Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Review: Janaki Bakhle, Two Men and Music (2005)

Janaki Bakhle, Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2005) 338 + xvi pages

Review by James Stevenson

(an edited version of this article is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of the 'Journal of Indian Musicology')

This book had been recommended to me and i was eager to read it. It was though a disappointment and following are the reasons why. I believe this review is coming out in the coming issue of the Journal of Indian Musicology. I don't know about the rest of you but I object to recent history being hijacked by high-flying American academics like the author of this book. I do not belong to their club and do not speak their impenetrable p.c. lingo. I suppose we ignorants do not understand the post-modernist construct or whatever it is called. I made an effort to be generous and appreciative too of the good things in the book.

At the turn of the twentieth century fundamental changes were taking place in the patronage and performance of North Indian classical music. Two Men and Music by Janaki Bakhle provides a critical view of the recent musical past, with a focus on the modernizing work of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872-1931).

This unpopular musicologist and popular vocalist were responsible for giving “Indian classical music, as we understand and recognize it today, its distinct shape, form, and identity”, according to the author (5). “Bhatkhande tried to classify, categorize, and classicize music, whereas Paluskar worked to cleanse and sacralize it” (8). However, the two men are set up as adversaries whom the author adjudges respectively a failure and a success.

The shift from a declining system of court patronage to one of public performance, and from the control of hereditary Muslim ustads to that of the Hindu elite, is engagingly told in Bakhle’s book. Beginning with the Baroda court of Sayajirao Gaekwad, she provides a fascinating insight into the musicians’ roles in this court, particularly of the pioneering music reformer Maula Baksh (1833-96). The picture presented contradicts a commonly held view on the exalted position of musicians in princely states.

Bakhle follows this up with a chapter on colonial writers, late-nineteenth-century music appreciation societies, and the Marathi theatre. The themes developed in the first two chapters – modernity, colonialism, nationalism, religiosity, communalism, and institutionalized teaching – are pursued in the following chapters on V.N. Bhatkhande and V.D. Paluskar. Biographies of two musicians, Abdul Karim Khan and his daughter Hirabai Barodekar, conclude this social history of North Indian classical music.

Bakhle deserves praise for making a new body of literature available to scholars, for asking critical and sometimes uncomfortable questions, and for demonstrating that Hindu nationalist sentiments and the “cleansing” of music played an important role in the modernization process. While the appropriation of music by the Hindu bourgeoisie is convincingly documented in Two Men and Music, I feel that it is built on shaky historical foundations and some wrong assumptions. Let me give three examples.

1. With today’s knowledge it is hard to maintain that North Indian music was an unmarked practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (4). Although Bakhle complains about a paucity of sources (16), there exist numerous treatises and books on Hindustani music that tell us a great deal about musicians, musical practices and repertoire. Using such Persian, Urdu and Hindi sources, Allyn Miner and other scholars have demonstrated that major changes took place took place in the world of music during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Indeed, it was not the period of colonial rule that marked the beginnings of music’s transformation, but the late Mughal period. It was then that courtesan singers dominated the musical scene, the vocal genres khayal and thumri rose to prominence, and instruments such as the sitar, sarod and tabla emerged. In other words, it was not a new “classical music [that] emerged in a period of colonial modernity” as Bakhle claims (15), but a new social context with new patrons and audiences to support it.

2. Was Captain N. Augustus Willard – an early-nineteenth-century authority on Hindustani music – a Christian ideologist with a missionary zeal (55-62)? Willard was neither a typical colonial writer, nor a captain in the British army as Bakhle takes for granted. He was an officer in the service of the music-loving ruler of Banda, Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Bahadur. As a Eurasian who had probably spent most of his life in India, and as “disciple” of the music scholar Hakim Salamat Ali Khan from Benares he should be considered a native writer, not a colonial writer.

