“Raja, maharaja, rais, hakim and hukkum, all read us...we sell in Burma, Ceylon, Africa, Fiji and Siam... With us, your advertisement will go far. Rate per page Rs 15, half a page Rs 8, a quarter page Rs 4!”

— ‘Sangeet’, February 1935

Kings and emperors are long gone. It has been decades since Siam, Burma and Ceylon got new names. And Rs 4 won’t get you a thing today. But, nearly nine decades after it first promised advertisers global readership, Sangeet, the oldest surviving periodical on Indian classical music and dance, is still soldiering on from a small corner of western Uttar Pradesh.

Its home is Hathras, a city around 45 km from Mathura that is part of the Braj lore of Krishna. There was a time Hathras was famous across the north for its highly musical nautankis. Now its name mostly evokes memories of the horrific 2019 rape-murder.

In the heart of the city, off Mursan Gate, lies Gali Gangadhar, a lane typical of small-town Uttar Pradesh. Traffic and mayhem mark the bazar ahead and open drains line the entrance to homes whose faded grandeur shows up only in their carved doors, latticed balconies and stained-glass windows.

Locals refer to Gali Gangadhar as Kaka Gali after the man who is arguably its most famous resident: humourist and poet Prabhulal Garg, better known as Kaka Hathrasi. Those who witnessed the days of Doordarshan monopoly will remember his hasya kavita sessions, the punch lines delivered with a beatific grin breaking through a dramatic beard.

A less-known fact about Hathrasi was that he was a keen connoisseur and scholar of classical music and an amateur musician too. It was he who founded Sangeet in 1935 and it has been published every month without a break for 87 years. Nothing has broken its stride yet. Not the pandemic, nor the fact that it is left with just 650 subscribers.

In the lane dedicated to his memory, a tall, yellowing building stands apart, a board at its entrance proclaiming “Sangeet Karyalaya”. The interior is quiet and delectably musty, with the smell of old and new books hanging in the air, and the walls are plastered with paintings of old masters of Hindustani classical music.

At Sangeet Karyalaya, a small and loyal team continues to produce the oldest surviving periodical on Indian classical music and dance.

A small team of three is hard at work proofing the October edition of Sangeet, which features an ongoing series on the life of Kirana vocalist Hirabai Barodekar, an article on the women musicians at the erstwhile Udaipur court, a composition explaining the contours of raga Bihag, the notation for the 1956 Lata Mangeshkar hit Mat Maro Shyam Pichkari, and brief essays on the evolution of recorded music and modern kathak.

Journals like Sangeet – friendly, informative with an easy hotch-potch of content – once used to be keenly awaited by households. Its annual issue was a thematic bonanza running to well over 100 pages.

“I recall a time, even up to the 1980s, when it was hugely popular, selling 3,000 copies and more, and outside of India too,” said Sharan Gopal, a veteran staffer and the all-purpose manager at the karyalaya.

Crushing Blow

In April, Sangeet was dealt a crippling blow. Laxminaryan Garg, Kaka’s son and the chief editor of the magazine, passed away at age 88. A sitariya and scholar of classical, folk and popular arts, Garg’s unflagging passion for the journal had kept it going despite plunging readership and profits. Uma Negi, who has been working with Sangeet for 25 years now, says that up until his last days, Garg was collecting, editing and filing away articles for the 58-page monthly so the staff would not flounder.

“At the moment, the plan is to keep it going,” said his son and legatee Ashok Garg, a San Diego-based businessman. But it is clear that the magazine is at a crossroads. Priced at Rs 40 an issue, with dismal sales and niche appeal, Sangeet has little reason to survive amid the decline of print magazines, except for the drive of its staff.

For 87 years, ‘Sangeet’ has been a chronicler of its times, capturing the many controversies and concerns of the classical musical fraternity.

Its Carnatic equivalent, the Chennai-based Sruti, is going fairly strong at 38, with loyal readership, impeccable standing, and a new digital version. Sangeet, however, is still stuck in time. It is staunchly print-driven, the format remains unchanged, and most articles by old-timers are still delivered by post. Given Kaka Hathrasi’s own buoyant persona, it is also far less high-brow, with a cheerful miscellany of articles of uneven quality appearing across decades – from discussions on ragdari music, aesthetics and philosophy of Indian arts to reader quizzes and tips on voice culture (abjuring sour, oily foods, and staying celibate).

Veteran contributors and habitual writers remain fiercely loyal. Among them is the 80-year-old Hindustani vocalist, teacher and researcher Sudha Patwardhan, who is also the daughter-in-law of the Gwalior gharana stalwart Vinayakrao Patwardhan. A resident of Pune, Patwardhan has been writing for Sangeet for 25 years and even edited it for four years.

“Sangeet’s position today is not the same as it was in the time of Kaka and Laxminarayanji’s death left us bereft,” said Patwardhan. “It is hard to say where it is headed. The reading habits of people have changed, and all publications like these are in poor health. I would say Sangeet still has a future.” Patwardhan’s 200-page biography of Hirabai Barodekar, a Hindustani singer of Kirana gharana, is being currently serialised in Sangeet.

