Category Archives: Culture

The One Man Genre

What is the maximum number of novels or plays a person can write in his/her lifetime? 50? 100? 200? Will you believe me if I say here is an Odia playwright who has written more than 500 (most likely close to 800) plays?

Will you believe me if I add that most of those plays have been extremely popular among the audience—when performed on stage and/or broadcast on radio?

Yes, such a person, whose ‘prolificity’ did not, in any manner, come in the way of his ‘class’, did exist among us in flesh and blood. He still does—albeit in our collective memory.

Gopal Chhotray—whose birth centenary was celebrated yesterday—was not just an extraordinarily successful playwright; he was an institution in himself.  And before you take that as cliché, let me explain what exactly do I mean by that.

Gopal Chhotray was associated with all the possible platforms where a play could be performed—stage, radio, cinema and finally television. He experimented with all kinds of themes—social, family, historical, mythological… And when it came to performance of a play, both on stage and on radio, he was involved with all aspects of its production—from choosing of characters to dialogue delivery to music. Even when stalwarts like Pandit Balakrushna Dash or Akshaya Mohanty would be in charge of music, Chhotray would ensure that the note that he wanted sounded just right. But the unassuming way in which he would do that ensured that all he got from these great people was respect, nothing else.

Yet, the true greatness of this man lay neither in his prolificity nor in his versatility.  It lies in the fact that—and I have the advantage of saying this in hindsight—in a career spanning half a century, he almost defined and shaped Odia drama as a genre—warding off some mindless external influence that Odia theater was beginning to pick up in the post-Kavichandra phase. For long, he almost carried it on his shoulder.

Don’t get me wrong. It is not to suggest that he was better than others.

Take Manoranjan Das, probably the only other name an average Odia would take alongside Chhotray’s when quizzed about Odia drama literature. Das, incidentally, was a colleague, contemporary and very good friend of Gopal Chhotray. (Trivia info: Devdas Chhotray, Gopal Chhotray’s son and noted Odia lyricist actually performed in many of Manoranjan Das’ radio plays, not so much in his father’s plays).

As a playwright Manoranjan Das—who has inspired a lot of researchers to study his creation—was extremely talented. But if his plays impressed the critics more than the audience, it was because he experimented a lot—and many a times, was way ahead of his times.

Gopal Chhotray came from a solid theater background and always had an ear to the ground. It is to his credit that he never used that advantage to just play to the gallery. On the other hand, he experimented and introduced new ideas, both in theme and presentation—but keeping the audience in mind. He defined, shaped and ‘cultivated’ the taste of Odia drama audience.

This contribution of Chhotraty—shaping an entire genre—to my mind, is a far greater contribution than creating some great pieces of individual plays.  Alongside people like Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik, Balakrushna Dash, Akshaya Mohanty and Kanhu Charan Mohanty, Chotray’s name should be taken as a great influencer of popular culture in post independent Odisha.

It is to his credit that he used this influence to do more than just ‘successful’ and ‘experimentative’ work.  Like a true cultural leader, he took it on his shoulders to do more for the community. One was to revive traditions and (as I have written above) thereby ensure that Odianess remains in Odia drama.

Take his single-handed effort to resurrect the legacy of Ganakabi Baishnab Pani’s rural street plays. By writing and composing his geetinatyas following the patterns and musical scores of Baishnab Pani’s geetinatyas for All India Radio, Chhotray, for the first time, got the poet of masses (ganakabi) to the classes. For the first time, Pani was in the drawing room of the urban households.

In fact, to the people of my generation—I grew up in the 80s—Chhotray is best remembered for these geetinatyas like Ganesha, Janmashtami, Napahu Rati Namaru Pati, Mahishasura Mardini, Sampurna Ramayana, Bindu Sagara and the like.

Janini mu kie Siba kouthi ta ghara, Kandile ki heba karindra gamana Indra ki sahaje chhadiba, Dina ganutha ganutha mesha chhiati, Bindu bindu tirthakalare purna e saroabara still reverberate in our minds.

The list, of course, willingly leaves out the most popular of them all—Patent Medicine. That deserves special discussion. If Chhotray resurrected Baishnab Pani, he gave new kind of popularity to Fakir Mohan’s Patent Medicine.  In a recent Twitter poll, we asked the Odia tweeple what their favorite Fakir Mohan work was.

