Biographies of Maestros: What a simple list tells us about our attitude towards our heritage

I started this blog with a post on books on Hindi film music, written in English. The popularity of that post encouraged me to start a page with a list of such books, which I update regularly. The page and the post together account for the largest chunk of traffic on my blog, even today.

This is what made some friends suggest that I start a similar one on Hindustani classical music—another subject on which I buy and read quite a few books.

On the face of it, these tasks look similar. The objectives of both are the same; it is to help people who may not be pursuing any formal study of music or musicology but whose interest in music is a little more than just listening to good music. In reality, though, the magnitude of challenges is manifold in case of classical music books.

One, the universe is of a different magnitude. There are hardly 50 books on Hindi film music published in English. The list of books on Hindustani classical music, on the other hand, is far longer, considering it is a subject taught and researched formally in many universities across India.

Two, many of those books have been brought out by publishers in places like Pune, Kolkata, Baroda, and Lucknow— all centers of prominence in the evolution of the musical form. Many of them are small and even closed down. Getting anything from their side is next to impossible.

Three, many of these were published long back. Unlike Hindi film music, where there was little before 1980s/90s, some of the books on Hindustani music in English dates backs to 30s and 40s. Many of these books are out of print.

Finally, my reading is confined to two areas: history/evolution of the genres/sub-genres/different gharanas/instruments or biographies (they often overlap), whereas the area itself is vast.

I decided to create a list of biographies, to start with. Of course, that includes autobiographies as well.

After working for a few months on the list—getting essential bibliographic information about each book, such as title, ISBN, author, publisher, year of publishing—I now have a list of 66 such books. But the exercise gave me much more than a list. I observed clear trends; trends that say a lot about our collective taste, how we look at our musical heritage and simply what sells.

This post is actually about those observations and a little analysis of that. I will post the actual list in a separate page.

Here are the essentials. The books can broadly be categorized into three types: autobiographies (eight), biographies of single individuals (49), compilation of biographies of multiple personalities (nine). I have actually read a little less than half of them.

Whose biographies?
The composition of the list itself reveals a lot about what, according to the publishers, interests Indian readers.

Let’s start with numbers. Among biographies/autobiographies of single individuals, Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar is on top with six biographies on him—two of them autobiographies. He is closely followed by the another Bharat Ratna from the area of Hindustani music , Ustad Bismillah Khan—with five biographies of the Shehnai maestro in the list. All but one (that is an autobiography of Pandit Ravi Shankar) are published in late 90s or 2000s—after Hindustani classical music had attained an exalted status and these stalwarts had turned celebrities (read saleable). Most of these books are neither scholarly nor great narratives; they are either coffee table books or basic life sketches written for the completely uninitiated/children.

Baba Allauddin Khan, with five of his biographies in the list, seems to be the surprise in the list. The great maestro (and the guru of Pandit Ravi Shankar) has biographies written by his disciples and grand disciples such as Pandit Jatin Bhattacharya, Ustad Mobarak Hussain Khan and Anjana Roy. Begum Akhtar, with four biographies, is next in the list. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, credited with popularizing classical music among the masses, is the fifth in the list, with three books on him.

Most—if not all—of these biographies are basic treatments/coffee table books.

Another thing to be noted here is that except for Ustad Bade Ghualm Ali Khan, none of the above exponents—who are popular among biographers—are really what most call classical vocalists (exponents of dhrupad or khyal). While Begum Akhtar is primarily the queen of ghazals and somewhat known for her thumris, the rest are all instrumentalists. Labeling Baba Allauddin Khan as an instrumentalist may actually be a narrow view of this great master; nevertheless, the fact remains that most of his disciples are exponents of instruments—sitar, sarod, surbahar, even flute and violin.

But more than those who are on the list, notable by their absence from the list are a number of luminaries—Ustad Inayat Husain Khan, the founder of Rampur-Sahaswan Gharana; Sawai Gandharva, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Mogubai Kurdikar, Hirabai Barodekar , Pt D V Paluskar, and even among the later generations, Kishori Amonkar and Pandit Rajan/Sajan Mishra; not to talk of thumri exponents like Rasoolan Bai and Badi Moti Bai.

Yes, I have still not come across any biography (in English) on each of these great masters. I will be happy to be pointed out if any exists.

There’s just one biography of Khansaheb Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of Kirana Gharana, written by ace discographer Micheal Kinnear. The book is out of print.

There’s one book on Ustad Faiyaz Khan, the most prominent voice from Agra Gharana in the 20th century, by his disciple Dipali Nag, published by Sangeet Natak Akademi. It’s not available in any book store or online shopping site.

There’s one biography (actually a kind of autobiography, as told to his great grandson) of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana, published by Thema, a Kolkata-based publisher, which is now reprinted and is available from publisher through direct order but is not available in any major bookstore or online shopping site.

There’s one small life sketch of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the father of modern Hindustani music education and founder of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, published by National Book Trust.

Precisely one books each on each of these masters—and none of them available widely—that’s the state of biographic literature in Hindustani music.

