A Tale of Two Cultures

Hindustani music’s long journey from Delhi to Mumbai

01 April 2015
The south Indian composer Thyagaraja epitomised the figure of the saintly musician who performed for devotion rather than the prospect of money.
The south Indian composer Thyagaraja epitomised the figure of the saintly musician who performed for devotion rather than the prospect of money.

IN THE LATE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, the most highly paid Hindustani classical musician was probably Miyan Tansen, the celebrated singer at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. The court’s classical musicians were all likely to have been Muslim men, many of them recent converts from Hinduism. They performed for a select audience, of discerning listeners who belonged to the Mughal elite. Any singer who wanted to make a dent in the music scene had to please the patron-king. The Delhi region was the undisputed capital of Hindustani music—the scene of the most scintillating performances and the most intense rivalries.

In the mid twentieth century, the most highly paid Hindustani vocalist was, by many accounts, Kesarbai Kerkar, a Hindu naikin, that is, a woman descended from a devadasi family in Goa. Her confrères were a mixed lot: men and women of different social backgrounds and religious affiliations, and from all over the country. They performed in a variety of settings, and for assorted audiences: in the homes of wealthy entrepreneurs for special guests, and in concert halls for middle-class audiences with varying levels of musical knowledge. This large and disparate audience was centred primarily in Bombay and any vocalist who wanted to reach it had to come to the city to perform or record. The city was to Hindustani music in the twentieth century what Delhi had been to it in the sixteenth.

As Hindustani music travelled, through 400 years of history and across 1,400 km, it retained its core identity. But as its centre of gravity shifted from Delhi to Bombay, its context and cast of characters changed. Two recently published books offer rich insights into these two very different cultures. Studying India’s Musicians, by the ethnomusicologist Daniel M Neuman, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, focuses on the Delhi part of the story, while Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay by the tabla player Aneesh Pradhan, scrutinises the Bombay segment. Neuman’s volume is a collection of analytical essays written over four decades, while Pradhan’s is a work of narrative history.

Sumana Ramanan is a Mumbai-based journalist and researcher. She is on Twitter as @sumana_ramanan.

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