Patent Medicine scored above even Chha Mana Atha Guntha (and Rebati, Daka Munsi). In the discussion that accompanied, many had no hesitation in admitting that it was Shrimati Samarjani, the geetinatya version of Patenr Medicine that is etched in their minds. Many also explicitly said it was Chhotray and Akshaya Mohanty who should share the credit for taking the work to a new level of popularity. Just to reiterate, many even tweeted lines from it—from Babu hei jebe kabu kala mote to Epakhe das sepkahe das; from Makara to helu pagala to Na Sulochana kolata chuna. By the way, it is four decades since it was first broadcast.

It is probably apt to share the genesis of the geetinatya. Gopal Chhotray had adapted works of many great writers to stage and radio plays. Among Fakir Mohan’s works, he had adapted Mamu andChha Mana Atha Guntha among others for radio. Patent medicine was, however, first written for stage. It was even staged in the Collegiate School in early 60s, with Hemant Das and Urvashi Tripathy as the lead pair of Chandramani Babu and Sulochana Dei. But after success of mythological geetinatyas on radio, Akshaya Mohanty suggested that Chhotray adapt Patent Medicine to a geetinatya form. While it was a big challenge to present a social story to a melodramatic geetinatya form with so many songs, Chhotray took it up. The rest is, as they say, history.

Not only did it go on to win All India Radio’s pan-India award for best radio play, it created a cult work in Odia—with a modern theme presented in traditional Odia musical style. Imagine Akshaya Mohanty using an Odissi tune To lagi gopadanda mana re kalia suna in a Fakir Mohan social!

Yet, these geetinatyas are only a small fraction of Chhotray’s work. To the older generation, his plays such as Para Kalama and Bharasa (originals) as well as the likes of Jhanja, Amada Bata and Malajanha (adaptations) are the ones that define Gopal Chhotray. He has written screenplays for more than a dozen Odia movies, including such notable movies as Shri Jagannatha, Maa, Nua Bou, Amada Bata, Abhinetri, Matira Manisha, Kie Kahara, Adina Megha, Dharitri, Bandhu Mohanty and Badhu Nirupama. As you can notice, most of them are strong adaptations. Unfortunately, not a single original of his—many of them very successful on stage—has been made into a movie. It should also be noted that for Malajahna, the movie, which got some rave reviews, especially for the music scored by Akshaya Mohanty (his first as a composer), was not based on Chhotray’s screenplay. This was because he had earlier committed to someone else for that, though that was never made. But being a man of words, he stuck to his promise and politely declined to do the screenplay for Malajahna, which Akshaya Mohanty was co-producing.

Today, Odia is a recognized classical language. Outsiders are a lot more interested in studying the language and culture of Odisha. Odia gananatyas are a multi-crore industry. Yet, somewhere the distinct yet liberal popular Odia culture, whose foundation was built by the likes of Chhotray, seems to have lost its vibrancy, between the rampant copying and ‘lifting’ culture on one hand and the ultra-conservative puritanism that frowns even at healthy cultural exchanges, on the other.

 

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Who’s the greatest Odia?

Some time back, I ran a Twitter poll for two days through an account @OdiaCulture, fairly well engaged with Odia tweeple who are active promoting Odisha and Odia on social media.

The poll asked a simple question.

Who is the greatest Odia of all time?

There were four choices given: Samrat Kharavela, Jayadeva, Utkalamani Pandit Gopabandhu Das and Biju Patnaik. Why these four? Because after considering all aspects, I came with five names, the fifth being that of Madhu Babu (Utkal Gouraba Madhusudan Das). But since Twitter allows only four options, I had to drop one. But why did I drop Madhu Babu? Based on what I was trying to find (more of that later in this piece), the more distinct their areas of contribution and time periods, the better it was for my purpose. Utkalamani and Madhu Babu were not as distinct from each other as they were from the rest. Why I chose to keep Utkalamani and not Madhu Babu is a question I can answer through some arguments, but let us, for the time being, keep it as a pure toss-up.  Maybe,  if you were at my place, you would have chosen to include Madhu Babu over Gopabandhu. For the purpose of my study, that would not have made too much of a difference.  I asked respondents to write other options through replies and not surprisingly, all the votes that came through reply option were for Madhu Babu.

