Posts Tagged ‘Hindustani’

Indian nationalism and appreciating music

June 10, 2008

KN Panikkar reviews Maria Misra’s Vishnu’s crowded temple; though he has several complaints about the book, on the whole, his review is positive:

The historical process through which India evolved into a modern nation is the theme of this book. In the words of the author it is conceived as a “three act drama.” The first narrates the building of the empire and the “diverse and complex response of Indians to this curious edifice”; the second is concerned with the crisis of the imperial system and the successful struggle of the national movement, and the third narrates the post-Independence project of democratic and secular reconstruction, and the subsequent Hindu “nationalist” departure.

Partho Datta reviews Rajeev Nair’s A rasika’s journey through Hindustani music, and is full of praise for the book:

This is a lovely book that introduces as well as enthuses about Hindustani classical music. For the aficionado it offers a discerning summary of the available lore and literature on musicians. The best way to read this book is to first dip into the biographical introductions to musicians. The detailed notes on the lives of legendary musicians including historical figures like Tansen are finely etched.

Both the books sound interesting and might be worth checking out during the next visit to the bookshop.

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Deeply layered and appreciative

December 10, 2007

That is how Lakshmi Subramanian describes Namita Devidayal’s The Music Room:

The book is about many things even as it attempts a personal excursus into the world of Hindustani classical music seen through the prism of individual teachers and practitioners, who remain in spite of their age and absence connected in a living present mediated through the actual practice of music and of listening, as well as through a sensitised space of affect produced and reproduced by anecdotes that remain the backbone of any social history of music and its makers. Here, Namita Devidayal makes a major contribution and shows us how much one can do with anecdotes and write a book about the troubled and troubling history of music in modern India, of its individual practitioners without ever losing either that sense of deep appreciation and affection for the art form and its eccentric artists or that critical faculty which can distinguish between flattery and conviction, myth-mania and creative imagination. This is a welcome change, for the recent crop of anecdote-based anthologies have remained who’s who of musicians, with the same cycle of stories churned out endlessly and without context.

The Music Room on the other hand, is a very different kind of biography. While at a very obvious and simple level, it is the story of a specific musician cum teacher, Dhondutai Kulkarni and her very special relationship with the author who became her disciple at the tender age of 11, it reveals a more complex and compelling narrative of individual musicians and patrons, who constituted the changing world of Hindustani classical music in the 20th century. The circumstances in which the author herself came to learn music and how the experience intersected somewhat curiously with her social and socialising profile are very well drawn, and speak volumes for the changing social context of modern urban India. The cameo like impressions that we get of Dhondutai’s teacher, the legendary and mercurial Kesar Bai, are wonderful examples of the way a sensitive reading of anecdotes can help excavate what is ultimately a deeply layered and complex story of personal aspirations, disappointments and confusion enhanced by the enormous social changes that transformed the milieu of music performance in modern India. The simplicity with which she records her own teacher’s apparently ‘Hindu’ sensibilities that preferred to see her guru Alladiya Khan as a Brahmin in disguise and at the same time her utter and complete devotion to him and his family speak eloquently of the limiting nature of modern categories associated with identity politics that have erased the infinite richness and depth of old and enduring social and artistic interactions.

Take a look!

Tributes to two instrumentalists

December 7, 2007

Sriram Venkatkrishnan’s latest Encore piece in the Hindu is about the passing away of Carnatic musician and nadaswaram vidwan T N Rajarathnam Pillai (in 1956); the piece is a must-read, at least for some of the rare insights that it gives into Pillai’s musical training and lineage:

The Hindu’s tribute, titled “Memoir,” recorded that “even if Rajarathnam Pillai had not taken to nagaswaram, it is quite possible he would have shone as an outstanding vocal vidwan.” TNR’s singing prowess was known to many and though he did not choose to advertise it he did give at least one vocal concert over the radio.The diarist N.D.Varadachariar wrote warmly about it in the 1940s. He had at a very early age been trained in vocal music by Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer. He had even performed vocal duets with his sister Dayalu. It was only on the suggestion of the pontiff of the Tiruvavaduturai Mutt that he was trained on the nagaswaram and what a farsighted suggestion it was. But then, given that TNR was nagaswaram wizard Tirumarugal Natesa Pillais nephew and adopted son, the pontiff perhaps had an intuition. In fact it was Natesa Pillai who gave TNR the name Rajarathnam. He had been christened Balasubramaniam at birth.

The uncle however died early and it was under Ammachatram Kannusami Pillai that he learnt the basics of nagaswaram. The Hindu gives his Guru’s name as Markandam Pillai, a name not found in other articles on the maestro.

TNR was, however, largely self-taught, like two other geniuses in the field, Flute Mali and Veena S. Balachander. The instrument was really his Guru and also his devoted slave.

