Whats right with Indian music?


You know what I don’t like about those proverbial silver linings in the clouds? Sometimes you have to poke around so bloody hard for them that you almost give up hope. I’m afraid I’m feeling a bit like that at the moment, trying desperately to think of silver linings in the thick dark clouds that hover rather threateningly over the world of Indian music. But for whatever they are worth, here are some of the bright spots that I have been able to notice –

For one, we are sitting on nothing short of a massive and sadly untapped treasure trove of musical talent, and don’t let those guys who insist on glorifying the hoary past and running down the future tell you otherwise. And whatever you do, please please don’t let Ms. Pooja Bhatt tell you stridently that there is far better talent to be found in neighboring Pakistan. Don’t get me wrong because this really isn’t my shot at petty patriotism, but seriously, she and others of her ilk need to get out there and start listening to the many and diversely wonderful kinds of music that are made right here in this, our own country. Every genre of music in India that still hasn’t been throttled to death by the friendly Bollywood monster, and yes, even Bollywood music has young talent that could bring a smile to the faces of the most hardened skeptics and pessimists with the exception of Ms. Bhatt perhaps. Whether it’s the more heard and written about Bollywood singing stars such as Sunidhi Chauhan, Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal and others to the impossibly young, not-heard-often-enough and hardly ever written about Langa and Manganiyar children with their still-snotty noses who can take the stage by storm at any given moment, it’s amply clear and evident that there is talent in happy abundance in this country. Rock bands writing original songs in Hindi, English, Bangla and many other Indian languages, lounge, electronica, hiphop, rap, classical, semi classical, folk, tribal, qawwali and much more- it’s all out there waiting to be heard. But now here is where the silver lining is in danger of disappearing behind menacing dark clouds made up of the severely myopic vision of most people who control the music industry and this includes record labels, concert promoters, talent hunters out to make a quick buck. Any originality that the young and promising may show is swiftly and surely stifled to make way for the same stale fare that they believe is saleable. And there goes my silver lining number 1!

Now we all know that it’s both fashionable and lucrative to declare these days that one “does” Sufi music. Never mind the fact that a lot of the nouveau Sufi singers may not know whether this declaration refers to a genre or form of music or the poetic content of a song. With so many self styled Sufi experts running around a dime a dozen, I’m not sure I want to say this, but it has to do with my silver lining number two so I’ll say it nevertheless. In the midst of a whole host of freshman pseudo Sufi singers there are those who have kept alive a family tradition. I refer to the likes of the young qawwal Hamsar Hayat Nizami and his group, whose family has for years sung qawwali at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, and others such as Zaki and Zakir Ali of Ajmer. They could give you a real taste of Sufi poetry and Sufi music too, but once again they have had to pay a heavy price for being exponents of the real thing, so to say. Scour the record shops for any recordings and you aren’t likely to find them beaming down at you from a poster because none of the big wigs in the music industry thought fit to record and publish them. And thank heavens for that too, because had they been recorded, it is highly likely that they would have been coaxed into doing a disco and/or fusion/muqabla version of the qawwali! And just when you thought I was going to talk about the dark clouds again, here’s silver lining number 3! It took a music lover/film maker named Yousuf Saeed to record and publish a qawwali album featuring Hamsar and his group. What’s more, I’m pretty certain that there are other Indian musicians like Hamsar and Zaki Ali whom I may not have had the good fortune to hear, but whose work will be documented and made available by other independent producers like Yousuf Saeed.

While we are on the subject of documentation, here is another piece of good news for those who have an interest in archival music. After years of sitting tight on one of the largest catalogues of Indian music, Sa Re Ga Ma has re-launched CD versions of their 78 RPM records, making it possible for students of music to listen to recordings made over fifty years ago. Currently five albums featuring 78 RPM recordings of Hindustani vocalists Bai Sunderabai, Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Pt. Sawai Gandharva and Gaantapasvini Mogubai Kurdikar have been made available, and I sincerely hope that more albums of this nature are on the way because this is musical history being offered to those who value it. In a similar effort, Doordarshan has for some time now made available VCDs of music and dance from their archives. So you can actually watch footage of the inimitable Begum Akhtar, Shankar-Shambhu Qawwals, Pt. Mallikarjun Mansoor and others from the Doordarshan archives, that is, if you can lay your hands on the VCDs which are not readily available. Yet this is a truly commendable effort from the custodians of yet another mammoth archive of Indian music.