As expected, a few questioned the logic of trying to compare them—all greats in their own rights, contributed in different ways, and were separated from each other in time by long periods, centuries actually. Kharavela belonged to 2nd/1st century BC, while Biju Babu died less than 20 years back.

Let us start with the basic—what was the need of comparison?

Do you think the poll was really meant to find out the greatest Odia of all times—through 40 odd expected responses (yes; that was the target)?

Of course, it is silly to even expect that. The real reason was not evaluating those great people but to gauge how today’s generation—especially those who are on Twitter and are proud of their Odia heritage—thinks. There too, the idea was not evaluate—there is no right or wrong answer—but to gauge what is important to them.

To expand, what exactly matters to those who are proud of their Odia heritage—as that is the primary reach of the handle.

Let me explain.

If we go by the literal meaning of the question, it can be restated as follows.

Who is the greatest person of all times who happens to be an Odia?

The second part (underlined) is just a factual condition here. Their being ‘Odia’ is just a filter.

The question can also be put like this.

Who out of these four is the greatest?

Ideally, answer to this question should not be different, if the respondent s an Odia or not.

Now, let us look at the survey results.

Utkalamani Gopabandhu was an emphatic top choice, followed by Kharavela and Biju Patnaik tied at a distant second position; with Jayadeva coming a poor fourth.

Now, imagine this question being asked to non-Odias. Do you think, they would answer it the same way?

From Tamil Nadu to Punjab; Maharashtra to Kashmir, Jayadeva and his Gita Govinda are fairly well known. Whether it is Mohiniattam or Bharatnatyam,  Kuchipudi or even Yakshagana, Gita Govinda has found its way into their repertoire.  Commentary on Gita Govinda has been written by Kashmiri scholars. Jayadeva is the only poet from Eastern India whose verses are included in Guru Granth Sahib.

Which other Odia is revered so much across the length and breadth of this country? Yet, it is true that when it comes to doing anything “for Odisha or Odia”, Jayadeva has little contribution.

First, he was a poet; and most (not all) poets do not make a direct impact on people’s everyday living. Two, unlike say Bhanja or Radhanath, he wrote primarily in Sanskrit and not in Odia. Yes, his contribution to Odissi music is immense. But little did he know that it would one day be called Odissi music.

It is just that he happened to be born in Odisha.

On the other hand, Kharavela made half of India part of Kalinga; that is a matter of pride for all of us. Biju Patnaik is the only Odia leader who could stand up to national leaders and talk of Odia pride. Utkalaamani was a social reformer, a social worker, an educationist and contributed significantly to Odisha state and language movement.

In other words, they have contributed significantly to “Odia and Odisha”.

The nationalist Odias community has, in its mind, interpreted the question as this:

Who, out of the following, has contributed maximum towards the cause of Odisha and Odia?

In other words, to be considered a true Odia, the expectation is that you must do something explicitly for the cause of Odisha and Odia; at least be identified with any aspect of it. So, a Jayanta Mohapatra could be considered less Odia than say, Sitakanta Mahapatra.

As they say, Swadeshe pujyate raja vidwan sarvantra pujyate, so nicely translated by Kabi Jadumani as

Raja sina puja pae apana deshare

Kabi puja pauthae desha videshare

Kharavela and Biju Babu were explicitly rulers. Gopabandhu, though not a ruler, was a political figure and over the years, has become a symbol of pride for Odisha, much the same way as Gandhi. So, whether you are a Leftist or Rightist or regionalist or (yes) a separatist, you swear by his name.  That could also possibly happen with Kharavela but the awareness about him is extremely low. For some reason, historians including Odia historians, have ignored his legacy. He ruled half of India, did a lot of development/welfare work for his subjects, was a great patron of dance and music and was a truly secular ruler, who despite being a Jain respected Brahmins and Buddhists. What else do you need to be called ‘great’? But that is a different story, for another day.

Coming back to the poll, is it bad? Is it good?

Actually, neither. People in most regions (Assam could be an exception) would probably vote in similar fashion. So, there’s nothing surprising about it—especially at a time, when the issue of identity—national, regional, religious—has become so important for people.

There’s one more possibility, however theoretical it may look. It is not about identity and doing something for Odisha/Odia. Maybe, people genuinely feel that statecraft and social service are far more important aspects of society than than literature and art. Quite possible, even though it is the land of excellence in art.