In two pieces, Deepa Ganesh and Ravindra Yavagal remember and pay their tributes to Ustad Bale Khan, a sitar maestero, who passed away a few days ago:

Khansaheb belonged to the league of great artistes. If he sat with his sitar, there were times when he would stay put all night. Such was the rigour of his sadhana. For all those who grew up listening to his meditative-scholarly playing, it was difficult to listen to anyone else play the sitar. Music existed for its own sake for Khansaheb. His engagement with his music was so deep that he never felt the need to chase money, name or fame. He was happy and contented with whatever he had. Khansaheb was so unlike other artistes, and not once have I seen him making a bitter remark.

I haven’t seen anyone gentler, more mild than Khansaheb. He spoke very little, but was extremely democratic in nature. His students could confide in him anything, he was a willing listener. Young or old, beginner or advanced learner, Khansaheb’s treatment to all of them was with equal commitment. I remember how he would start his lessons as early as 6 a.m. in the morning and it would only end at 11 p.m. Apart from a quick tea or lunch break, he wouldn’t take any breaks. His patience was something that left me constantly surprised! Khansaheb was incapable of having enemies. Whoever came in contact with him loved him deeply and had great respect for him.

Take a look!

Championing Carnatic (by objecting to Hindustani)?

October 25, 2007

In his Encore piece in the Hindu, Sriram Venkatkrishnan seems to imply that Sambanda Mudaliar championed Carnatic music when he objected to the use of Hindustani tunes in South Indian movie music (Throughout the post, the bold emphasis in the quotes is mine):

It was perhaps appropriate that at the end of the first decade of Tamil cinema, Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, eminent playwright, actor and film director of the early period, took time to analyse the role of classical music in South Indian films. His article, “South Indian Talkies — Carnatic Music vs Hindustani Music” appeared in The Hindu dated July 18, 1941, in the paper’s Friday round up of films.

Born as he was in 1872, Sambanda Mudaliar could truly claim that it was his “good fortune to hear almost all the best musicians from the South, including the famous Maha Vaidyanatha Aiyar. I have been thrilled by the sweet strains of Tirukkodikaval Krishna Aiyar on the violin, Seshanna on the Veena and Sarabha Sastri on the flute; I can boast of having heard every exponent of Carnatic music for the past 50 years, both at music parties and on the stage.”

Mudaliar emerges from the article as a strong champion of Carnatic Music. His first paragraph itself is titled “Objections to Hindustani Music!” In it he decries the tendency of music directors of the period to bring in tunes from that idiom. He bases his objection on the fact that “very few South Indian musicians know how to sing northern tunes properly… Probably musicians who have studied both the systems of music scientifically can be counted on the fingers of one hand. What 99 per cent of the people of the South who attempt Hindustani music do, is to hear gramophone records of Northern music, or in a few cases hear Northern musicians in person, and try to imitate the tunes; the result is in most cases a dismal failure.”

I do not know if Mudaliar’s objections about the lack of training of Carnatic musicians to sing Hindustani tunes is true; even so, I can not accept that objecting to Hindustani is in anyway championing Carnatic.

Further, I also found some inconsistencies in Mudaliar’s stand (from what Sriram quotes in the piece, of course — I did not read the original piece); take a look at the following two quotes:

While accepting that Hindustani tunes have a “catchy style which appeals easily to the popular mind,” Mudaliar wrote that the grafting of such tunes into South Indian films also has the problem of getting Tamil/Telugu words to fit into them. Such attempts, he says, go “against every rule of vernacular prosody; it is a jingle of words, which may please the illiterate, but which must make the lover of literary language shudder.”

Perhaps referring to “Sakunthalai,” starring M.S.Subbulakshmi-GNB, Mudaliar writes that “in a talkie which is at present running to popular houses in the whole of southern India in which one of the sweetest-voiced actresses of South India has taken the chief feminine role, though she sings both Carnatic and Hindustani songs, it is the former that sends the audience into raptures and captivates them.”

Finally, I found some of Mudaliar’s arguments to be distasteful:

He uses this to buttress his stance that “the greatness and sweetness of Carnatic music can never fade, and in the hands of proper artistes it can hold its own against northern music or the music of any other country.” Mudaliar ends his article with a scathing attack on English Notes. “Some actresses and actors indulge (thank God they are very few!) in what are called English Notes. There is neither harmony nor melody in these attempts. They are mere servile imitations, which do not please even the European public.”

Oh, come on — music is not about one-up-man-ship — nor is it a weapon to be held against other forms/traditions.

I am also not too happy with the tone of Sriram’s article; he seems to be in implicit agreement with Mudaliar. You might still want to take a look at the piece if you are curious about the history of Indian classical and south Indian movie music, and their interaction, though.