I’d also like to acknowledge with gratitude the immense contribution of non-resident Indians and non-Indian scholars and performers of Indian music, because like it or not, there are many from among this category who work quietly and dedicatedly for the cause of Indian music. They are never the recipients of the highly coveted and greatly lobbied for Padma awards or other national honors and yet, their contribution is valuable beyond doubt. People like Dr.B.N.Dixit, a Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh, USA, single handedly and selflessly ran a program for almost twenty years which brought hundreds of Indian musicians to the USA for performances and lecture demonstrations. There are others too like him, who need to be acknowledged for their devotion to Indian music. And then there are the performers and scholars like Allyn Miner (sitar), Adrian Mc Neil (sarod), Dr. Richard Widess, Joep Bor (sarangi), Ken Zuckerman (sarod), Steve Gorn (flute), Nancy Lech (cello), Francesca Cassio (dhrupad) and many others whose scholarship and proficiency in Indian music is redoubtable. And yet, many an Indian musician tends to retain a condescending attitude towards their work. It’s high time we dropped the condescension and acknowledged their work fairly.

By the way, if you are wondering why I haven’t brought up the matter of the Grammy nominations in this piece, let me confess it’s been a conscious choice. I am delighted that almost every year Indian musicians are nominated for the Grammies and for other awards such as the BBC World Music Awards. And I am absolutely thrilled that this year too we have two Indian musicians, or rather two musicians performing Indian music (sorry, I’m not too sure whether the lovely Anoushka Shankar has an Indian or an American passport) nominated for the Grammies. And I’m going to cheer for both Asha ji and Anoushka while I watch the Grammies on the telly. But what bothers me is the fact that they are nominated for a category called World Music. Why is there no separate category for Indian music or even for Asian Music despite its strong and unique presence in the world? Why do we have to be dumped into a category called World Music with the rest of the world? If the Recording Academy can accept a special set of awards called the Latin Grammies, why not a new Asian Grammy if not an all Indian Grammy? I’d rather wait for the Indian or Asian Grammies to happen before I include Grammy nominations for Indian musicians in my list of silver linings.

Shubha Mudgal

First published in Tehelka

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal

12 Comments

  •    Reply

    Dear Shubhaji,

    My name is Shandip Saha. I am postdoctorate fellow at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada where I completed my doctorate in Religious Studies. I did doctorate on the history of the Vallabha Sampradaya between 1493 and 1905 and have enjoyed your recordings over the years immensely.

    Your posting raised a number of important issues about the importance of documenting our musical history and the so-called dime a dozen Sufi music experts.

    The difficulty, however, for me is that we know so little about the life histories of Qawwals outside the Sabris and Nusrat and his extended family. One is not just talking about Qawwals who have gone unrecorded, but even those who are recorded but are not necessairly consisdered to be ‘superstars’ when compared to someone like Nusrat such as Shankar-Shambhu, Habib Painter Qawwal, Jafar Hussain Badayuni, and even Aziz Ahmed Warsi.

    These are all Qawwals who were recorded by HMV, Akashvani, and Music-Today yet there are no extensive biographical details about these individuals.

    The Doordarshan VCD of Qawwals was wonderful to watch but who were Shankar-Shambhu and how did two individuals with obviously Hindu names become famous Qawwals ? I just received the Aziz Ahmed Warsi CD from Akashvani in the mail yesterday, but it was maddening that liner notes contained no biographical details about this artists.

    Who are these other individuals we hear on recordings like Azad Qalandar, Jani Babu, and Habib Painter ? How did they become prominent enough to be included on compliation of old-style Qawwals. How has the Qawwal style evolved at least in its recorded form when we watch the Doordarshan VCD and compare it to the current Qawwal ‘superstars’ on the international stage ? Perhaps you could shed some light on these individuals. I could not think of anyone more qualified than you who could accomplish such a task.