 

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Food Songs in Odia: What they tell us about Odia culture…

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are,” said French thinker Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of modern gastronomics. English art critic Clive Bell, in his famed essay Civilization, has illustrated the difference between the cultural standards of the French and British through an explicit example of differing standards in taste of food.

Over the ages, food has been one of the most important indicators of a society’s cultural status.

Measured on that account alone—yes, leaving aside all its rich (and now famous) visual and performing arts—Odias would be considered a highly civilized people. Food—and in particular, variety of food—is one of the most important defining factors of Odia culture, as exemplified by the ‘food habits’ of Lord Jagannath, not just the presiding deity of Odias but the most powerful cultural symbol of the Odia identity. Each festival or ritual in the Jagannath temple would have a specific food item in the form of prasad associated with it. Even on the day of Rath Yatra, the biggest festival in Odisha, the big chariot of Lord Jagannath, Nandighosha, actually stops on the way so that the Lord can have His favorite podapitha (a special sweet cake made in Odisha), at  His MousiMaa’s (aunt) place on the way to His destination. And when He is back to the temple after an eight-day sojourn, and the upset wife, Maa Laxmi needs some real placating, the gift that does the trick is a food item; one that you are probably familiar with: yes, the omnipresent Rasagola, which many erroneously think to have originated from Bengal. The offering was made, at least 200 (and most likely more) years before it started selling in Kolkata and was assumed to be a Bengali sweet!

Such is the importance of food in the cultural life of Odias!

It is not surprising, therefore, that food occupies an extremely important place in Odia creative arts, including its music. It is not uncommon to find reference to food in folk music around the world. But in Odisha, food gets a prominent place in not just the folk music, but its classical, semi-classical and modern popular music. Why, even devotional feeling often comes wrapped up with powerful symbols and craving for food/prasad of the Lord! In one of the most popular bhajans,  Jagannathiara SriMahaprasda pagala kala re bhai, the lyricist actually proclaims that it is the love of the Lord’s prasad that made him rush to Puri, without any delay!

While that bhajan is not explicitly about food, there are many that are completely focused on celebration of food.

Here is a look at some of the most popular among such songs. Many other songs would passingly mention food or use it as a metaphor. I have not looked for those ‘mere’ words but kept myself focused on what can really be called songs celebrating food. There are film songs, non-film modern songs, Odissi lyrics and bhajans focused on food.

So, here we go. The links are embedded in the song names.

Abadha Dali Kanika Ho Ananda Bazarre Patara Paka
This bhajan by Arabind Muduli is a celebration of abadha (though pronounced as abhada), the cooked prasad of Shri Jagannath.

Asa Jibana Dhana
The evergreen song written by Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik in the voice of Pandit Balakrushna Dash, the father of modern Odia music, celebrates the most common food of Odias, pakhala.

Asa Kiese Jibare Ama Raja Ghara Khana
This is the Dakhini original from which lyricist Baikunth Nath Mohanty adapted the now popular Asa Kie Khaiba Ho. The song, sung by Gokul Mohanty, is a round-up of all Odia food traditionally associated with specific places in Odisha. So, if the government wants to apply for GI tag of the food items, the basic groundwork is done by the lyricist

Asa Kie Khaiba Ho

This song in the unique voice of Tansen Singh is based on the above song, in a slightly more contemporary style. If you wonder why the lyricist ignored Pahalla Rasagola, you have the answer. In the 30s, it was nowhere in the Rasgola map of Odisha. And so the above song had no reference to it. Lyricist of the song, while taking the idea from above song, failed to add Pahala

Chaka Pari Basitha
This is about another traditional Odia food, chuda chakata, again, in the voice of Pandit Balakrushna Dash. Though chuda or poha is eaten in many places, the way it is eaten in Odisha is fairly unique. And that is exactly what the song celebrates.

 

Kartika Masare Asila Kanji
Kanji is a typical Odia dish made from torani (water taken from Pakhala) or peja  (water taken out after boiling rice) and cooked with vegetables. Some joke that the song made it more popular across all regions of Odisha.

Madaa Daani Dhaana Chaula Muga Nadia Padi
This song in the voice of Arjun Charan Samal, a singer known for his rendition of palligeetis, is a craving and description for traditional food prepared in Odia homes in villages.

