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The Men and Their Music: Two Book Reviews

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  • Sangeet-Ratna Khansaheb Abdul Karim Khan Yaanche Jeevan Charitra by Pandit Balkrishnabuwa Kapileshwari, (Published by the author, pp 912, Rs 55)
  • Thor Sangitkar by Prof B R Deodhar, (Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Vidyalaya Mandal, Bombay 4, pp260, Rs 12)
    [Both books published in Marathi]

Times Weekly, March 10, 1974

The article as it first appeared.

The article as it first appeared.

One of the tragedies besetting India’s age-old musical tradition, particularly the Hindustani system, is the lack of authentic biographies of its great musicians, musicologists and composers. Nor has any attempt been made to assess the significance of their contribution to their art. Worse much of the little that has been written from time to time is largely based on imagination folk-lore, legend and even superstition.

Happily quite a few writers in the field have lately come forward to fill the serious lacuna. And it is just as well that most of them are from Maharashtra, where almost all the Hindustani gharanas crystallised and developed in the last one hundred years.

Pandit Kapileshwari’s book is a comprehensive biography of Abdul Karim Khan, the maestro who pioneered the Kirana gharana early in this century. The style of singing evolved and nurtured at Kirana (the maestro’s birth-place near Kurnkshetra, in Punjab), gave a new élan to the history of north Indian music. It set a new trend in classicism, making a radical departure from the several styles of khayal singing then in vogue, such as those of Gwalior, Agra and Jaipur. The qualities of sereneness and repose which marked this style were not conceived or attempted earlier.

Added to these aesthetic virtues was another trend-setting innovation of Abdul Karim Khan – that charming fusion of Hindustani and Carnatic element in his vocalism.

Although the new style became very popular – with the Ustad’s migration from North India to South-west Maharastra, his gayaki found many worthy votaries its novelty of approach, which laid the greatest emphasis on swara, created a great stir among the diehards in the field. Some of his views on the aesthetics of music, specially his shruti-samvid theory, which he advanced in collaboration with a Butica Cryilian and musicologist. Mr. E. Clements, also evoked much unkind criticism. Abdul Karim Khan’s lifespan of 65 years proved to be one of struggle rather than of triumph.

Undaunted, the maestro groomed a large number of eminent disciples in this part of the country. The enduring popularity of Karim Khan’s gayaki can well be gauged from the fact that some of the best exponents of khayal-singing have been his disciples or disciples of his disciples, who include present-day veterans like Hirabai Barodekar, Gangubai Hangal and Bhimsen Joshi.

Abdul Karim Khan’s versatile genius found eloquent expression in many ways. His mastery of the veena and the sarangi was as astounding as his flair for thumaris, bhajans and Marathi pads. He was also a skilled shikari, a culinary expert and an authority on herbal remedies. He enjoyed the patronage of several princely states. Yet he remained indifferent to wealth and fame and led an austere life.

Pandit Kapileshwari, now in his late seventies, is a senior disciple of Abdul Karim Khan who has had the privilege of a long and fruitful association with his guru. The book, brought out as part of the recent centenary celebration of the master, speaks volumes for the author’s assiduity in keeping a mutinous record of almost all the happenings in the life of his distinguished guru. While he deserves praise for his labours in organizing the material, the book itself is badly presented. First he reads like a voluminous dairy of incidents and episodes interspersed with dialogues and quotations claimed to have been recorded verbatim by the author and therefore authentic. As a result, the narration seldom makes for coherent reading.

Besides, the author’s approach to his subject is that of an ardent shishya. This is commendable. What is not as commendable is the unmistakable scent of partisanship. The language turns acrimonious when the author talks of unseemly situations in which many other musical celebrities of the time are involved. This is hardly fair to them or to the departed master. Frankly, the book merits substantial editing.

A relieving feature of this biography is the inclusion of a truly delightful portfolio of rare photoghaphs.

By contrast, this reviewer found Prof. Deodhar’s book extremely well-conceived and well-written. This book, which is brilliantly illustrated, covers a choice selection of biographical sketches of 21 vocalists and instrumentalists from a series written and published by him in his reputed monthly magazine, Sangeet Kala Vihar.

Prof. Deodhar, now 73, is not only an eminent musician and musicologist but an erudite teacher and gifted writer and journalist as well. He has ably assessed the musical greatness of the several celebrities in relation to their life, the times in which they lived, their foibles and idiosyncrasies and the social influences that shaped them.

Of particular interest, however, is the sketch of Prof. Giovani Scrinzi, an Italian pianist, who taught western music and work for a time as columnist and music critic of “The Times of India” Bombay. (Scrinzi’s grant of a scholarship to young Deodhar in the early twenties enabled him to learn the intricacies of western music).

Equally thoughtful is the author’s inclusion in the appendix of sketches of six other gifted men who were not performing artistes but whose contribution to music was significant. The profile of Farid Saheb Sitar-maker, who pioneered the manufacture of musical instruments in this part of the country, is particularly fascinating.

All in all, the book will not only widen our horizon of musical appreciation but will also prove indispensable to all who wish to know something of the lives of the great veterans in the Hindustani tradition. The author would do well to have his book translated into English and other languages.


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