Cultural Compendium

As a chronicler of its times, the magazine remains priceless. In the archives, there are bound volumes of old issues, their frail pages offering the reader a journey into the lost world when classical, semi-classical, folk and popular music drew popular participation, discussions and debates in print. There are records spanning nearly a century, of the many controversies and concerns of the fraternity, some serious, some banal, always engaging.

An issue from 1935, the year Sangeet was launched with an annual subscription of Rs 2, defends women’s right to become professional musicians. “Women have the right to love, own and create music…There is nothing obscene about this,” argues the article titled ‘Sangeet Aur Mahila Samaj’.

In 1937, ‘Sangeet Bhushan’ Laxmiprasad Mishra wrote of his chance encounter in Varanasi with Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the grand old man of Hindustani music tradition who is credited with formalising it. In subsequent exchange of letters, Mishra poses three big questions to Paluskar and gets patient answers to all couched in the context of Hinduism and spirituality.

“Why is the same raga treated differently in different regions?”

“We even visualise our gods according to the culture of our region,” replies Paluskar. “Rama and Krishna are shown mustachio-ed in Maharashtra, sporting curly hair in Bengal, wearing kurtas and jootis in Punjab, bulked up in Marwar and thin in Gujarat. But they are worshipped everywhere and same is the case with ragas.”

On why ragas no longer work miracles as legends claims, Paluskar harrumphs about making money out of music: in an epoch when music is no longer a purely spiritual pursuit, what hope is there of it wresting a miracle? he retorts.

The issues of 1938 are livened by a debate over moral policing that eerily mirrors our times. In response to a diatribe by Swami Sadanand (likely the Hathras-born senior disciple of Swami Vivekananda) on how dance “pollutes”, there is a spirited riposte from author and connoisseur Baleshwar Anand: “Dance is art. God resides in dance and it is divine fire that inspires it. I would go so far as to say that all joys of life, including the joy of intimacy, is divine. It is also the livelihood of people. I say this with all humility to the learned writer that it is his own warped thinking that is reflected in this in his view of dance. I now leave it to the wise reader to decide.”

The byline of Kudrat Illahi pops up more than once in 1937-’38, flaying the “obscene” lyrics in nautanki and folk songs while describing them in painstaking detail. “What will lyrics like these do to impressionable Brij-vasis?” he thunders more than once, referring to the generous sprinkling of jawani, nasha and sej (bed) in popular tunes.

In a 1940 issue, vocalist Dilip Chandra Vedi of Agra gharana writes of an imaginary face-off with a western musician to suggest the infinite superiority of Indian music.

Complex Endnotes

These archives are an invaluable gateway into the past. But Sangeet Karyalaya, known as Garg and Co. in its early life, has done more than just publish Sangeet. Apart from the journal, it also publishes and distributes books on the arts, especially classical music and dance, of which an impressive number have been written by the Gargs themselves.

The company’s first book was Hathrasi’s Music Master, a blockbuster guide on how to play the harmonium, sold for Re 1. Kaka Hathrasi’s Sangeet Visharad, written under the pen name Vasant, a reader for music students from year 1 to 8, is now going into its 35th edition. Its other biggest seller is Bhatkhande’s book for novices, Hindustani Sangeet – Paddhati Kramik Pustika. On its extended list of titles are also 150 books written and edited by Laxminaryan Garg on subjects ranging from ragdari to kathak, thumri to film music.

Aside from running the publishing business, Garg & Co. once also sold 10 instruments such as the harp, harmonium and flute for amateurs, at a time when it was commonplace among middle class households to train in some art. Assisting in the learning process were handbooks published by Garg & Co. like Mahila Harmonium Guide. Endorsed by none other than the “Sub-registrar, Damoh”, Mahila Harmonium Guide promised its women readers mastery over the instrument, all within the four walls of their homes.

Reader engagement stayed high among Sangeet’s priorities in its early years. A quiz asked readers to identify the raga in a song run with notation in an earlier issue. And responses poured in from as far as Darbhanga, Etawaha and Calcutta, as a debate raged over whether it was raga Malgunji or Jaijaiwanti (answer: the ancient Hanskankani).

Twelve years after Sangeet, another magazine dedicated to classical music arrived on the scene, Sangeet Kala Vihar of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal. Over the years, other periodicals joined the stable – Sruti, Bhairavi published by the Lalit Narayan Mithila University in Darbhanga, and Chhayanut of the UP Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Journals such as these, including Sangeet, were sought after by PhD students of classical arts keen to get their research published. But in 2019, the University Grants Commission, the body regulating higher education, created a list of journals it approved for research publication. A search of the UGC list shows that only Sruti and Bhairavi made the cut, further depleting the user base of magazines like Sangeet and Sangeet Kala Vihar.

With bleak days ahead, the Garg clan regroups in Hathras next month to mull over the future of Sangeet. Will the little magazine make it to 100? Its small band of fans have their fingers crossed.

All images by Malini Nair.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.