Manda Pitha Gol Gol
A round up of all Odia pithas (indigenous cakes) and their shapes, it is not fully about food or anything. The inimitable style of Akshaya Mohanty just uses some rhyming words to appeal to the average man on the street. While the lyrics is not exactly world class, most of the words are colloquial Odia words and connect immediately.

Mudhi Nadia
This celebration of eating mudhi (or moori, as some write it as) in the Odia style completes the triology of food songs by Pandit Balakrushna Dash. Though not as popular as the pakhala song, this one explicitly makes a claim: that only an Odia recognizes the pleasure of eating mudhi with nadia (coconut) and then goes on to describe the right setting and the preparation to maximize the pleasure!

Radhika Boile Duti Go
In this Odisssi lyrics, rendered by great Odia singer and composer, Prafulla Kar, Radha craves for diet, all of which bear the name of Krishna.

There are many more. These are just some of the more popular Odia songs celebrating food.

As Odias are all set to celebrate the 1st Rasagola Dibasa on 30th July, let’s have plenty of music, food and music about food.

[Anyone, who needs a quick primer on Odia food associated with places, can go through the third one in the list, Asa kie khaiba ho. Apart from Pahala Rasagola, what are the other such local food that the song does not mention?]

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Filed under Culture, Food, Music, Odia music, Odisha & Odia

A Tribute to Pakhala

Today is World Pakhala Day.  I do not know who decided on this and what was the basis of choosing this date, though I wholeheartedly welcome a day to celebrate the most staple diet of traditional Odia household. Considering that this is being celebrated on March 20 and not in the peak summer of May/June, this seems like more of welcoming the summer than celebrating it.

Pakahala is mother’s milk for Odias. This cooked rice soaked in water (and slightly fermented) is eaten throughout Eastern India. But in Odisha, it is more than a food; it is part of the culture. Why, it is the culture itself. Arguably, only Lord Jagannath is more  ingrained in Odia culture than pakhala, such is its status.

[BTW, for the uninitiated, here is the link to Wikipedia entry on pakhala]

Apart from it being a regular and ubiquitous food, pakhala always has had a special place in the socio-cultural life of Odisha. It in a pakhala bowl with saag floating in it that Bhakta Dasia (a great devotee of Lord Jagannath) could “see” the face of the Lord. By the way, it is part of the Lord’s diet plan itself, in the Puri temple. In many regions of Odisha, it is an essential part of the marriage rituals. The groom is served with pakhala after the marriage by the sisters-in-law.  Dahi pakhala,  or a special pakhala made with curd, is a  ceremonial dish eaten together after the bisarjan (immersion) of idols in Durga Puja. The list is long.

Celebrating pakhala is thus celebrating our roots; celebrating Odia culture. On this day, I present here a song that beautifully articulates the emotion that Odias have towards pakhala. The song, with versions sung by Pandita Balakrushna Dash and Srimati Shyamamani Pattnaik was written by Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik.

Kavichandra who is known both for bringing in modernism into Odia songs and theater as well as for establishing the classical nature of Odissi,  shows here his third side: capturing both the pakhala culture and the affinity of Odias towards pakhala.  Here is the full lyrics in English script. If you want it in Odia script, you can download the pdf here.

Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansa

Asa jibana dhana

Sajanire to bihuna udila hamsa

Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansa

Asa jibana dhana…

Bahilani ana sakhi jhanja pavana

Athamari gala tunda jae jibana

To bina pakhala go 

Phatila kapala go

Torani sangare mishi hara mo trusha

Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansa

Asa jibana dhana…

Sanga thakurani pita sukhua rani

To lagi niaan re sati jhasa deleni

Piaja khari dare

Chhala chhindai mare

Maricha kahuchi mote to tule misha

Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansa

Asa jibana dhana…

Odia jibana dhua saga pakhala

Jagannatha rasithae mane tu bhala

Chakhi nahin je thare

Dhika ta janamare

Manisha bhitare se ta anapurusha

Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansa

Asa jibana dhana…

Here is the version sung by Pandita Balakrushna Dash

And here is the version sung by Smt Shyamamani Pattnaik

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Whom Should We Blame?

