Documenting Himalayan music that summons the gods

Published 16 December 2008

alterbook.jpgA University  of New England researcher has enriched the world of musical scholarship with the first detailed study of music in the Indian Himalayas.

“In Garhwal, the gods (devtas) enjoy dancing,” said Dr Andrew Alter, a Senior Lecturer in Music at UNE and a specialist in Indic musicology. “Through the sounds of their drumming, musicians cause the gods to dance in the bodies of their mediums.”

Dr Alter has just published a book titled Dancing with Devtas: Drums, Power and Possession in the Music of Garhwal, North India. Launching the book at UNE last week, the distinguished Australian ethnomusicologist Professor Stephen Wild said it was “a worthy contribution to ethnomusicology, Indian studies, and the world of scholarship”.

Professor Wild, from the School of Music at the Australian National University, is a Fellow of the Australian  Academy of the Humanities and Secretary General of the International Council for Traditional Music. He said the book combined “insightful cultural analyses” with “detailed musical accounts”.

It is divided into two parts, the first part placing the music in its historical, political, social and cultural context, and the second part analysing the music at three events – a wedding, a religious festival, and an epic narration. Professor Wild referred to the book’s “vivid descriptions” of the wedding as the procession – including its musicians – winds its way through steep valleys and across swift rivers, arriving at the bride’s village to the added sounds of a brass band, a cassette player, and “the sobs of the young bride”.

The chapter on the epic narration he called “a tour de force of musico-dramatic analysis”.

The music of Garhwal, although richly diverse, is dominated by drumming. “Drumming summons the presence of the gods,” Professor Wild said. “There are specific drumming patterns for all the gods, as well as for each stage of an event such as the wedding.” The book provides a detailed analysis of those patterns, transcriptions of all the music discussed, and recordings of that music on an accompanying CD.

“I’m full of admiration for Andrew’s book,” Professor Wild said. “It’s a book that has to be read carefully – by musicians as well as non-musicians. I’ll certainly be setting it for my students to read.”

In explaining some aspects of the book’s production, Dr Alter acknowledged the contributions of his wife Dr Frances Alter in drawing the illustrations, Lindsay Rowlands in producing diagrams and a map of Garhwal, and Stephen Tafra for his expert work on the music transcriptions.

Clicking on the image of Dancing with Devtas displayed here reveals a photograph of Dr Andrew Alter (left) and Professor Stephen Wild preparing for the launch of the book.