Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Benares: Culture? Yes. Gharana of vocalism? Doubtful.

The semi-classical genres of Hindustani music, the Thumree being the principal amongst them, evolved in late 18th century Lucknow followed thereafter by Benares. In the early stages, the Thumree accompanied Kathak (North Indian classical dance), later to acquire independent status as a vocal art form. The link with Kathak, however, remains strong as ever. As a performing tradition, the Thumree of Benares got associated with several folk-derived genres from the neighbouring districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Collectively, these semi-classical genres represent an attempt by classical musicians to raise folk genres to a level of sophistication worthy of genteel society. The resultant musical forms retain a reference point in art-music through raga-s, compositional formats, and tala-s. However, they lack the architectural imperatives characteristic of the classicist genres.

Prof. Peter Manuel of the City University of New York, an authority on the Thumree, regards them as a romanticist reaction to the feudal values, triggered off by the rise of bourgeois capitalism. Though Lucknow withered as a centre of the semi-classical genres in the 19th century, Benares remained vibrant until the early years of the 20th century. By the time India gained independence, the way of life, which supported these genres, faded into history, taking the music with it.

Vocalists, instrumentalists, and even Kathak dancers are known to claim membership of the “Benares gharana”. The term “gharana” is, however, inappropriate in this context. The so-called Benares gharana is an entire culture that revolved around the salons of the courtesans supported by the aristocracy of the region during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its performing arts were Kathak dance, and the semi-classical genres of vocal music. Its accompaniment arts were those of the Sarangi and the Tabla. These were supported by a group of composers, choreographers, and teachers. The culture of the salons required all performers to study dance as well as music, irrespective of their profession. Teachers, choreographers and composers also cultivated a similar versatility.

The offerings of the courtesans had to be responsive to the profiles of a diverse clientele. Heredity, though a factor, played only a small part in populating the courtesan districts. The courtesans, enlisted for their talent as well as personality, came from different backgrounds, and brought with them their respective folk traditions and stylistic orientations. Each salon had teachers affiliated to it to groom the recruits into polished performers. They were first trained in Khayal vocalism as the foundation and then taught semi-classical genres – Thumree, Tappa, and Dadra – and the folk-derived genres such as Hori, Chaiti, Kajri, Jhoola, Savan etc. The diversity of the repertoire required them to study with a multiplicity of teachers who, in turn, came from different cultural backgrounds, and could be vocalists, Kathak dancers or even Sarangi players.

Neither the grooming of courtesans, nor the nature of their relationship with their clients, could have permitted the crucial ingredient of the gharana concept -- stylistic continuity over several generations of a well-defined lineage of tutelage. The notion of a "gharana" in the music of Benares may be valid for lineages of Tabla exponents, and even Kathak dancers. The semi-classical genres of vocal music, or even Khayal vocalism, however, have evolved primarily as an individualistic art form within a very broad stylistic identity defined by the Kathak-Thumree culture of Benares. This is not to deny the formidable quality of musicianship these art forms have delivered with great consistency over several generations. It is, however, proper that the notion of a "gharana" be approrpiately understood and applied.

(c) Deepak S. Raja, 2004
The finest contemporary recordings of the Benares tradition of vocal and instrumental music have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York. IndiaArcMu@aol.com