right now, lamenting decline.

In the Western democracies anxiety, anger, and the backlash against immigration may seem like a long-delayed reaction to the crises of capitalism since the 1960s, compounded by new technology (cf. Can’t get you out of my head).

After considering the Vox party in Spain, Applebaum focuses on the USA, noting antecedents to Trumpism and the predilection for violence, and introducing former acquaintances with whom she parted ways, such as the alarming Laura Ingraham and Roger Kimball.

* * *

Twilight of democracy has been widely welcomed—see e.g. LARB, NYT, and in the Guardian, this review (along with Kratsev and Holmes, The light that failed) and interview here. But it’s worth reading two reviews by David Klion and Jorge González-Gallarza—both critical, yet far apart on the political spectrum.

Klion comments:

Applebaum’s blind faith in the centre-right strains of neoliberalism and meritocratic mobility conveniently absolves her and her remaining friends of any responsibility for the present crisis. […] It never seems to cross Applebaum’s mind that having had so many erstwhile friends who ended up on the far right might say something unflattering about her own judgment—and more generally about the centre-right political tradition to which she belongs. […] Applebaum is willing to skewer her erstwhile friends, but she is unwilling to interrogate her own culpability and that of the centre-right establishment more generally.

From a conservative standpoint, Gallarza observes:

Her journalism reads like a (somewhat more) refined version of the doomsday prophesying that prevails among her never-Trump colleagues. […] Waxing alarmist about the demise of the American republic is something of an oversubscribed beat across the mastheads she writes for. […]

Applebaum’s primary ambition is to chronicle how modern republics can undergo dismantling, from within, through the subversive influence of a rogue faction of the intelligentsia. For [her], national populism complicates the democratic experiment, but its hold over a share of the elite intellectual class is most disconcerting.

Gallarza concludes:

[Applebaum] draws attention to an old truth that merits recalling—yes, democracy only thrives when a spirit of republican virtue overcomes factionalism, authoritarianism, and other undemocratic impulses. And there may well be cause for alarm on this score in the post-Soviet East. But Applebaum’s record of casting off divergent views as the work of authoritarian demagogues puts her in a difficult spot to raise the alarm.

Given the valuable role that Applebaum plays in defending the cause of liberal democracy, perhaps we might overlook her dubious past involvements with the sinister figures she now excoriates. But similar arguments from further left may prove to be more valuable. For practical, passionate, informed ways of strengthening social justice, do follow AOC!


* Rather like the decor for her online interviews—runaway winner in the Classy Book-Lined Study category.

AA zoom

Bach Passions at the Proms

Nicolaikirche

To complement Bach’s Matthew Passion from this year’s Proms—always a moving event (now on i-Player)—here’s a reminder of some relevant posts:

ritual-masters

Bach meets Li Manshan, Leipzig 2013.

All this, and much more, under A Bach retrospective.

For other Proms this season, see 1707, New British jazz, and Korngold. See also Proms tag.

A garland of ragas

As my coverage of north Indian ragas grows, this may be a good moment for an overview. [1]

To guard against any timeless image, divorced from social change, it’s good to start with Daniel Neuman’s fine book:

In my post on Noor Inayat Khan I referred to her father Inayat Khan’s 1921 classic The mysticism and sound of music, along with his 1909 recordings.

I illustrate most of these posts with 17th-century ragamala (“garland of ragas”) paintings reproduced in The raga guide.

* * *

In my Beatles roundup I wrote:

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

See also Analysing world music.

To immerse ourselves in the melodic soundscape, note The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999, with 4 CDs), and (among a wealth of online material) this site by Patrick Moutal, including audio and video archives for both vocal and instrumental renditions. Also worth consulting is my post Unpacking “improvisation”.

To help us focus on the infinite riches of raga, it’s illuminating to anchor ourselves in the sargam solfeggio that expresses the pitch relationships. [2] Here are the basic pitches of the heptatonic scale:

Sargam

In this series I use upper-case initials to denote higher degrees (e.g. Ma, sharp fa), lower-case for their lower degrees (ma, natural fa); Sa and Pa (do and so) are invariable.

