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A Rasika's Journey Through Hindustani Music
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A Rasika's Journey Through Hindustani Music

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A Rasika's Journey Through Hindustani Music

Rajeev Nair

A Rasika’s Journey through Hindustani Music is the author’s journey trying to understand and appreciate the abstract, expansive, fluid and wide-ranging contours of North Indian classical music. Like any other lover of Indian classical music from South India, Rajeev Nair grew up listening to Karnatic music. Over the years, his listening preferences veered in the direction of Hindustani music. This book is a result of his changed listening preferences.

Meant for intelligent listeners who want to go on a journey exploring and enjoying the joys of North Indian classical music, the book provides details of not only the most basic concepts vital to North Indian classical music like its major forms, the concept of gharanas and their dominant features, the aesthetics of the raaga and its centrality to the system but also details about the lives, creative approaches and musical styles adopted by vocal and instrumental maestros of the 20th century.

Working both as an act of homage and thanksgiving to the great masters and attempting to transmit the joy that the author felt while listening to their recorded music, A Rasika’s Journey through Hindustani Music will appeal to those who have some understanding of North Indian classical music as well as to those who want to make initial forays into this vast ocean of creativity and style.

(Excerpts from Smt. Sukumari Narendra Menon’s review of A Rasika’s Journey Through Hindustani Music published in Kala Kaumudi no. 1667 dated 19-08-2007, pp. 34- 39. All quotations from the book.)

For many, music is merely a means of entertainment. They relish it in no great depth for a while and leave it at that. If the rhythm is brisk and the song zesty, some of them break into a quick jig. But for a select few, the experience of music is the gateway to the deep, enigmatic, rarefied and sacrosanct realms of aesthetic and spiritual joy. It is one that transcends all human barriers and unites the listener with the other-worldly delight of pure love; one that pilots him/her towards the sublime heights of self-knowledge. When one reads Rajeev Nair’s A Rasika’s Journey Through Hindustani Music, its is evident that he belongs to the latter category of choice listeners. By his own confession, he never “had the talent to hum or play a song or tune” or “to captivate the air with the charm of [his] voice and enchant the winds with the magic [his] fingers.” Yet the book makes it evident that he is the owner of deep and rare musical experiences. He further says in the Introduction that he obtained “from that ambrosial ocean of melodic pleasure a few reluctant drops.” They “transmuted [his] world completely, filled it with sounds, tastes, fragrances and joys hitherto unknown.”

The book does not say much about the minutiae of the grammar of Hindustani classical music nor about its wide-ranging technical facets and intricacies. The author offers only bare outlines and clarifications regarding these. Yet the very core of this book is one that rouses and sensitises our powers of listening and appreciation. To achieve this purpose, Rajeev Nair not only resorts to the vocabulary of music but banks significantly on the resources of poetry, painting and other modes of expressive aesthetics. Therefore when he dwells on the style or approach of a singer or performer, his language becomes suffused with the glow of poetry, the radiance of painting and the vividness of dramatic presentation. His writing brims with memorable images, vivid metaphors and animated figurative language. Time and again, the author tags the various shades of musical delight to the comprehensive experience of rasa. Talking of Ustad Amir Khan’s music, he ruminates as follows: “The bewitching coppery glow of the setting sun on a tranquil sea, the mellow gold of the late autumn in the deep forests, a cupola of stars thrilling the stillness of night, the stately solitude of a Himalayan snow peak mirroring the hues of dawn. Yes, these are the horizons of images and feelings, the landscape of emotions and colours your mind glimpses when you listen to Amir Khan. A voice that up wells like a deep, slow surge of wind from the vast caverns of the soul. A voice so removed from our everyday world, ever mesmerizing us, ever tantalizing us with its hypnotic aura, its “alienated majesty,” seeping like moon-milk into our innards, pouring its enigmatic secrets sometimes in a hush, sometimes aloud into our inner ears.”

About the experience of listening to Kishori Amonkar’s Bhinna Shadaj, he has this to say: it “etches the picture of a love-lorn maiden nostalgically and expectantly sending a letter through a pigeon-carrier. The fluttering of her heart and the wing-beats of the carrier-pigeon across a dawn-lit sky are poetically captured by Kishori.”

