Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Review: Uma Vasudev, Hariprasad Chaurasia: Romance of the Bamboo Reed (2005)

[Given the latest controversy concerning Hariprasad Chaurasia, I thought it might be a good idea to repost here this review I had written back in 2005.]

Uma Vasudev, Hariprasad Chaurasia: Romance of the Bamboo Reed (Gurgaon: Shubhi Publications, 2005) 350 pages

Review by Abhik Majumdar

(an edited version of this article originally appeared in 'The Book Review', May 2005)

Uma Vasudev’s biography of Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, the renowned flautist, comes across as a mixed bag. At one level, there is little to distinguish it from most run-of-the-mill hagiographical accounts of musicians and their lives. Other reviewers hold that it reads more like an autobiography. I feel compelled to agree; to my mind it comes across exactly like a ghosted autobiography written for some reason in the third person. And yet the book contains several strongly redeeming features. Hagiographical or not, it is a sensitively rendered portrayal of the maestro’s life. More importantly, it manages to shed light on a crucial period in the history of Hindustani music.

The narrative starts on a rather drab note. It frequently tends towards the overblown and sentimental, which is underscored by the extensive use it makes of the active voice. In an autobiographical account, such a device comes across as perfectly normal. However, in a work rendered from a third-person perspective, it only serves to test our credibility. How, for example, is the author so sure about the exact words young Hariprasad’s father employs when telling him of his mother’s death?

Be that as it may, the maestro’s early life was every bit as eventful as his later years. Born into a thoroughly unmusical family, the son of a renowned wrestler, he sustained his passion under the most harrowing of conditions. His father dreamt of making his son a champion wrestler, and would fly into a rage at any mention of music beyond votive bhajans. A kindly dhrupad singer who lived in the neighbourhood agreed to give him lessons on the sly. Young Hariprasad would leave the house on the pretext of going to the temple, and spend time with his mentor instead. As he grew older, he began to learn typing, and even secured a job as stenographer. This phase of his life ended with his getting radio assignments, and finally a job as staff artist.

The post-independence era marked the end of princely states and the zamindari system, the traditional sources of benefaction for musicians. In their place, four new institutions of patronage began to assume significance, namely the radio (and other government agencies), cinema, the concert circuit and, eventually, record companies. Chaurasia’s career also began from around that time. In successive stages, he drew sustenance from each of them. Through the maestro’s eyes, the text provides us a unique first-hand account of these bodies and their evolution. The first is singled out for especial attention, since the maestro owes considerably to his tenure with All India Radio, initially at Cuttack and then at Bombay. Interestingly, from this point on, even the narrative quality improves perceptibly. One finds a tautness hitherto absent; even the active voice is used in a more restrained manner, and also feels much more appropriate than it did earlier.

It stands to the credit of the author that she handles Chaurasia’s knotty personal life with refreshing candour. While stationed in Cuttack, he met and fell in love with a young singer called Angurbala. At around the same time, his father fixed his marriage without even informing him. Unable to either defy his father or forsake his beloved, he ended up marrying twice, the second one (to Angurbala, renamed Anuradha) admittedly being invalid in the eyes of law. Kamala, the first wife, looked after his father in Allahabad, while Anuradha ended up moving with him to Bombay.

This shift marked another epoch in Chaurasia’s life. His work with the radio continued unabated, but he also began gaining recognition in other circles. He earned frequent concert engagements. Moreover, he even made a name for himself in the film industry as a provider of incidental music. His circle of friends increased; many, like the santoor exponent Shiv Kumar Sharma have remained close to this day. However, professional and financial success spawned in its wake a growing sense of detachment, a feeling that his tutelage was somehow incomplete. He resolved to seek guidance from Annapurna Devi, the reclusive daughter of Baba Allauddin Khan and a musical colossus in her own right. Chaurasia took more than a year to persuade her to accept him as a disciple. He even switched to a left-handed playing style to demonstrate his dedication. But once he succeeded in convincing her, he was made privy to her innermost worlds as very, very few were.

The book attains remarkable heights in documenting Chaurasia’s training under Annapurna Devi. Her peculiar timings (lessons from ten at night to one or two in the morning), volatile temperament, exacting requirements from her students, even her unique teaching methods - it recounts in sensitive detail all that he experienced at first hand, and provides unparalleled insights into the personality of that most enigmatic of musicians. It also sheds light on her son Shubho, who somehow couldn’t live up to his early promise and was destined to die a tragically unfulfilled artist at the age of fifty. Chaurasia and he were of the same age, and inevitably became close friends and confidantes.

This period also witnessed upheavals in the maestro’s personal life. His first wife and her children also moved to Bombay. The potentially catastrophic situation was saved by an almost unbelievable stroke of luck – the two wives warmed up to each other and soon became close friends. Professionally, he began to flower in earnest. Film offers, foreign tours and domestic concert engagements began flooding in. Even record company executives, initially reluctant to venture into flute albums, began to pursue him. He and Shivkumar Sharma teamed up to compose film music with great success. Ultimately, he set up his own gurukul in a Bombay suburb. Gradually, the uncertainty of his early life came to be replaced by a stodgy stability befitting an acclaimed classical musician. Here onwards, the narrative lapses into hagiography. It does little more than recount the maestro’s successful career and family life exclusively from his point of view. One chapter is devoted to his students and how they have fared in the professional circuit. Another discusses for some obscure reason his prominent women admirers and his relations with them – in my opinion, completely superfluous!

In general, I feel where the book really succeeds is in its treatment of the maestro’s interchanges with the musical world. Through its portrayal of radio-station politics, Annapurna Devi’s warm-hearted eccentricities, record executives’ misgivings about classical albums, the venerable flautist Pannalal Ghosh’s reluctance to teach and so on, it documents vital chunks of the post-independence history of classical music. When it comes to the man himself, it does not tell us anything more than what he himself wishes to reveal. (This, of course, contributes to the book’s strongly autobiographical flavour.)

Even regarding Chaurasia’s musical innovations, the narrative fails to satisfy. For example, it recounts how he derived his technique from the tantrakari ang, or the performative idiom associated with stringed instruments. Special reference was made of the jhala movement. Now, jhala as played on stringed instruments makes extensive use of the chikari or drone strings. This is naturally not possible on the flute. Chaurasia’s technique actually resembles that employed by dhrupad singers, which consists of individual notes produced in very quick succession three or four times. More crucially, the narrative altogether leaves out how he adapted to the flute the gat-toda form, which involves systematic Raga-expansion on the basis of compositions and note-patterns set to rhythm-cycles. This comprises the most significant departure from the gayaki-ang or vocal-idiom so far followed by flautists. Consequently, its omission becomes all the more inexplicable.

However, the positive features of the book are so compelling that these lacunae can be ignored to a decent extent. In conclusion, therefore, this book may be recommended to laypersons and scholars alike, with the caveat that the insights it provides into 20th century developments in music, rather than the main narrative about the man himself, are what really make it worthwhile.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

What's with this Kolaveri about John Doe Injunctions?

What's with this Kolaveri about John Doe Injunctions?

[This is a revised version of an article originally written for the Down to Earth website. While it may not pertain specifically to Shastriya Sangeet, I felt that the issues that it does address, viz. copyright and legal remedies against piracy, are tangibly enough related to the theme of this blog to merit this article's inclusion.]

On 29 March 2012, at the instance of a firm called Copyright Labs, the Madras High Court issued an injunction intended to prevent the illegal copying and distribution of the film "3", perhaps best known for it song "Why this kolaveri (killer rage)".  Those interested may read the order for themselves, (courtesy of the BGR blog); as injunctions go it was certainly a most unusual one. It was ex parte in nature, that is, it has been issued by hearing only one side. Moreover, it was in the nature of a "John Doe injunction", that is, it applied to any and all persons, even unknown ones. The plaintiffs used this feature to persuade ISPs to altogether block access to both P2P sites and video sharing sites like Vimeo and Dailymotion, regardless of whether or not they actually contained or gave access to the concerned material. Predictably, this caused outrage and confusion in equal measure. Even to someone like me who can claim some connection with the law for the last seventeen years, the incident did not make sense. How could an ex parte John Doe injunction of such sweeping ambit be ever contemplated? And how can an injunction to prevent piracy apply to ISPs and video sharing sites anyway?

To understand the facts better, perhaps the quickest strategy is to fall back on beer, the law student's time-tested analytical tool. Consider a situation (needless to say, completely hypothetical), where United Breweries discovers some enthusiasts brewing, on a limited scale, a beer near-identical to Kingfisher Ultra. Its purveyors have no intention of passing it off as genuine KF. Neither is this faux KF sold or transacted for material gain, but only "shared" amongst its (re)creators. At the same time, the purveyors are open about their product's resemblance to the genuine KF, and indeed their declared intention has been to recreate its taste and colour. Over time this community of enthusiasts starts cutting into UB's revenue, or at least UB claims so. The company tries to approach law courts, but it turns out  that the places where the sharing takes place lies beyond the the courts' jurisdiction. UB then takes out a court order forbidding anyone to help these exchanges. 'Anyone' means literally just about anybody. It includes not only sharing venues, but also certain clubs or societies where microbrewery enthusiasts gather to discuss and sample (not consume) each other's products. Since these sampling clubs also lie outside the court's jurisdiction, the injunction does not help UB much. Now what does it do? It goes and informs bus and taxi companies that the terms of the court order are so wide as to cover them also. Hence they are prohibited from carrying passengers to the sharing venues and sampling clubs. This prohibition extends even to passengers who have no interest in KF, but want to go to a sampling club to taste brews that have nothing at all to do with UB.