Always relishing long alap preludes, I marvel at the constant variations of the master musicians, as they explore new connections between pitches and motifs—stages on their lifelong devotion to riaz practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”, as characterised by Neuman).

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone, and registering stressed and cadential pitches. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

What’s great about the whole progression of an extended alap is that we are gradually coaxed into learning the melodic building blocks, so that by the time the faster, more ornate patterns begin unfolding we’re just about familiar with the scalar language. Recalling the Growing into music films, wouldn’t it be great if our kids could grow up learning to sing and create with this fluency in pitch relationships?! (Cf. flamenco palmas).

Armed with the introduction of The raga guide (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas. In these posts I content myself with offering a few signposts, with very rough outlines based on prominent cadences, leaving you to zoom in on all the detail in between. For dhrupad, my star exhibit, the signposts include the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Richard Widdess) [3] such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down:

The raga guide introduces 74 ragas—like the repertoire of Chinese qin players (see my comments on Chapter 6 of Neuman’s book), few individual musicians perform more than a couple of dozen ragas, and some concentrate intensively on a handful. So here’s my series so far:

Besides vocal renditions, these are illustrated with instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, [4] sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi; so in a further post,

  • Raga for winds, I feature further instances on bansuri flute and shehnai shawm, featuring some of the above ragas as well as rāgs Desh, Lalit, and Puriya.

Even this modest selection displays great scalar variety: some ragas are largely “diatonic” (Yaman, Maru Bihag, Kedar), some “minor” (Kafi Zila, Bhairavi, and the anhemitonic pentatonic Malkauns, with Chandrakauns a revision of Malkauns with a semitone from Ni to Sa); others showcase augmented intervals (Bhairav, Shri); and Marwa is a challenging yet beguiling “A major over a C drone”.

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

To draw you into the individual posts, in the playlist below I choose one rendition of each of the ragas I’ve discussed so far, highlighting alap, dhrupad (the Dagar lineage, and Uday Bhawalkar), and Nikhil Banerjee.

  • Kafi Zila:

  • Yaman:

  • Maru Bihag:

  • Bhairav:

  • Bhairavi:

  • Malkauns:

  • Shri:

  • Chandrakauns:

  • Kedar:

I’ll add to this list as I explore further… In other fields, see A playlist of songs, and the Chinese selections in the playlist as you scroll down in the sidebar, with commentary here.

In the words of a Classic FM presenter,

It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

With thanks to Richard Widdess, Morgan Davies, and Daniel Neuman.


[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy to the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of sargam is a good way of listening to traditional Chinese melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organising sound (cf. What is serious music?!).

Some might date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, or even the invention of graphic notation

[3] As a taster for the definitive study Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004) by Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, the latter’s “Involving the performers in transcription and analysis: a collaborative approach to dhrupad” (Ethnomusicology 38.1, 1994) takes rāg Multani to illustrate the rich fruits of analysing alap, with detailed attention to the performer’s vocabulary (e.g. the instructive transcription on p.63).

[4] The timbre of the rudra vina rather reminds me of the Chinese qin zither, almost making me wonder if the lost art of improvisation therein might have sounded like this—all the more in view of the scalar variety of Chinese music before the Song dynasty… “But that’s not important right now“.

Korngold at the Proms

 

Korngold and Walter 1928

A rejected casting for the mirror scene in Duck soup. Allegedly.

Among the highlights of this year’s Proms was John Wilson‘s stimulating programme with the reborn Sinfonia of London (shown on BBC4, on i-Player).

After Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus overture (a favourite of the incomparable Carlos Kleiber), Francesca Chiejina sang the exquisite Seven early songs (1905–08) of Alban Berg. As a polar opposite of the overture, Wilson continued with Ravel’s disturbing La valse (1920), depicting “a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past towards those of the near future”, in the words of Alex Ross.

* * * 

The second half of the Prom featured the Symphony in F sharp (1952) * of Erich Korngold (1897–1957) (note the excellent Michael Haas, on his “Forbidden music” site ; see also websites, here and here; and wiki).

