Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
Raghava R. Menon
We have been a lucky people in many ways. Very few civilisations of the depth, force and meaning even distantly similar to our own have had as easy a time as we have had. We discovered what human life was all about through various techniques of observation and insight which were developed through a mind-boggling series of psychological and physical exercises broadly called yoga and a subtly calibrated social organisation that included live techniques that augmented alertness and internal inquiry. All of this helped us to grasp the reason why this process of life and death and repeated births occur in endless cycles and evolved ways through which the embodied creature could handle this predicament.
Every activity in the ancient social order was directed towards this end. Any activity that did not include this hidden agenda in all human actions was a priori considered to be profane and a diminishing of man's true purpose on earth, which was to seek out his true self. These techniques were arranged in a hierarchy of complexity and force and included every kind of human being from the lowest levels of awareness, beginning in the neighbourhood of the animal, to the highest reaches of insight, intelligence and wisdom.
A forbidding kind of detachment joined to love, a sense of absolute assurance and a species of holy indifference accompanied this view of life. Such a system rarely bothered to purvey information except in the purely mechanical areas of life. What it tried to do in its teaching was to transform the student rather than merely to instruct him. All craft and all the arts, whether plastic or otherwise, were used merely to achieve this purpose. It is, however, in the field of classical music that this tradition has been particularly formidable.
This was because there is no material utility of any kind in the art, it lives wholly in an abstract realm and demands nothing more from you than your whole mortal self. God figures as the goal in every human activity in this inheritance but it is only in music that god is not the goal. Music is. It is in music alone that there is an intermediate goal well before god, which when attained takes you to your destination. But not until this intermediate goal is reached, does even the first whiff of god's name enter the picture. So there is a measure in it outside the boundless ocean of that infinite bliss which saints on the straight path towards god have not always managed to get easily.
This, however, did not make the path of music easy on the Indian sub-continent. In fact the life of the musician, particularly in the Hindustani classical music inheritance, was gained with considerable trauma.
In the Carnatic tradition, the singing saints of the Trinity and others had been able to make the art much safer to learn. God was legitimately there and no one disapproved of his looming presence. Whereas with the coming of the Sufi influence into the Hindustani classical music tradition, religion went out and the life of the spirit was substituted. This made music personal, and the raga an interior ocean for discovery and exploration. The music took on the mantle of time and seasons and of festivals and celebrations in all of which god remained always unnamed but present.
This was among the reasons why the best of Hindustani musicians had to run away from home on a regular basis. This journey needed privacy and inner silence and the family is the worst place to look for silence and privacy. This was also the reason why the music was in a subtle sense banished from middle class homes. Contrast this with the fact it was in middle class homes that Carnatic music flourished for centuries and continues to flourish to this day. In the North, on the other hand, it was felt that learning music made a musician subtly removed from the social order in which he belongs. The problem was not that the musician became anti-social but, that he did not. If he had become an activist or merely anti-social, it was easy to administer him but what do you do with a man who did not care one way or the other. Such a man can only be slandered.
But all this changed with the coming of the two savants of Hindustani classical music, the two evangelists of the art, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhathkhande and Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. The greatest strength of Hindustani classical music up until then was the fact that the music was exclusively lodged in the heads of musicians. It was such a rigorously oral art that writing down of music was looked upon with contempt. If you cannot keep it in your head do not learn music, they seemed to say. It would be better if you collected stamps or did social work for you are psychologically unfit for learning music.
The attempt to write down music after a fashion came out of the steadily Westernising influence of the British in the country. The British behaviour in public places, the decorum that they observed in concert halls impressed Pandit Vishnu Digambar to such an extent that his concerts were probably the only ones in the country at that time that began on time, to the dot in fact, and concluded as intended. By notating the music which was made in order to make the art look a little less like an iceberg, two-thirds of which lies hidden beneath the blue of the ocean and bring some of it to the view of the world, he was able to put it into the educational mode of Terms, and six-year courses. The number of ragas, the arohas and the avarohas, the thats and the melakartas and technical facilities of Taans and Sargams and other standard features became the test of the learning of the art.
This liberated the art and gave it a wider space and more options but kept the Guru safe from too much harm. But the worst was yet to come. This was the recording industry which made it possible to play back the music and put Hindustani classical music on notice. You had thereafter to be careful of how you described a musician and his art. Rain and Fire and Descriptions of that sort had to be more restrained. There was a public outcry against the recording industry. It was possible to make that kind of protest seem like the spirit of the national movement and confuse people even more. Every one knew that the call bell had rung for Hindustani classical music. It was Kumar Gandharva who first put the whole thing in perspective at a time when perspectives were almost entirely absent. He asked why were people so frightened of the shellac record which was merely like a musical photograph. Every one knows that the person in the photograph is not the real person so what is all the worry about? You could play him back and judge for yourself. The danger of musicians with mysterious powers like Tansen was reduced. You simply had to sing and show. The era of myth making had gone. From now on there was only one way. You had to work at your Tanpura for eighteen hours a day and show results. Obviously anything that you do with that kind of ferocious attention will show itself in some form or another. The men and women in music who came after the recording industry was set up at Dum Dum are the leading edge of a new value system in the art and have already set the standards for the music of the next century. We have at last paid our debt to ourselves and are quits.
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