The natural response to this admittedly absurd scenario is that beer (and likewise chocolate, toothpaste or shoe polish) are inherently different from films or audio recordings. Replicating beer entails a process not only skilful but also cumbersome and expensive, which tends to restrict such not-for-profit endeavours to "small beer", literally. This is one major flaw in our above example: it is very difficult to sustain volumes large enough to dent UB's profit margins unless one resorts to outright fakery and passing off. In contrast, films can be easily copied and distributed over the internet at little to no cost.

But should this difference alone justify such sweeping injunctions and render plausible in respect of films what we just acknowledged as absurd in the case of beer? In other words, can certain procedures otherwise uncalled for be justified merely because the subject matter concerns intellectual property? This means the matter pertains not so much to copyright as it does to civil procedure and how it is to be applied to enforce rights deriving from intellectual property laws. This is a vast issue, well beyond the scope of this article.  Here I shall only raise a few points that I consider germane.

Protecting intellectual property, and particularly copyrights, presents an unprecedented challenge to legal systems the world over. Advances in digital technology has made it possible to copy and distribute over the internet music recordings, films and even books with unprecedented speeds and reach. Despite many efforts, no satisfactory legal response has been devised so far. "Satisfactory" is a loaded term, so it is perhaps a good idea to specify what exactly I mean by it. First, it must bear strong connections with the idea of efficiency, that is, securing the objective with minimal wasted effort and "collateral damage". The last is particularly significant. Applied to the present context, it means simply that the measure must (a) be effective in restricting piracy, and (b) cannot be so broad in its ambit as to encroach upon individuals' legimitate interests. This includes the various fair use rights recognised under S. 52 of the Copyright Act; the right to access on Vimeo and Dailymotion videos that have been legally uploaded there; and even the right to distribute over BitTorrent material whose copyright status is not in dispute (I myself have used BitTorrent on several occasions to download software like Ubuntu Linux). Which means that expressed in simple terms, an effective remedy must also incorporate elements of balance - a balance between various differing, and at times mutually inconsistent, individual and social interests.

In this light, let us examine the nature of the present injunction. First, it was ex parte in character. Since such orders override a fundamental principle of natural justice that all parties should be given a fair hearing, they are to be issued with much restraint, and only in exceptional situations (such as when the other party persistently fails to appear, or when any delay will lead to significant injustice).

Secondly, the only specific parties the order names (at p. 3-4) are some fifteen India-based ISPs, whom it proceeds to restrain "from in any manner infringing the applicant's copyright in the cinematographic film/motion picture '3' . . .." No mention is made of any P2P or even video sharing sites, whose direct involvement in infringing the plaintiffs' copyright is much more feasible and also likelier. As a Medianama report correctly points out, ISPs are only intermediaries, and cannot by themselves infringe an copyrights. (It also says the order makes ISPs responsible for infringing copyright. Admittedly it does refer to certain other suit documents which are not in my possession right now, and hence whose content cannot be verified. However, to my mind there is nothing in the order at least that holds ISPs responsible for copyright infringement. It is as absurd as holding taxi drivers responsible for infringing UB's intellectual property merely by driving passengers to beer sharing venues.)

But it is the third characteristic of the order that makes it so remarkable. Apart from the ISPs mentioned, it specifies five other parties all denoted by the fictitious name "Ashok Kumar", and then also "other unknown persons", against whom the injunction applies. In many legal systems, particularly western ones, this is known as a "John Doe" order. Its use in India is rare. Even in the west it remains something of a novelty, but its use there is certainly more frequent than in India. As a result some jurisprudence has developed around around it, mainly in the nature of safeguards preventing it from arbitrary application. The question that arises naturally here how the present injunction fares when evaluated against these safeguards.

The most frequent use of the John Doe concept is not really relevant to us. It is when fictitious names like John Doe or Jane Roe are used to mask the identity of parties who cannot be named for concerns of privacy or other legal factors: examples include victims of rape or other sexual offences, parties who are underage and so on. More applicable to our case are instances when an injunction or some other relief is sought in regard to a person or persons unknown. This is gaining popularity internationally in intellectual property cases. An interesting example concerns Harry Potter books. The release of each volume in the series was greated with much public frenzy and, inevitably, media hype. This resulted in at least two separate cases of pre-publication copies being stolen with the intention of leaking to the tabloid press. On both occasions, an injunction was issued prohibiting person or persons unknown from "disclosing any information concerning the book or dealing in any way with any copies of the book or disclosing any part of any copies they might have to any third parties . . .." The first time it happened, before the launch of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (volume 5), the injunction pertained specifically to the unidentified individuals who had offered the illicit copy to the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. When it happened again with the next volume "Half-Blood Prince", the resultant injunction covered "any person or persons who have or have had physical possession of a copy  . . . or any part thereof without the consent of the claimants." What is significant here is that such injunctions have always been issued with a great deal of caution. Even the second Potter injunction was very specific in its application (i.e. the content of "Half-Blood Prince"); entailed a clearly defined  timeframe (from 3 June 2005, when the threat of leakage was detected, till 12.01 AM on 16 July, when the book was released); and pertained to individuals, albeit unknown, whose actions amounted to a direct and tangible copyright breach.

Similarly, take John Doe subpoenas popular in US, which are designed to compel disclosure of parties' identities, and are popular in cases of online defamation as well as copyright infringement. Since the net provides considerable scope for anonymous libel, obtaining the perpetrator's identity is usually a complicated process that involves first securing a court order (specifically, a subpoena) directing the hosting website to disclose the IP address from which the defamatory statement was made, and then securing another order this time directing the ISP that owns the address to reveal which account used that address at the time the statement was made.

This process is not only cumbersome, but also potentially infringes the privacy of the unnamed person. Consequently, courts have always been careful about issuing such subpoenas, and in various judgments formulated different tests and criteria to ascertain if a subpoena is appropriate. In Sony Music Entertainment Inc. v. Does 1-40 (326 F. Supp. 2d 556 (2004)), which in fact concerned copyright infringement through p2p networks, a New York district court held that a subpoena to disclose the identity of the file-sharers can be issued only if a prima facie case is made out against specific persons, no other means of obtaining their identity is possible and so on. This apporoach was followed in Doe v. Cahill (884 A.2d 451 (2005)), a Delaware Supreme Court concerning online defamation. Here the court ruled that no subpoena may be issued unless the plaintiff first demonstrates that the impugned comments can be "capable of a defamatory meaning". Subsequent cases have held that even after this prima facie test is satisfied, the plaintiff's interests must be balanced with those of the anonymous defendant. In Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe (170 P. 3d 712 (2007)), the Arizona Appellate court followed Cahill and the older New Jersey decision of Dendrite International v. Doe No. 3 (A-2774-00T3 (2001)) to conclude that that even after the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, a further set of five criteria must be fulfilled. For example, the plaintiff must make reasonable efforts to inform the anonymous party that a request to disclose anonymity exists; the intimation must be made through the same medium as the statement imputed to be defamatory, and so on.

All this serves to illustrate one crucial point: In jurisdictions where the law of copyright is much more matured as compared to India, John Doe injunctions are issued very judiciously, and by balancing the interests of all parties concerned - even the anonymous ones. Moreover, in most of the cases we saw, John Doe injunctions are issued subsequent to the commission of a legal wrong, not to pre-emptively restrain persons from committing them. In exceptions to this (such as the Harry Potter case), the terms of the injunction are tightly defined. These characteristics do not hold true for India. Once earlier also, the Delhi High Court had issued a similar John Doe injunction blocking the illegal distribution of the Reliance Big Pictures' film Singham before its official release (a copy of the order is available here). Since the injunction was not targetted at any specific individual, Reliance interpreted it to mean it could serve notices to anyone it wanted. So it went about serving cease and desist notices on both ISPs and torrent sites directly. The latter strategy did not work, since most of them lay outside the jurisdiction of Indian courts. The owner of BitSnoop, for example, made it clear that he had every intention to ignore the notice. Hence, presumably, when Copyright Labs decided to obtain a John Doe injunction, it made specific mention only of ISPs, who at worst can only aid the infringement of copyrighted materials by allowing subscribers to access them.

To conclude, let us revert to the question posed much earlier: can certain procedures otherwise uncalled for be justified merely because the subject matter concerns intellectual property? While it is manifest that the differences between beer and cinema call for dissimilar treatment, our above exegesis makes it equally clear that regardless of the nature of the subject, a balance must be maintained between different legitimate interests. Harish Ram, CEO of Copyright Labs, has claimed that ISPs had misinterpreted the order, and that the Labs' intention was only to block specific URLs. This explanation does not hold water. The ISPs acted not directly on the court order, but on the legal notice based on it that the Labs had sent them. It was therefore incumbent on the latter to be clear about what they were seeking.