Korngold cartoon

As a prodigy in Vienna, Korngold was praised by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Puccini. Making his name with the opera Die tote Stadt, he was a prominent figure in the lively theatrical scene of the 1920s, going on to collaborate with Max Reinhardt. Having commuted between Vienna and Hollywood since 1934, by the time of the Anschluss in 1938 Korngold realised that it would be impossible for him and his family to continue living in Austria. In the USA his film scores soon came to define the Hollywood sound. As Michael Haas comments,

he found himself mugged by both realities—commercial necessity and Hitler, both at the same time.

Korngold films

It’s unfortunate that Korngold himself subscribed to the notion that “serious music” could only reside in the symphonic tradition—to which he returned after retiring disillusioned from film in 1947, but still writing in a romantic style that had plummeted from fashion after the war. Even Messiaen‘s Turangalîla (1949), challenging yet sensual, was met with negative reviews; Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître was premiered in 1955. 

So pieces such as Korngold’s Violin concerto (1947) were received patronisingly. Whatever the zeitgeist was, this wasn’t it; much as we all love late romanticism, surely this was too late?! (cf. the ever-later early music).

But Korngold’s reputation has grown in recent years. As Alex Ross comments,

“That sounds like film music” is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term “film music” has little descriptive value.

Ross gives thoughtful background in Chapter 8 (“Music for all”) of The rest is noise, under “Hollywood music” and “Exile music”. Richard Taruskin is always worth reading too: in The danger of music (§33, “The golden age of kitsch”) he thickens the plot by contrasting Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane with Ernst Krenek’s “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf, both from 1927.

Perhaps the weird twin burdens among WAM aficionados of expecting both background knowledge and linear progress can be eased by imagining Korngold’s late works as composed before the war, as if he were a Rachmaninoff or a Zemlinsky. At least, it would be sad not to allow oneself to relish the symphony’s gorgeous slow movement (and in Haas’s post, do listen to Korngold playing the Adagio on the piano—as with Mahler’s piano rolls, one gets a sense of composition, improvisation).

Indeed, since Mahler was already fêted in New York by 1908 (see e.g. here and here), while it may be fruitless to speculate how his style might have evolved had he lived to the era of the 1930s’ talkies (one can hardly imagine that any more could be said after the 9th and 10th symphonies and Der Abschied), it’s intriguing to wonder whether he too would have been seduced by the lure of Hollywood…

As Haas observes, conflicts over modernity and populism were already hotly debated in 1920s’ Berlin and Vienna (cf. What is serious music?!);

The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema, or is it l’art pour l’art—a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely “disposable”? 

So all this makes Korngold’s work grist to John Wilson’s mill. Here’s his 2019 recording of the symphony with the Sinfonia of London:

For audience tastes since the 1970s (again based on Taruskin), see also The right kind of spirituality?.


*  Though it’s often described as “Symphony in F sharp major”, Korngold’s biographer Brendan G. Carroll notes that he was particular in casting the work in F sharp, without specifying either major or minor (cf. the story of the prison exam!). Nor should it be confused with F hashtag minor. Anyway, six sharps would be well above the legal limit on Sundays in Pennsylvania. 

A playlist for Emma and Leylah

Emma Leylah

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP.

🥂🥂

The fairy-tale dénouement of the US Open women’s singles was an even more intense and moving contest than anyone dared imagine. Just exhilarated by this rare moment in sporting history, to celebrate youthful inspiration I’d like to offer a wacky little playlist in homage to both players—a paean to migration, riffing freely on their cultural backgrounds. Some of these connections may be approximate, but you get the idea.

Conveniently, my soundtrack for Emma Raducanu (“london|toronto|shenyang|bucharest“) (TEN MATCHES without dropping a set!!!) can also serve the valuable function of irritating Priti Patel and Piers Morgan…

BTL iconHer mum Zhai Dongmei 翟冬梅 comes from Shenyang in northeast China:

  • so here’s a powerful, majestic, gritty shawm band from nearby Liaoyang (#6 in the Music Player as you scroll way down in the sidebar of this blog, with commentary here)—two players striving in unison, occasionally pulling apart, with the drum evoking the sound of the tennis ball (the very opening perhaps satirising Nadal’s pre-serve routine)?! See also Ritual groups of Liaoning; and click here for Emma speaking excellent Chinese (Yeah I know…).

