A Tale of Two Cultures

Hindustani music’s long journey from Delhi to Mumbai

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.
01 April, 2015

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.

Both books are path-breaking. Neuman, in this and previous works, is the first scholar to describe in great detail the social organisation of Hindustani music under the older, Delhi model. Pradhan, whose book is based on his 2002 doctoral dissertation, is the first writer to comprehensively examine the world of Hindustani music in modern Bombay; his work thus fills a gap in the historiographies of both the city and the genre. While based on rigorous scholarship, the books are, at the same time, highly readable. They are of value not only to historians, ethnomusicologists, and aficionados of Hindustani music, but also to those more generally interested in a form that, arguably, represents the pinnacle of this civilisation’s achievements.

India has produced not one but two musical traditions of exquisite refinement: the Hindustani and the Carnatic. Hindustani classical music, in turn, has two genres: the older dhrupad, and its offshoot, khayal, which is more widely performed today. It is worthwhile to try and understand how the subcontinent spawned and sustained musical forms of such a high calibre, which survived 200 years of devastating colonial rule. Both these books explore a form that arose in north India, and, by combining Hindu and Islamic influences in an inseparable whole, epitomised the region’s syncretic culture.

THE 14 ESSAYS in Studying India’s Musicians are arranged chronologically by publication date but can be more usefully classified into four thematic sections. At the heart of the book lie six essays that describe the social ecosystem in Delhi, one that was “so elegantly prepared to produce great musicians.” Two other essays explore Hindustani music’s inroads into North America; two more offer useful surveys of current scholarship on the genre; and the remaining four are theoretical discussions, likely to interest only experts.

Neuman’s aim is not to write the history of a given period of Hindustani music, but to uncover and analyse social and cultural patterns relating to the genre, its practice and its performers. As a scholar working at the intersection of anthropology and musicology, his route to investigating these matters is through ethnography and comparative musical analysis, with historical research serving as an aid. Neuman did two-and-a-half years of fieldwork among hereditary families of musicians, mainly in Delhi, from 1969 to 1971, which provided much of the data for his doctoral dissertation, which led to his first book, The Life of Music in North India: The Organisation of an Artistic Tradition, published in 1980. Some of the essays in Studying India’s Musicians cover the same ground as the dissertation, but others were written later, based on additional research. Neuman also trained for several years with the Delhi-based sarangi player Ustad Sabri Khan.

The six core essays address the key questions that have animated his research: how did the social organisation of Muslims interact with Hindu cultural expression, and how did Indian society consistently produce first-rate musicians?

To answer the first question, Neuman tells the story of how dhrupad evolved into khayal, and what this did to the music’s performers. Until the sixteenth century, classical musicians in India, both in the north and the south, were largely Brahmins. Although most were probably paid for performing, music was essentially considered a devotional activity, largely reserved for ritualistic contexts such as religious ceremonies. The prolific south Indian composer Thyagaraja, who lived from the mid eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century, epitomised this ideal musician. Revered as a saint even today, he composed thousands of songs in praise of Rama. He refused to teach professional musicians, and declined to sing at royal courts, such as that of Maharaja Swati Thirunal’s at Travancore, which attracted some of the best professional musicians of the period. At the same time, the Brahmin performers also thought of music as a scholarly activity, and developed a written theory in parallel to their performances. The composer Venkatamakhin, for instance, published a grand musicological work, Chaturdandi Prakashika, in the mid seventeenth century.

But as the Muslim Mughals, starting with Akbar in the latter half of the sixteenth century, began passionately patronising classical music in north India, performance rapidly metamorphosed into an aesthetic activity. This had many consequences. Above all, it led to the professionalisation of musicians, as exemplified by Tansen, who stands in contrast with the saintly Thyagaraja. Musicians in north India began acquiring the traits of skilled artisans who were paid for their craft. This, in turn, had a bearing on musical theory. In this new system, there was no room “for theoretical speculations ... to be written down in treatises,” Neuman writes. In response, guild-like stylistic schools, or gharanas, began emerging in the mid nineteenth century. These can be seen as guardians of oral equivalents of the textual theoretical treatises in the south Indian system, Neuman argues; after all, both were prescriptive, with rules for how music should be elaborated and presented.

