Updated: March 8, 2011 13:06 IST

History of North Indian classical music

  • Anjana Rajan
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In an age of instant messaging and breaking news, it comes as a bit of a surprise that it took some 13 years for the papers presented at a music symposium to be edited and compiled in the form of a book. However, it is a matter of relief that, at least in some areas of study, such academic values as painstaking effort, meticulousness, and commitment to authenticity hold sway. One could not expect any less from the field of Indian classical music. In addition to the papers presented at the symposium held in the Netherlands on“The History of North Indian Music: 14th to 20th Centuries”, the volume has features that give it an encyclopaedic character.

In the preface, the editors do mention that “many obstacles arose to delay this publication.” But the best part of it all is that they persevered, even in the face of such setbacks as the death of certain personalities whose support to the project was considered key. Thus the volume is dedicated to four eminent scholars — Prem Lata Sharma, Shahab Sarmadee, Harold Powers, and Gerry Farrell — who either wrote papers or were teachers and mentors to many.

Among the conclusions reached at the symposium was, we are told, that the 13th century was the logical date from which to trace the history of North Indian classical music. And the reason, among others, was that Sarngadeva's Sangitaratnakara was written in this period. This incidentally explains the divergence between the titles of the symposium and the book. Such subtle points, however, make heavy reading for non-scholars who are just passionate about the art of Hindustani music.

Mine of information

For such readers, though, this volume is still a goldmine of information on a wide range of topics. Particularly lively are some of the chapters in the second part, “The Modern Period”. Take, for example, “Hindustani Music: A Historical Overview of the Modern Period” by Joep Bor and Allyn Miner which covers the period when some of our veterans in music had lived. Talking about the development of recorded music and the radio, both of which were seen as ringing the death-knell of classical music, they argue that the first to take to these new technologies were the courtesans and other hereditary musicians who were looked down upon by society at that time.

The authors also put on record that, way back in 1946, “in an attempt to clean up the social reputation of the radio, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, instituted an order banning radio engagements for any woman ‘whose private life was a public scandal'.”

Calling this ban relatively ineffectual, they also point out that it led to more non-hereditary musicians coming out to perform on the radio — a development that steadily remoulded the history of Indian music as well as other arts of the country.

AIR's role

Another interesting fact gleaned from this section is that, during the tenure of B.V. Keskar as Minister of Information and Broadcasting (1950-62), a concerted effort was made to fill the vacuum caused by the drying up of court patronage of musicians, and hundreds of musicians were employed as “staff artists” or “casual artists” by All India Radio. This circumstance had a lasting impact on music and musicians of India, and AIR's contribution to the preservation of classical music is largely undisputed. Another notable contribution in this section is the one by eminent vocalist Sulochana Brihaspati on “Rampur as a Centre of Music”.

Among other interesting sections is the one on musical instruments. This has chapters on fascinating subjects for students of music and musicology such as “A Historical Account of the Fretted Vina” (Philippe Brugiere); “Early Indian Bowed Instruments and the Origin of the Bow” (Joep Bor); and “The History of Tabla” (James Kippen). For the historically inclined is “The Formative Period”, which deals with topics like Sanskrit and Indo-Persian literature in music and the beginnings of Dhrupad and Khayal.

In a field where oral histories abound, this book is certainly a valuable reference work on Hindustani music.

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