Then again, perhaps questions like what the notice actually contained and whether or not the misunderstanding on the part of the ISPs was caused by ambiguities in the legal notice, do not really matter. Even if the wording of the notice contains no shortcomings, one grave issue still remains. It is respectfully submitted that by granting injunctions of such width, the Delhi and Madras High Courts have not taken due regard of this balance. To the extent that they have granted to the plaintiffs what amounts to a carte blanche to send cease and desist notices to anyone they fancy.  A strategy that upholds one interest to the exclusion of others is necessarily flawed. And that is why, given the way in which sites were blocked, the Kolaveri generated by the entire episode was perhaps inevitable.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Concerning Record Labels, Big and Small

Mooching around in music shops is nowhere as much fun as it once was. For one, they have become very noisy places. For another, the old culture of choosing several records and asking them to play each one a bit before making one's final selection, or even walking away, has completely disappeared. Back in my college days, HMV House on Brigade Road, Bangalore had a separate room for classical music where people could listen to their selections in relative quietude before making their purchases. Today, if you request the sales personnel to play a recording before you've paid for it, they react like you're asking to defile its chastity or something.

What hurts even more is the jaded Hindustani music selections shops invariably seem to have on offer these days. Recordings of the great masters are invariably stuff ripped off a highly restricted set of vinyl releases and then recycled and repackaged ad nauseam. One company's marketing team has now started re-releasing old tracks in CDs painted black to resemble their long-playing progenitors. I suppose this '60s-retro look-'n'-feel in vogue now is a natural progression of the "ethnic chic" marketing ethos that dominated the classical music world in the '80s and '90s - remember those "Morning Raagaas" and "Evening Raagaas" [sic] compliations? New releases, on the other hand, are simply unappetising - more than anything else a reflection of the stranglehold star progeny and gimmick-artistes have over the music scene generally. And the prices! With file-sharing so widespread these days, I simply cannot understand why record labels still think selling at 300 to 500 Rupees something any enterprising enthusiast can download for free is a good idea. Or is it that they have given up on classical music piracy and decided bilking tourists and other narks makes for a more efficient business model?

Fortunately, not every company feels necessary to abase itself to this extent. I discovered this the other day at the Begumpet, Hyderabad Landmark outlet. To give them their due,  the Landmark people do strive for a more meaningful balance between saleable glitz and the stuff people like me want to hear. Unfortunately this effort does not quite come off, due mainly to the dearth of interesting recordings available. So I was less than enthusiastic about spending some two hours there, which I had to do because the wife and I had volunteered to take some friends from Bangladesh shopping. The book section yielded a few interesting finds, but nothing in the must-buy-right-now-come-what-may class. So I gravitated towards the music section eventually, and with no real expectations of finding anything of much interest.

My initial desultory survey seemed to confirm this pessimism, when I came across this bunch of CDs tucked away in a corner. It was easy to see why they hadn't been given much prominence; the surrounding honk and glamour made their cheap production values look even more shabby. They didn't aspire to jewel boxes, merely stiff paper envelopes containing disks sheathed in clear polythene packets. In fact, they weren't even CDs in the proper sense, as I found once I got back home. But for thirty Rupees a disk, and of music of this quality, I'd cheerfully forgo the bells and whistles.

The Lahari label is pretty obscure even in its hometown Bangalore, but I had encountered it once earlier. Back in 1994 I had bought two cassettes of Basavaraj Rajguru, one featuring Shuddha Sarang and Maru Bihag, and the other Komal Rishab Asuvari [sic], Nayyaki [sic] Kanada and a Khamaz [sic] tumri [sic]. The abysmal production values extended to other areas too, with more serious consequences. The cheapo tape stock they used began to give out within a short time, and ultimately became unplayable altogether. All these years I had been looking for replacements, with little success. So I was nothing less than delighted to discover they have now been reissued as CDs and, what's more, priced at thirty Rupees the same as the rest. Then there was a gorgeous Bilaskhani Todi and Kalavati by Parameshwar Hegde. I have long held the belief he's one of India's most underrated vocalists today, and this release merely reinforces my opinion. The other vocal stuff on offer wasn't so interesting; mostly second-string vocalists from Dharwad and Vinayak Torvi acolytes. The instrumental section also contained a big surprise: three releases, no less, by the Harmonium wizard Rambhau Bijapure. I confess I'm not a big fan of Harmonium solos, but the one CD I've listened to so far (Nat Bhairav and Sur Malhar) was a genuine pleasure, as were the Parameshwar Hegde and the two Basavarajes. They all deserve detailed exegeses, and I intend to review them individually as and when time permits. For now, let me venture a few comments on the enterprise in general.

Pricing CDs so low is always a good idea. It contributes immensely to the propagation of music, especially the high-quality music their lineup boasts. In the bargain it also serves as a more ethical alternative to piracy. But if you are really serious about all this, not to mention about selling your products, the least you can do is provide proper information about your range of releases? I'd say this problem is endemic across Indian labels. The last time HMV (as it then was) came up with a really well-produced catalogue was back in 1982. The present Saregama website is a marvel of ambiguity. Others like  Music Today's site are not particularly better. Lahari trumps them all; it eschews a web presence altogether! Forget about its own website, even the email address printed on the CD envelopes belongs to the vsnl.com domain. As a result, nobody's quite sure of what they have on offer. My second gripe is with availability and distribution. In the past, small labels found it almost impossible to have their releases marketed across record stores. Today, record stores, and also big publishers and distribution networks, are themselves facing a fadeout. Online distribution as pioneered in India by the likes of Flipkart is a huge game-changer, should I say a game-leveller. All of a sudden, marketing clout and distribution infrastructure have ceased to matter. The problem is, companies like Lahari don't see it that way. Despite several searches I could not find out if any online retailer, Flipkart or otherwise, stocks their releases. As it is, their presence in chains like Westside is marginal. And lastly, on an unrelated note, how about improving production quality a little? In point of fact, the releases are not even CDs in the proper sense, but merely CD-Rs whose useful life is limited by the quality of the dyes used in their production. The Basavaraja release cover designs border on the grotesque: one of them features a colour photograph of the maestro, with a kind of halo surrounding his head, set off against a background of purple, blue and magenta plasmae. The track listings are spelled even more uh, radically than they were in the cassette releases: Volume Two now features (1) Komal Rishabh - Raag: Asuvari; (2) Kamaaz Rishabh - Raag: Tumri; and (3) Nayyaki - Raag: Kannada. Worse, the track order seems to have scrambled itself in the CD - the Nayyaki is labelled Track 1, followed by the Tumri and then Asuwari. The Rambhau releases are much better produced - cleaner design, properly written track listings, even a brief biographical passage included on the reverse side.

To conclude, what is the point of this diatribe? It is merely that companies like Lahari can achieve a lot. They have some very interesting recordings on offer (like I said, more on them later). They also have a ready market, comprising serious listeners. And today, online shopping has made redundant a lot of marketing and distribution nonsense. In short, the time is ripe for smaller players to step in and supply serious music at affordable prices, something big labels have conspicuously avoided so far.

Well, not exactly. The times, they do seem to be a-changin' after all. Flipkart's come out with its own digital music store, apparently undertaken in collaboration with the biggies. Individual tracks sell for between Rupees six and fifteen, full albums for less than a hundred, usually around fifty to seventy. Take this Gajananrao Joshi CD I spotted at Landmark, priced at Rs. 295 which I thought was way too much. Flipkart offers the entire album in the form of 320 kbps mp3 downloads, at a total cost of Rs. 69. So all this while we've been paying Rs. 295-69 = 226 for the CD media, the jewel case, inlay cards, distribution, shelf space at the retailers and other essential if somewhat peripheral expenses. This is outrageous even by modern marketing standards - imagine McDonalds charging Rs. 69 for a hamburger, and Rs. 295 for the same thing with a coke and fries thrown in?

So this digital music store's a worthwhile idea after all, right? Actually, no. And for a reason we ought to have guessed. If the biggies are involved, can slapdash production values be far behind? Track listings, track lengths, album details and other metadata are provided so chaotically it gets difficult to ascertain just what you're buying, particularly whether you'll end up purchasing duplicates of what you already have. We clearly have a long, long way to go.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

A Tribute to Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar

A Tribute to Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar

[This article was originally published in the "Dhrupad Archives" Blog]

Interview of Ustad Z. F. Dagar by Deepak RajaCame across this old interview of Ustad Z. F. Dagar where he talks about his creation - The Dhrupad Kendra, Bhopal. It is truly wonderful how reasoned, trenchant and lively Ustad's observations are in all his public pronouncements.

Directorship of the Dhrupad Kendra was an opportunity and a challenge, and it was this man's utter unorthodoxy and willingness to break rules in an intelligent manner that allowed him to overcome adversity and very trying circumstances and do what none of his Gharana members would probably have done.... which is to develop new innovative and unorthodox ways of teaching under new circumstances, to spread the knowledge outside the confines of the Gharana and still keep as true to the tradition as possible.

