Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Hoax of the Century - I


- K N Ienger

[Sh Keshavram N Iengar, professor of architecture and a keen sangeet rasik, studied music under Dr H G Moghe, a disciple of Eknath Pandit of Gwalior. Sh Iengar penned this lengthy article in December 1985, shortly before his death. It was sent to us by his student and DSS regular Suvir Misra. Abubakr Khalidi, another regular, kindly undertook to re-type and format the original scanned manuscript. Many thanks, Suvir and Abubakr!

[A caveat: Many aspects of the article are controversial. Sh Iengar's viewpoints are keyed to a bygone era, and present-day readers might not relate to them easily. Parts of the article may seem outmoded, even idiosyncratic. This is especially true of his very strong views on performers many of us venerate. Readers are requested to treat the article in its proper spirit, and exercise due moderation in their responses. It goes without saying that the opinions expressed are solely the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DSS blog or its members.]

Benefit Programme by SURSAGAR

Q. “Aren’t you going to attend the concert of Bhimsen Joshi?”

A. “They couldn’t afford it.”

Q. “What do you mean?”

A. “You see, I have a rate for most of the Hindustani classical vocalists. I must be paid so much an hour for listening to them. For Bhimsen Joshi I would charge Rs. 1, 000/- per hour.”

Q. “You are kidding.”

A. “I am not. If only you knew how little of music these reputed ‘names’ had with them. Why, even the simplest of ‘folk music’ has more elements of genuine music than these ‘classical festivals’ so fervently advertised. “

Q. “Aren’t you taking an extreme view – rather airing your prejudices too blatantly? Bhimsen Joshi is a box-office draw, you know.”

A. “That’s one of this century’s hoaxes. Have you observed how these vocalists get worse and worse as they grow in age?”

Q. “It may be the strain of years and from failing faculties.”

A. “Not quite. It’s because they must progress; and if you have set out on a wrong track to begin with, you must grow wronger and wronger as you go along. Can you imagine any of our saint-musicians singing more and more abhorrently as they grew older?”

Q. “That’s because they had fewer aspects of music to contend with. They were immersed in their bhakti and their words and notes (svara and sahitya) flowed from the fullness of their hearts.

A. “You’ve hit the nail on the head. And what are the greater aspects our classicists are contending with? “

Q. “The raga exposition, the tala gymnastics, their vocal acrobatics, their public image , kowtowing to the A.I.R., the Music Academies, the Media people, and……”

A. “Perfectly right. You have exposed the case already. And where do bhakti and sahitya find a place in this music? Would you not agree that ‘folk-music’ has more rasa than the Hindustani classical music of today?”

Q. “Yes. How then did it get the label of ‘classical music’ at all?”

A. “Indeed. Should not all the patrons of ‘Hindustani classical music’ raise the same question? Does classical literature have less meaning than non-classical literature, or is classical architecture less useful and beautiful than ordinary architecture? How does any art get to be ‘classical’? The ‘classic’ or ‘classical’ in any art represents a ‘standard of excellence’, achieved over generations of application and which is long lasting. In classical art the elements of form and meaning are perfectly blended, as in Nature, whence we have excellence of form and nobility of content. Such classical human works approach the perfect beauty of Nature. This does not mean that human art should imitate the outward form of Nature. “Art imitates Nature in Her manner of operation”, as St. Thomas Aquinas said. Accordingly, there is more perfection in the padmasana of the stone and metal images of our deities than in the realistic lotuses of Ravi Verma. How could a botanical lotus support a buxom woman?

In Indian vocal music the constituent elements are – svara, pada and laya or notes, words and rhythm; or more completely – svara, sahitya, raga, rasa and tala. Svara is the mathematical correctness of musical notes and also the constituent notes of the melody. The combination of certain consonant notes (samvadi svaras) taken in a scale, constitute a raga. Each valid raga has a distinct atmosphere and the several raga-modes become the means of expressing a mood or bhava more powerfully than if the song did not have the atmosphere of a raga. Remember that a raga is an aid to bhava and does not express a distinct bhava independent of the words of the song. The sahitya and the svaras raga together become the means of communication of bhava or rasa. There is no bhava or rasa in instrumental music, contrary to what many people believe. As for talas, there is no music without rhythm, and the rich Indian patterns of rhythm (talas) are a special feature of Indian music.

The various talas provide the gait and tempo to each song – like the gait of an elephant, camel, a horse and so on; that is, provided the words of the composition (cheez) are at all articulated. There is no significance of tala with Hindustani vocalists who do not have a literary composition to present, but refer to the tala only to return to arrive at the sam, in the refrain. For such rendering, one tala would be as good as any other, and the vocalist and tablist could go their separate ways most of the time.

There’s another element in addition in vocal music – the alankars – musical embellishments that must be appropriate to the text and the dignity of the theme of the particular song. How can you have a cascade of tans in a song that says: “Karim nam tero” or “Pida na jani”? Musical alankars do no pass muster by themselves independent of the composition. But what do you

find with this element currently? At certain point in the recital of a cheez, the singer begins his battery of tans. This is just like saying: “You can begin laughing after I have told you all the jokes of the evening.”

Musical alankars must be taken with the sahitya or not at all. There is really no place for tanbaji (an indulgence of tans for their own sake) in the rendering of the Khyal or Thumri or Tappa. It may go if at all, with a Tarana. But it seems to be feature borrowed from the instrumentalists, while playing fast gats.”

[Continued in Part II]

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