In order to protect their stylistic integrity and trade secrets, Muslim gharana musicians married cousins from within their respective clans—a practice prohibited in north Indian Hindu society. Although some see this obsession with secrecy as stemming from the ostensible miserliness of the ustads, or master musicians, from Neuman’s analysis it appears the practice had more to do with their status as professionals, who had to please patrons and wanted an edge in a competitive environment.

The patrons’ Islamic culture also influenced the art form. Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this was the subordination of lyrics to music. Neuman writes that

Khayal is a structurally collapsed version of the dhrupad, in which the meaning of the text need not be particularly articulated. Given the largely Hindu themes of the dhrupad compositions, this is how an Islamic culture adapted the form ... The [Hindu] texts in most khayal performances become very much a vehicle for the tune and not the other way around. This contrasts not only with Carnatic musical practice but also with Islamic musical practice in other performance traditions outside India, where texts assume an exceptionally important place.

Professionalisation and Islamicisation worked together to considerably expand the scope for improvisation and individual virtuosity, of the kind we now see in khayal music. The vocalist must himself or herself create the elaborate structure of a khayal presentation, starting from a bandish, or song, consisting of just four to six lines. Today, khayal has possibly the most intricate improvisation of any vocal genre in the world, according to Warren Senders, a world music expert, leader of an Indo-jazz ensemble,  and perhaps the only professional American khayal singer. “In the hands of the masters, these improvisations are a dazzling display of  virtuoso technique and musical imagination,” he writes on his blog, Running Gamak.

Neuman offers fascinating insights into how this evolution affected the music. To take just one example, he explains why khayal developed a rhythmic style where the percussionist’s primary purpose is simply to keep time, playing only the basic version of the taal, called the theka, or “support.” Compare this to both dhrupad and Carnatic music, where the soloist keeps time independently, usually using a structured system of hand gestures, leaving the percussionist free to play variations on the basic taal to whatever degree of complexity he or she wishes. Often, the audience also keeps time along with the soloist, a sight hard to miss in a contemporary Carnatic concert.

The use of theka was a West Asian practice adopted by Indian folk musicians, whose traditions began moving into classical music as it started to lose its ritualistic role and became more of an entertainment. “The theka as an independent structural support for musical performances seems to have been eminently adapted to a musical culture which was changing in its social context, the ethnicity of its specialists and its cultural modality,” Neuman writes.

His short answer to the second question, relating to producing first-rate musicians is: “intensive training at an early age such as one finds in hereditary families of musicians.” Such a system allowed the efficient transfer of knowledge and the early spotting of talent. As Hindustani music evolved within the environment of Islamic courts, it adopted a hereditary social structure resembling the Hindu caste system. The musicians, now mostly Muslims, were either soloists or accompanists, with the former having a superior status. Soloists called themselves Kalawants, and came from about 15 distinct lineages, all of which, according to the scholar Hakim Muhammad Karam Imam, descended from four musicians at Akbar’s court. Accompanists, namely sarangi and tabla players, were called Mirasis, and usually had rural backgrounds. The two groups could not intermarry, but there seems to have been some mobility, with accompanists assuming the characteristics of soloists in order to move up the hierarchy, in the same way that lower-caste Hindus adopted attributes of the higher castes, usually Brahmins, to gain status—a process that the sociologist MN Srinivas called Sanskritisation.

WHILE OFFERING INSIGHT into all these questions, Neuman’s book pushes us to ask another: if intense training from an early age was the traditional way to produce excellence, then what happens when the system of patronage that spawned such a social structure begins to collapse, as it did with the decline of the Mughal empire in the eighteenth century, and of the princely states in the nineteenth? We find one possible answer in Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay. Pradhan describes how Hindustani music modernised and reinvented itself in the great metropolis of Bombay between 1875 and 1950, thus taking up the story where Neuman leaves off.

