The world of music is replete with stories of great masters who constantly transcended boundaries of caste and religion

In an article on the legendary laya vidwan Palghat Mani Iyer, critic Sankaran narrates an episode to which he was witness. “My thoughts go back to the fifties,” he writes. “I see before my eyes thavil wizard singing the praise of his younger contemporary Mani Iyer to the Station Director, All India Radio, Tiruchi. ‘I am hailed as the pioneer of the novel style of echoing the song on the thavil. Mani Iyer has flattered me by adopting an identical technique and has improved on it so that the mridangam ‘sings’.” This was the maestro with singing fingers, thavil Minakshisundaram Pillai heaping praise on the young Mani Iyer. This episode, from a time when caste practises were rigid, reveals two things -- the democratic world of art where a socially lower thavil vidwan could openly declare his admiration for the upper caste Mani Iyer. On his part, Mani Iyer too always admitted that he owed much of his art and its aesthetics to the thavil and konnakol maestros, who invariably came from the lower echelons of society. In fact, the forefathers of laya -- Narayanaswamy Appa, Chinnaswami Appa and several others came from the non-Brahmin castes.

While most mridanga vidwans agreed with Mani Iyer, most vocalists of those times made it open that they had a lot to learn from nadaswaram players. G.N. Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyengar have acknowledged the superlative imagination of the emperor of nadaswara T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai. His alapana was so masterly that even to this day, none can match his rendition of Todi. In fact, his music was so outstanding that the music world conceded to his demands without much fuss or debate.

One story leads you to another and the world of music is an endless ocean of remarkable stories. Sankaran’s story reminds me of the Ramanavami music season which invariably brought the extraordinary Sheikh Chinnamoulana. For several years, he was the auspicious opener of the concert series. Chinnamoulana saab – known for his remarkable alapana on the nadaswara – was a picture of devotion as he stood up to tie his stole around the waist, bow before the idol of Rama and accept the holy water and prasada, like a religious Hindu. His grandsons Babu and Kasim not only take forward the 300-year-old music tradition of the family, but also this amazing thread of faith – at a recent Ramanavami concert they had even smeared holy ash on their foreheads.

The tradition of music has never been separate from the individual or the society. Yet, it has not necessarily lived as part of social traditions. Tradition, as one sees historically, has always been defined by the individual and hence has constantly evolved and expanded. It is replete with contradictory forces. If one desires to understand it, it has to be only understood in its paradoxes. For instance, Hindustani maestro Pandit Ramarao Naik -- who studied under the large-hearted Agra gharana guru Faiyaz Khan -- was extremely conservative. He learnt under a Muslim maestro, but himself practised caste when he accepted students. Faiyaz Khan saab had a place for everyone. He was staunchly religious, offered namaaz five times a day. Yet, he took part in Hindu festivals like Holi, Deepawali and several others. In fact, Partition affected him deeply. Many of his friends and relatives moved over to Pakistan, but Khan saab refused to leave the country. Those close to Khan saab have recalled how he was so deeply attached to the Hindu culture and way of life that it was unthinkable for him to move to Pakistan. In fact, from his compositions one can hardly tell that they are creations of a Muslim composer. For as long as Ramarao Naik learnt under Faiyaz Khan saab, a separate kitchen had been set up and Khan saab cooked rice and dhal for his student everyday.

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar was a staunch practitioner of his religious faith. But he took to his fold students of all castes and taught them with great commitment. He had great friendships with musicians of other castes. Once violinist T. Chowdiah, full of happiness after Ariyakudi’s concert, had carried him on his shoulders and rejoiced. Chembai Vaidyanath Bhagavatar was also a great friend of Chowdiah. What began in 1924 with their first concert together, lasted as long as they lived. Chembai was a top-class musician and an equally remarkable human being. He is god to his disciple Yesudas. He dared to break intimidating religious practices and made sure his student found a place in the Carnatic music world. If a chaste Brahmin like him could transcend boundaries of his caste, it was because of his deep love for his art and liberal humanist faith. His affection for his student is legendary. Yesudas who cherishes his teacher’s values, chants the “one caste, one religion, one god for man” mantra. Chowdiah was no less. He had upper class students like Palghat C.R. Mani Iyer and Venkataramana Shastry who learnt from him in the gurukula tradition. Chowdiah had appointed a Brahmin to cook for these two boys and also for fellow musicians who visited him. If the world of music didn’t have remarkable teachers, music wouldn’t have been so remarkable either. Sawai Gandharva was among the finest teachers of the musical firmament. His disciple Gangubai Hangal came from the Devadasi community and was ostracized and ill treated by society. But Sawai Gandharva took her into his fold with moving warmth and nurtured her persona with such motherly care that she gained enormous strength to battle with the merciless world. Kanchipuram Nayana Pillai was temperamentally quirky. However, when it came to teaching N.S. Krishnaswamy Iyengar, his prized disciple, it was passionate.

The secular space that we find in art probably emerged from the artiste’s personal understanding of religious faith. Even with private gods and very private practices of worship, they were able to create a cosmos of their own, where all gods co-existed under the huge umbrella of art. They had their share of animosities and bickering, but when it came to their art, they often transcended it with a rare magnanimity. If tradition manifested itself differently in different geographical locations and different contexts, the individual was entirely responsible for these variations.

Baba Allauddin Khan saab, the maestro of Maihar, is yet another stunning example. He believed that oneness with God could be achieved only when the human being surrendered himself to the creative faculties. Baba was a devout Muslim, but his sur sadhana had brought him extremely close to the Hindu gods as well. For someone as spiritual as he was, it was difficult to paint his notes with colours of caste. This extraordinary musician, who named his daughter Annapurna after the Hindu goddess, said that he experienced oneness with God only through his music. When Baba fell ill, doctors advised that he be shifted to the hospital. Baba refused. He was a great devotee of Ma Sharada, and was adamant that he die at her feet, and not in a hospital. The shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan lived by the Ganges in Benaras and performed for Lord Vishwanatha every single day. Even a conservative lingayat like Mallikarjun Mansur learnt from Muslim gurus like Manji Khan and Burji Khan and had deep reverence for them. T. Brinda and Mukta, Shanmughavadivu, Veena Dhanam are all great scholars of music who came from the Devadasi community. But they were great repositories of music and upper caste maestros went to take lessons from them, including Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and R.K. Srikantan who learnt javalis from Brinda amma.

It’s a matter of great curiosity that how social evils never became major impediments in the artistic world. Religion and caste hierarchy did not become hurdles for learning. There are ever so many instances of Muslim gurus and Hindu students, upper caste shishyas and lower caste gurus. They lived together in the gurukula system, carried out duties for them. Even Kabir, who was born to Muslim parents, and was the disciple of a Hindu guru, said, “I am at once the child of Allah and Ram”. The world of music echoes the words of Kabir and great gurus and their disciples effortlessly transcended the boundaries.