Everything has its pros and cons and today I raise a toast to the genius of Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and what he achieved in his life. Like all geniuses Chote Ustad and indeed all his brothers of the Dagar Gharana are complex, charismatic and truly lovable personalities. Despite their fierce mutual rivalries and the difficult circumstances after Indian independence, the descendants of Zakiruddin and Allabande Khan; – The Dagar Brothers – managed to keep the essence of their knowledge and art alive, often making great personal sacrifices and  stoically enduring the disdain and neglect of a society that did not value a contemplative form that did not strive to entertain or please.

Meeting them was like coming across a slice of history, of suddenly walking into another age. Hearing myself speak today I realize that I have subconsiciouly imbibed after all these years of sitting in front of them trying to catch every word they utter - their rich Hindi Urdu Sanskrit blend - in the words of Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar "mili jhuli ganga jamni zabaan". I consider myself truly fortunate to have been able to know and observe my Gurus from fairly close. Looking back at all the ups and downs of my complex relations with them, I can only be filled with great awe, love and respect. How could I have been chosen to come into contact with something so old and so deep. Just my destiny or random chance I guess.

After my recent appointment as director of the Dhrupad Kendra Bhopal, the position held by Ustad for many years during which he single handedly reworked the future of the tradition, my job over the next few years would be to strengthen the institution he founded and use it to further the interests of the Dhrupad tradition with fairness, objectivity, impartiality and above all with kindness and humility.

The rate of attrition of knowledge in Dhrupad in recent times has been exponential. Only 20 or 30 years ago a huge repertoire of compositions still remained with some known and many obscure Dhrupad singers, most of whom were struggling to keep singing and at the same time earn a livelihood. I recently tried to locate disciples or recordings of Dhrupad singer Bharatji Vyas (1923-1983) who lived in Baroda, and I came up on a blank wall. Nothing remains except a few recordings of rare compositions in rare ragas with the Sangeet Natak Academy.

Although I am a singer of the style of Dhrupad practised by Ustad and his brothers, I consider it my duty to also work for the preservation of all traditions of Dhrupad and hope that this job will help me in addressing this task as well. Much of the composed repertoire of Dhrupad was common to all the traditions. One hears different versions of the same composition being sung by singers of vastly different traditions.

There are many more names I need to look into: T. L. Rana, Gajanana Thakur, Hari Shankar Mishra, Radheshyam Dagur of Tikamgarh.... to see if they left behind a few recordings or taught a few students or notated at least some of the compositions in some handwritten manuscript gathering dust and mould or being devoured by termites somewhere.

Some handwritten manuscripts I have located are being zealously guarded by family members of departed musicians who expect to be paid considerable sums of money to part with them. Yet seeing the colossal amounts being mentioned in connection with corruption scandals I cannot blame them. What they expect in comparison for true gems of our heritage is absolute peanuts!

Most of that composed repertoire of Dhrupad - little fixed models of Ragas created by master Dhrupad singers of the past to encapsulate the various concepts of classical music and pass them on from generation to generation has now gone to the grave, because the state system failed to reach out to these people and support them and record for posterity the precious bits of knowledge they carried. The recently enlivened debate on corruption and the abuse of power and misuse of public institutions has yet to permeate into the realm of art, culture and heritage management but is sorely needed there. It will also come. Everyone is waiting for someone to stand up and bell the cat.

Fariduddin Dagar - Sadra in Suha

All said and done a lot of knowledge has been lost in the last few decades and yet a lot still remains thanks to the efforts of individual Gurus like Ustad Z. F. Dagar and others who dared to take the initiative and do what they believed should be done in the vastly changed circumstances after independence when the entire class of highly cultivated and musically sophisticated royal patrons literally disappeared overnight. To quote one of my gurus (Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar) - "yeh sab to bas jhaadan hai. khazane to sab chale gaye. lekin yeh bhi kafi hai." - These are all just leftovers ... the real treasures are all gone.. but still this is enough.

In many systems redundancy makes it at least theoretically possible to reconstruct the whole from fragments. Lets hope that the same would be possible for Dhrupad.

Mohiuddin and Fariduddin Dagar - Jog


1. Indurama Shrivastava, Dhrupada (Motilal Banarasidass, 1980)

Friday, 24 June 2011

Ustad Asad Ali Khan Beenkar

Guest Post by Jon Barlow[1]

Like so many music lovers in India and abroad I was saddened at the news of the demise of Ustad Asad Ali Khansaheb, the great Beenkar. I want to share these memories and thoughts about him.

My first recollection of Ustad Asad Ali Khan is from around 1972/73 when I saw him play in a small theatre in Calcutta. Khansaheb was at that time about 35 years of age but he was not well known in Calcutta and Beenkars, scarce for many years, had become a rarity in the musical world. He belonged to an hereditary musical family and, his father, Sadiq Ali Khansaheb had been one of the deeply respected musicians in the decades straddling independence, but was a remnant of the 'ancien regime' of Alwar and Rampur, that courtly musical culture that had receded into a semi mythic domain (A Google search will give details of the family). Beenkars, though given a reflexive acknowledgement, were not the darlings of the box-office and with the erosion of the older patronage times were tough.

Khansaheb was very slim and straight and had a look of slightly defensive pride and was firmly buttoned into a black sherwani, shiny with age and meticulous care. It was still the polite mode for musicians to wear white kurta-pyjama, maintain a modest demeanour and, in the cold of winter add a black sherwani or Kashmir shawl and I have the impression that Khansaheb kept to this dress throughout his life. As I got to know him better in the following years I realized his slightly haughty distance was a customary, if awkward, formality that served to shield an otherwise shy, simple and kindly man. His compact face and firm expression would suddenly give way to a luminous smile and his vices were confined to consuming small quantities of rich mughlai food and smoking 555s.

I found his Been playing fascinating to watch. The technique was powerful and demanding but he achieved a wonderful balance with long strong fingers, but perhaps the most remarkable thing was how he tuned his Been to his body, using his breath to expand against the tumbahs and regulating and inflecting his Sa the subsequent swaras Before his performance, as he circulated a little among the gunis and rasikas and patiently listened to several of the junior artistes, he appeared singular and a little lonely.

I don't remember what Raga he played that first time but once I had understood that the Been, when amplified through pretty crude PA systems, such as may still be found in many concert venues in India, presents acoustic problems that demand an extra element of participation from its listeners, I was impressed with the sense that I had just encountered some sort of revelation of what lay at the heart of the instrumental music of North India. It was partly a compelling fullness in the articulation of the swaras despite what might otherwise be characterised as a twangy sound; strong in the base and thin in the higher registers. With this instrument he played the Ragas with a pure simplicity, quite free of arbitrary flourishes, that allowed the subtlest inflections of swaras to be filled with the moving energy.

Later when I heard his Been un-amplified and was even able to put my ear to its gourds the incomparable richness of the sound became evident. It inspired me to make a Been and, although I had no expertise, it actually turned out to be OK and became part of a barter in which I got a Vicky 50cc moped, Manfred Junius took my Been and Peter Row acquired Manfred's Kanai Lal Been. It was also an element in my early friendship with Khansaheb. After that first concert I had gone to meet him to ask about the instrument and how to make it, taking measurements and peering at the jovari. Despite his profound initial scepticism he was chuffed that I had tried and we agreed that I should try to make a good instrument for him one day. Unfortunately this never happened, largely because I was never convinced that I had any way of improving on the traditional instrument and I procrastinated in the expectation that one day I would have a brain-wave or two on the subject.

In 1975 Asad Ali Khansaheb stayed with me in my apartment at Lake Market for about ten days during which time I was able to observe his playing and the instrument in some depth. During that time Fahimuddin Dagarsaheb often dropped by as they were old friends and had much in common musically. One memorable evening they played and sang a very extended and vilambit Khamaj, full of beautiful vistars that showed fresh pathways into the Raga.

In this context I recall Dr SK Saxena recounting an impromptu meeting in his Friends Colony apartment in Delhi in the late '50s early 60's, when Rahimuddin Dagar was requested by Sadiq Ali Khansaheb to listen to his son, the young Asad Ali, and comment on his playing. He began playing Bhimpalashi and after some time Dagarsaheb's mood came and he began to sing, becoming deeply immersed in the raga. Dr Saxena claims that the music was so powerful and profoundly beautiful that it became overwhelming and after some time he had to beg Dagarsaheb to stop. Sadiq Ali Khansaheb was in tears and exclaimed 'Arre! This is Been ang Beta . . this is how one should try to play!'. Although it was not spelt out as a formal arrangement I was led to believe that Asad Ali Khansaheb had benefitted from repeated musical contacts with Dagarsaheb and had absorbed fundamental ideas from him which changed his baaj, giving the Seniyah base of his family parampara a Dagar vocal quality in its presentation.