In contrast with Neuman, Pradhan, when wearing his scholarly hat, is rooted in the discipline of history. He relies mainly on archives, supplementing those sources with oral histories and interviews. Unlike Neuman, he does not set out to make an overarching argument or to answer large questions, such as what confluence of factors made Bombay a hub of Hindustani music. Instead, Pradhan describes a period that was key to the survival and regeneration of the genre, and gives us a ringside view of its great artistic ferment.

Kesarbai Kerkar, descended from a devadasi family in Goa, was perhaps the most highly paid Hindustani vocalist in the mid twentieth century. Hanah Makepeace for The Caravan

Writing history often calls for intelligent guesswork to fill in gaps in the evidentiary record. Pradhan’s intimate knowledge of Bombay, where he was born and has lived all his life, and his being part of its music world, allows him to imagine what might have been with nuance and authority. He draws from secondary sources—such as BR Deodhar’s Thor Sangeetkar (translated into English as The Pillars of Hindustani Music) and Govindrao Tembe’s biography of Alladiya Khan, who founded the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana—as well as an impressive range of primary documents and other records from the period, in four languages. He also makes use of detailed interviews with artistes, critics and aficionados who lived in the latter part of the time in question—some of which are appended to the book. These help give us a sense of closeness to the era.

Pradhan begins his story with the decline of royal patronage. Over the nineteenth century, British policies gradually diluted the power of India’s princely states. After the suppression of the 1857 revolt, princely power further declined. Around this time, the British exiled two great patrons of the arts: Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, from Lucknow to Calcutta in 1856; and the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, from Delhi to Rangoon in 1858.

With the patronage of the Mughals, classical music in north India became a professional activity, as exemplified by the celebrated musician Tansen. Wikimedia Commons

This precipitated the movement of musicians and courtesans to emerging economic hubs—foremost among them Bombay, but also, although to a lesser extent, Calcutta, which was already declining economically. Bombay offered musicians a new class of patrons. The British did very little to support Hindustani music, but, mercifully, do not seem to have hindered Indian efforts. The most prominent patrons were Hindu shetias, or wealthy merchants. Pradhan writes of affluent Muslim patrons too, but does not offer specific examples. He also notes that female performers patronised other artistes, but, again, does not give many details. It is always hard to recover the narratives of the less socially powerful, but more concrete information about these two groups would have provided a richer picture of private patronage in this period.

Musicians moved to Bombay also because of new commercial prospects, such as ticketed concerts, gramophone recordings, and teaching opportunities both in music schools and as private tutors for members of a growing middle class. Pradhan describes the entire anatomy of Bombay’s classical music world: the new patrons, music circles, clubs, schools and conferences, and the changing faces of pedagogy and performance. He devotes separate chapters to each of these subjects.

In contrast with the world Neuman describes, Bombay was home to classical musicians of all types, and they were not all male: Muslim musicians from hereditary families, such as Alladiya Khan and his sons, coexisted with Hindu upper-caste, Marathi-speaking musicians such as VD Paluskar and VN Bhatkhande; naikins of Goa, such as Kesarbai Kerkar and Mogubai Kurdikar; and musicians from Dharwad, such as Gangubai Hangal and Mallikarjun Mansur. One vignette in the book shows how these different groups interacted, and how vibrant a centre for Hindustani music Bombay was. At one gathering, Ramakrishnabua Vaze, the great Gwalior gharana singer known for his bluntness, praised a recent concert of Alladiya Khan’s but also criticised Abdul Karim Khan, a stalwart of the Kirana gharana. This incensed a student of Abdul Karim Khan, but Alladiya Khan, who was present, soothed him and prevented a conflagration. It is amazing to learn that these three musical giants, were routinely crossing paths in the city, and that such sparring and camaraderie among “the pillars of Hindustani music,” to use Deodhar’s title, was then commonplace in Bombay.

