Music is a jealous mistress – even the wife has to wait: Deepak S Raja

Of moods and meanings of music: Deepak S. Raja at his residence in Mumbai

Of moods and meanings of music: Deepak S. Raja at his residence in Mumbai   | Photo Credit: Ajay Babla

Deepak S Raja loves to dive into the intangible and silent universe of music which exists between the artist and his art

As one flipped through the pages of “The Musician and His Art”, the latest thought-provoking book by Deepak S Raja, its third chapter ‘Perspectives on Raga-ness’ rang a bell. More than two decades ago in the capacity of a member of the Academic Research Department, Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata, one was assisting Pandit Kumar Prasad Mukherjee (a formidable music analyst) and we chanced upon Raja’s article, ‘The Raga-ness of Ragas’, published in Sruti magazine.

The typical smirk on Kumarbabu’s face was enough to tell that he was amused. “This is called split-hair analysis, and this boy is good at it,” he said. Kumarbabu’s famous baritone had a tinge of nostalgia when he added, “Deepak’s father and I were colleagues in the Steel Authority of India. The family is known for its passion for music.”

Music is a jealous mistress – even the wife has to wait: Deepak S Raja

Nurturing a passion for music, practising it, analysing it from the viewpoint of an aesthete and then to put the essence of it all lucidly in black and white is a tall order. Kumarbabu’s and his predecessors’ era had seen many such greats who fitted the bill with amazing skill. In our times we have very few like Raja.

It is proved yet again that this author of four highly acclaimed works on Hindustani classical music is blessed with an analytical mind of a western art critic and a musical pen steeped in Indian-ness. Apparently, he loves to dive into the intangible and silent universe of music which exists with all its glory between the two tanpuras, between the two notes and between the artist and his art.

But this is also a fact that mere passion for music, familial or otherwise, cannot penetrate the thick layers of myths and mysticism associated with Indian arts that claim to transform both, its practitioner and its listener/viewer without enlightening mentorship!

The glowing tributes as the opening chapters of the book dedicated to two of his several mentors reveal that this aspect of Raja’s multifaceted personality was nurtured under the loving care of Prof SK Saxena, the “pioneering aesthete of Hindustani music” who taught him the philosophy at the Hindu College, Delhi and continued to guide him till “he stepped into the sunset”. Later, he found a rare guru in Gwalior Gharana exponent and revered musicologist Dr Ashok Ranade who inspired him to pursue an analytical study of music.

Detailed description

Music is a jealous mistress – even the wife has to wait: Deepak S Raja

Despite his extremely busy schedule, Raja happily rummages through his treasured memories and comes up with a detailed description of all his gurus’ diversely different teaching methodology, along with his views on several relevant issues.

“I was five and we lived in Delhi when I got interested in my mother’s sitar,” says Raja, “but was not big enough to handle it. Her teacher, therefore, initiated me to vocal and tabla and taught the rudiments (right-hand/ left-hand coordination) of plucked instruments on a bulbul tarang. Later, I graduated to sitar. By then we had moved to Pune and I was placed under the guidance of Ustad Usman Khan Abdul Karim Khan of the Dharwad-based sitarist family. His was the most commonly practised method: the Ustad plays, and the disciple follows. Within four years, he taught me alap and bandishes in 15 ragas, along with some pre-composed tans. During our annual vacations with grandparents at Bombay, I found my cousin Arvind’s sitar lessons very interesting and his guru Pulin Deb Burman, Maharajkumar of Agartala, a disciple of Ustad Enayet Khan and Prof. DT Joshi, gladly invited me in.”

Music is a jealous mistress – even the wife has to wait: Deepak S Raja

Occasional taleem with Burman along with recitals at school, college and state level competitions continued. The pressures of the secondary level of education and life in college hostels led him to records and cassettes and he became an avid collector of recorded music. In 1969, the 21-year-old started his professional life in Bombay.

Once settled, he started systematic regular taleem with Burman. His method was intense, where the training for each raga was more important than knowing hundreds of ragas. His taleem (he calls it A to Z) was like programming the mind with the protocol of raga-presentation. His idiom was with an emphasis on the bandishes, and the tantrakari ang, typical of Ustad Enayet Khan.

Around this time Raja got introduced to Pandit Arvind Parikh who had started teaching a few students. He heard him play and said that he could study with him. Burman liked the idea and it opened another chapter.

The Vilayat Khan-era

According to Raja, “By the time I started training with Arvind Bhai, I was a reasonably competent sitarist, but rooted in the orthodox pre-Vilayat Khan idiom. He brought me into the Vilayat Khan-era, and introduced an analytical rational way of approaching music, which was substantially his own. His taleem was about the nuances of technique, the lyricism of expression, the architectural logic of raga-presentation, the rich reservoir of compositions by the Etawah Gharana maestros along with his own compositions and his adaptation of khayal and tarana bandishes for engaging treatment on a plucked instrument. Burmanji too continued to teach me sitar and surbahar till he decided to retire from teaching in 1986. Since then Arvind Bhai is my sole guru. On Makar Sankranti in 1991, I was ritually initiated by him.”

He is a trained vocalist as well! “Vocalism entered my world and I was drifting into gayaki without being taught when my sisters started learning from Kirana Gharana stalwarts. Also, though Kesarbai’s commercial recordings are only three minutes each, my grand-uncle, Babubhai Raja, had secretly recorded many of her concerts. That archive was available to me. I heard each of their recordings hundreds of times, and virtually memorised them.”