    Thanks for reading…
    Shandip.

  •    Reply

    Dear Shandip ji,

    I hope you are going to accept my very profuse apologies for taking so long to respond to your comment on the blog. The truth is, hardly anyone ever uses the blog and I grew tired of checking for comments! Little did I realize that you would visit the blog and write back too. Many thanks for writing and for your comments about the urgent need for documentation.

    I have two friends who have been working with qawwals, and I would be happy to put you in touch with them. Yousuf Saeed, a film maker from Delhi has worked on qawwali quite extensively and continues to research various aspects of music making in India and Pakistan. His email ID is saeed.yousuf@gmail.com and he may have some information that would interest you.

    There is also Irfan Zuberi who has interviewed qawwals quite extensively. We may also get the opportunity to make some of these available at http://www.UnderscoreRecords.com shortly. But Irfan can be contacted at izuberi@hotmail.com .

    I personally do not have too much information about qawwals although I had the good fortune to listen to Jafar Hussain Badayuni several times, at the home of Smt. Naina Devi in Delhi. But it is an area that I would certainly like to study.

    I will, of course, keep you posted about any interesting information that I find. And it would be lovely if you could direct us to any research papers and writings that you feel would be of interest to students of music.

    Thank you once again, and I promise to be promt next time you post!

    Regards

    Shubha

  •    Reply

    Dear Shubhaji,

    There is no need to apologize for the delay in responding. I am so busy here in Canada with research and other personal responsibilities, that I get incredibly backed up in e-mail. Finding your e-mail in my box over a cup of tea was a great way to start off the week (along with listening to a recording of bhajans sung by Pt. Atul Desai).

    There seems to be something of a renaissance when it comes to so-called ‘long-lost’, ‘dying’ traditions of devotional singing in the subcontinent. One is not only talking about Qawwali, but also the resurgence in both Gurmat Sangit within the Sikh community and Haveli Sangit among our classical artists.

    Since my long-time research interest has been in Pushti Marga, I both admit that I have been quite happy yet also concerned about the recent spate recordings/adapatations of ‘Haveli Sangit’.

    I have been fortunate to listen to this genre of music sung in Pushti Marga shrines at Nathdvara, Kankaroli, Mathura, and Gokul, alongside the recordings of Vitthaldas Bapodara, Bhagvati Prasad Gandharva, Girish Karia and others.

    The recordings put out by our classical artists seem to be a rather pale reproduction of what the trained kirtaniyas sing. I am not sure why this is, but is this — like Qawalli — part of the comprises make when classical artists sing for a large audience outside the dargah or haveli ?

    The Qawalli style has to be tailored to the ears of a younger generation or — in the case of Haveli Sangit — to the ears of classical music lovers more used to the long improvisations associated with khyal singing. Even the much revered singer, Acharya Gokulotsavji Maharaj in his most recent recording of Haveli Sangit, did not follow the performance rules governing the style.

    I am starting to think perhaps one needs to make a distinction between concert and ritual performances of genres like Qawwal and Haveli Sangit where the music is sung treated according to what the setting tends to demand. In the case of Haveli Sangit, the manner in which a particular artist (who shall remained unnamed) and his disciples have been ‘popularizing’ and ‘adapting’ the song style for their concerts, has brought me quite close to experiencing multiple strokes. I have found the watering down of the genre to be mnost upsetting.

    Thank you for your interest in my research. I am just starting out in the academic world and my research is not really around music, but around comparative religion with an emphasis on medieval bhakti. Right now, my interest is in the Pushti Marga I have two articles forthcoming related to the history of the Pushti Marga. I will be more than happy to send you citations for them when they are finally out.

    Thank you as well for pointing me in the correct direction concerning the Qawwals in India. I will be soon in touch with these expertsi n the field.

