Classical notes

Classical notes

In the volume Hindustani Music Today, authored by the well known music analyst and instrumentalist Deepak S Raja, the reader is given a full understanding of the components of Hindustani music in its entirety.

Beginning his work on a scholarly note by giving the reader a valid justification for calling this music ‘art music’, the book provides a panoramic spread of the major vocal and instrumental performers of the previous century.

Another saving grace has been that while most books of this genre descend into anecdotage about the greats and their ways on and off stage, this book concentrates instead on an intelligent perspective on what constitutes the essential makeover of their music. In the case of instruments, there is a thumb nail study of the status that instrument enjoys in present-day context, giving readers a full perspective, even while Raja deepens reader interest with its contents.

While a book of this nature is a comprehensive and reliable guide into the current music scene and its immediate antecedents, for a veteran music lover, parts of this work might be too simplistic. Also, several of the newer trends and offshoots springing from this music fold, particularly since the post-Independence period, have been excluded from the purview.

Thus, readers remain well informed on older gharana music but have little access to the shape of newer forms such as sufi music. Even the orientation of this music, after it lost court patronage and entered into the public domain of a nationwide broadcast format over radio and television media, has been left out in the contents.

In the course of presenting accounts of different genres of this music, there is no thought given to historicity as recorded in documented information. Instead, the tappa, for instance, is dubbed the camel driver’s song and the rudra veena is described as headed for the museum. On both accounts, there is very little of substantiation of this statement and it sounds as edict-like in tone; not beneficial to a volume dedicated to the total art form.

Of course, the contents of these chapters examine the current status of tappa or the popularity of the rudra veena in a rational way, but the window view is detracting in nature.

Where the work turns substantial is in its coverage of the instrumental playing styles of the northern school. The author, himself a surbahar player and a sitarist, has his finger on the pulse. The pertinent observation on the decline of shehnai playing due to a preference for brass bands and electronic synthesisers is a telling summation. The international market too has not opened up, the author states, as the shehnai’s principal proponent, the late Ustad Bismillah Khan, was a reluctant traveller.

As is acceptable in a book on Indian music, the demarcation used for the performance of ragas has also been taken up in this work.

Raja, in his characteristic analytical style, defines raga as a capacity of eliciting a certain range of emotional experiences that lie latent in the music and which the artist-performer must unleash and elicit a response from his audience.

This is a pleasant alternative to the usual manner of defining a raga according to the notes used in it so that the approach to raga understanding is transformed into a spiritual evolution. Speaking on the time factor in the performance of ragas, his conclusion is even more exclusive.

Contending that the absence of such a system in southern music is due to the absence of marked climatic variations cannot be refuted outright. Also within the ambit of classical performances turning global, the time, if not a seasonal factor, definitely calls for relaxation.

On the other hand, when dwelling on the core genre, namely khayal, the book has been disappointing. His hinting at the revival of romanticism in khayal singing is not argued through with conviction as he simply resorts to nostalgia about the khayal of the yesteryears.

This is also the case with the treatment of the thumri from ad libs, its links with kathak dancing, and the names of its legendary performers such as Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai, Siddheshwari Bai, Begum Akhtar and Girija Devi. The singular contribution of male thumri singers, on the other hand, is sketched in precise clear-cut terms.

Another glaring disappointment of this volume is the poor quality of its visuals. Most of the pictures are stills and badly cropped photographs. In contrast, the text matter is penned flawlessly and edited scrupulously. It is a concise introduction to an art form, which goads the reader to delve deeper into the Hindustani classical music after going through its contents.

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