In 1978 our friend Brad Warren, who was learning sarode with him, took Asad Ali Khansaheb on an extensive tour of Australia for six weeks. He played lots of concerts and was in fantastic form. The performance in the Sydney University chapel was particularly memorable for me as I had dragged along uncles and aunts who, while avid classical music fans, were mildly indifferent to Indian music. After two hours of one raga (again Bhimpalashi and wonderfully played) they surfaced at the interval a little glassy-eyed but convinced that he was one of the greatest musicians they had ever heard. Nevertheless, they pleaded, two hours was enough for the time being.

Khansaheb was not one to happily compromise on form or content but he was a regular artist at AIR in Delhi where time constraints had to apply. The Office and studios at AIR, which had assumed many of the functions of the Gunijankhanas of the princely courts, were blessed zones in those days, before Mrs Gandhi's assassination and the brutish security regime that followed. The director for classical music through the time I used to visit was Sunil Bose, a thumri singer, whose office overflowed with musicians coming and going from work or just dropping by to share gossip and songs and consuming vast quantities of tea and cigarettes and if you were a music lover you were welcome. I was invited into the spaciously minimalist and relaxed studios to listen to someone or others recording session several times but the most memorable was in 1981. I met Khansaheb at AIR he called me into the studio and proceeded to play a brilliant Darbari Kanhra for 25 minutes followed, I think, by Desh.

I rarely saw him after that and never again had a chance to confer with him about Beens and music but he has remained prominent in my mind for all his qualities and because his vani stands clear as a realisation of the Veena-ang paradigm that has informed music in India for millennia. The fine point, the bindu, where breath and vani meet, humming like a bumble-bee, moving freely along the dandi from tumbah to tumbah, revealing in ahata naada the subtle and majestic dynamic of prana moving as musical thoughts and emotions.


1. Jon Barlow has been involved with Indian art music for over forty years as a practitioner, instrument designer, and chronicler of his times. He is a pupil of the Sarode maestro Pt. Radhika Mohan Maitra and the vocalist Ud. Aslam Khan of the Khurja-Agra-Jaipur Gharana. Many thanks Jon, for writing this sensitive tribute in such short time. Thanks are due to Arnab Chakrabarty as well, for persuading him to contribute this piece and also for minor copy-editing. [back]

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Bishnupur Gharana: An Interview with Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay - III

[Continued from Part II]

AM: You are the principal of the Ramsharan Music College of Bishnupur, which is a very well-known institution. Can you tell us about this college?

SG: To begin with, let me tell you that it is the oldest institution of higher learning in India, and more than likely in all of Asia.[24] This college is more than 125 years old. It was started by Anantalal Bandhopadhyay, who is the father of Gopeshwar Babu and inspired by Ramkrishna Singha Dev. The situation at present is that the college building, property and lands are in good working order, but it has never gotten any significant support or grants or recognition from the government. The government sent inspectors from Rabindra Bharati University to investigate the situation. The team from Rabindra Bharati reported back that it was absolutely of immediate importance that the college be elevated to a fine arts honors degree college. But nothing was done by the government subsequently. Our present chief minister is again interested in seeing what can be done. But nothing has happened yet. At present, the Bishnupur municipality looks after the college, and what little is required is accounted for by the municipality.[25]

AM: What kind of recognition does the college award? Is there a degree that the student can receive after studying at the college?

SG: We award a diploma. A degree cannot be awarded by a non-university institution. The diploma recognizes a student’s achievement in the Bishnupur gayaki. It takes six years to finish work for this diploma.

AM: And what are qualifications of the teachers at this college?

SG: I personally hold an M.A. from Rabindra Bharati University. I had started my Ph.D. and had finished two years of work on it, but was unable to complete work. I just had too many students to teach at home. Of the remaining teaching staff, there are some who have been here for a very long time. Of the new staff, three have graduated from Rabindra Bharati. In total we have 16 staff members. Four are non-teaching staff, and twelve are teachers.

AM: Have any of your students joined the staff?

SG: At the music college? Yes. The three new staff that I mentioned, who have graduated Rabindra Bharati are my students. Two received the gold medal from Rabindra Bharati. They have learned for a long time from me, 16-18 years from me.

AM: At present, are the students who join the college interested in music as a profession or is it just something they learn as a hobby?

SG: In the past, people who graduated from the music college were qualified to teach in high schools. This was by law. But the rules have changed. Now without a degree from Rabindra Bharati University, the School Service Commission doesn’t allow a graduate to teach in high schools. So it is not possible to make a career out of this.[26]

AM: But have there been any students who have graduated from the college and gone on to concert careers?

SG: Yes, there are many students like that. But they are not proficient enough to carry on a full career. This is after all a six year diploma. Six years is not enough time to become a proficient performer. Those who graduate from here must go on to Rabindra Bharati to become further proficient as performers, or to become qualified as teachers. In the old days, people worked hard and became proficient in their field. Nothing else was required. These days you need a degree. Of course competence is still required, but without the degree many things are not possible.

AM: A little while ago you described how you received talim in the guru-shishya parampara style. Is that how you teach your students as well?

SG: Yes, that is how I teach as well. However, I only take group classes. To keep this music alive, one has to not only teach and impart talim, but also give oneself the space to do riyaz. This is only possible if you teach in groups. See, in this music, if you don’t have talim and riyaz, it is difficult to teach or practice. The same note in Marwa, Puriya and Sohani is totally distinct. If you don’t have talim how will you show this? Asavari, Jaunpuri, Adana, Darbari Kanada all have nearly identical notes. So if you don’t have proper talim, how will you decipher the different chalans of these ragas? How will you teach these things when you have to teach? So getting the right kind of talim from a guru is very important. Each group class has 12-14 students. It is a large number of students, but I just take some extra care and time, and make sure the students understand what is being taught. I enjoy teaching this way, and it also gives me the time to do my riyaz as well.

AM: How do you differentiate between Asavari and Jaunpuri?

SG: First there are two types of Asavari: Komal Asavari or Komal Rishabh Asavari, and Shuddha Asavari. To differentiate between Shuddha Asavari and Jaunpuri, a big factor is the ascent from Re to Ma. In Jaunpuri this is a straight movement, whereas the climb to Ma in Asavari has a strong aas of Re. Also in Jaunpuri, the movements find a resting point in Pa, not in Ma. In Asavari, Ma is much stronger. Jaunpuri has an ascending Pa Dha Ni Sa, whereas Asavari does not use Ni in the ascent. Aside from these, there is also Komal Asavari and Komal Asavari Todi. These two are distinct. Asavari Todi uses Ma Pa Dha Ma, Re Ga Re Sa, where the Re Ga Re Sa has a very strong flavor of Todi.[27]

AM: Does anyone sit with you when you do riyaz, for example senior students?

SG: No, no. In fact, when I do riyaz, I don’t let even a percussionist sit with me. My riyaz is just for me. At that time, no one else is allowed to sit with me.

AM: Finally, what do you think is the future of the gharana? Will it grow and become strong again, or will it recede?

SG: All through my childhood and well into my adulthood, I saw the Bishnupur Gharana decline. But at present, whether it is teaching increasing numbers of students, performing in front of growing audiences, working with people outside of the milieu to promote the standing of the gharana, I see a surge in interest and enthusiasm. And this is exactly what we were looking for. As people outside the gharana take more interest, the enthusiasm amongst students of music to learn this gharana’s music will grow. They’ll also get more opportunities to sing and show their competence and command over the medium. So to me it seems that the gharana’s dark days are behind it, and that its future is quite bright.


24. This statement requires proper research and vetting before it can be acknowledged to be true. It is sufficient to say the college is very old, by any standards. [back]

25. Again, SG would not describe it thus, but one couldn’t help but feel that some bureaucrats in Kolkata were preventing the college from being elevated sufficiently to be commensurate with its status as a landmark institution of India. [back]

26. Here is further evidence of the bureaucratic machinery. It appears as if external sources have taken decisions to favor Rabindra Bharati over a non-Kolkata based institution like Ramsharan Music College. [back]

27. The intent of the question was to get SG to say a few things about the music that might prove to be distinct from normal ragadari. And such proved to be the case! The description of Shuddh Asavari as having a strong aas of Re on Ma, and of the raga having a defined nyaas on Ma was quite illuminating. Finally, the Bhatkhande favored version of a differing ascent between Jaunpuri and Asavari (m P d S’ as opposed to m P d n S’) didn’t need to be the defining difference between the two. He followed up with a few lines, sung to illustrate, and the differences stood out clearly. Also, the clear and egregious misrepresentation of Komal Rishabh Asavari Todi as nothing but Komal Rishabh Asavari by certain members of the Kirana Gharana, was dispelled efficiently with a few hummed lines of Asavari Todi. The very distinct r g r S, a la Todi clearly set the raga apart from Komal Rishabh Asavari, and placed it squarely in the “Hanumat Todi” side of the Thaat. [back]


Monday, 21 September 2009

The Bishnupur Gharana: An Interview with Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay - II

[Continued from Part I]

AM: Can you tell me more about the compositions that make up the Bandish repertoire of the Bishnupur Gharana? What is their origin? Were they mostly written by Bishnupur musicians?

