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Erudite but Incoherent: Book Review

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Erudite but Incoherent: Book Review

  • Sargam: An introduction to Indian Music by Vishnudass Shirali (Abhinav/Marg Publications, New Delhi, Rs 160) 

The Times of India, April 6, 1978

The article as it first appeared.

The article as it first appeared.

Is our tradition music in crisis? Will it survive the impact of the fast-changing trends now in evidence on the contemporary scene? Is orchestration of ragas possible? Can we have harmony in our melodic music?

These are some of the vital questions that have prompted the author of write his book.

Pandit Vishnudass Shirali, the first recipient – and the only one so far –of the President’s Award for creative music, is one maestro who, though steeped in the old Guru-shishya tradition Pandit Vishnu Digambar and Ussad Allauddin Khan were his mentors, has always taken kindly to the newest medium for musical expression.

He began his experiments in Indian orchestration in Paris in the early thirties when he composed music for Uday Shankar’s ballets. That was the time when there were few attempt in that direction in India. His decade-long stay abroad also made him, incidentally, a keen connoisseur of western music and he developed a profound understanding and appreciation of its traditions.

The next eight years in India, at Uday Shankar’s Cultural Centre at Almora, brought him opportunities to compose music for dance dramas and the filmic extravaganza, Kalpana, which unfortunately flopped as a commercial venture.

Later, as director of music with Films Division, Pandit Shirali provided background score for 450 documentaries and thereby he acquired a new experience totally different from that of music making for dance ballets and operas. His achievements – several of them trend-setting in orchestration and screen music and in the wider field of dance ballet and opera reveal his urge to experiment with new, exotic sounds of music even while the base remains essentially Indian.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the chapters dealing with the problems of Indian notation and orchestration emerge as the most outstanding sections of the book under review. They provide the reader many glimpses of his musical thought and creative talent, of his abiding faith in all that is authentic in our indigenous traditions – classical and folk.

The author convincingly tells us how Indian music has an unlimited potential for development along orchestral lines. He insists, however, that melody must always remain a dominant factor in Indian orchestration. A judicious selection of instruments, not their number and variety, would make for richness in an orchestral composition. He even advocates radical changes, if necessary, in the construction, size and shape of our existing instruments to align them to the requirements of orchestration.

He is equally forthright in his view that the western system is not suitable for Indian orchestration as it cannot register shruti relationship with the tonic.

The author’s approach to established conventions like the time-theory of ragas or the latter-day proliferation of melodic innovations shows his catholicity of outlook. While he concedes that the mood of a raga derives from its psychological association with the conventional time of rendition, he asserts that its beauty will not be vitiated just because it happens to be rendered at an “unconventional” hour.

In the same vein, Pandit Shirali welcomes new ragas and styles of singing provided they maintain and preserve the essence of classical form. His observations on the future of the gharana system and his analysis of the interaction of classical and folk forms on contemporary creative music set us a – thinking.

A plenitude of colour-plates, depicting ragamala paintings, rare half-tone photographs, line drawings of 200 and odd musical instruments and a comprehensive glossary, add to the value of this superbly got-up publication.

Now, on the debit side the book incorporated the author’s textbook-type brochure “Hindu Music and Rhythm” which he had brought out in Paris in 1937 to provide basic information on Indian music to audiences attending the dance performances of Uday Shankar’s troupe in Europe, America and other countries. While therefore, the book bears ample evidence of the author’s erudition diligent study and arduous research, it fails to present a coherent, continuous narration of the development of Indian music down the centuries.

Indeed, the treatment of topics like nada, grama, moorchhana, tala and musical therapy, which are evidently reproduced verbatim from the earlier work, is patchy and sketchy. What is more, the reader will occasionally discern a peculiar lack of fluency in the author’s writing. This makes some of his statements confusing and unclear, with little relation to the thought really intended to be expressed. It is a pity that the publishers should have failed to have the book competently edited. Last but not the least is its price, which is much too high.

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