Into the Cosmos

5 minute read


A token of love, and a glimpse into Earth’s technology and art, I talk about the Golden Record

Music, they say, is a great equaliser. It helps us erase boundaries and build bridges. Over the ages we’ve refined our notions of music, and have allowed it to stem into various branches, each a wonderful representative of a plethora of cultures and feelings that have come together in defining it. A testament to this fact can come from an unexpected source: the “Golden Record” sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. It is arguably humanity’s most symbolic embrace of other civilizations: a profoundly optimistic hope, spanning the Cosmos. It’s the celebration of ages of accomplishments, both technological and artistic, especially musical. Music is inherently a passionate expression of nature itself, which makes it true that, as Carl Sagan puts it, “much more than our emotions are conveyed by the musical offerings on the Voyager record.”

Encapsulating the essence of humanity into a few compositions is a very difficult task, and true to that, it took the team a long time to arrive at the selection. The Record contains a mix of both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music. Azerbaijan bagpipes, Arias, Concertos, Australian Aborigine songs, Navajo Indian chants, Chinese Ch’in echoes, Japanese Shakuhachi music, Mexican Mariachi concerts: the Record has the best of them all.

Perhaps little known to most of us, hidden among such stellar compositions by prodigies like Beethoven and Bach is our very own Raag Bhairavi, sung by Kesarbai Kerkar, the legendary singer of Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. Awarded the title “Surshri” (Queen of Music) in 1938 by Rabindranath Tagore, Kesarbai’s magical voice won her countless fans from across the world. The haunting richness in her tones granted her prized immortality in the form of the Record.

One of these fans was Robert Brown of UC Berkeley, who believed her rendition of the Raag to be the finest recorded example of Indian classical music, and placed it at the top of his list of world music for outer space. The original recording went out of print, but after a long hunt, the team was able to find copies of the song hidden in a “dusty brown carton” at an Indian restaurant. The team was adamant to include Indian music, “one of the world’s most intricate and fascinating traditions.” The song did not disappoint.

The Raag, immortalized in the form of a poignant Hindustani rendition of Jaat kahan ho (Where are you going), can be said to be a fitting composition for the journey. The only song from India that made it on the record, it is now wandering through the unchartered waters of the Cosmos, and will continue to do so till the end of Time. The pleasant, relaxing atmosphere full of love and sanctity created by Bhairavi is a vehicle to the sublime. What would happen to the notes of the raag, when heard in space? Would these notes ring the same way in those interstellar depths, where there’s no atmosphere, like they do on Earth, proffering one a prevue of space; a hint of time travel in those few minutes? As anyone familiar with Indian classical music can relate to, it is this feature that makes listening to classical music a very enchanting experience.

It is intriguing to think that the antiquity of our land is encoded in the analog reaches of the Golden Record that would travel for millennia across billions of miles. There could have been no other way to distill humanity in such a passionate manner. To paraphrase Werner Herzog, sometimes when our entire sense of reality is called into question and facts so exceed our expectations, we can turn to music. Through its immensely expressive nature, it is possible to reach a “deeper stratum of truth”, which is mysterious and can only be generally grasped with effort.

This can be seen in our history as well: the sages of yore have, in their enquiry of this truth, made music central to devotion. Be it in the captivating tunes of the ancient Saama Veda or traditional folk music, the goal has always been to understand our selves better by exploring music. Music has for long, been the carrier of the essence of ages of philosophical pondering. We as a civilization, have learned to express ourselves and through the emotions so discovered, feel ecstatic on listening to happy tunes and at difficult times find solace in the fact that this too shall pass. It has helped, and is still helping us realize the momentous nature of human life.

Ages from now, when we would perhaps have vanished from this planet, our music, in the form of the Record would still exist, trudging through some remote corner of the universe, when another life form would catch hold of it, decipher the depths of the Record to discover the intellect that once was, and pass it on. We would have been long gone but for us, our Raag Bhairavi would still echo through the Cosmos, forever.

Listen to the haunting melody yourself.

(Originally published in the April 2018 edition of @TCS, the internal magazine of TCS. Reproduced verbatim.)