SG: No, no, not at all. The Bishnupur Gharana is really an offshoot of the Seni Gharana. It is differentiated stylistically because after Tansen’s descendent Bahadur Khan, the founder of our gharana, came to Bishnupur, he imparted his knowledge to Gadadhar Chakrabarty, and he in turn taught Ramshankar Bhattacharya, and in the process the Seni style changed into something distinctive and quite able to stand on its own. But the majority of the compositions are attributable to Tansen, Baiju Bavara, Bahadur Khan’s son, etc.[11]

AM: But a little while ago, you mentioned that the Bishnupur Gharana is characterized by Bhakti ras. Then, where did these texts come from? It seems unlikely that Bahadur Khansaheb would write these compositions.

SG: No, some of these came from Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay, Surendranath Bandhopadhyay, Ramprasanna Bandhopadhyay and others. But there are many compositions of Tansen’s and Baiju Bavara’s as well.[12]

AM: If I remember correctly, the Bishnupur Gharana had another line of musicians that included the vocalist Gyanendra Prasad Goswami.

SG: Well, the truth is that Gyanendra Prasad Goswami was not that involved with classical music. He did not sing Dhrupad, Dhamar and Khayal as much, and therefore is somewhat removed from the gharana. His uncle, Radhika Prasad Goswami was a classical musician of Bishnupur Gharana. But Gyanendra Prasad Goswami, although he had studied everything, was better known for Ragashray Bangla Gaan.[13] He had an incredibly beautiful voice that together with his command of Ragashray Bangla Gaan created a somewhat different stream of music from the classical Bishnupur Gharana. Further Gyanendra Prasad had taken talim from Ustad Faiyaz Khan, and as a result had veered somewhat towards the Agra Gharana.[14]

AM: Is the Ragashray Gaan tradition continuing in your gharana?

SG: Well, actually, the gharana tilts more towards the classical side. There is more emphasis put on Dhrupad and Khayal.[15]

AM: In many gharanas, there is no real differentiation between Dhrupad and Dhamar. The Dhamar is sung like a Dhrupad, just in a cycle of 14 beats. What is the position of the Bishnupur Gharana on the differentiation between Dhrupad and Dhamar?

SG: Dhrupad and Dhamar are completely separate genres. Khayal and Thumri are not the same, are they? Similarly Dhrupad and Dhamar are not the same. Dhamar is sung after Dhrupad, to appeal to the heart of the common listener, just like Thumri is sung as a light piece after Khayal. Dhamar is called “Hori Gaan”, a song sung to represent the color play of Radha and Krishna. On the other hand, we think of classical Dhrupad as being sung in praise of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There are certainly Dhrupad compositions that are dedicated to Radha and Krishna, or to some historical figure, a king or an important person. But those aren’t considered classical Dhrupad compositions. The truly classical ones are in praise of one of the Hindu trinity.[16]

AM: Do you do Bolbant in Dhamar?

SG: We not only do bolbant in Dhamar, it is often found to a greater degree in Dhamar than in Dhrupad. We also often do not sing all four parts in Dhamar. It is limited to two, to appeal more to the common listener. In my opinion, one can say that Dhamar is a Dhrupad ‘ang’ song, but not a Dhrupad. Dhamar is the ‘laghu’ of Dhrupad. Dhamar has a lower status than Dhrupad, and is meant to follow up after the heavy dhrupad to lighten the mind and mood. At least this is what I feel.[17]

AM: I am a little confused about the history of your gharana. In a number of sources the beginning of the gharana is attributed to Ustad Bahadur Khan. But in a number of other sources, the beginning of the gharana is dated to the 12th or 13th century.[18]

SG: No, such an early date would be inaccurate. Before Bahadur Khan came to Bishnupur, there was indeed music here. But it was in the form of kirtan, musical storytelling, and folk music. Classical music was not present. The enthusiasm that King Raghunath Singha II showed for classical music must have had an origin somewhere in the music of the region. But it was only after he brought Bahadur Khan to Bishnupur that classical music took hold. Further, it is only after the transmission of musical knowledge to Gadadhar Chakrabarty and Ramshankar Bhattacharya that a coherent and distinctive style of musical presentation formed and became known as the Bishnupur Gharana. Therefore, the Bishnupur Gharana can only be spoken of after the time of Ustad Bahadur Khan. You see, at that time, there was no communication with classical musicians. There was no way for them to visit and perform their music in Bishnupur on a regular basis. As a result, no classical music culture formed. It was for this reason that King Raghunath Singha II brought Bahadur Khan to Bishnupur and had him settle here and teach here. As a result a culture of classical music began to develop that finally found full expression in the music of Ramshankar Bhattacharya. For this reason, in the Bishnupur Gharana, Ramshankar Bhattacharya is referred to as Sangeet Guru. And in turn, he trained a generation of great musicians: Anantalal Bandhopadhyay, Kshetramohan Goswami, Jaddu Bhatta, and others.[19]

AM: In many gharanas you see a slight differentiation in style between artists. For example in the Atrauli-Jaipur Gharana, the approach taken by Mallikarjun Mansur is distinct from the approach taken by Kishori Amonkar. Do you see differentiation of this sort in Bishnupur Gharana as well?

SG: Let me address a broader question. Take Mallikarjun Mansur as an example. He had a very distinctive style. But after him very few if any have followed his way of singing. There has been a total change in Hindustani music across India after Amir Khansaheb. Khayal music, in the time of Faiyaz Khansaheb was sung in a Dhrupad ang, and didn’t sound at all like the Khayal that is heard across India today. The Agra Gharana today has come to an end. You’ll find no one singing that old style of music. After Amir Khansaheb, the very nature of Ragadari has changed. The way we hear ragas—and why just us, all of India for that matter—take the case of Bhimsen Joshi who is a great admirer of Amir Khansaheb’s music and once even approached Khansaheb about learning from him—it is all different today.[20] See, progress and development are ever present. Each human being interprets change based on his/her musical thinking, timbre of the voice, emotional expression, and musical training. As a result no two musicians will sound the same. It is impossible to hold things in a static state. Because of the changes that are happening to our environment, even the way human beings look is changing. So why won’t the music change? Changes in attitudes and societal expectations, what is considered aesthetic, how audiences receive music inevitably impact the music of musicians. So what we can say is that there is an emerging new style of music. And there are deviations from this style by each musician to some extent that take into account his/her experience. Now coming to the Bishnupur Gharana, if you listen to Satyakinkar Bandhopadhyay, you will find a distinct style. If you listen to Ramesh Bandhopadhyay, you will find a different style. Ramesh Babu’s is more moderate in nature, just as his nature was moderate. I have not heard many of the old time musicians of the gharana, although I have heard Gopeshwar Babu. I must say that the approach taken by his descendants was rather more moderate than Gopeshwar Babu’s. And there is good reason. As time passes, progress happens and thinking changes. These younger musicians had access to Gopeshwar Babu’s innovations at a young age, and could build on his thinking. But despite the differences, we are all trying to understand and follow the main aesthetic of the gharana in the best way we each can. If I were to describe my own approach, you see, I sing both Khayal and Dhrupad. So when I do Alap, my approach is informed by both. There are so many musicians today who sing Alap that might be technically very difficult, but fails to bring the raga alive. I don’t think of Alap as just a tool for showing the raga swaroop. It is a form of song, just like the other genres. The only thing is that it is anibaddha. Therefore, it should not be a dry exercise. It should enliven the mind and make the listener happy and satisfied. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the only form of song that allows us to express our inner feelings in the medium of the raga fully is Alap. It is that important!

AM: You have made clear that the Bishnupur Gharana has a very clear relationship with the Seni Gharana. Are there other gharanas of Dhrupad to which the Bishnupur Gharana is related?

SG: It seems like there is some sort of a relationship with Bettiah Gharana. There are some shared characteristics between the two gharanas musically, so it would seem to me that there must have been some sort of a relationship. But I really don’t know for sure. I don’t think there is much of a relationship with other Dhrupad gharanas.

AM: What relationship did Rabindranath have to the Bishnupur Gharana? I had heard that he had studied with Jaddu Bhatta.

SG: Yes, in a manner of speaking he did. But very importantly we should examine Rabindranath’s connection to Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay. Although Gopeshwar Babu was much younger, Rabindranath respected him very much. Gopeshwar Babu provided the musical notation for many of Rabindranath’s songs, and through him Rabindranath modeled many of his songs on Dhrupads from the gharana. Rabindranath himself said that he didn’t learn from Jaddu Bhatta in the traditional manner. He never had that opportunity. But he would stand by the window and listen to Jaddu Bhatta as he sang in their house. The Tagore household always had musicians and music in the house. And when Jaddu Bhatta visited, Rabindranath was always at the ready to listen and be influenced by the music.

AM: Do you consider Rabindranath to be an artist of the Bishnupur Gharana?

SG: Rabindranath wasn’t a musician or artist of the gharana. But he took songs and music from the gharana. Certainly the text of some of his Bengali compositions would hew closely to some traditional compositions of the gharana. But we cannot say he is from the Bishnupur Gharana. One can say that he was deeply influenced by the gharana certainly. Rabindranath said that he didn’t like the Ustadi of the other gharanas. He very much appreciated the Bhakti ras that was part of the Bishnupur approach to music. And further, since he was a poet and writer and his main concern was literature, he needed a musical framework that respected the depth of the literary content. From this perspective Bishnupur Gharana was ideal.

