Ram Nath Kovind, the former governor of Bihar and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was elected as the 14th President of India on Thursday. On this occasion, I would like to draw the attention of music lovers to opinions expressed about Indian music by Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India.

The perspective Prasad gave while inaugurating the All India Music Conference in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on December 26, 1952, reflected the nationalist view that had influenced the writing of music history since the late 19th century. Ignoring the existence of a diversity of musical systems and forms in India since time immemorial, votaries of this interpretation of Indian music history said that Indian classical music had an ancient Hindu-Sanskritic past before its status and that of its practitioners was lowered during centuries of Muslim rule. For an example of such opinions, readers may see Gopal Hari Deshmukh or Lokhitwadi’s “Sangeetshastra” in Anant Kakba Priyolkar (ed), Lokhitwadikrit Nibandhsangraha: Gopal Hari Deshmukh, (Marathi), Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 1996, p. 521.

In keeping with this view , Prasad mentioned that music in India was closely linked with religion, a fact that is partially true as there is as much of evidence of it being associated with the secular through the ages. He further stated that music and its supporters fell prey to “luxury”, causing it to be socially ostracised. Expressing happiness that music is being reclaimed by the “highest social circles”, he believed that the popularity of music could push it back to its degraded position and therefore warned musicians to guard against such a “danger”.

But interestingly, Prasad revealed a dichotomous historical outlook, as he praised the common effort shown by Hindus and Muslims, particularly those in the North, in creating raags and musical instruments. In fact, he went on to say that communal exclusiveness seen in other spheres of Indian life was absent from music. Stressing that folk songs have always been integral to Indian social life, he spoke about the inspiration that music had provided to the national movement for independence and to social reform movements.

Favouring the inclusion of music in children’s education, he asked for reforms in pedagogical methods to integrate culture in education. Sadly, several decades have gone by, but we still have not seen a meaningful integration of the arts in our schools’ curriculum.

Perhaps it was Rajendra Prasad’s interest in Indian music, or rather his interest in its practitioners, that prompted him to ask reputed author, Sahitya Akademi Award winner and Padma Bhushan awardee Amritlal Nagar to document the lives of hereditary women performers from Northern India. This documentation, containing information procured through extensive interviews, was published as Ye Kothewaliyan, a work in Hindi that continues to be widely accessed by scholars.

We end this episode with an exquisite bol banaav thumri based on the raag Manjh Khamaj presented by Siddheshwari Devi, one of the best exponents of thumri, dadra and allied forms, and one of the many women performers to have been interviewed as part of Nagar’s project.