Willard and his famous precursor William Jones were responsible for the notion that Indian music had declined, and there is no doubt that Bhatkhande used their thoughts for his own agenda. The mid-nineteenth-century Muslim scholar Hakim Muhammad Karim Imam shared the opinion of Willard that “most native performers of this noble science are the most immoral set of men on earth”.

In Karam Imam’s view, the musicians who taught or accompanied dancing girls were “crazy idiots” who put “even the devil to shame”. Bakhle singles out a few passages and speculates that colonial religiosity played a constitutive role in the making of Indian music’s modernity (95-95, 257). This says more about Bakhle’s own agenda (and her selective reading) than Willard’s “Christian moral outrage”. In my reading, Willard was a positivist and a staunch secularist, like Bhatkhande.

3. Bakhle avoids the topic of baijis and tawaif. She wrongly assumes that these courtesan singers and dancers were low-caste, disrespectable prostitutes who played a peripheral role in the music world. According to her, and thanks to Bhatkhande and Paluskar, “a space was created that women were able to use to enter the public cultural sphere” (11-12, 258). In fact, courtesan singers had always been in the forefront.

As classical and light-classical singers they were far more visible (and audible) than their ustads, not only in the courts but also at public ceremonies and celebrations. At the turn of the twentieth century, Gauharjan was perhaps the most famous North Indian vocalist. The enormous volume of recordings of courtesans produced in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the continued prevalence of their music reaching its zenith of popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s with Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar, suggests a failure of the forces of “cleansing” despite the concurrent striving for respectability.

A far more complex and nuanced picture of Hindustani music in the last three centuries has emerged in recent years. But like many autodidacts, Bakhle seems disinclined to build on the work of others, particularly the work of Charles Capwell and Micheal Rosse who deal with the same period and similar topics. Instead, she presents her own, rather straightforward picture of North Indian classical music reclaimed by Hindu nationalists from Muslims through a process of sacralization.

On the one hand, she overlooks the continuity of traditions with Hindu religious connotations comfortably continued by Muslim musicians at the Mughal and other North Indian courts – most obviously in the repertoire, dominated throughout by sacred inspiration and themes. On the other hand, Muslim musicians – male and female – continue to participate comfortably in the public classical music domain. Contrary to the impression given by Bakhle, bhakti-oriented music in the form of bhajans (sometimes seen as a virtuous alternative to thumris) has had no significant impact on the modern classical repertoire.

Writing on Bhatkhande, she calls him “one of Indian music’s most contentious, arrogant, polemical, contradictory, troubled, and troubling characters” making him sound like one of India’s Most Wanted (99). I don’t find her summary of his life and work to support her provocative judgment, and even the negative portrait she presents does not show a “tragic figure”, “flawed secularist” and “failed modernist” (97) – heroic visionary would be more appropriate.

Certainly Bhatkhande’s notation system ingenious in its simplicity has rendered any others, like Paluskar’s, obsolete. His that system of raga classification and his standardization of ragas are some other contributions that have gained common currency in music circles. His Kramik Pustak Malika, the six volumes of 1800 collected vocal compositions, is a work monumental in scope unchallenged as the reference book of North Indian vocal music. Bakhle’s familiarity with the subject is open to question as she states erroneously that the songs were originally composed in Marathi and translated into Hindi (126).

In advancing the communal angle of modernization and attributing motives to Bhatkhande’s modernizing agenda, Bakhle has relied on selectively chosen private correspondence and inferences that are unlikely to withstand scrutiny of a much broader polemic, which involved many eminent musicians and musicologists – arguments not presented by the author but continuing in the present-day.

Bakhle has not given credit to the musicological contributions and success in pedagogy of Bhatkhande’s followers. Many important singers and composers of the last century spent time at the Marris College under S.N. Ratanjankar’s guidance in the two decades of its heyday; among them Kumar Gandharva, Balasaheb Poochwale, D.T. Joshi, Chinmoy Lahiri, Dinkar Kaikini, Sumati Mutatkar, V.G. Jog, K.G. Ginde, and S.C.R. Bhat. Some of these have been well-known authorities and teachers who have taught thousands of students.

