In the midst of all the cacophonous political debate and corporate sabre-rattling, it is easy to forget that that 2016 marks the centenary of the first All India Music Conference.

A century ago, in 1916, the urge to modify, codify and broad base Indian classical music had brought together 400 top Indian musicians across regional, sectarian, caste and even language divisions. Held in the then Princely State of Baroda (now Vadodara) in present-day Gujarat, this seminal conference was organised by the great musicologist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.

Immortalising an oral tradition

An indefatigable researcher and traveller, Bhatkhande spent a lifetime visiting reclusive Hindustani classical musicians all over North India. With them, he would discuss musical practices and texts to ultimately develop an indigenous system of notations to preserve Hindustani music, which had so far been passed on orally from a guru to a shishya.

He managed finally to salvage some 1,800 musical compositions from all major gharanas, or systems, of North Indian classical music – by cajoling, arguing with and even threatening major practitioners of the art into opening up and talking about music. All along, the aim was to rescue a fast-decaying and precious legacy from temples, durbars (courts) and kothas (the home of courtesans) and after sifting through the material painstakingly, print a series of good musical texts.

By 1915, he had managed to bring out in large numbers treatises on classical music, to be taught and imbibed easily by the masses. By 1916, Bhatkhande and his disciple Vadilal Shiv Ram had established a body for promotion of classical music, the Shri Sharada Sangit mandal, which was near Flora Fountain (now Hutatma Chowk) in South Mumbai.

The king of arts

The conference was held in Baroda in the Central Hall of the Gayan Shala, which taught music to children of common citizens of the state. The school had been established in 1886 by the young, progressive Maratha ruler of this Gujarati state, Sayaji Gopal Rao Gaekwad (1863-1939). Today, it functions as the Department of Music (Indian Classical/Vocal), at the Maharaja Sayajirao University at Vadodara.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Baroda was the third-richest state in India and when a young, confident, West-educated Sayaji Rao took the throne, he brought with him a great desire to modernise Baroda and make it synonymous with the patronage of traditional arts and preservation of India’s cultural heritage.

When he attended the famed Delhi Durbar, legend has it that instead of bowing deferentially before the regent as mandated, he shook the royal hand and left laughing. Other versions of the story suggest that he did curtsey, but only once instead of thrice, as required.

The British rulers frowned upon for this, but nonetheless conferred a GCIE (Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire) upon him in 1919. This is proof that the British government was by then increasingly reluctant to make a big issue of minor oversights by a major and popular native ruler, the founder of the Bank of Baroda, the creator of the Ajwa water works and also the country’s longest narrow gauge railway line in his state.

Sayajirao was deeply influenced by the writings of European Orientalists and views of learned friends, like T Madhav Rao, the Dewan from Tanjavur, British Resident Colonel JT Barr, a representative of the British government in a princely state and Mr Fredliss, a Russian Jew who was the head of the well-known Baroda State brass band. Interacting constantly with them, Sayajirao had developed a keen interest in Hindustani music, to codify which he wanted to adapt the Western musical notation system.

He went on to establish a department for supervising and encouraging all performing arts in the state, called the Kalawant Karkhana. This institution, which came to wield enormous influence on performing artists, was headed by a doughty wrestler-cum-musician Professor (self-conferred) Mowla Bux Khan.

Taking it forward

Mowla Bux Khan was an interesting product of his times. He may have been severely critiqued by musicians like Abdul Karim Khan on various (often personal) grounds, but he was living through times that saw three simultaneous influences – colonial, feudal and modern. Despite that, the man managed to discard many myths created and fostered by Orientalists, such as the belief that Hindustani music was rooted in Hindu religion and a creation of caste Hindus (mainly Brahmins) with a religious bent of mind.

He did not overlook the constant and long interaction between performing communities from various sects and finally managed to create a professional space for music beyond both the temple and the durbar.

This is why musicologist Shard Chandra Gokhle called Moula Bux Khan a foundation stone (paaycha dagad) of Hindustani music within the academic system.

Two decades after his death in 1896, Moula Bux Khan’s grandson, Professor Murtaza Khan (called Dadu mian), helped Bhatkhande arrange the famous 1916 Baroda conference. The space where the conference was held was largely non-sectarian, mutilingual and opposed to exclusion of any kind of music on religious grounds.

