Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Prof. Ashok Ranade: a rare Guru

The admirers of Prof. Ashok Ranade had planned to bring out a felicitation volume for him on his 75th birthday. For some reason, the publication got delayed and finally appeared  as a commemorative volume after his demise. I had the good fortune of being invited to contribute a small essay honoring the pioneering thinker and a rare Guru. This essay was written on December 22, 2007.

Last week, as I received the Ashok Ranade Memorial Award of the Music Forum of Mumbai, I thought this essay should reach a wider audience. 

For more than a decade now, my search for superior wisdom has led me repeatedly, and always fruitfully, to the doorsteps of Prof. Ranade. Irrespective of the context of interaction – from the most formal to the totally personal and informal -- Prof. Ranade has always enriched my thinking with insights and perspectives which are uniquely his.

It would be impossible to enumerate the many ways in which he has contributed to my intellectual life. The best I can do here is to highlight his methods of guidance, and the manner in which he has shaped my perspectives as a writer on music.

In him, I have found an intellectual guide who forces his wards to think, both vertically and laterally. To achieve this aim, he is capable of using a wide enough range of devices to put the most inscrutable Zen master to shame. One day, he can casually throw a profound concept at you, and ask you to think about it. On another day, he may provoke you by stating the most outrageous proposition – a proposition he himself might not be able to defend, if pushed to the wall. Irrespective of the device he deploys, he leaves his wards with much more than the answers they sought – he imparts to them the ability to find their own solutions.

Like a majority of people who seek his guidance, I have sought his help on matters related to Hindustani classical (art) music. But, to him, art music is not merely about art music; even music is not about music alone. Art music, he insists, must be understood against the backdrop of the multiplicity of musical traditions, including the tribal, folk, devotional, martial and popular. Likewise, he urges his students to view musical issues as just one element in the entirety of the cultural process. He is not satisfied with figuring out of what a piece of music is. He drives untiringly towards an understanding of why it is what it is. Such a brief leaves almost no branch of knowledge untouched.

In handling the two facets of enquiry – the “what” and the “why” -- Prof. Ranade emphasizes the need for Indian musicology to remain “Indian”. His concern is particularly significant because a large part of contemporary writing on Hindustani music – including mine -- is in English and addresses, at least partly, an audience lettered in Western musicological concepts.

He is all for the study of Western scholars who have written on Indian art music, as much as he champions the study of Bharata’s Natya Shastra and Sharangadeva’s Sangeet Ratnakara. But, as writers, he believes, we must protect Indian musicological concepts against the risk of losing their “Indian-ness”. If this necessitates the coining of new words and phrases totally unknown to western musicology, he encourages me to be fearless in doing so. He considers it important that, even when rendered in a foreign language, the concepts remain anchored to the Indian musicological tradition, and faithful to the quality of the relationship between the Indian artist and his art. 

I have steadfastly resisted the temptation of asking him what constitutes the “Indian-ness” of Indian music because his reply could well send me off on a lifelong chase for an answer, well beyond my ability to figure out.

My work as a writer on music has also been inspired by Prof. Ranade’s enthusiasm for instrumental music as a mature and sophisticated art deserving of greater musicological enquiry, and his insistence that the task must be spearheaded by trained instrumentalists.

In this context, he laments the traditional notion of instrumental music as an “inferior” art form, and regrets its continued inability to step out of the shadow of vocal music in terms of musicological concepts. With stunning validity, he points out that the musical experience delivered by instrumental music differs radically from that of vocal music. Consistent with their technologies of sound activation and melodic execution, different instruments have even evolved their own genres (raga presentation formats), which no longer require a reference point in the vocal tradition. Considering that instrumental music now matches – and perhaps even surpasses – vocal music in terms of stature and popularity, the time is ripe for it to spawn its distinctive set of musicological concepts, and an independent body of musicological literature under Indian authorship. 

Describing a Guru, who derives immense satisfaction from seeing his wards pursue their own distinctive competencies, strive towards originality, and become self-dependent, might seem like a tautology. In theory, every Guru is expected to do so. In reality, however, such a Guru is rare, because only a Guru supremely secure in his knowledge can exhibit such qualities. As one who has partaken greedily of Prof. Ranade’s wisdom, I wish for him the satisfaction of having guided a worthy beneficiary.

Deepak S. Raja