Outside this circle acknowledging their debt to Bhatkhande have been musicologists like Thakur Jaidev Singh. The curriculum developed by Bhatkhande and Ratanjankar has been adopted by all the universities with departments of North Indian music. Even now in any discussion of music, Bhatkhande’s name inevitably appears. Clearly, his legacy does not seem a failure, except for the hoarding of important resource material concerning Bhatkande by some of his followers. This is unfortunate, and perhaps the author’s highlighting her difficulties in obtaining this material will result in some re-thinking by those people.

Bakhle also seems to regret that Bhatkhande did not accept the possibility of an Indo-Persian hybrid origin of North Indian music (214), or that he did not include South Indian music (133) or do more to help Muslim musicians participate in his modernizing agenda. In other words, he was not politically correct in conformity with today’s post-modernist and post-colonial theorizing. These are among the author’s most contentious conjectures unlikely to be taken seriously by musicologists.

The polemical portrait painted by Bakhle of Bhatkhande is far removed from the usual hagiography, and thanks to her book his prickly, arrogant personality will not soon be whitewashed from history. While the importance of Bhatkhande and Paluskar is undeniable, presenting them as arbiters of modernism in the national context is overstated and leaves the musicians on the sidelines of history. To put it bluntly, Two Men and Music is another Great Men history, in spite of the fact that the two men are framed in a nationalist context and their weaknesses are exposed. For this and other reasons, Bakhle’s book is likely to provoke much debate and criticism, although many may find the cumbersome academic prose difficult to digest.


1 Whether the situation in Baroda can be used to generalize on the concurrent situation of musicians in other courts is debatable, considering a wide variety of experiences in dozens of princely states and zamindaris.

2 Allyn Miner, Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel Verlag, 1993; rpt. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

3 Bakhle thinks that khayal rose to prominence in the twentieth century (6).

4 And he did not publish his work in 1793 but in 1834.

5 Joep Bor, “The Rise of Ethnomusicology: Sources on Indian Music c.1780 - c.1890”, Yearbook for Traditional Music 20, 1988: 51-73; “Three Important Essays on Hindustani Music”, Journal of the Indian Musicological Society 36-37, 2006: 5-14.

6 N. Augustus Willard, A Treatise on the Music of Hindoostan: Comprising a detail of the ancient theory and modern practice, Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1834; rpt. in S.M. Tagore, ed., Hindu Music from Various Authors, Varanasi: Chowkhamba, 1965: 29.

7 Govind Vidyarthi, trans., “Melody Through the Centuries”, Sangeet Natak Akademi Bulletin 11-12, April 1959: 14, 19.

8 Suresh Chandvankar, ed., “My Name is Gauhar Jan”, 2002.

9 Charles Capwell, “Musical Life in Nineteenth-Century Calcutta as a Component in the History of a Secondary Urban Center”, Asian Music 18 (1), 1986: 139-63; “Sourindro Mohun Tagore and the National Anthem Project”, Ethnomusicology 31 (3), 1987: 407-30; “Marginality and Musicology in Nineteenth-Century Calcutta”, in Comparative Musicology and Anthropology


Jonathan said...

Well done James. Generally convincing and informative as well as
analytical. Maybe the notion of hindustani music's history being hi-jacked by high-flying American academics with their 'impenetrable p c jargon' is unnecessarily strong . . it is an open field after all. Pity that Ms Bakhle seems to have ploughed such a willfully crooked furrow with her mistakes and questionable agenda.

Lali said...

One of the best book reviews I have ever read. The opening paragraph is somewhat belligerent, as Jonathan points out, but what follows is extremely well-written and entertaining.

Anonymous said...

The initial and final portions of the review seem to contrast strangely with the bulk of the review - in which Ms. Bakhle comes across as an ideologically motivated but factually challenged provocateur.

Whether it is an academic's place to expose the 'personal arrogance' of someone who lived over a century ago is debatable. Could this be the rise of an Oprah Winfrey school of history ?