From her dad’s part of the world,

  • From the Canadian background of Emma’s parents, some Inuit throat-singing—another joyous ritualised game (whereas both Emma and Leylah are decorously silent on court, perhaps this evokes a speeded-up soundtrack of the vocalisations of certain other tennis players):

  • Moving on to, um, Bromley, how about David Bowie:

* * *

Just as inspiring—both on court and for a playlist!—is Emma’s opponent Leylah Fernandez.

For the Philippine heritage of her mum,

  • the elegant passion of nanguan (nanyin) ballads from the Hokkien diaspora of southeast China:

Leyla’s dad comes from Ecuador, suggesting a somewhat imprecise connection with

  • festive wind bands from the Bolivian Andes (see Music and the potato), grounded in seasonal rituals (Wimbledon and the other majors):

And for the family’s Canadian heritage,

  • in French-Celtic mode, the irresistible energy of La bottine souriante playing La tuque rouge:

  • along with Leonard Cohen:

Hallelujahs for both stellar players!

International Cultural Exchange indeed… Cf. They come over ‘ere…

See also A sporting medley: ritual and gender—not least Cocomania. For another celebratory playlist from early this year, see Dancing in the streets!!!. And do listen to my Playlist of songs

Raga for winds

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Left, Bismillah Khan; right, Hariprasad Chaurasia.

So far in my series on north Indian raga, besides vocal renditions I’ve only featured instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi, all of which have illustrious traditions. * While these dominate the scene, the bansuri flute and shehnai shawm have also taken to the “classical” concert recital format, emerging from more popular styles. They are best known through the work of three masters.

The bansuri is strongly associated with Krishna. With its mellifluous timbre, in media publicity it’s particularly prone to romantic visual imagery, with sunsets and rippling waters adorning naff titles like Relaxing Lord Krishna flute music for meditation. But none of this should deafen us to the artistry of the great exponents.

The pioneer of bansuri as a concert instrument was Pannalal Ghosh (1911–60)—here he performs rāg Malkauns:

More recently, Hariprasad Chaurasia (b.1938) became the celebrated master of the bansuri. Here he is with  Marwa (“A major over a C drone”):

Now for two ragas that I haven’t previously featured—Desh (largely “diatonic”, with flat ni in descent):

and Lalit:

With flat re and dha, lacking Pa, Lalit is rather complex—here are its basic melodic contours as shown in The raga guide:

Lalit

Again, we can hear Pannalal Gosh playing Lalit:

Here’s the 2013 documentary Bansuri guru on Hariprasad Chaurasia, directed by his son Rajeev:

* * *

More strident, but no less beguiling, is the shehnai, of which Bismillah Khan (1916–2006) was the great exponent (for the modern evolution of the shehnai, see here; cf. shawms in Nepal and south India; see also Shawms around the world).

Here’s his long, entrancing rendition of rāg Yaman:

Bhairav:

and Bhairavi:

(for Bhairav and Bhairavi, see here).

Malkauns again, in a short video (click “Watch on YouTube”!!!):

In this early video he plays Puriya and (from 16.32) Maru Bihag:


* The mixture of roman and italic here reflecting my confusion about the current status of the instruments regarding their currency in the Western world. BTW, in modern China we find a similar descending hierarchy in the solo conservatoire repertoire: from the plucked zheng and pipa, to the bowed erhu, down to the less common dizi, guanzi, and suona (see e.g. here, and here). But in both China and India, beyond the confines of urban musicking, folk ensemble traditions dominate the soundscape.

Arnold and Alma Rosé

A and A Rosé

Source here.

Among the distinguished Jewish musicians in fin-de-siècle Vienna was the Rosé family (see e.g. here).

