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.


Anonymous said...

Uma Vasudev wrote a readable piece on the flautist Pannalal Ghosh c.1958 in The Illustrated Weekly of India's series Hindustani Musicians.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Interesting information, Anon. Would you by any chance have a copy of this article with you? I for one am certainly interested in reading it.