Much as some of us would like everything in society to be in black and white and slotted in watertight compartments, this thankfully is not the reality. We encounter innumerable grey areas and though we may choose to ignore them, they are the ones that make our very existence layered and more meaningful.
Curiously, many people who are quick to recognise these grey areas in other spheres seem to ignore them in their own disciplines. This is true also of those working in the world of Hindustani music. They include individuals involved in performing, teaching and research.
Last week, in the first episode of our series on Hindustani compositions that have borrowed from multiple language sources, I had briefly mentioned the fact that the presence of a diversity of languages in these song-texts was one of the many elements that demonstrated the inclusiveness that this system of music represents. I had also hoped that young musicians would study this inclusiveness through the medium of language by revisiting these compositions.
But today, I would like to point to the scholars writing on Hindustani music. In the recent past, there have been many scholars trained primarily in disciplines other than Hindustani music who have chosen to study various facets of this world, in particular its history and the socio-cultural and political contexts in which the music was being practised through the centuries.
In this context, much has been written about the work of the two music educationists Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Many first-generation musicians are beholden to the environment that Bhatkhande, Paluskar and other educationists like them created, for they would not have had an opportunity to learn and perform this music as it was earlier pursued professionally only by hereditary musician families.
On the other hand, there are others who have criticised them for having standardised a living tradition in order to increase its footprint through mass-education, among other things.
But without going into the details of this debate, I would like to briefly touch upon some of the comments that have been made in the context of Paluskar’s work. Undoubtedly, at a point in his life, Paluskar was drawn to Ram bhakti. He even conducted discourses on the Ramayan and included bhajans sung by his students. But this aspect has at times been stretched out of proportion to suggest that Paluskar had given up traditional Hindustani music and trained his disciples only in bhajan. It is further claimed that he did this to sanitise the music of its erotic song-texts.
While one may have issues with the stylistic features of the Paluskar strand of Gwalior gayaki, by no stretch of imagination can one believe that he ignored traditional song-texts were ignored. If only scholars who think otherwise were to study the recordings of his disciples, it would be clear that not all compositions they sang were necessarily about devotion to god.
I feel that the advice to appreciate grey areas should apply to all, including scholars who choose to tailor facts to suit their theoretical constructs.
To demonstrate my contention, I have chosen to include Omkarnath Thakur’s rendition of a song-text of a vilambit or slow khayal composed by the eighteenth-century composer Niamat Khan “Sadarang”. This is in Marwari and is composed in the raag Desi, a raag prescribed for the morning. It is set to the 12-matra Ektaal. Not only is this khayal a traditional one in terms of its antiquity, but it is also evidently one that is in voice of a female protagonist ostensibly inviting her lover to her home.
Omkarnath Thakur was one of Paluskar’s chief disciples, so the limited point I am trying to make here is that this composition and others that Paluskar would have taught his disciples clearly signify that Paluskar did not abandon traditional Hindustani music and that he did not sanitise traditional song-texts.
Indeed, he and his disciples chose to sing song-texts with devotional content, but that was the case with several musicians of their time and even earlier. To extrapolate that their actions in the public sphere resonated through their music at all times would be an exaggeration.
We end with another interpretation of the same vilambit composition. This is presented by the Jaipur-Atrauli exponent Kesarbai Kerkar. She sings the composition in a medium-paced sixteen-matra Teentaal.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.