Arnold Rosé (1863–1946) (here, and wiki), led the Vienna Phil from 1881 to 1931. Having worked closely with Brahms (!), he married Mahler’s younger sister Justine. Meanwhile he led the Rosé quartet from 1882 to 1938—to supplement my post on Late Beethoven quartets, here are the opening movements of their 1927 recording of the C♯ minor quartet:

Alma Rosé (1906–44; see e.g. here, here, and wiki), the niece of Mahler, named for his wife, was also a violinist. Here are father and daughter with the slow movement of the Bach double violin concerto in 1929:

In 1932 Alma formed the salon orchestra Wiener Walzermädeln.

Arnold gave his last concert with the Vienna Phil on 16 January 1938, playing Mahler 9 under Bruno Walter. But after the Anschluss, further devastated by the death of his wife Justine, he retreated to London with their daughter Alma.

But soon after reaching safety there, Alma made the fateful decision to try and resume her career in Holland. Fleeing to France upon the Nazi invasion, she was captured in 1942; after a period interned in Drancy, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she led the Mädchenorchester (see here, here, and wiki), before losing her life in 1944, aged 36.

FF and ALW

Source here.

Camp inmates like the musicians serving the whims of their Nazi tormentors (among many sites, see e.g. here and here) constantly had to negotiate impossible moral decisions in the faint hope of survival. Among the survivors was Fania Fénelon (here, and wiki), whose autobiography gives an unflattering portrayal of Alma, and downplays the bond between the musicians; as explained by Michael Haas, her account was disputed by other survivors such as the wonderful Anita Lasker-Wallfisch.

Still, Fénelon’s book formed the basis for the 1980 TV film Playing for time—with Vanessa Redgrave, also controversially:

And there’s a recent Polish dramatisation of Alma’s story by Bente Kahan.

Arnold Rosé survived the war. In 1946 the Vienna Phil sought to reinstate him as leader, but he refused on the grounds that over fifty Nazis still remained in the orchestra (see e.g. here, and wiki). Heartbroken at the loss of his wife and daughter, he died that same year.

Rosé grave

Source here.

See also my posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and Noor Inayat Khan; as well as on Gustav and Alma Mahler’s daughter Anna.

1707 at the Proms

JEG Prom 1

To complement John Eliot Gardiner’s Prom last week (shown on BBC4: on i-Player)
with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists:

Both Bach and Handel were born in 1685, and this Prom featured two of their early works, composed when they were 22 years old—both for Easter, indeed. 1707 was a fine vintage.

Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden has long been among Gardiner’s signature pieces—it features in this post, where he also comments on his training with Nadia Boulanger.

JEG Prom 2

Handel’s Dixit dominus has also been a regular showcase for Gardiner’s choir and orchestra over the decades. Amidst all the virtuosity, the heart of the piece is De torrente, the ravishing duet for two sopranos—repeated as an encore in the Prom, as in this performance from 2014:

For more on Gardiner’s early experiments with baroque style, see here, under “The world of early music”; his performances appear often in the posts under A Bach retrospective. For Handel arias, click here; for Rameau, born two years before of the “class of ’85”, here.

Rāg Kedar

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Kedar ragamala

Kedar, ragamala:
“… in penance, adorned, grey [with ashes] and dark, a young man beauteous in every limb,
[this is] Kedar raga.”

RF Dagar

Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar.

Another raga that I’ve only acquainted myself with recently is rāg Kedar.

Sargam

Here’s the introduction in The raga guide:

Kedar RG 1

Kedar RG 2

So (unlike my recent posts on the “chromatic” Shri and Chandrakauns) rāg Kedar is largely “diatonic”, with the sharp fourth Ma also enriching the complex ascending and descending patterns (cf. Yaman).

Beginning as ever with dhrupad, here’s Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar:

He lingers on ma before introducing the sharp Ma, revealing how both degrees appear within particular motifs around Pa, as from 18.17, going on to mirror the semitone from Ma to Pa with that from Ni to Sa (introducing the interval NiMa), with an interlude from 30.55 in the lower register. Ever more confident phrases build to climactic cadences on top Sa from 37.30. From 41.17 he sets off again more reflectively, ascending from the middle range. By this stage of the alap, as the tempo accelerates, long phrases commonly embrace the whole range of the earlier explorations of motifs, as here from 46.18.