Change of track

Later, he enjoyed a brief stint as a performing musician. But a recital in 1989 was a total disaster. He could not believe that after 30 years of being trained, he could produce such directionless music in a raga that he knew well, and had performed several times before. “That day, I decided that I had to go back to school. And, going back to school meant getting serious vocal music taleem.”

This took him to Dhondutai Kulkarni, the only disciple of Kesarbai Kerkar, and a respected Guru. “She agreed with the proposition that I would sing only to learn what she had to teach. The focus of my sessions with her was on understanding the raga variants that are the forte of Jaipur. The leap from my Kirana-oriented stylistic background (Kapileshwari, Faiyyaz-Niyaz Ahmed, Vilayat Khan and self-indoctrination from Ameer Khan) to the Jaipur territory was not a purposive choice of an alternative direction. Nor was it an abandonment of the sitar for vocalism. It was a decision to deepen my understanding of the raga-tattva through exposure to an entirely different (cerebral, oblique, enigmatic) approach from my native Kirana approach. Kirana was the master of the swara-by-swara logic. Jaipur was a master of the phrase-by-phrase building block. My decision was perhaps academic, as much as it was aesthetic.”

He prefers the khayal format for presenting ragas on the sitar to the sitar format because it allows the melody to be liberated more substantially from rhythm. “Jaipur is not obviously/ always present in my performance. But, perhaps invisibly, the phrase-by-phrase Jaipur logic of raga vistar has enriched my music-making process.” He did perform Bhimpalasi once, after an intensive study of Kesarbai’s concert recording. He was told that it was an unusually “majestic” interpretation of what is widely considered a delicate, lyrical raga.

Blessed with a sharp pen, one always wanted to know, what does he enjoy more – music making or scripting analysis?

“My gurus may regret that I did not commit myself to perform. But, I do not. Music is a jealous mistress – even the wife has to wait. Not being a performing musician has enabled me to do quality work in several non-musical fields. My experience tells me that the music community values my contribution as a musicologist more than it valued me as a musician. Society’s verdict on one’s usefulness is also valuable.”

Any Indian vidya is not without its share of mythology, philosophy, and science. All are thickly braided through which it is almost impossible to trace the authentic history of the subject. Can the popularly used western approach can do justice to the Indian-ness of the subject and touch its soul?

Academic rigour

“Musicology is a vast field, and I can only make general observations. There is much value in the academic rigour that western scholarship brings to the understanding of Indian music. But, academic disciplines are not culture-neutral. There is, therefore, a limit to which they can fathom the internal workings of musical traditions other than their own. I subscribe to my mentor Prof. Ranade’s view that there is a uniquely Indian relationship between the musician and his art, which manifests itself in music as performed. Likewise, there is also a uniquely Indian relationship between listeners and musicians, which gives them access to its pleasures. This uniqueness is not easily penetrable for the western scholarship. Ragas are not merely melodic entities. They are culture-specific archetypes. Their meaning resides in the racial memory.”

He admits there is a limit to the access this memory will permit to Western methods of inquiry. “Prof. Ranade expressed the view that music gives rise to three categories of writing. Writing related to music, writing about music and writing on music. Valuable writing on music is a barrier for western scholarship because that demands to get into the music and behind the music.”

Interpretation of evidence

Many feel ‘thinking is difficult, it is easy to judge and analyse’. “I presume this issue is specific to Hindustani music.” Judging, he says, is a natural. unavoidable and almost unconscious aspect of listening to music. “By the time performance is over – and sometimes even before that – we have decided whether we like it or not. The issue gets complicated when we have to share it publicly. Then, we have to defend our judgement. Judging requires a law or yardstick and interpretation of evidence. The yardstick complicates it further because there no binding law. The yardstick we apply is an aggregation of our training, our education in music and other subjects, our accumulated experience of listening to music, and our liberal or conservative orientation. These will differ from critic to critic. My view is that a judgement will be considered fair as long as the yardstick applied, and the inferences drawn from the available evidence are made explicit to the reader.”

Is beauty of language more important than the content and what should be the criteria for a good critical analysis? “A reviewer extends the scope to assess “How”. That brings in the element of judgement. I have referred to the issue earlier. The reviewer needs to have sufficient command over the language to effectively communicate what he/she intends to communicate. Beyond this, a truly gifted writer can raise a music review to the level of literature. But, that is a bonus. Even eminent judges have delivered judgements and the cricket commentators have produced reviews that qualify as literature. But, that is not their job.”

Heart or head?

It is generally believed that most of the Hindustani classical musicians of the golden era were almost illiterate whereas most of the present day artistes are highly qualified. Despite that many believe that this is only a ‘karant vidya’ and reviews, journals, papers and seminars are of little or no use.

“It seems unfair to believe that the era of ‘illiterate’ musicians was totally devoid of the intellectual inputs. It is not possible for that quality of music to have been produced without the support of very sophisticated thought processes. The intellectual interaction between musicians of that era was informal. Its language was probably imprecise. But, evidently, it functioned well as a means of supporting the evolution of the performing tradition,” he notes.

“A vibrant art music tradition requires a constant interaction between musicianship and scholarship,” he underlines. “Today, it is happening in a more formal way. But, I suspect the process does not involve as many musicians as it should. Nor does it appear to receive the quality of intellectual inputs from academia as it should. All in all, I doubt if the dialogue is as valuable as it was a century ago. Music and academics are both poorer for this reason.”

During music making what should rule – heart or head? “I can only quote Ustad Vilayat Khansaheb, “The three most important things about performing are – Raga, Raga, and Raga.” In one of the conversations with him, Khan Saheb said: “As long as you are working on a raga, you are still a student. When the raga starts working on you, you have become a musician.”

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2020 9:29:05 PM |

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