Sunday, June 27, 2010

Raga Basant Mukhari – A Carnatic raga seeking a Hindustani identity

This essay is now published in my fourth book:

Removing it from this blog was proper, though not contractually obligatory, in order to protect my publisher's investment in my book.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ustad Asad Ali Khan – “The university is no place for shaping performing careers”

The Rudra Veena maestro spoke to Deepak Raja on January 11, 2000.

I belong to the Jaipur Beenkar gharana, founded by the 18th century beenkar, Shahaji Saheb. Rajasthan has been our home for several centuries even before Shahaji Saheb; but my ancestors had a long sojourn in Golconda-Bijapur in South India, after which we returned to Rajasthan. My father, Sadiq Ali Khan, was a musician at the Alwar and Rampur courts. He had studied with my grandfather, Musharraf Khan, who was trained by my great-grandfather, the legendary Rajab Ali Khan.

At Alwar, my father’s colleagues were people like Allah Bande Khan (the grandfather of Nasir Aminuddin and Nasir Moinuddin Dagar), and Sageer Khan (the son of Wazir Khan of Rampur). After retirement from the service of the Court, my father settled down at Rampur, where I was born in 1934. In 1962, my father agreed to join the faculty of the Bhatkhande College of Music at Lucknow. He died there in 1964. Until my father’s end, I lived and studied with him, traveling whenever necessary for concerts.

A sense of futility
In 1965, after my father’s demise, I took up an assignment at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi, whose founder, Sumitra Charat Ram, was keen on preserving the Been art. Despite her efforts and mine, we could find only two students for the Been – neither of them has pursued the art -- while the Sarod, Sitar and Khayal music got an encouraging response. I spent a futile three years there, and quit.

In 1971, the Delhi University invited me to join its music faculty with similar hopes, and similar results. I served there for 14 years, teaching music theory and the Been style of the sitar, which nobody plays any longer. But, I could not get a single student to learn the Been. By the early 1980’s I was traveling frequently for concerts, and unable to manage my teaching responsibilities. So, without waiting to reach the age of mandatory retirement, I quit in 1985 to devote myself to performing.

The futility of our efforts to enlarge the Been’s following, in the 1970’s does not surprise me. But, we had to try. The university classroom is, in any case, not the ideal place for shaping performing careers. Those who seek a degree in music, do so to qualify for jobs as music teachers or as producers with radio or TV. Many ladies study music at university while they wait for Mr. Right to turn up. The Dhrupad revival was, at that time, nowhere on the horizon; the international market for the Been was just about opening up. For propagating the Been art, that was not a promising context. Even if the limitations of the university framework did not exist, it would have been near impossible to find students who would submit themselves to the grooming of a beenkar, as my gharana views it.

The making of a beenkar
In our gharana, we take the students through a three-stage training. The Been is an instrument of the Dhrupad genre and the gayaki ang (the vocalized idiom). Therefore, a musician is first trained as a vocalist, starting with the science of breath control and intonation, going on to the knowledge of a sufficient number of ragas, and several Dhrupad compositions in each raga. At the second stage, he is trained to apply his knowledge of Dhrupad vocalism to the sitar, which is an easier instrument to handle than the Been. At this stage, he also acquires knowledge of the rhythmic intricacies and improvisatory movements of the Dhrupad genre.

Once he acquires sufficient command over the sitar, he is allowed to graduate to the Been. We make sure that by this time, the student can sit for hours in the posture of Vajrasana. He has to start with Vajrasana from the first day, long before he holds the sitar. The transition from the sitar to the Been is a major one, as the most important aspects of playing – the mizrab angle, the placement of strings -- are different. Gradually, the transition is achieved and the craft is transferred to the Been. Beyond this, the instrument teaches the musician its own art. An exceptionally talented and dedicated student can take upto ten years to go through these three stages of grooming. Most will take fifteen years to become respectable performers, if they have it in them.

The tenacity required to go through this process is rare in present times. The days of hereditary musicianship are over; so are the days of princely patronage, which supported it. Given the many options today, who would want to make a choice that may, or may not, pay off after ten or fifteen years? Music is no more a way of life. It is a profession. Musicians want recognition and money fast, and they will learn what gives them a quick take-off. Moreover, today people want to learn music – whether Been or something else – with different objectives. It may have nothing to do with wanting to perform.

Today, the Dhrupad revival is a reality. The Been has a good international audience. There exists sufficient motivation for promising talent. But, the journey is long and arduous. By the grace of God, I have five disciples today – four foreign, and one Indian. I would be very happy if even one of them emerges as a competent performer.

Performance format
In my gharana, we present the raga in complete Dhrupad format – alap, jod, jhala, Dhrupad, followed by tar-paran. Beenkars who perform a partial or abbreviated protocol betray their poor training – it doesn’t matter how they justify it. Our training has equipped us in all the departments of the art. We don’t compromise with this format for any audience, Indian or foreign. Also, we make very sparing use of the tihai, which has become so popular today. A tihai has to be a spontaneous and effortless improvisation. The pre-composed tihai belongs to the territory of dance and solo percussion. In our gharana, we consider the tihai a childish gimmick.

In the choice of Dhrupad compositions, we have been taught that the compositions with four stanzas are meant for vocal rendition, while the twin-stanza compositions are suitable for the Been. After rendering the two stanzas – the sthayi and the antara – we begin the tar-paran improvisations. The tar-paran belongs to the jod-ang (the jod facet) of the improvisations with percussion accompaniment. A competent Beenkar knows hundreds of parans composed for the Pakhawaj, while his percussionist knows hundreds of stroke-patterns on the Been. They anticipate each other’s improvisations, and co-operate to create the most effective rhythmic impact. And, the advanced stage of the tar-parans, played with chikari punctuation, is the jhala ang (jhala facet/ movement).

Almost 50% of the success of our concert depends on the quality of the Pakhawaj accompaniment. The required rapport with the Pakhawaj player is best achieved through a stable partnership with one percussionist. For years, I have played with Gopaldasji, who once also accompanied my father. He is getting on in years now. I am developing a younger Pakhawaj player from Mathura. There are many soloists in India, but very few good accompanists. An accompanist has to be virtually groomed for that role by senior vocalists or beenkars.

I have done what I could for the Been. Its future is in the hands of God and the future generations.

© Deepak S. Raja 2000
The finest Rudra Veena (Been) recordings have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd. New York.

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.