Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Review: Deepak Raja, Hindustani Music: A Tradition in Transition (2005)

Deepak Raja, Hindustani Music: A Tradition in Transition (Delhi: DK Printworld, 2005) 432 + xxiii pages

Review by Abhik Majumdar

(an edited version of this article originally appeared in 'The Book Review', August 2007)

Deepak Raja’s book is a very interesting, somewhat idiosyncratic compilation of articles. Reviewing it poses a challenge, as it escapes the usual taxonomic classification for writings on the subject. It is clearly not a scholarly work in the formal sense. As is the case with most compilations, the various topics it encompasses cover too broad a spectrum to merit the cohesiveness one associates with academic treatises. Moreover, though some footnotes and other references have been provided, they are sparse and infrequent.

On the other hand, characterising it as a compilation of journalistic essays will be inaccurate. It bears a depth of perception and analysis seldom found in such works, or indeed anywhere else. Moreover, unlike usual collections of short essays, this book seems to have been compiled with a definite, clear-cut objective in mind.

Indeed, so intriguing is Raja’s perspective that it makes more sense to focus on this than to chart out a conventional review. The author makes use of the rather provocative phrase ‘connoisseur activism’ to describe his agenda, which is very apt. Another approach is to treat the book as a response, a quintessentially Indian response, to certain (may I suggest, Western-inspired?) scholarly practices.

The discipline of ethnomusicology is traditionally anchored to a ‘cultural outsider’ approach. Its discourses begin with the assumption that the author has no specialist knowledge as such, and conducts his research using objectively verifiable methods and processes accessible to everyone.

Raja’s methods effectively amount to an inversion of this. In the introduction, he sets out his conception of the writer’s role: ‘A writer is, after all, nothing but a connoisseur who has decided to share his understanding with other connoisseurs. And, as such, he is part of the watchdog mechanism, which keeps art faithful to its elevating (sic) ideals.’

Thus he locates the author firmly within the cultural tradition on which the book bases itself. He assumes both author and audience to be ‘insiders’ to the tradition; indeed, the book is not likely to make sense to someone unfamiliar to it. Furthermore, Raja ascribes to the author the specialist knowledge reserved for initiates within the tradition.

Often, his pronouncements seem to be bare assertions unverified and unsubstantiated by external corroboration. Such an appraisal is misleading. His views are intended to make sense to only those who possess a familiarity with the subject-matter, and often it happens that this ‘making sense’ constitutes substantiation enough for ‘insider’ audiences, a fact that those unfamiliar with the milieu may fail to appreciate.

An example may bear this out. In the essay entitled ‘Archival Music and the Cultural Process’, he discusses the impact of sound recording on our musical tradition. In the course of this, he makes the startling pronouncement, ‘The guru sisya parampara was not very different from a reliance on pre-recorded music in its explicit intent.’ He goes on to point out that this pedagogical tradition invested considerable time and effort to ensure that the disciple emerged as a faithful clone of the mentor.

Fortunately, three human failings prevented this from being successful: imperfect perception, imperfect retention, and imperfect reproduction. As a result of these three, gaps in the disciple’s learning emerged over time, gaps which he was obliged to fill by interpolating his own ideas within the framework of the mentor’s tutelage. And in this manner, a modicum of originality was infused within the tradition. As Raja himself puts it, ‘Because of these imperfections, the traditional system became an effective instrument of continuity within change.’

I cannot imagine how such an insight can be empirically verified. Indeed, seeking objectively substantiate it approximates an exercise in futility. And yet the history or our music is filled with instances of talented musicians being denied recognition as artistes of the first rank, simply because they sounded too close to a Gharana forbearer. Hence, to those familiar with this background, Raja’s assertions make perfect sense; moreover, for them, substantiation in the conventional academic manner is neither necessary nor even useful.

