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For The Foreign Audience: Book Reviews

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For The Foreign Audience: Book Reviews

  • Understanding Indian Classical Music : By G.N. Joshi (Taraporewala, Price not stated)

The Times of India, Sunday, April 22, 1979

The articles as they first appeared.

The articles as they first appeared.

Mr. Joshi makes it clear in his prefatory note that he has foreign readership specially in view in writing his book. Although, over the post-freedom years, Western interest in Indian music has steadily grown from discerning appreciation to cautious participation there are many aspects of the Indian melodic system which many eager foreigners find difficult to understand and appreciate.

Viewed against this background, the book under review can be said to have largely fulfilled the author’s purpose. The title is rather deceptive, in that the entire emphasis in the book is on North Indian (Hindustani) music. There is, in fact, no treatment of South Indian (Carnatic) music as an independent system.

The author has, however, adopted a new approach to an understanding of Hindustani music. There are no musical examples in the narration, nor any conservatoire bias, while technicalities are reduced to the minimum. Written in a lucidly engaging style, the glossy, large-sized book carries, besides a copious glossary, a lovely portfolio of 64 half-tone illustration depicting ancient sculptures, music instruments and portraits of some of our present-day stylists.

The author starts with pre-historic man and his voice gestures and then outlines the legendary and historical background. After that, he gives an illuminating assessment of the main styles and vogues in the North Indian tradition. He skillfully guides one reader through the complexities of the raga system and of the time-theory which conventionally governs practical performances in Hindustani music. Equally fascinating are the chapters dealing with the contemporary singing styles in North India and musical instruments and their rhythms.

By far the best part of the book is the introduction and the epilogue. In the former, he rightly points out that the first thing that a foreigner should understand is the fundamental difference between Western music and Indian music. His discussion show’s his finesse and incisiveness in putting across his point of view.

In his epilogue, the author sounds rather pessimistic about the future of Hindustani music against the background of what he calls “the serious challenges” posed to the system by the cinema, scientific gadgets like the microphone, the emergence of electronic music and last, but not least, a general lack of emerging talent capable of shouldering the mantle of old masters who are gradually vanishing from the musical scene.

Finally, this reviewer has a bone or two to pick with the author. There are some confounding and controversial statements in his treatment of legend and history. There is, for instance, enough evidence now a disprove that the innovation of the sitar and other instruments came from Amir Khusro. Also in dealing with history, the author should have referred to Pandit Bhatkhande’s Short Historical Syrvey of the Music of Upper India. The Shruti chart shown in the raga system is defective, if if we go by the authoritative work Sangeet Visharad by Vasant. Greater care should have also been taken in giving captions to some of the illustrations given at the end of the volume.


A Musical Controversy

  • Sangeeta Ratnakaram of ‘NISSANKA’ Sarngadeva : By Rangaramanuja Ayyangar (Wilco, Rs 25)

The Sangeeta Ratnakaram, the monumental, 13th-century Sanskrit pandit in the patronage of the Yadava ruler, Immadi Deva Raya of Devagiri, is rightly acclaimed as the first and foremost of our musical authorities, next only to Bharata’s Natyasastra-adhyayas (cantos), it covers the whole range of musical form and composition with a very elaborate account of ancient musical theory.

Paradoxically, however, the music of the Ratnakaram has been beset with unending controversy and no musical his:orian has been able to determine convincingly whether it is a Hindustani or Carnatic authority, Pandit Bhatkhnade, the greatest North Indian musicologist and theoretician of our times (1861-1936), held the view that “Until some works of the period preceding that of Sarangdeva’s Ratnakaram are found, it is bound to defy all at tempts at its solution”. He pointed out how even Kallinatha, the 14th century Sanskrit commentator of the Ratnakaram could not explain the nature of the raga system expounded by its author.

Western scholars like rev. Popley believe that Sarangadeva came into contact with Hindustani as well as Cranatic music and that his work was an attempt to evolve a common theoretical base for the both the systems. The Southern historians, on the other hand, assert that it represents their tradition.

Mr. Ayyangar’s distinction is that in four decades of research, he has unearthed 70 old books and manuscripts which have enabled him to bring out the present critical study – the kind of feat none of his predecessors in the field (both Hindustani and Caranatic) could possibly achieve. Indeed, the way he has marshaled his resources and presented his material speaks eloquently of his unflagging zeal, profound scholarship and prodigious industry.

But then has Mr. Ayyangar really achieved a breakthrough? Take, for example, the author’s remarks in the course of his otherwise illuminating commentary : i) ‘The scientific basis of raga as it is understood today had not crystallized in Sarangadeva’s time’. ii) “The treatment of Prabandha … is original and illuminating though obscure in places” iii) “The greatest writer on ancient and medieval Indian music… had no clear knowledge of what had come to be known as Caranatic music”.

What do we make of these? Is it that we are back to square one? The observation made by Pandit Bhankhande in 1916 inevitably comes to mind in this context: “No elucidation which fails to make Sarangadeva’s ragas intelligible, if not actually singable, will appeal to the modern music student.”

All in all, the book falls short of fulfilling the author’s purpose “To impress on thinking, sensitive minds, the need for a better understanding of classical as a corrective for the ills that afflict it today.”

And, finally, the author takes time off to deal both the Hindustani tradition and Sarangadeva himself many a back hand blow, totally out of context and in bad taste, too. To cite an example: “The Kashmir Brahmin found inspiration for his great work in the region that had given birth to Sankara. A Ramanuja, Madhva and a host of saints and seers… It was the conservative South that had escaped the rapacity of Muslim marauders that profited by his labour.”


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