Bagpiping in the Indian Himalayas

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Listening to Postcolonial Sounds: Fieldwork on Bagpiping in the Indian Himalayas

It’s a hot morning in September, 2013, and I’m sitting in a music studio in the town of Srinagar, Garhwal (not the one in Kashmir).

Garhwal is a relatively sparsely populated region in the central Himalayas, roughly north-northeast of New Delhi, that comprises the western part of the state of Uttarakhand. At the southwestern edge of the region, the Himalayan foothills rise from the populous North Indian plains and continue to ascend in range after range of rugged ridges and deep river valleys until they culminate in snowy peaks exceeding 20,000 feet in height bordering Tibet. Glaciers high in the mountains are the sources of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers that water the plains below. High mountain temples at these glacial streams and elsewhere are holy pilgrimage sites for multitudes of Hindu pilgrims from across India, who stream up a handful of narrow and difficult roads by the busload, joined by Sikh pilgrims on their way to Hemkund Sahib. I’m a pilgrim of a different sort: I came to this part of the mountains for the music, as part of my dissertation research in the field of ethnomusicology.

I’ve studied and taught the music of India for a number of years, and in my experience, most Americans’ main exposure to the musics of India has been through Hindustani music, the classical music of North India played by the likes of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Zakir Hussain. This is seen in the United States as the stereotypical “Music of India” for a number of reasons. The most obvious is probably the curation of pop stars like the Beatles, but Hindustani music has also been given pride of place by Indian nationalists who transformed music associated with royal courts and courtesans into a “classical” music on a 19th century European model – institutionalized, theoretical, self-consciously sophisticated, and understood to be fundamentally Indian – to serve as a symbol of national culture and pride and to be an equal to the art music traditions of the West (cf. Janaki Bakhle, Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005; for similar processes in the construction of Karnatak music as the classical music of South India, see Amanda J. Weidman, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India. Durham and London: Duke University Press 2006; and Lakshmi Subramanian, From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press). We ethnomusicologists have also played a role in foregrounding Hindustani music, focusing a significant part of our energies in the mid-twentieth century on what were seen as the more sophisticated “classical” musics of Asia.

While there have been a number of excellent articles and monographs written about Indian folk and popular musics (among them, Gregory D. Booth, Brass Baja: Stories from the World of Indian Wedding Bands. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005; Scott L. Marcus, “Recycling Indian film-songs: Popular music as a source of melodies for North Indian folk musicians.” Asian Music, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Fall 1992/Winter 1993), pp. 101-110; Edward O. Henry, Chant the Names of God: Music and Culture in Bhojpuri-Speaking India. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press, 1988; Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993; Andrew Alter, “Garhwali Bagpipes: Syncretic Processes in a North Indian Regional Musical Tradition.” Asian Music, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Autumn 1997/ Winter 1998), pp. 1-16; and Andrew Alter, Dancing with Devtas: Drums, Power, and Possession in the Music of Garhwal, North India. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2008), these musics have individually received far less scholarly attention than India’s classical traditions. A major goal of my dissertation is to explore one such folk tradition, or rather two intertwined traditions through which Garhwali musicians have adopted and indigenized the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe for local use. These bagpipes have a long history of military use in Garhwal, which has been the site of heavy recruitment, first by the British and later by the Indian Army, since the Anglo-Nepali War of 1814-16. Along with a number of other units throughout the Indian Army, the Garhwal Rifles Regiment maintains a pipe band to this day. Over the course of this history of military service, retiring pipers brought their instruments home to their villages and towns, where they came to be used in local folk music to accompany a pair of drums, the ḍhol and damauñ, especially for weddings. Many Garhwali pipers today have no military experience or even recent familial links to the military (these drummers and pipers are part of hereditary lineages within a regional musician caste). One musician I talked to near Srinagar played a set of pipes that had been handed down in his family over a long enough period that he neither knew where the instrument had originally come from nor of anyone in his family who had played in the army.

I came to study Garhwali bagpiping in a sort of roundabout way. I was in the early stages of an MA/PhD program in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I initially intended to study the religious politics of music in India. I had also been playing Irish and Scottish fiddle music for a number of years, and I always thought it would be nice if Indian and Irish/Scottish musics intersected in some meaningful way, although I wasn’t initially very hopeful. I hit a turning point, however, while reading Amanda Weidman’s Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern (2006, see above), in which she discusses the prominent place of the violin in Karnatak (South Indian classical) music. Weidman writes that the instrument’s introduction to South India had less to do with European classical musicians and more to do with Irish and Scottish fiddlers with the East India Company, and discusses ways that musicians like the Hindu composer-saint Muthuswami Dikshitar borrowed elements of European musics into their own practice of Karnatak music. This included Dikshitar taking tunes that I play today on the fiddle and performing them with Sanskrit devotional lyrics to local deities.