The book is divided into five parts: viz. Culture, Terminology and Economics; Form, Idiom and Format; The World of Ragas; The Major Genres; and The Major Instruments. While all the parts conform to a uniformly high standard of exposition, to me personally, the first chapter is of especial value. Here the author deals with how our music relates to various social, economic and technical developments. In the chapter entitled ‘If Peanuts is What You Pay’, he even uses his background in finance to analyse how market forces have actually promoted a deterioration in musical quality:
The sums add up because of the role of the two dominant intermediaries in the music market: the recording companies, and concert sponsors. They are both playing a progressively larger financial role in the music market – without having either the need or the desire to promote quality music.
In the second part, the author examines musical practices such as Jugalbandis and the use of the Tihai (a threefold repetition of a short musical phrase designed to fill a specific number of beats). As it is, his opinions are forcefully expressed; in this part they tend towards the subjective at times.

The third part is also very interesting. Here, Raja examines certain aspects of the concept of Raga. In ‘Raga Chemistry and Beyond’, he draws parallels between Ragas and concepts of hemistry. Surely an original approach, though how far the parallels are borne out is a pertinent question. On the other hand, ‘Kedara at Sunrise’, where he debunks many commonly-held myths about the time theory of Ragas, is unquestionably a piece of analysis of the highest order.

The last two parts are keyed to more functional objectives. The inside flap describes them as respectively presenting ‘comprehensive backgrounders on the four major genres of vocal music’ and featuring ‘detailed factsheets on eight major melodic instruments of the Hindustani tradition.’

Here, more than his analytical insights it is his familiarity with the nuances of the subject matter that is manifest. In the chapter on the Rudra Veena, for example, he touches upon an astonishing range of topics, including mythical lore; historical antecedents; organology; instrument design; ergonomics; acoustics; and recent performers. These chapters surely constitute valuable resource material, notwithstanding the paucity of external references.

Another thing that stands out is his integrity. For example, he himself belongs to the school of Vilayat Khan the Sitar maestro. However, when discussing the origins of the Surbahar, whose creation has been variously ascribed to Sahebdad Khan (the maestro’s great-grandfather) and Ghulam Mohammed of Lucknow, he freely admits, ‘The latest research favours the latter attribution.’

All in all, it cannot be denied that the book marks an exciting new approach to writing on Hindustani music. To be honest, it is not without its drawbacks. At certain times the forcefulness and candour of Raja’s expression might give the impression of being opinionated. But when one attempts such a strongly individualistic work, I suppose this is only inevitable. In any case, it does not mar the overall excellence of the book.

However, I feel compelled to end with a caveat: A significant part of the book, especially the earlier chapters, presumes a prior familiarity with the subject matter on the part of the audience. For this reason, despite the author’s easy writing style, some parts of the work may not be accessible to laypersons.


Sushama said...

Thanks Abhik :). Now I must get hold of a copy!

Chetan Vinchhi said...

Thanks for the review Abhik. I was a bit startled and pleasantly surprised by "Kedara at Sunrise" since I have so recently talked to you about the mumbo-jumbo-ness of time associations of raagas! This is a compelling reason for me to go read the book :)

I am not sure about the parallels between guru-shishya method and the Sony gharana method. While I dislike the idea of a disciple licking the feet of the guru, close proximity and live interaction with the guru is not a one-way process. Listening to recorded material can augment formal training but cannot replace it. A great guru can catalyze and actively nurture originality in a shishya's music.

Arnab Chakrabarty said...

While I have found Deepak Raja's unquestioning endorsement of many traditional pedagogical practices (and what I regard as the evils of the "Guru-Shishya Parampara") quite shocking for a man of his erudition and exposure, the book was overall a wonderful read. My own view on the prospect of producing quality performers in the future, is perhaps not as pessimistic as Raja's.

The part I enjoyed was Raja's incisive analysis of the changing patterns of patronage of Hindustani music in the last 100 years, and their possible linkages to the qualitative and aesthetic shifts that this music is going through. I find myself in total agreement with Raja that HCM is indeed a tradition in transition - whether this is for the better or worse, time will tell.