Internet and classical music

October 16, 2007

As far as Indian classical music goes, the internet is a veritable gold mine. At first this sounds surprising, since, as Sheila Dhar notes in Raga’n Josh,

The Indian mind — and there is such a thing — has never taken kindly to the idea of formal records or, to stretch a point, to the activity of recording.

While it is true that many of the classical musicians of the bygone era were not great fans of (as they used to say in those days) “cutting records” (Veenai Dhanamma — or one of her daughters — is supposed to have said that she did not want her music to be played in hair-cutting saloons), I believe they did allow individual rasikas to make recordings of their concerts. In a different era, such recorded music might have had, but a very small reach. However, with internet, all you need is a true rasika who likes to share the musical bounties with his fellows — the entire world can have access to the music.

So, it is no wonder that but for the archives that some of the rasikas have uploaded, I would not have had the chance of listening to Carnatic stalwarts like Veenai Dhanamma, Tiger Varadacharyar, Mysore Vasudevacharyar, Madurai Shanmukavadivu (mother of MS), and Chembai Subbu (brother of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar).

This is true of many stalwarts of Hindustani music too; for example, I wanted to hear his playing, after reading this moving passage about the Sarangi player Ustad Bundu Khan in Sheila Dhar’s Raga’n Josh:

My father only received one extraordinary letter of thanks three months after his departure. He had dictated it to someone in Urdu and signed his name in his shaky, illiterate scrawl. The letter carried two sentences, the first said that he would never forget all that my father had done for him. The second was somewhat longer and said ‘Here are the important taans of Malkauns.’ About twenty note-patterns in the raga Malkauns followed. My father was so touched that he wept. He said he would never need to use the Malkauns taans in his life, but Ustad Bundu Khan’s intention was to offer him what he considered most precious. …

And, I am certain that I would never have had a chance of listening to the Ustad but for the internet. (Tell me sister, who wouldn’t want to listen to Bundu Khan’s Malkauns after reading that passage?)

What is more, internet is not only for the rare and exotic; when living in a foreign country where buying a cassette or CD of your favourite musician is no longer a matter of an evening walk, my only hope is the internet — especially since my addiction to these musicians and their music is such that, if, for example, I wanted to hear a Hamsadhwani by Kishori and I am not able to it is maddening — I become jittery, irritable and insomniac. (By the way, the nearly one-and-a-half hour Hamsadhwani Jugalbandi of Kishori and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia is one of the best I have heard, which is so beautiful that it defies description — Bharathiar: போ போ! இதற்கு மேல் என்னால் வர்ணிக்க இயலாது (Go away! I can not describe it any further) ).

As a matter of fact, till now, except for twice (when I wanted some specific songs by Musiri and Bhimsen), there are no instances of any music that I could not hear when I wanted to (and, all of it, I heard for free too).

Well, from this piece of Alex Ross in the New Yorker, I understand that what is true of Carnatic and Hindustani is true of Western Classical too:

Like many people, I started blogging out of an urgent need to procrastinate. Yet a nagging sense of possibility also drew me in. Classical music, my subject, was thriving on the Internet in unexpected ways. Not all blogs, I discovered, were devoted to cataloguing continuity errors in the films of George Lucas; a smattering of musicians, composers, and listeners were writing on music with intelligence and verve, revelling in the chance to express ideas that had no other immediate outlet. Between 1980 and 2000, classical music more or less disappeared from American network television, magazines, and other mainstream media, its products deemed too élitist, effete, or esoteric for the world of pop. On the Internet, no demographically driven executive could suppress, say, a musicology student’s ruminations on György Ligeti’s Requiem on the ground that it had no appeal for twenty-seven-year-old males, even if the blogger in question—Tim Rutherford-Johnson, of The Rambler —was himself twenty-seven.

Ross’ piece can also be a nice place to start a tour of western classical sites on the net.

Happy listening times!

Wow! I must read that book!

September 27, 2007

In 1977, the year she passed away, Kesarbai Kerkar’s unforgettable rendition of raga Bhairavi, “Jaat kahan ho”, literally reached the celestial heights. This happened not because of her divine vocal talent (Tagore had conferred on her the title, “Surashri”, after an earth-shattering performance in Calcutta), and turned out to be a different kind of apotheosis. In fact, it was the Voyager spacecraft that carried her recorded voice to outer space, along with a selection of several other immortal melodies.

Many years later, Namita Devidayal learnt about this fascinating journey from a mischievously cryptic remark made by her guru, Dhondutai Kulkarni: “Did you know that Kesarbai’s music is circulating through the solar system?” “I gave my teacher a bemused look,” Devidayal confesses, “but suspended disbelief for the story that would follow, for I knew it would be charming, even if apocryphal”.

From Somak Ghosal’s review in the Telegraph of Namita Devidayal’s  book The Music Room. This is the first time I am reading this story–even Sheila Dhar does not inform us of this facet of Kerkar’s music; and, just for this story, I would like to own The Music Room.