    I have one final question: you edited the Dipavali (now renamed Mangal Swara for some reason) volume for Music-Today where you and Pts. Rajan-Sajan Misra sing Dipavali compositions. I was wondering if you could tell me who wrote the last composition sung by the Misras on their contribution. It was in Raga Bihag and — I presume — a shayana arati pada entitled “Panse Khelat Pritama Pyari”. It didn’t seem to be by the poet who wrote the pada that you sang on the “Pansa” theme on your contribution to the volume.

    Apologies for the long post. I am starting to think I have hijacked your blog for myself. Take your time in answering.

    Yours,
    Shandip.

  •    Reply

    Dear Shandipji and Shubha,

    Just checked your exchange and decided to pitch in!

    Shankar-Shambhu were interviewed and recorded for the archives of the Department of Music, University of Mumbai. This was when Dr. Ashok Ranade headed the Department. I am not sure of the present state of the archives, but it would be well worth our while to check these out.

    Cheers,

    Aneesh

  •    Reply

    Dear Shandip ji,

    I’d like to mention that classical musicians seem to have been borrowing from Haveli Sangeet texts for some time now, and this trend can in no way be considered recent.

    The Bihaagda khayal composition ‘pyaari paga haule…/प्यारी पग हौले..’ is an example of this process, where the song text has been taken from a Haveli Sangeet verse, and adapted for khayal. Similarly, I found the popular Bihag composition ‘lata ulajhi suljhaa jaa baalam/लट उलझी सुलझा जा बालम’ in a collection of तीज कौ पद , so this borrowing of texts and perhaps even musical ideas from Haveli Sangeet is really not something that contemporary classical musicians can take credit for.

    As for your concern that classical musicians are taking liberties with the form, or not adhering to the norms of kirtan and samaaj gayan, I feel you need not worry too much unless a classical artiste is claiming that he or she is presenting Haveli Sangeet. I, for one, have never claimed that I am presenting Haveli Sangeet. I have said repeatedly that I am inexorably drawn to singing the texts that I find in Pushti Margi collections, or Gaudiya Sampradaya collections, and my compositions of these texts sometimes can be classified as khayal compositions; at times, there are influences of thumri-dadra; and at times, they do not adhere to any specific form.

    The चौपड़ का पद sung by Rajan ji and Sajan ji in Deepavali is taken from the third volume of a collection titled श्री राधावल्लभजी का वर्षोत्सव, published in Vrindavan. It is not a shayan aarti pad to the best of my knowledge, but is part of the repertoire presented during Deepavali and Annakut, where Thakur ji traditionally plays a game of ‘chaupar’ with Priya ji and the sakhis. While there is no clear indication of the authorship, it is possibly written by Goswami Shri Govardhanlal ji. Would you like to go through the complete verse?

    Btw, it isn’t too difficult to guess which classical artiste with his disciples you are referring to 🙂

    But, one kirtaniya whom I heard some years ago and who now comes frequently to the Radha Raman temple in Vrindavan for raag sewa, is Chandra Prakash ji from Kishangarh in Rajasthan. Do listen to him too if you get the chance.

    Regards

    Shubha

  •    Reply

    Let us skip bollywood music in this comment. I don’t agree with your thoughts much… The blog looks like pointing-finger-game. Here is my take on Indian music. I may be wrong here due to my ignorance of Indian music. The whole Indian music (classical, instrumental etc.) has really ‘Get-to-know’ or ‘deprivation’ problem. I still don’t see the documentation of Indian music freely available – on web/library. Check western music – every thing is documented properly. Any kid can get the documentation free on web or in local library (in developing countries) and learn it on her/his own. Mentoring can come later. Why don’t you all big guns (classical/instrumental musicians) create a web-site (not collection of scattered web-sites for personal use), vcd/dvd/free online book on Indian classical and instrumental music, than can be accessed by any kid (say remote village in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra). Do that before you (all big guns) die. Think about ‘die’ statement positively. It is like creating OPEN-UNIVERSITY-FOR-INDIAN-MUSIC (like wikipedia) on web with lessons, tutorials, practice sessions etc. Feel free to connect the music of the WORLD through that web-site. Lets have some Jam Sessions in villages of India – it doesn’t matter is it classical or alternative. I still don’t understand why Sufi Music is missing in Ahmednagar, just looking at history.