AM: As you have said many times, the Dhrupad and Dhamar genres of Bishnupur are full of Bhakti ras. So, was this music performed in the temples or in the darbars?

SG: They were most definitely performed in the temples! If you come to Bishnupur you will see that the kings and rulers of the land were extremely powerful. But even then, they did not build a royal palace.[21] Instead they put their wealth into the building of temples. Here you will find uncountable numbers of stone temples, each decorated with terracotta sculptures depicting music and musical activity. One of the major landmarks of the city is Ras Mancha, a temple of 108 doors, where music and the playing of ras holi were an integral part of the temple life.

AM: And what about music at the royal court?

SG: Since there was no royal palace, the king held his court in front of the temple of Ma Mrinmayee.[22] There is a very old Banyan tree in front of this temple, which has a stone courtyard around its base. The king would sit in this courtyard and hold his court. That’s how strong their belief in Vaishnavism was! For them there were two main responsibilities. One was to maintain their Vaishnav faith. And the other was to maintain the culture of classical music in the kingdom. They seldom indulged themselves in the manner of other royal families.

AM: Today, where is Dhrupad performed in Bishnupur?

SG: There are a number of yearly concerts that are held purely for Dhrupad. There is an annual Dhrupad conference during the time of the Dol Festival. Musicians from Kolkata and elsewhere come to Bishnupur for this conference. We have a very good auditorium in town named after Jaddu Bhatta where this conference is held. In the last few years, we have had performances by Ritwik Sanyal, Falguni Mitra, Fahimuddin Dagarsaheb, Bahauddin Dagar, to name a few. I too participate in this conference. The whole conference is sponsored by the Central Government. Dr. Sanyal did an excellent workshop on Dhrupad. He expressed the opinion that Alap is an ang of Dhrupad. But I prefer to think of Dhrupad and Alap as separate types of music. This difference came up in the question-answer session after the workshop. But it was on the whole a very well-done workshop. These types of programs are often held in Bishnupur.[23]

AM: Is there still music in the temples?

SG: No, the governmental department that looks after the temples has forbidden music in the temples. We are not allowed to sing within 100 meters of any temple. This is to protect the structural integrity of the temples. At Ras Mancha, there used to be a lot of music making and playing of colors during the festival of Dol. But not so anymore! Now we do our music next to Ras Mancha, outside of the required perimeter.

[Continued in Part III]


11. There is a basic disconnect here between the idea that the gharana is deeply rooted in Vaishnav philosophy, and the idea that the majority of its compositions come from non-Vaishnav sources. This is the contradiction I was trying to get at with the subsequent question. [back]

12. My sense of the situation is that while a number of Vaishnav texts were contributed by gharana musicians, much of the legitimacy of the gharana derives from its possession of compositions by Tansen, Baiju Bavara and their contemporaries. It would be interesting to see how many compositions of these individuals have been syncretized into a Vaishnav mold to suit the philosophy of the gharana. [back]

13. Ragashray Gaan are Bengali songs set in ragas. [back]

14. The distancing from Gyanendra Prasad Goswami is quite interesting. Clearly Gyanendra Prasad was not classical enough to warrant inclusion (at least to the same degree) as someone like Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay, in the gharana. Further, the fact that he took talim from Faiyaz Khan is seen as a polluting influence on his Bishnupur credentials. [back]

15. This is interesting because SG has described the Bishnupur Gharana as a collection of various song types: Alap, Dhrupad, Khayal and Instrumental music. However, Bengali songs, even based in classical music are considered to be non-classical. Hence the need for a complete, comprehensive gharana appears to be limited to song types that are considered very strictly classical. [back]

16. SG establishes increasingly higher standards of classicism in describing the repertoire. Dhrupads in praise of the trinity alone are considered truly classical. The remainder falls into another class of somewhat less classical songs. And in SG’s opinion, therefore, Dhamars are less classical than Dhrupads. [back]

17. It is interesting to note that certain sections of the Dagar Gharana actually treat Dhamar in a very deliberate and classical manner, quite to the contrary of what SG is describing. It is fairly clear that this is an artistic choice that arises from the different philosophical directions of these two gharanas. [back]

18. For example, see the Wikipedia entry on Bishnupur Gharana. [back]

19. Here SG acknowledges that musical styles that cannot be considered classical existed in Bishnupur prior to the arrival of Bahadur Khan. Again, these he treats as distinct from the classical tradition, which he considers to be the proper Bishnupur Gharana. Because of the direct lineage from the Seni Gharana, in a sense the claim being made is that the Bishnupur Gharana preserves the repertoire of the Seni tradition which, as far as vocal music, has largely died out elsewhere in India. [back]

20. My sense was that while SG would never state it this way, there was a certain musical oppression in operation. The aesthetic that Amir Khan espoused appears to be so ingrained in the connoisseur population that stylistic alternatives are not even under consideration in this part of India. The apparent uniformity of stylistic approach that one sees amongst the newer set of musicians (including those from the Bishnupur Gharana) appears to be an attempt to cater to the “mean” aesthetic established by Amir Khan. This is purely my analysis of the situation based on what SG had to say. He did not espouse this position himself. [back]

21. This does not seem to fit with the impression I’ve gotten from sources on the ground. There does appear to be some sort of a “Rajbari” structure, suggesting the existence of a royal palace. I didn’t question SG on this issue as I felt he was trying to make a larger point. Even if there is a Rajbari, there is one structure, as opposed to hundreds of temples. The intent of Bishnupuri kings was clear. [back]

22. Curiously, for all of the belief in Vaishnavism, court was held in front of the oldest temple in Bishnupur, a shrine to the goddess Mrinmayee. [back]

23. This divergence in perception of Alap as an independent art form (Bishnupur) as opposed to an integrated portion of the Dhrupad (Dagar) appears to be a result of the distinct view these two schools hold on the place of the composition. The depth, form and meaning of the composition seem to be central to Bishnupur, while this is the case with only some Dagar Bani musicians. The deconstruction of a raga down to its microtones is something that preoccupies the musical intellect of the Dagar musicians to a much greater extent. [back]


Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Bishnupur Gharana: An Interview with Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay - I

The Bishnupur Gharana: an interview with Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay

Arijit Mahalanabis[1]

Of all of the Dhrupad traditions in India, perhaps the most obscure is the Dhrupad tradition of Bishnupur. The Bishnupur Gharana has significantly influenced the popular, urban and folk music of Bengal. However, its contributions to the world of classical music have not necessarily been well understood, or indeed, even appreciated.

One of the difficult realities of Indian classical music today is that one’s geographic location, to a great extent, limits one’s ability to be heard or appreciated. This is certainly the case with the musicians who practice in Bishnupur. Removed from the urban musical stronghold of Kolkata many of these musicians toil in obscurity without the benefit of popular acclaim. It is difficult to say that Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay is one such musician. As a prolific and accomplished performer, active teacher and able administrator, Sujit Babu is a well established figure of the Gharana. However, as a musician living and performing in Bishnupur, his views on the issues related to the gharana’s present, past and future are rather enlightening, and perhaps more thought-provoking than those of his contemporaries who perform Bishnupuri music in Kolkata and elsewhere. In this interview conducted on 5th September, 2009, I asked Pandit Gangopadhyay about a variety of different aspects of his gharana.

Arijit Mahalanabis [AM]: Namaskar Panditji. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about the Bishnupur Gharana. Can you begin by saying a few words about the gharana’s present state and its past achievements?

Sujit Gangopadhyay [SG]: The Bishnupur Gharana passed through a golden age a long time ago. Many great musicians from the gharana practiced music contemporaneously, and the gharana was famous throughout India. This may not be the case today, but the gharana is seeing something of a revival. More students are studying this music, and demand amongst audiences too is growing. Of course, musical giants are not born every day. However those who are involved with the gharana at present are doing their work, practicing music, and teaching and learning the tradition. Our age-old tradition manages to continue.

AM: Can you tell me something about your gurus? What contributions did they make to the gharana especially with regard to Dhrupad and Dhamar?

