Inventing a tradition
The role of colonialism in the making of a classical musical tradition
TWO MEN AND MUSIC Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition: Janaki Bakhle; Oxford University Press, New York, pub. in India by Permanent Black, D-28, Oxford Apartments, IP Extension, Delhi-110092. Rs. 695.
Janaki Bakhle's Two Men and Music is a pioneering work that deals with the dynamics and making of musical culture in modern India, a relatively under-explored subject, and simultaneously engages with the experience of modernity embodied in and lived out by two remarkable individuals: Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872-1931). Both were undisputed modernisers who embarked upon self-conscious projects of retrieving a dispersed and complex musical tradition and singularising it in the service of the notional modern nation. The strategies they employed had far reaching consequences for the art form in terms of patronage, practice and dissemination. The most serious consequence of cultural engineering undertaken by publicists like Bhatkhande and Paluskar was the division of North Indian music into Hindu and Muslim categories and the relinquishment of a shared domain at the altar of modern Hindu Indian nationalism. The story is compelling and Bakhle tells it with consummate skill and painstaking research.
The social history of Indian music has been, until recently an under-explored subject. Constraints on scholarship have been partly to do with the nature of the archive that the historian has had to grapple with. The representation of music from the 19th century as a manifestation of Indian spirituality that faced serious incursions from the Islamic interlude produced a skewed understanding of Indian musical practice and its practitioners. The contributions of Muslim Ustads, the traditional practitioners who languished on the margins of the modern public space, were unconsciously taken for granted. Bakhle's accomplishment has been to work around the silences and omissions and read her sources imaginatively in plotting the modern musical landscape.
In the making of the modern classical North Indian musical tradition, Bakhle begins with the Maratha court in 19th century Baroda focussing on its ruler Sayaji Rao Gaekwad and his court musician Maula Baksh. Here, she teases out the complexities of the court's cultural politics that amalgamated ritual considerations, royal prestige and experiments with notions of colonial modernity. Sayaji Rao Gaekwad the ruler of Baroda along with his principal court musician Maula Baksh embarked upon a `modern' project for music's future that embraced notation, systematisation, standardisation and institutionalisation, and yet did not force exclusionary choices between categories such as Hindu and Muslim, modern and traditional or classical and folk. Bakhle excels in capturing this element of spontaneous hybridity that characterised the politics of the Baroda court and its court musician. What she does not do in this section, is to actually tease out the dispersed sources that made up North Indian musical culture at this time and how that determined the subsequent nature of the project.
The Baroda project anticipated the agenda of subsequent music reform. By the first quarter of the 20th century, the context for the circulation and consumption of music had changed as it spilled over into the public sphere largely through the emergence of theatre and music appreciation societies. At the same time, the emergence of colonial ethnography on Indian music produced an inflected understanding of its historical development and its lack that were explained in terms of the ruptures that the Islamic interlude created. While the popular appeal of musical drama produced an audience for devotional music, British ethnography provided the early nationalists with an epistemology that designated all Indian music as religious. Secularists and religious nationalists alike were convinced of the transformative potential of music for "national regeneration." For Bhatkhande authoring a history for music was of paramount importance; for Paluskar, performance had to become more democratic and sacral. Both were modern projects and despite the apparent contrast, the implications of the two contrasting agendas were surprisingly similar. While Bhatkande's privileging of "musical theory" was antagonistic to the experiential musicology of Muslim practitioners, Paluskar, neo-traditional Hindu agenda went all out against the Muslim Ustads in positing Brahmanical Hinduism as the model cultural form of Indian music.
These are stark images and it would seem that Bakhle does not contextualise them sufficiently. While acknowledging the overtly Brahmanical nature of a project that sidelined traditional practitioners, it is also important to try and understand the nature of their location in the pre-modern space and what their music as a personal practice and as a resource for livelihood in search of patronage meant to them. One needs to examine what it was about their location that inhibited them from engaging comprehensively with contemporary realities. These questions could have been asked and expanded to sharpen the story but this hardly detracts from the merit of the book. It stands out both as a pioneering study of modern North Indian musical history and a thought-provoking comment on nationalism and its cultural manifestations.
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