Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Review: by Abhik Majumdar

The Book Review Monthly, New Delhi
Volume XXXI, Number 7, July 2007

Hindustani music: a tradition in transition
By: Deepak Raja
DK Printworld, Delhi, 2006. Pp.432 + xxii.
Rs. 490.00

Connoisseur activism?

Reviewing an interesting, somewhat idiosyncratic compilation of articles, poses a challenge, as it escapes the usual taxonomic classification for writings on a subject. It is clearly not a scholarly work in the formal sense. As is the case with most such compilations, the various topics it encompasses form too broad a spectrum and though some footnotes and other references have been provided, they are sparse and infrequent.

On the other hand, characterizing it as a compilation of journalistic essays will be inaccurate. It bears a depth of perception and analysis seldom found in such works, or indeed anywhere else. The book seems to have been compiled with a definite, clear-cut objective in mind.

Indeed, so intriguing is Raja’s perspective that it makes sense to focus on this. The author makes use of the rather provocative phrase “connoisseur activism” to describe his agenda, which is very apt. Another approach is to treat the book as a response, a quintessentially Indian response, to certain (shall I say, western-inspired?) scholarly practices.

The discipline of ethnomusicology is traditionally anchored to a “cultural outsider” approach. Its discourses begin with the assumption that the author has no specialist knowledge as such, and conducts his research using objectively verifiable methods and processes accessible to everyone.

Raja’s methods are also an inversion of this. In the introduction, he sets out his conceptions of the writer’s role. “A writer is, after all, nothing but a connoisseur who has decided to share his understanding with other connoisseurs. And, as such, he is a part of the watchdog mechanism, which keeps art faithful to its elevating (sic) ideals.

Thus, he locates the author firmly within the cultural tradition on which the book bases itself. He assumes both author and audience to be “insiders” to the tradition. Often, his pronouncements seem to be bare assertions unverified and unsubstantiated by external corroboration. Such an appraisal is misleading. His view are intended to make sense to only those who possess a familiarity with the subject-matter, and often it happens that this “making sense” constitutes substantiation enough for “insider” audiences, a fact that those unfamiliar with the milieu may fail to appreciate.

An example may bear this out. In the essay entitled “Archival music and the cultural process”, he discusses the impact of sound recording on our musical tradition. In course of this, he makes the startling pronouncement – “The Guru-Shishya Parampara was not very different from a reliance on pre-recorded music in its explicit intent”. He goes on to point out that this pedagogical tradition invested considerable time and effort to ensure that the disciple emerged as a faithful clone of the mentor.

Fortunately, three human failings prevented this from being successful – imperfect perception, imperfect retention, and imperfect reproduction. As a result of these three, gaps in the disciple’s learning emerged over time ... gaps which he was obliged to fill by interpolating his own ideas within the framework of the mentor’s tutelage. And, in this manner, a modicum of originality was infused into the tradition. As Raja himself puts it, “Because of these imperfections, the traditional system became an effective instrument of continuity within change”.

I cannot imagine how such an insight can be empirically verified. Indeed, seeking to objectively substantiate it approximates and exercise in futility. And, yet, the history of our music is filled with instances of talented musicians being denied recognition as artists of the first rank, simply because they sounded too close to a Gharana forbear. Hence, to those familiar with his background, Raja’s assertions make perfect sense.

The book is divided into five parts: viz: Culture, Technology and Economics; Form, Idiom and Format; The World of Ragas; The Major Genres; and the Major Instruments. While all the parts conform to a uniformly high standard of exposition, to me the first chapter is of special value. Here, the author deals with how our music relates to various social, economic and technological developments. In the chapter entitled “If peanuts is what you pay…”, he even uses his background in finance to analyze how market forces have actually promoted a deterioration in music quality.

The sums add up because of the role of the two dominant intermediaries in the music market: the recording companies, and concert sponsors. They are both playing a progressively larger financial role in the music market – without having either the need or the desire to promote quality music.

The third part is also very interesting. Here, Raja examines certain aspects of the concept of the Raga. In “Raga Chemistry and Beyond”, he draws parallels between ragas and concepts of chemistry. Surely, an original approach, though how far the parallels are borne out is a pertinent question. On the other hand “Kedara at sunrise”, where he debunks many commonly held myths about the time theory of ragas, is unquestionably a piece of analysis of the highest order.

The last two parts are keyed to more functional objectives. The inside flap describes them as respectively, presenting comprehensive backgrounders on the four major genres of vocal music, and featuring detailed fact-sheets on eight major melodic instruments of the Hindustani tradition.

Here, more than his analytical insights, it is his familiarity with the nuances of the subject-matter that is manifest. In the chapter on the Rudra Veena, for example, he touches upon an astonishing range of topics, including mythical lore; historical antecedents; organology; instrument design; ergonomics; acoustics; and recent performers. These chapters constitute valuable resource material, notwithstanding the paucity of external references.

Another thing that stands out is his integrity. For example, he himself belongs to the school of Vilayat Khan, the Sitar maestro. However, when discussing the origins of the Surbahar, whose creation is variously ascribed to Sahebdad Khan (the maestro’s great grand-father), and Ghulam Muhammad of Lucknow, he freely admits – “The latest research favors the latter attribution”.

All in all, it cannot be denied that the book marks an exciting new approach to writing on Hindustani music. To be honest, it is not without its drawbacks. At certain times, the forcefulness and candor of Raja’s expression might give the impression of being opinionated. But, when one attempts such a strongly individualistic work, I suppose this is only inevitable. In any case, it does not mar the overall excellence of the book.

However, I feel compelled to end with a caveat. A significant part of the book, especially the earlier chapters, presumes a prior familiarity with the subject matter on the part of the audience. For this reason, despite the author’s easy writing style, some parts of the work may not be accessible to lay persons.

The book can be ordered online from the publisher's website, or by email.

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