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Book review: Great masters of classical music

Posted by ElJay Arem (IMC OnAir) on June 22, 2004


MUSIC MAKERS — Living Legends of Indian Classical Music:
Ashok Roy; published in 02/2004: Rupa & Co., 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002.

ISBN-10: 8129103192 | ISBN-13: 978-8129103192 | Rs. 995.

FOR A decade now there has been a notable increase in books on Indian artistes. Few however, have gone beyond skimpy sketches. Fewer still have managed to avoid creamy eulogy. Their lack of objectivity jars as much as the hurried research and lazy editing. Coffee table editions are no exception.

Take Music Makers, where Ashok Roy has put together profiles plus interviews with seven well known representatives of Carnatic music, and 14 frontline Hindustani musicians. From start to finish the author adopts a starry-eyed look and gushing tone. For instance, “A lifetime’s contentment shines through a single flash of her angelic smile” is how he rounds off his profile of violinist N. Rajam.

The style is ornate. Lalgudi Jayaraman is “the temple flame of genius that was sheltered and fuelled by a father’s foresight and teaching, (and) gradually proliferated and began to burn as a panchadeep, the multi-flamed lamp, illuminating the Carnatic music world.”

You have to cut your way through the verbiage; Pandit Ram Narayan “could have easily taken to singing”, he says, “but providence had scripted a path-breaking role for him, and ultimately, after a long-winding journey of musical adventure he had taken his appointed place on the platform of pure classical music, where the best percussion artistes were now waiting to lend accompaniment to his recital.” Small wonder that such a worshipful attitude offers not close-ups, but views from the distant gallery.

The writer is at his weakest when dealing with Carnatic musicians. His images are from the Hindustani system — “Seven years passed like a fast teen tala beat for young (Umayalpuram) Sivaraman.” At one point he even calls Carnatic music “exotic”— the response of the “Hindustani ear”.

Elsewhere Toothukudi becomes Turtugudi, C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) is misspelt “Raja Gopalachari” more than once. A photo caption identifies Adi Sankaracharya as Tyagaraja, another names flautist N. Ramani with violinist Jayaraman but fails to recognise Maharajapuram Santhanam between them.

Roy’s Carnatic vidwans remain cut-outs, misty with adjectives, adverbs. He is not able to comment knowledgeably on their perspectives, nor question the North Indian musicians’ remarks on the Carnatic system. Hindustani music fares better. Media icons M.S.Subbulakshmi or Amjad Ali Khan make for tired copy, but Bismillah Khan and Kishan Maharaj create drama.

Young Bismillah grows up without making distinctions between Ram and Rahim. His music is shaped in practice and trances at the Balaji shrine, he plays his shehnai in temple as well as Muharram processions.

Benares courtesan culture enriched Bismillah Khan, who was transported by listening to the strains of Rasoolan Bai, Vidyadhari, Rajeshwari and Siddheshwari, wafting down into the street from their kothas on the winding Dalmandi Lane.

Kishan Maharaj however, leaves native Benares refusing to play for the courtesans, little knowing that his success in Bombay was to come with accompanying dancer Sitara Devi. Unpredictable happenings abound. The artistes have visions of God, go into trances, practise tantra to master techniques. They get exiled by the guru, as Bhimsen Joshi was, and taken back into favour.

Kishori Amonkar loses her voice and regains it after years, young M. Balamuralikrishna sings his own verses in Sanskrit, without knowing the language. As a rule, the author is too awestruck to explore the complexities and eccentricities in his subjects, or enter dark regions.

This book has some evocative photographs. Shivkumar Sharma’s closed fist and emerald ring flash determination. Vinayakram’s innocence and energy are unmistakeable. Much effort has gone into collecting pictures where we see the artistes as fledgelings, and in full plumage. The interviews are more real. Between the routine replies are moments of evocative sharing. Contradictions can rivet.

Zakir Husain believes that what he learnt in 30 years can today be acquired in three, and with easier learning, opportunities and exposure, young talent never had it so good.

But purist Zia Fariduddin Dagar believes that trying to please the masses is the modern mantra, and being too eager to impress, present day music lacks feeling, “there are no sadhaks today, no sadhana.”

A confused Ravi Shankar wonders if young artistes will realise that quick results are possible only in fields like modelling, whereas music demands patient, persistent sadhana. Gangubai Hangal disarms you when she sighs, “People say that once you sit for your music riyaaz the whole world recedes into the background. But… when I sat down for riyaaz, I would begin to sob. All my sorrows, my financial worries, my family responsibilities would suffocate me.”

Hariprasad Chaurasia’s unsentimental frankness is moving; “I was never so spiritual. But my music has changed me…when you acquire the two most crucial qualities for music, which are concentration and devotion, you begin to literally feel the presence of the divine.” You wish the author had the same direct, plainspeak. It would have made the book inspiring.


(Source: 06/22/2004 –

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