Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC: November 29, 1998
A centennial assessment
Raghava R. Menon
It was late Alain Danielou who told the then President the late S. Radhakrishnan when he was Vice-chancellor of the Benares Hindu University that "You cannot share Indian classical music in the way you can share Western classical music. The Indian classical music inheritence is wholly oral and too personal and the ragas live momentarily coming to life only to die at once."
This seemed, even in those days, a profound observation in the particular context of the sharing of the art. For every one knows that this tradition of the raga has always been a solitary pursuit and was always meant to be so. This must be at least one among the many reasons why it has always been difficult to academise the art like the Julliard or the Santa Cecilia. One reason for this predicament has been the understanding that the music of the raga has always been perceived and admitted to be an essentially spiritual pursuit. It was always intended to subvert the shishya of the art through its disruptive enchantment into a spiritual path from which there was no turning back.
Despite this, the perception of Raga Vidya has undergone several changes in this century, the first cause being the arrival of the recording industry into India, setting up its works in Dum Dum near Calcutta around 1904. This event, was in a sense a mortal blow to the perception of the essence of the raga which cannot be repeated. Ragas had always been timeless and without history. For there are no old ragas just as there are no old rivers or old oceans or an old wind. Always contemporary to the moment; the fact that a technology has made its appearance which was able to recall a performance not in its urgings and spirit but literally in minute material detail was a subtle depletion of the final autonomy of the raga.
This contraption changed the physical characteristics of the musical Indian altering the nature of his recall, the method of transmission of the art, and even the nature of what he calls paying attention. The old way of attending a concert was no longer necessary as amplification and playback made music casual. In the olden days when a musician sang his listeners heard him with rapt attention as though they were listening to a dying man's last words. For that touch, that Gamaka or colour would never return. The new generation did not need that kind of listening. And since they listened less they heard less and remembered even much less. This is one of the many reasons why at that time many musicians refused to be recorded.
It was Pandit Vishnu Digambar Palusker, the great savant and evangelist of music who made a desperate attempt to give the art a new dimension of vitality by scoring the bandishes in such a manner that a ground level of consensus could be developed between musicians and Gharanas of a minimum perception of the gait and texture of each of the available compositions. This is now taught at his famous Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. Later Pandit Bhatkhande did memorable work in this field. Thus the principles of the art were taught in a classroom format in the style of the educational system which was spreading rapidly across the country by British educational policies. This effort was described by Panditji as a way out for the music to create several hundred Kansens out of students, rather Tansens.
Panditji Bhatkhande knew only too well that in its essential natural form Indian classical music was difficult to administer. This was because the art had nothing to do in its transmission with knowledge and performance. It was to do with transformation. The traditional Guru in the time of Pandit Vishnu Digambar never let his students take notes. All of the art was directed to becoming part of the students' very pith and germ rather than a part of knowledge and skill alone.
This was why Hindustani classical music was gently kept out of mainstream social life. For there was a threat in it, a hidden menace. There were plenty of examples of the fact that when students of Gurus took the art seriously enough to devote their lives to the art in a curious unexpected way the acquisition of the art set the student free. It was not as though the student became rebellious or anti-social. That would have been easy to administer. The Shishya just did not care one way or another for the values of the social order to which he belonged. When the great Sarangi Nawaz Ustad Bundu Ali Khan was told that Mohamed Ali Jinnah was coming to the radio station and whether he would mind playing an hour later he pleaded to be allowed to accompany Jinnah as he had never played with him before. When the Director of the Radio Station informed him that Jinnah was the President of the Muslim League and did he not know that India was going to be free at last, the Ustad asked with all innocence "free from who?" He had never felt that his freedom was less than what he wished and in any case no one could give someone else freedom. That true freedom was a state of mind. All other methods of gaining freedom were meaningless and only enslaved us more.
This has been the problem with Hindustani classical music from the earliest times and also one reason why almost every noteworthy musician has had to run away from home since the beginning of time. To some extent the Carnatic limb took early steps to rinse the art from this kind of danger. It made the whole art a part of Bhakti. The music kept a close vigil on technique giving manodharma principally in Alapana and rhythmic variations of neraval Swaraprasthara a whole Girandola of rhythmic exercises of wondrous beauty but keeping away the danger of the reflective meditative approach to the raga.
The kritis of great composers like the Trinity saved the Carnatic musician from having to originate the Bandish within himself through a complex tradition of inheritence called the Gharana. The Tala system was also made distinctive. By stitching every matra of the Tala to each letter of the kriti the words of the lyric made the kriti into a stitched garment complete in cut and shape. The Hindustani musician on the other hand merely draped the tala like a saree round the lyric from which the gait and the form of the lyric was kept implied, to be inferred alone and not too literally. The Bandish therefore seemed afresh with the Tala each time it was sung. The kritis of the Trinity were a great boon to Carnatic musicians leading a student by the hand protecting him judiciously from the unfathomable ocean of the Raga, with the well constructed boat of a kriti that would help him sail into the unknown. This is why foreigners swarm to learn Carnatic music rather than its Northern counterpart. The system, the Western student finds is systematic, mathematically alert and worked out, and therefore capable of being transmitted legibly and scientifically.
Hindustani music on the other hand has a grammar so subtly joined to language and a tala system which while mathematically similar to the Carnatic is joined to the lyric substance of the Bandish so personally that it gives the singer excessive space for expressing individual linguistic flavours and variations of emphasis and silence.
When Christian missionaries brought in the harmonium more than 300 years ago, it gave the Indian classical musician an opportunity to put the Indian musical scale into an external measurable grid. Today, phrases like Black Five, or four and a half and White first have become part of the language of the musicians.
When we became independent our music went public in an altogether new manner. The Government encouragement to music through awards and scholarships through the Sangeet Natak Academy at the Centre and in the states, music as part of the foreign policy, and several other values were apportioned out to an hitherto private art. The support to music was a part of nationalism rather than for musical reasons. So while awards and other recognitions have been part of independent India the understanding of our music as a vital part of national consciousness has not been assimilated enough. In a polity whose every national institution has been borrowed from abroad - democracy, the elections, the judiciary, every element of economic activity, and advertising, perhaps our music alone remains untouched by external influence. This is because our music has not been defined in religious terms but in spiritual terms. That is why music has survived untramelled, through vicissitudes of history, changing fashion and other trivia that come and go.
Indians find it hard to serve this art largely because few know it for what it is, mysterious, personally disruptive and engulfing.
All these tensions of identity and of the living impulse could have been avoided if some time early in this century Indians had adopted the tempered scale and begun to use notes rather than the subversive power of the Swara. This would have made it possible to share this art in the sense Alain Danielou described it rather than letting it remain a pathway for personal transcendence, to a kind of Moksha even while continuing to be embodied and alive. This is a double bind to escape which we will be compelled to deny our inheritance, to disenfranchise ourselves from the art's haunting attraction.
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