Spark lit.

I proceeded to search for as many such musical crossovers as I could, scouring Irish, Scottish, and English musical collections for any songs or dance tunes that were borrowed from or referenced South Asia and reading works by Ian Woodfield (Music of the Raj: A Social and Economic History of Music in Late Eighteenth-Century Anglo-Indian Society. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) and Gerry Farrell (Indian Music and the West. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), both on late eighteenth century British attempts to transcribe Hindustani music and adapt it for the harpsichords of Lucknow and Calcutta elite. At that time, I was generally aware that the Great Highland Bagpipe has traveled around the world with the British Army and continued to be used in a military context in many former colonies, but when I ran across the aforementioned article by ethnomusicologist Andrew Alter (1997, see above), I was introduced to an instance of the bagpipes moving out of the military and becoming deeply embedded in a very non-military context.

Aside from Alter’s article, however, I am not aware of any English- or Hindi-language scholarship that addresses Garhwali bagpiping in any depth. Works by Anoop Chandola (Folk Drumming in the Himalayas: A Linguistic Approach to Music. New York: AMS Press, 1977), Stefan Fiol (Constructing Regionalism: Discourses of Spirituality and Cultural Poverty in the Music of Uttarakhand, North India. PhD dissertation. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2008; “From Folk to Popular and Back: Musical Feedback between Studio Recordings and Festival Dance-Songs in Uttarakhand, North India.” Asian Music, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011), pp. 24-53), William S. Sax (Dancing the Self: Personhood and Performance in the Pandav Lila of Garhwal. New York: Oxford University Press 2002; God of Justice: Ritual Healing and Social Justice in the Central Himalayas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), and Jugal Kishor Petshali (Uttarānchal ke Lok Vādya [The Folk Instruments of Uttaranchal]. New Delhi: Taxila Prakashan, 2002), as well as Alter’s recent monograph (2008, see above), either mention the pipes briefly or not at all. This is understandable, considering the relatively minor role of the bagpipe in comparison to the highly ritually significant ḍhol and damauñ pair, and the general dearth of literature on the region’s music, but it leaves much room for further, in-depth study.

Back to my morning in Srinagar:

It’s a hot morning, and I’m sitting with ex-military bagpipe instructor Ganesh Prasad for a pipe lesson in his son’s music studio. Ganesh Prasad, however, has been spending much of our time together adjusting and readjusting my instrument to get it into what he considers proper playing condition. It’s easy to wonder if this constant work stretching over a number of lessons has been worth the 30 minute walk to the taxi stand, a very full group taxi into town, and a further 15 minute walk to the studio. After all, ethnomusicology puts a high premium on learning through participant observation, in this case, learning to play the pipes. But there’s plenty I’m learning here. As an ex-military musician, Ganesh Prasad’s musical repertoire, the way he fingers the notes on the chanter, and the way he ornaments the tune are significantly different from the village folk musicians I had seen. I expected that; these are the very sorts of comparisons I’m examining. But even the act of adjusting and tuning the instrument is enlightening and reveals a whole different approach to the instrument. Part of his process involves undoing some of the ways another of my teachers, a folk musician from Uttarkashi named Hukam Das, had previously set up the instrument. Folk musicians often block off two of the bagpipe’s three drones, which makes the instrument easier to play and keep in tune, and improvise the setup when necessary. One folk piper I had met had broken a wooden section of one of his unused (stopped up) drone pipes and carved his own replacement part. What works in one scenario, however, may not be all that is required for another. For Ganesh Prasad, everything has its proper place and function, and he is pulling out the plastic bags that Hukam Das had used to plug up my drones and putting reeds back in them to get the fullest sound possible. Gone is the brass mouthpiece Hukam Das gave me, and the blowpipe must be held in the middle of the mouth instead of off to the side. He even shows me what he understands to be the proper way to lay the instrument down when not playing, so as to avoid any scratches or dents to the wooden portions of the instruments.

Looking back now, I never did end up playing the pipes much with Ganesh Prasad, although I learned plenty. Like other bagpipers I met, whether folk or military, I interviewed Ganesh Prasad and recorded his playing. Now back home, it’s time for me to begin processing the data from my fieldwork: translating interviews, examining video footage, and transcribing loads of music. And writing, lots of writing.

Jason Busniewski
Department of Music
University of California, Santa Barbara
jbusniewski@umail.ucsb.edu

Image: Garhwali bagpipes. Photo Credit: Jason Busniewski

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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  1. Navneet S Rawat

    Very interesting article, much research needs to be done regarding the unexplored history and culture of uttarakhand! Thank u author for that piece of information. Kudos.

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