About Pt. Pannalal Ghosh’s approach to raagas, he says: “what Pannalal is shows us is not the vigorous rush or the sun-struck glitter of the full river of a raaga; rather what we are drawn into the translucent beauty of its depths caressed occasionally by a tuneful ray of light. His slow sections are like a deep and still river darkened by the midnight blue of the night sky. Slowly the moon climbs and troops of stars wink and shimmer on the tranquil surface of the raaga. No flurries of tones, no hurried leaps of swaras, no rhythmic displays disturb the absolute tranquillity of his alaaps and vilambits.”

At times, the author relates the experience of music to painting. Talking of Jitendra Abhisheki’s approach to raagas, he says: “He always compared a raga to a piece of canvas, the swaras to colours and the musician to the portrait painter who imaginatively and judiciously used the right kinds of colours to suit the subject.” Of Pt. Omkarnath Thakur’s style, he has this to say: “He fills the outlines of the raga with rich thick oils at times and translucent water colours at other times to bring forth the beauty of both the ragabhava as also the sahitya.” Further, when he speaks of Omkarnath Thakur’s dramatic mode of musical rendition, he resorts to metaphors and images drawn from the world of theatre: “One of the outstanding traits of his music was his dramatic employment of timbre and volume of his voice to heighten and emphasize the emotional colours of the song text as also the notes of the raga. Called kaku-bheda, its manipulation gives the listener the feeling that the singer is emoting both the song and melodic text in the manner of a thespian. In fact, Omkarnath was a vocal thespian who brought out the manifold bhavas and rasas inherent in Indian ragas through vocal modulations hand gestures, and body language. His presentation was truly dramatic in the best sense. He lived through and lived out every shade of emotion inherent in the raga as also words of the bandish. In fact, the two fused in his magniloquent performance. He could coo the raga in a velvety tone like a courting lover, let off a thunderous leonine roar in the manner of a wrathful warrior, or wail in deep melting anguish like a papiha bereft of its lost mate. He was, to re-phrase Keats’ marvellous remark on Shakespeare dramatic genius, a “chameleon” singer who could totally identify and empathise with the emotions of the characters or situations he was depicting totally as also express them though the medium of song.”

Of his experience of seeing Ustad Z.M. Dagar’s beautifully crafted Rudra veena for the first time, he has this to say: “The fabulously carved rudra shone splendidly on stage like some mythical jewel-studded barge floating in queenly pride in a sea of awed silence.” Of Pt. Ravi Shanker’s music, he says: “His sitar, metaphorically speaking, is made of the strong oak of tradition, decorated with the elegant ivory carvings of lyricism and bound together with the golden strings of imagination.” Ustad Bismillah Khan’s marvellously assimilative approach to music is described thus: “Bismillah culled the nectar from the diverse musical meadows of North Indian music in the manner of a honey bee and transformed it effortlessly into the honey of fluent melodic joy.”

Only 100 out of the 402 pages of this book deal with the technicalities of Hindustani music. The rest of the 302 pages or so are devoted to the life and art of the great singers and instrumentalists. Despite the relative paucity of scholarly and technical facts and information, this book is a truly astounding reading experience. Chapter I outlines the chief forms of Hindustani vocal music such as dhrupad, khyal, tarana, thumri, tappa and dadra. Chapter II delineates the major Gharanas of Hindustani classical music and Chapter III with the classification of Hindustani raagas, their relationship to Ragamalika paintings, to time and varying moods. But the substantial Chapter IV deals exclusively and exhaustively with the Great singers of North Indian classical music and the final chapter with the instruments and instrumentalists of the Hindustani paddhati. Such is the vast extent and scope of this book.

Even if this book cannot be termed as a musical treatise, Rajeev Nair’s book stands out among the many books that have come out on Indian classical music. The memorable reading experience it offers most definitely makes it unputdownable! One cannot think of very many books on Indian classical music that that are so poetically expressive and vibrant in approach and style. Lovely figurative expressions and elegant turns of phrase which capture the integration of both nature and the human heart through melody do indeed heighten the exquisiteness of this book. They also heighten the listening abilities and sensitivities of readers. Not only lovers of music but musicians too will profit immensely from this book. Amir Khusroo, the 13th century Persian musician and mystic who settled down in India reputedly said: “Hindustani music is Divine.” Rajeev Nair’s book is indeed a hymn and a song of praise to Khusroo’s wondrous revelation.

To read an extract from The Telegraph, 15 June 2007 click here
To read an extract from Indian Horizons, Vol 54 No. 4(1) click here
To read an extract from Indian Horizons, Vol 54 No. 4 (2) click here
To read an extract from Indian Horizons, Vol 54 No. 4 (3) click here
To read an extract from The Book Reivew, July 2008 click here


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