In standard dhrupad structure, he then becalms the mood to lead into two concluding dhamar songs of praise, in 12-beat chautāl (from 52.09), and then 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4, from 1.07.57), both becoming ever more exultant.

Here Uday Bhawalkar sings an alap to introduce another song in dhamar tal (from 20.16):

This track has only a short introduction leading into the praise song in dhamar tāl:

And on sitar (guess who), Nikhil Banerjee, with 16-beat tintāl (from 24.52), then 12-beat ektāl:

Here he launches straight into a gat in tintāl:

One eye open, one eye closed

See Changing ritual artefacts.

A new draft regulation for Shanxi province (Chinese version here), propounding a ban on producing and selling funeral supplies such as paper artefacts, seems to have adverse implications for ritual activity and funeral shops. But it’s not so simple.

Official attempts to restrict “feudal superstition” and traditional funerary observances have a long history—not just under Maoism but through imperial and Republican eras. Indeed, temples have been destroyed and religious activity controlled throughout the 20th century, notably since the Communist takeover, and campaigns continue today.

But in my post on local government interference in Shandong I pondered the gap between rules and practice at local level. Often-heard phrases like “there’s a policy, but it isn’t implemented” and “one eye open, one eye closed” suggest the dilution of state policy as it works its way down to the grassroots, a long chain elegantly encapsulated in the expression yitiao long, “the whole dragon”.

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

While state surveillance of the larger temples and their clerics has escalated since 2016, recent campaigns aimed at folk practice meet with resistance on social media even as they are diluted locally (for another instance, see here). Ritual specialists, their patrons, and local cadres take such official measures in their stride; campaigns blow over—this blog features several examples. Spirit mediums are a regular target of campaigns, but remain popular; and sectarian groups that are still officially proscribed can maintain activity discreetly (for Yanggao, see here).

Earth burial, long targeted, remains standard throughout rural areas like Yanggao, despite the government’s long propounding of cremation. So since “earth burial supplies can still be sold to ethnic minority residents who observe the custom”, it’s unclear if this rider will also apply to the Han Chinese—in which case, there’s nothing new here. And though a renewed attempt to enforce cremation also appears to be on the cards in Yanggao, a local observer reckons earth burial is safe for at least a dozen years yet—by which time the depletion of the rural population will have escalated yet further.

Over the first few years there after the reforms, officials made some attempts to contain the religious revival; but since household Daoists like Li Manshan’s son Li Bin and his colleagues took up the trade in the early 1990s they have practised without interference (see under The Li family Daoists: a roundup).

In my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo south of Beijing, we can see such manoeuvering in the stories of Shan Fuyi’s wedding in 1966 and the 1997 New Year’s rituals after Deng Xiaoping’s death.

Since the 1980s’ liberalisations, both household Daoists and amateur ritual associations have remained largely unaffected by any official prescriptions/proscriptions. More significant in the modification of ritual behaviour are factors such as migration, the changing tastes of local patrons, and the spread of pop music.

So it remains to be seen if the new draft directive for Shanxi will have any practical impact on local activity. While the destructive effects of state policy need to be reported, they may also serve as clickbait that obscures the maintenance of ritual life, which is stressed in detailed field reports from south China (see e.g. here).

Interview stories

World map

I note that there are several related stories on ‘ere about interviews.

This one features a young hopeful applying for a position in the Music Department at Cardiff:

Shifting the scene to a prison, this story may or may not be true:

Branching into “world music”, this one certainly is:

as is this fine story about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interview for the LA Phil, exposing a mindset that is still common in both WAM and Daoist ritual studies:

Salonen

“The undisputed master of” * the interview is of course Philomena Cunk, as in her programmes on

Cunk

Seriously though folks, I discussed issues in fieldwork interviewing/chatting here, following Bruce Jackson.


* In homage to I’m sorry I haven’t a clue; with “master” serving as a gender-neutral term until someone comes up with a good substitute…