Great Expectations

The trouble with our biographies of performing artists

01 March 2014
Bharatanatyam dancer T Balasaraswathi (left) and Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi were born into devadasi houses.
Courtesy T Balasaraswati Archive
Bharatanatyam dancer T Balasaraswathi (left) and Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi were born into devadasi houses.
Courtesy T Balasaraswati Archive

THE LIFE STORIES OF POLITICIANS are considered integral to modern Indian historical narratives, but rarely are artists’ lives accorded the same importance, in spite of the fact that classical forms of music and dance have made remarkable transitions into modern India. In recent years, however, a growing body of English-language biographies of Indian performing artists—including the violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman (by Lakshmi Devnath, 2013), the dancer VP Dhananjayan (by Tulsi Badrinath, 2013), the veena player S Balachander (by Vikram Sampath, 2012), the dancer T Balasaraswathi (by Douglas M Knight Jr, 2010), and a collection of 20 musicians’ biographies called Carnatic Summers (by V Sriram, 2005) just to name a few—indicates that we have begun to pay attention to the experiences of individuals whose importance goes beyond statecraft, political history, and even popular culture.

These recent efforts, laudable in several respects, have some limitations in common. The Indian biography has tended to cling to the traditionalist, “great man” method of writing history, and artistic history is no exception. This, taken together with the vagaries of the market, limits the ground the genre can cover. If a biography of Zakir Hussain were to arrive on the market next month, another tabla player’s life story would be unlikely to find space on publishers’ lists for the next several years. A calculation like this would reduce the history of tabla playing in modern India to the experience of a single great tabalchi. Great man biographies, particularly in the arts, also frequently cause their authors to venerate their subjects, which serves the writing of complicated historical and cultural processes very poorly. These new biographies are no exception to this rule; platitudes about the greatness of their subjects are strewn over them, in some cases right from the first page. Early in Lakshmi Devnath’s biography of Lalgudi Jayaraman, we are told in no uncertain terms that “this is the story of a genius.”  In a similar vein, the first chapter of Vikram Sampath’s biography of S Balachander is titled “A Genius is Born.” This sort of recourse to Victorian historiography, coupled with the tendency to deification, which Salman Rushdie called an “Indian disease,” present us with no new ways to think about biographical subjects and their context at all.

The way artists make their way through the world can tell us as much about their times as their work itself can do. Given how little history is written about the arts in India, it is a rare pleasure to find artist biographies that situate the artist and their art within the social and economic contexts of their time. Take, for example, artists’ responses to the more or less simultaneous breakdown, across India, of a previously stable system of court patronage in the early twentieth century. This opened the doors to a consumption economy of music driven by socio-religious institutions and secular sabhas. To survive in these new environs, artists had to adopt new manners, ways of performance, and thinking about their work. We learn in Janaki Bakhle’s excellent book, Two Men and Music, that because the new institutions of patronage had a distinctly Hindu flavour, in the early twentieth century, non-Hindu singers like Abdul Karim Khan adopted the habit of intoning the Gayatri Mantra during shows. These dramatic transitions speak, in their turn, to an older Indian history of tangled and intertwining aesthetics and identity.

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    Keywords: artists Indian classical music biography publishing performing arts art patrons devadasi MS Subbulakshmi