Pradhan’s lengthy discussion of the role of the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali is particularly illuminating, because it tells us that there was a time when the city’s Parsis, most of whom today patronise and study only Western classical music, were also involved with Hindustani music. Begun in 1870, the Mandali was a music club that propagated the learning and appreciation of music, including Hindustani music, among Parsi families. After six years of existence, it allowed Hindus to attend some concerts too. Pradhan does not say what the Mandali’s policy was towards Muslim guests, but he does say that it engaged many ustads as teachers, including Imdad Khan. This club was among the most vibrant of its kind, and perhaps helped create an environment that gave rise to two wonderful Parsi musicians: Firoz Dastur, of the Kirana gharana, and Jal Balaporia of the Gwalior gharana.

Any discussion of the modernisation of Hindustani music must include the works of VN Bhatkhande and VD Paluskar, pioneering Maharashtrian Brahmin scholar-musicians. Bhatkhande was one of the first theoreticians of the genre, while Paluskar set up the All India Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, which established schools for Hindustani music all over the country. No doubt their contributions to democratising the genre were monumental. Through their prodigious efforts, they opened up both performance and consumption of an elite art form to a much wider swathe of the population—Bhatkhande by extensively documenting musical knowledge so that any interested person could use it, and Paluskar by setting up institutions of learning open to the public at large.

At the same time, their attitudes were problematic. In her book Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition, the historian Janaki Bakhle argues that their reformist zeal, in different ways, was exclusionary. She contends that Bhatkhande was “a man of prejudice,” betraying a disdain for hereditary musicians—most of whom were Muslim—because of their alleged lack of theoretical knowledge.

Paluskar, for his part, she says “reinstated a modern version of a bhakti-based, but Brahmin-ized, understanding of the guru-shishya parampara.” The two Hindu giants thus ended up creating, in the minds of some, an invidious distinction between “Hindu” and “Muslim” schools of Hindustani music. Today, it is a fact that Maharashtrian Brahmins dominate Hindustani vocal music. As is the case with any historical phenomenon, this is likely to be the result of many factors working together, but Bhatkhande’s and Paluskar’s idiosyncratic modernising programmes surely contributed. While discussing the work of these men in Bombay, Pradhan largely withholds explicit judgement, but through his detailed narration of specific incidents and debates, he reveals their personalities and agendas in their full complexity.

IN 1976, Chetan Karnani, a professor of English at the University of Rajasthan, published a landmark book called Listening to Hindustani Music. In light and fluent prose, Karnani introduced a whole generation to the genre and its leading lights. In the nearly 40 years since then, the number and variety of books on Hindustani music has grown considerably. In the Western academy, research on the subject has proliferated over the past half-century, Neuman says in his essay surveying the scholarship. He informs us that we now even have a “gharana” of British scholars of the genre, known for their encyclopaedic approach and meticulous reading of Persian and Urdu sources.

Outside the academy, books on the subject have taken a number of forms: memoirs, biographies, criticism, and translations from Indian languages. To be sure, some are turgid and jargon-laden, but a surprising number are lucid and enjoyable. To give just a few examples, among memoirs we have Sheila Dhar’s Raga’n Josh, with stories about musicians written with verve, humour and affection; Kumar Prasad Mukherji’s similar The Lost World of Hindustani Music; and Namita Devidayal’s The Music Room, about her own tutelage under the late vocalist Dhondutai Kulkarni, Kesarbai Kerkar’s only student. In the biographies, we have Vikram Sampath’s book on the singer Gauhar Jaan; a biography of Alladiya Khan, translated by Urmila Bhirdikar and Amlan Dasgupta from the notebooks of his grandson, Azizuddin Khan, to whom the great musician narrated his life story. Among critical studies, we have several accessible books by the scholars Deepak Raja and Ashok Ranade. Among translations, there is Rasa Yatra, Mallikarjun Mansur’s moving autobiography, and Govindrao Tembe’s My Pursuit of Music, published just this year—both are of a high order.

Neuman’s and Pradhan’s books enrich this literature. They give us panoramic views of two Hindustani music cultures. Only traces of the world that Neuman portrays remain today, while the institutions that populate Pradhan’s story are also disappearing, in tandem with the rapid transformation of Bombay’s economy and demography. It is not clear what is emerging in their place. To gauge where Hindustani music might be headed, it is crucial to understand both its history and its essential character. These books are, therefore, vital for anyone who cares not only about the music’s past, but also its future.

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