Birth of the conference

The idea for the conference came when Sayajirao invited Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, also a great musicians and teacher of Hindustani music, to Baroda. In a series of meetings, Sayajirao urged them to restructure the curriculum for his Gayan Shala and create a scientific grading system for evaluating students and artists. Impressed by the zeal of the ruler, Bhatkhande followed up his visit with a detailed proposal for a music conference featuring artists across the country, under the ruler’s patronage and with ground support from Murtaza Khan, then the head of the Kalawant Karkhana.

He also attached to it a list of delegates who could be invited to the event, from the country’s North and South and even some neighbouring countries such as Nepal.

Futuristic vision

He set forth the aims of the event in his long paper (A Short Historical Survey of the Music of Upper India) circulated at conference.

In an age of unprecedented musical mobility, destigmatising and broad basing music was necessary. It was no longer the precinct of decadent folks from marginalised groups, but many citizens and the burgeoning middle classes in urban areas were also keen music lovers. To this end, there was an urgent need for a systematic and dispassionate overview of ragadari system of North Indian music, and also for encouraging and applauding the new crop of urban clubs and Music Mandalis where classical music could be taught systematically to young girls and boys.

There was a big need to develop a universally acceptable system for codifying, editing and printing available material of all kinds: oral or handwritten texts. They had to be printed and made available for mass circulation at affordable rates. A proper system of uniform and adequate notation must be prepared by tweaking the western notation system as and where needed so students and teachers in the coming decades could easily read music. Last but not the least, National Music Conference must not remain a one-time phenomena but become an annual event.

Bhatkhande was quick to underscore at the end of his paper that all this was not to advertise his own hard work and erudition (he had by then travelled all over the North and published a series of 23 short pamphlets containing hitherto orally transmitted Bandishes or compositions. His aim, he clarified, was to place all the material he had gathered before competent authorities, so they may judge and fine-tune his efforts further by offering dispassionate criticism.

The conference, according to available documents, was a big success. After being inaugurated by Sayajirao (accompanied by his wife), the day’s programme began with school children from the Gayan Shala singing (in raag Bahar and raag Bhairavi), in praise of the Maharaja and Maharani.

Scholars of music then presented their papers on different topics. For instance, there was Thakur (later Raja) Nawab Ali Khan, the compiler of the well-known Shareef-Ul-Nagmat, a bouquet of musical compositions using the notation system Bhatkhande had evolved. Two papers were also presented by foreigners, KB Devel and E Clements ICS.

However, their proposal for dividing the 22 shrutis (microtones) of the 12 basic notes (swaras) into three West- perfected groups (Major Tone, Minor Tone and Semitone) and looking at the Hindustani shruti system as identical to the western (tempered) scale, was turned down by the Indian musicians.

In his book Pandit Bhatkande, musician Narayan Ratanjankar, a disciple of Bhatkande, noted that Zakiruddin Khan demonstrated how the note Re (Rishabha), in its primary state, was impossible to produce through a tempered scale. An exhibition of old and new musical instruments used by Hindustani musicians was also organised at the venue.

The most wonderful part of the 1916 meet, according to accounts available, was when the debates and heated discussions were over for the day and the Maharaja and the musicians sat down in the Durbar Hall of the Laxmi Vilas Palace for a long evening of divine musical demonstrations.

It ended with the great hope of follow up conferences elsewhere in north India. Though not annual, there were other editions of the conference held, in Delhi (1918) in Varanasi (1920)and two more in Lucknow in 1924 and 1925. Thereafter, financial constraints and lack of willing patrons and co-organisers halted the series all lovers of Hindustani music had so come to look forward to and cherish.

A century on

A hundred years later, where do we stand?

In 2016, there is much talk of tradition and heritage in India, now a rising star in Asia and the world.

Scientific innovations have given us recording devices and acoustic systems that have expanded the range and dissemination of music to undreamt-of regions across the globe, a process accelerated by the social media.

But it is also the age of the communally charged and divisive politics of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Sri Ram Sene and of fire-spewing Sadhvis and Maulanas. With all this, a certain narrow vision has come to strengthen vicious sectarian, linguistic and gender divides pushed beneath the crust a hundred years ago. The liberal scholarship of the kind Bhatkhande and Paluskar had symbolised in 1916 is increasingly under threat. And a violently rapacious market force, which also drives politics today, is creating and showcasing art as an object of miraculous but uniquely useless beauty.

It is a society’s right to make demands on an artist, but the artistic community must band together to protect their right to protect the purity of the artistic vision .What Flaubert said encapsulates wonderfully what Bhatkhande and his friends were trying to convey through their conference: “I believe that great art is impersonal…I want neither love nor hatred nor pity nor anger. The impartiality of art would then become equal to the majesty of the law.”