  •    Reply

    ForgetIt,
    you are right: you are wrong due to your ignorance of indian music. We do have more than enough pseudo musicians (indian classical) specially outside India, I do not even wish to think what would happen if such a OPEN-UNIVERSITY-FOR-INDIAN-MUSIC would exist…anyway and anyhow there are enough websites (some of them are also good) with lots of good material, learnig material, for someone who can discern.
    On the other hand, indian classical music cannot be learned the way people learn western music (even though in my humble opinion NO music can be learned that way, or should not be learned that way). It is simply not possible to have indian classical music documented the way western music is.
    There are other things that should be done to make classical music more available to more people, but certainly not lower its contents by simplifying it to the point of publishing useless material on the web so that everybody can start “playing” it or learning it. In any case, that wouldn’t be Hindustani Classical for sure, since this music is to be learned under the guidance of a guru and under the protecting umbrella of the century-old master-disciple tradition. The difficulties of finding a good teacher, as well as the difficulties of finding deserving students, are another topic.
    Regards,
    Meera

  •    Reply

    Meera, I think u r trying to keep this music privileged or probably for deserving students. If u look at the world and try to find out who deserves what, you will go mad. I am trying to find out why mass people are not reached for indian classical music. I would at least expect u to mention few good web-sites that could teach people to learn Indian classical music. Otherwise, it just becomes ranting. Who is a good/bad teacher/student is not my business. People creating pseudo music is also not. Just document those things before u die. That is what I am trying for. I want OPEN-UNIVERSITY-FOR-INDIAN-MUSIC. You will find more eager students to learn indian classical music if u do this. That would help to make better teachers/students. I still don’t understand whats the big deal about documenting music and putting it on web. Document as much as u can to start with. Let people figure out how to learn indian classical music. Let me see some good classical students and teachers in cities like Ahmednagar in Maharashtra/India.

  •    Reply

    ForgetIt,

    it is dawning on me that it is useless to try to make you understand that IT IS NOT POSSIBLE to have indian music documented the way you want, because – I repeat – that wouldn’t be hindustani classical, but just dead information. This music is a living thing.

    You should first go try learn from a guru and then come back and speak about your desires.

    I simply cannot believe that somebody, recongnizing his own imcompetence in one field, can get so stubborn as to argue about it.

    This music will not die because there are people who still preserve it. And OF COURSE this music is not for everybody. And there are many institutions to learn it. Unless you want one just across your street…You seem to be a westerner, judging by your lazy attitude. That is why I am not going to waste my ginger on monkeys, you can find MANY things in the internet if you know how to use it. He who knows how to search, he will find.

    Enough on this subject from my side.

    Thanks, Shubha ji, for being a pioneer and for making this space open to discussions.

    Regards,
    Meera.

  •    Reply

    Meera,
    Again it is just a ranting… Visiting Guru to learn has been already considered from my perspective. Still waiting for something constructive frorm you that could be useful for people rather than making it personal. Thanks.

  •    Reply

    Dear F.I.,

    I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had a hard time learning about classical music. The good news is that there is a good source in Ahmadnagar, where it seems that you live. Pavan Naik runs the Naad Brahma music school there. He is a good singer (a student of Vikas Kashalkar) and a good teacher, and is tremendously openhearted about teaching. He is dedicated to teaching anyone who wants to learn. You also mentioned that you are interested in Sufi music. Pavan has studied Farsi and Urdu and sings Qawwali, as well, though he is primarily a khyaliya. He would be a good starting point if you are interested. His email address is pavannad@rediff.com.

    Nice blog, Shubha ji. I really enjoyed your presentation on Thumri last month in Pune.

    With Best Wishes,
    Matthew Rahaim

  •    Reply

    Thanks to all of you for adding your comments on this blog. I was beginning to despair since for so long there were no comments. This sudden spate of activity is most welcome.

    Do write in and let me know if there is any issue in particular, related to music , that you would like to discuss.

    Regards

    Shubha

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