The new compilation How the River Ganges Flows – streaming at Bandcamp – has a rare PR tagline worth repeating. Third Man Records calls it “A transcendent collection of carnatic violin performances captured on 78 RPM disc between 1933 and 1952.” This is their second batch of newly digitized and sonically enhanced tracks from archivist Christopher King’s collection of global rarities. The first one, a mix of mostly unreleased Greek recordings titled Why the Mountains Are Black made the best albums of the year list in 2016. This one threatens to do the same this year.
On one hand, ragas that top out at about the three-and-a-half minute mark would never have existed if not for the limits of early recording technology. Which makes the work of the six violinists here all the more impressive: imagine Tschaikovsky trying to condense the Pathetique Symphony into a three-minute hit.
Each of these guys plays with small-group instrumentation that varies from song to song. Tabla is a ubiquitous presence (and happily very present in the new mixes). Mridangam may also be, although those boomy lows could simply be a by-product of the original recording process.
By comparison, a lot of contemporary Indian violinists are tame: swoops and dives and microtonal magic permeate this record, even beyond the point where an Indian mode diverges furthest from the Western scale. Case in point: Paritosh Seal’s careening melismas and brisk chromatics in Raga Ahir Bhairi.
Seal is also represented on five other tracks. He bends into far limbo and trills meticulously over a tanpura drone on Raga Darbari Kanada. He leaps and bounds joyously in Raga Sur Malhar, lilts through Raga Bageshree and plays with even more of a singing quality in a recording simply titled Thumri, which speeds up tantalizingly for maybe twenty seconds of a coda. His three-plus minutes of Raga Adana make a bittersweetly gorgeous closer to this lusciously tuneful album, which comes on gatefold vinyl with extensive liner notes plus artwork by R. Crumb.
But the other artists here offer even more fire, flash and breathtaking skill. Shri Gajana Karnad plays Raga Thodi with wicked spirals and rapidfire precision, then basically makes Raga Tilak Kamod into a shivery stand-alone coda.
Muthi and Mani break up a section of Raga Aberi into two 78 sides: the uneasily rippling, quasi-Japanese diatonics seem to be coming from a santoor, but the instrument actually turns out to be a piano. Likewise, Swaram Venkatswamy Naidu makes an A-side and B-side out of Raga Thanam, building a plaintive alap into a similarly brooding duet. The most rustic and weatherbeaten recordings here are T. Chowdiah playing a jaunty bit of Raga Hamir Kalyani and then giving some lightning-fast ornamentation to Raga Manirang. Must listening for Indian music fans.