Isn’t this a comment on our collective apathy towards our own heritage? Or is it worse? In the last few years, the country has conferred Bharat Ratna—our highest civilian award for individuals—on three later day exponents of Hindustani music. Is it hypocrisy, then? Is it that we want to show to the world that we are proud of our heritage whereas in reality, we care very little?

Authors and treatment
One question that follows is why is the market for such books so limited? Is it really that the average Indian reader is not interested in reading books on music? Ostensibly, that seems to be the answer.

It’s not entirely incorrect. But it is only half the story. A look at the author and treatment of these books tells us why it could be so.

Most of the books fall into one of the three categories—narrative biographies, basic sketches and well-produced coffee table books. The last two categories serve specific purposes. Coffee table books sell on the value of quality of production—and are used to showcase one’s love for Indian culture and heritage—while basic sketches are mostly for reference.

The large biographies with narratives are what should ideally reach out to the readers of non-fiction—a community that is steadily growing in India. The books will become mainstream and commercially viable only when it appeals to this tribe.

Today, that is hardly the case. Most of the narrative biographies—both compilations as well as individual biographies—are written by one of the two sets of people: critics and the disciples of the subjects.

Those written by acclaimed music critics and musicologists such as R C Mehta (himself an exponent), Mohan Nadkarni, Ashok D Ranade and Raghava R Menon—whether biographies or history—are for serious readers. The treatment goes more into the finer nuances of music and their analysis and hardly interests the common reader.

Those by the disciples and descendants of masters—such as Pandit Debu Choudhury (disciple and biographers of Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan), Ustad Mobarak Husain Khan and Pandit Jatin Bhattacharya (disciples and biographers of Baba Alllauddin Khan), Dipali Nag (disciple and biographer of Ustad Faiyaz Khan), Sumati Mutakar (student and biographer of Pandit S N Ratanjakar) and Shanti Hiranand (disciple and biographer of Begum Akhtar)— while providing great insight and anecdotes about their masters, are too laudatory and often lack basic objectivity needed in a good biography. Also, often the narrative is too linear and straight, which does not amuse and hence does not appeal to common readers.

There are a few notable exceptions—like Annapurna Devi’s biography by Swapan Kumar Bandopadhyay and Begum Akhtar’s biography by Rita Ganguly even though the latter is a direct disciple of the former—which are very interesting narratives.

The success of other books such as The Music Room by Namita Devidayal and The Lost World of Hindustani Music by Kumar Prasad Mukerji shows that people would like to read good narratives on Hindustani music (actually, on any subject). While the former is a very engaging account of the evolution of Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana and gives nice glimpses into the lives of Dhondutai Kulkarni, Kesarbai Kerkar and some insights into the persona of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the latter is arguably the most interesting narrative about the evolution of Hindustani classical music in late 18th and 19th century.

The answer, then, lies in actually getting good writers of narrative non-fiction interested in the subject. Who will do that is anyone’s guess. Good publishers can certainly play a role, but are they themselves interested in the subject?

Who are the publishers?
After going through the above, the list of top publishers should not be too much of a surprise. Roli Books, which started as a coffee table book publisher on art and has since then has published some good books on Indian heritage as well—like music, travel, food and festivals—sits right there on top, with nine titles to its credit.

Hindustani classical music is now enjoying a kind of exalted status; with the exponents being projected with a larger-than-life image. This has created a market for well-produced books on these personalities with high quality photographs—which has worked very well for Roli. To its credit, it has steadily focused on getting better writers and has even brought in small innovations like collaborating with music publishers like Saregama to bundle music CDs with books. This has created a niche market for such books, which are highly priced and are the more respectable versions of yesteryears’ somewhat dumber coffee table books.

Rupa has always published some of the most unique non-fiction in India and it extends to this area as well. But it must be pointed out that the number that it has comes from the fact that it has published some small life sketches of famous exponents—such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Begum Akhtar—as well. Popular Prakashan, another Indian publishing house, with a track record of music books, with four titles, is the only other publisher which has a significant presence in the list.

General publishers such as Penguin/Viking, Harper Collins, UBS and Orient have token presence, while academic publishers such as Oxford University Press, Permanent Black, Three Essays Collective etc have token presence.

The rest are either smaller niche publications, local publishers or the government publishing units such as Sangeet Natak Akademi, Publication Division and National Book Trust.

In fact, the subjects, the treatment and the publishers are completely in sync and tell a story that is loud and clear: that the commercial market for books on Hindustani music is restricted to coffee table books and basic life sketches. The individuals who have written because of their passion (such as many exponents themselves) without much commercial considerations have been published by smaller publishing houses. Government publishers too have not done enough; i.e, how can you reconcile to the fact that Sangeet Natak Akademi has not published monographs on say, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan or D V Paluskar?

So, what is the way out? It is well beyond the scope of my post here; but just some thinking aloud. In the short run, government initiative could help in researching the subject. Even if a fraction of the research fund that music research is getting is diverted to research on musicology, we will see tremendous result. For the commercial publishers—while they will be cautious about the acceptability—it makes some sense to try roping in good writers to create a commercially viable market for such books.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Indian Classical Music, Music, Musicology

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