SG: My father, Amarnath Gangopadhyay, practiced both Khayal and Dhrupad. He was my first guru. He studied with Atulkrishna Bandhopadhyay, one of the great musicians of our gharana. Atulkrishna in turn, was a student of Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay[2], and Ustad Tusiruddhujin Khan. He studied Dhrupad and Dhamar from Gopeshwar Babu, and Khayal from the Ustad.[3]

As for me, I went on to study with Amiya Ranjan Bandhopadhyay, a major figure in our gharana at present. Amiya Babu is considered to be the senior-most artist in the state of West Bengal today. He belongs to a much respected family in our gharana. His father was Satyakinkar Bandhopadhyay, a great exponent of both Khayal and Dhrupad. I should point out that a very significant aspect of Satyakinkar Babu and Amiya Babu’s music is that they have both put equal emphasis on the practice of Dhrupad and Khayal, and have maintained both styles side-by-side.[4] This was true of Gopeshwar Babu’s music also. It is a common notion that Bishnupur Gharana is a Dhrupad gharana. But really, it is a gharana that puts equal emphasis on both Dhrupad and Khayal. Certainly Dhrupad occupies a hallowed ground in the gharana. But the great musician Ramprasanna Bandhopadhyay, who was Gopeshwar Babu’s elder brother and guru, and the son of Anantalal Bandhopadhyay, was an accomplished instrumentalist. His student was sitarist Gokul Nag, the father of Manilal Nag, and one of Ravi Shankar’s gurus. Sitar, as you know, is a Khayal ang instrument. Ashesh Badhopadhyay, the son of Ramprasanna Babu, was a great Esraj player. In fact, Rabindranath was very fond of him, and he spent his life at Vishwa Bharati. So although Dhrupad is very important in the Bishnupur Gharana, it is not the only music found in the gharana. Bishnupur as a gharana encompasses Dhrupad, Khayal and Instrumental music in a very complete and exhaustive way. As a member of this gharana, I personally practice both Dhrupad and Khayal.[5]

AM: Can you describe the process of receiving talim from your gurus?

SG: As I said I received my training from my father. As you know, our guru-shishya parampara requires us to sit with the guru, learn the chalan, roop and overall emotion of the raga, and then repeat the guru’s musical phrases over and over again. I too learned in this traditional way. For example, my father might say to me, look at the komal re and ga in Todi. Both these are somewhat flatter than the usual komal re and komal ga. One might say they are atikomal. Many ragas use these notes, but Todi is special. These things are best learned by listening to and repeatedly singing with one’s guru. It is very difficult to write such things down on a sheet of paper. See how the komal re in Bhairav is different than Todi! It is a bit higher than the usual komal re. Also as you know Bhairav has andolit Re and Dha. They are andolit in Ramkali also. But the Re-Dha andolan in Bhairav is somewhat wider, with a more Tivra bent. For this reason, when Dha is taken andolit in Bhairav, a small touch of Komal Ni also appears, from the extensive upswing of the note. It now shows as a vivadi swar regularly in performances of the raga. The same is true of Re. Its upswing in the andolan places it at a shruti that is quite a bit Tivra from the usual Komal Re. While we wouldn’t say these vivadis are part of the raga, in performance they do happen. Ramkali on the other hand has these andolans, but they are not nearly as Tivra, and as a result these vivadi chhayas of the Re and Dha do not arise. The only way to learn such subtleties is through the medium of the guru. One cannot learn these from a page. This is the kind of training I received in the Guru-Shishya Parampara.

AM: Did your gurus describe such subtleties in words, the way you have just done, or were these principles that you gleaned by singing with them?

SG: First they would speak about it, and then demonstrate musically.[6]

AM: As you know, some gharanas like the Agra Gharana are known for Bolbant and Layakari. Others like the Dagar Bani are known for their work with the shrutis. What would you say are the stylistic characteristics of the Bishnupur Gharana?

SG: Vaishnav thought is central to the Bishnupur Gharana. Our kings were adherents and philosophers of Vaishnavism. Hence the entire culture revolved around the idea of Bhakti. When you come to Bishnupur, you will see there are uncountable numbers of temples devoted to Krishna and Radha. For this reason, the music of our gharana, instead of focusing on virtuosity and ustadi, is centered more on Bhakti ras, and giving rise to feelings of devotion in both the musician and the listener. This is why Rabindranath found this musical style more to his liking. Because many Dhrupad gharanas do not focus on the Bhakti aspect of the composition, some musicians belonging to such gharanas do not even sing the four parts of the composition clearly! Many musicians start by singing the sthayi and then begin doing bolbant and layakari on the sthayi. Then they sing the antara and launch into bolbant and layakari on the antara. And often the sanchari and abhog are dropped altogether! Here, we sing all four parts clearly first. After that, we do some Bolbant. Because of this approach, the gravity of the composition stands out.[7] By the way, the word Dhrupad refers to a composition. Alap is not part of a Dhrupad. It is a separate genre altogether. We sing it before a Dhrupad because when Dhrupad is sung on its own, the presentation is too short. The ras that is within the raga that can attract the human mind becomes obscured. Therefore, by singing the Alap, the beauty of the raga becomes apparent, and the direct appeal of the raga to the heart becomes clear. But Alap is a totally different form of music from Dhrupad. It is anibaddha first of all. Dhrupad by its very name and nature cannot be anibaddha.[8] But coming back to your question, singing the four parts clearly and without distortion is very important in our Gharana, so that the depth of meaning and feeling, the resonance of bhakti that is in the text, in full measure finds a home in the listener’s mind. In my limited experience, most other gharanas do not treat the four parts clearly. And as I said, musicians start doing Bolbant in the middle without first showing the full composition. But another issue is that sometimes the Bolbant becomes too much and overwhelms the composition and its intent. There is a lack of a sense of proportionality in this respect. So, to sum up, in the Bishnupur Gharana, the full form of the composition is more important than a display of virtuosity in Bolbant.

AM: But it is not the case that you don’t do any Bolbant at all, is it?

SG: No, no. It is definitely a part of the performance. But it is secondary in importance. You see, the Bolbant is the alankar or the ornamentation of Dhrupad. In Dhrupad one cannot do ornamentation that is often associated with other musical genres, because these reduce the overall gravity of the composition. So the Bolbant is the only way to ornament the composition. But it is a secondary feature of the performance, and we don’t let it overwhelm the Dhrupad.[9]

AM: Is there a particular manner in which the Bolbant of Bishnupur is meant to unfold in a performance?

SG: When you first start learning Bolbant, you learn to move in dugun, tigun, chaugun, chhegun, and so on, in a very methodical manner. But when we perform, we don’t progress in such a systematic manner from dugun to tigun, to chaugun, etc. I, for one, mostly improvise in dugun and tigun. I try to be as creative as possible in my own way in these layas, keeping in mind the positioning of the taal. Bolbant in Dhrupad is like Taankari in Khayal. In Khayal, you set a tempo and move as per your thinking. Just like that, a Dhrupadiya unfolds his creativity in the present tempo using Bolbant as a device. On the odd occasion I might sing one pre-determined movement. But it is largely extemporaneous in nature.

AM: But in teaching students, you systematically teach them dugun, tigun, chaugun and so on?

SG: Yes, when basic training is being done, we teach fixed movements in each type of laya. Often the focus is on retaining the melody of the composition while changing the laya.[10] But as I said, in performance, it is done extemporaneously.

[Continued in Part II]


1. Director, Seattle Indian Music Academy. The author would like to thank Tanmoy Ganguly for his invaluable assistance. [back]

2. Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay (1880-1963) is one of the most notable names of the gharana, and achieved all-India fame as a Dhrupadiya and composer of much merit. [back]

3. SG credits Atukrishna Bandhopadhyay’s Dhrupad training to Gopeshwar Babu and his Khayal training to the Muslim Ustad. This is interesting. Although Ustad Bahadur Khan is credited with starting the Gharana and thus importing the majority of Dhrupads into Bishnupur, I felt there might be a slight distinction here between the Hindu keeper of the tradition, who provided the Dhrupad repertoire and the Muslim keeper of the tradition, who provided the Khayal repertoire. This may not have been a distinction SG wanted to make, but it was something that struck my mind while I talked to him. [back]

4. Here SG begins to lay out the characteristics of the gharana. This is the first characteristic. The gharana takes pride in its equal contributions to Dhrupad and Khayal. [back]

5. In SG’s view therefore, the gharana itself is distinguished by the fact that it never limited itself to one or the other discipline. Dhrupad, Khayal and Instrumental music all found homes in Bishnupur. His views on other musical styles fostered in Bishnupur appear later in the interview. [back]

6. This seems like a significant bit of insight in to pedagogy in Bishnupur. A number of traditional musicians in my experience frown on speaking about the music explicitly. Repeated demonstration through music is used as the only tools of instructing the student. Here SG indicates that verbal discourse was an integral part of the training. [back]

7. There are two very interesting things about these statements. First, a key differentiator between Bishnupur and other gharanas according to SG is that the Bishnupur Gharana is centered on the idea of Bhakti as the main driving force for presentation. Thematic differentiation of this sort across gharanas, as far as I know is never seen. But what legitimizes this claim is his subsequent description of this ideology’s impact on musical style. There is a certain coherence of intent that is not found in what musicians of other gharanas have to say on this topic. [back]

8. Setting Alap aside as a separate ‘song type’ is an unusual view. But this also bolsters the idea of Khayal being an integration of Nibaddha (Dhrupad) and Anibadhha (Alap) into a single form. Here SG seems to be arguing that Dhrupad is a deconstructed form, in which the ‘bhaav’ of the composition in the form of a Dhrupad, is maintained quite distinctly from the ‘ras’ of the raga in the form of the Alap. [back]

9. SG here is drawing a parallel between Bolbant in Dhrupad and Taankari in Khayal, something he will elaborate on later in the interview. [back]

10. That is, the fixed melody and the words of the Dhrupad are sung in dugun, tigun, etc. The composition is essentially sped up while retaining the tempo of the taal. [back]