In August 1995, I and one of my friends, still fairly new in Delhi, rented a two-room flat in South Delhi. Both of us had just started working. As we moved to the flat, I found a full sheet of newspaper—if I remember correctly, it was Times of India—pasted on the wall of what would be my room. The previous tenants—young bachelors like us—had most likely used it to protect the hanged clothes from the paint of the wall.

What caught our attention was a headline in bold font, of an interview of dancer Indrani Rahman: Oriyas are so parochial. My friend, whose parents hailed from Varanasi but who was born and brought up in Odisha, took a strong offence to this. He would—like many non-Odias who have stayed in Odisha for long do—always defend Odisha and Odia whenever anyone said anything against the state and its people.

“Calm down,” I said, “I fully agree with her observations.” By that time, I had read the entire piece.

“It is just that she has drawn a completely wrong conclusion from those observations,” I told him. Odias are often described as lazy, non-enterprising, and even conservative by some; but rarely are they labeled parochial or xenophobic.

It is important to understand what made Rahman make such a drastic conclusion. She had complained fairly bitterly that her contribution to popularization of Odissi dance and its recognition as a classical dance form had not been recognized enough by the people and government of Odisha.

It was not untrue at all. One can well understand the anguish.

Not only was Indrani Rahman the first well-known classical dancer to demonstrate the beauty of Odissi before a Delhi audience way back in 1958, she actively worked in the background to facilitate the meetings and demonstrations of the form which ultimately led to the recognition of the dance form as classical by Sangeet Natak Akademi.

The only point where she erred is that she assumed the lack of her recognition in Odisha was because of her not being an Odia. In other words, she assumed that those who belonged to the state must have been very well recognized and honored.

Alas! If only it was remotely true!

Rahman was surely one of the top 5-6 individuals whose efforts should be acknowledged and hailed for the recognition of Odissi. But what about honoring the person who played the single most important role in that? Unfortunately, there is hardly anything that the state has done to acknowledge his contribution to Odissi. And that man, unlike Rahman, was a full-blooded Odia.

The Apathy
We Odias never get tired of boasting about the ancientness of our culture, our language, our dance, our music and of course our architecture, often resorting to a direct comparison with those of Bengal, our neighbor.

Many of us like to believe that the better recognition of Bengali language, music and culture—as well as the reputation of Bengalis as a people of refined taste—is entirely due to consistent lobbying and distortion of facts. Our logic rests on the argument that even though Odia music and language are far older than Bengali music and language, if Bengali enjoys far better recognition today, it must be due to propaganda!

This is strange logic. As it is now being widely accepted, Odisha’s music indeed is far older than Bengal’s music. Odia’s recognition as a classical language puts to rest any doubt that anyone might have about Odia being an older language, than not just Bengali but most Indo-Aryan languages in existence today.

But what has that got to do with how it is perceived today?

A language or a culture is not a static thing. The current vibrancy of a language, a music or art is not dependent on how old it is but how the current generation and the past generations have preserved, enriched and patronized it. If Bengali music is far better recognized outside Bengal, it is because of the contribution of creators and patrons of that music over the years, not because of when the tradition started.

Of course, the deep resentment against Bengali in Odisha has its own reason. It comes largely because of the unsuccessful but vigorous attempt by a section of Bengalis serving in Odisha during the British period to push Odia into oblivion, by trying to establish that Odia was not a separate language.

But the image of Bengali as a rich and sophisticated language or Bengalis as a community with refined taste today is not because of such narrow-minded people; rather it is because of the sincerity and hard work done by a few great souls. It is also because of how the society in general contributed towards it and cooperated with these cultural leaders.

The most important of such personalities, of course, is Gurudev Ranbindranath Tagore—an extra ordinary individual who combined creativity and sensitivity with great vision. A genius, Tagore not just created great poetry and music, but built and nurtured an environment which encouraged people to indulge in creative pursuance, in an open environment. He also challenged the conservative tradition and encouraged Begalis to continuously interact with outside traditions in art and culture as well as with creative people outside. This not just helped enrich Bengali culture; it exposed outsiders to it. This experimentation arguably contributed most significantly to the rise in esteem of Bengali art and culture, in the eyes of the outsiders.

Bengalis never fail to acknowledge this great contribution by Tagore. In fact, Robi Thakur, as he is called in Bengal, is part of the collective psyche and culture, as much as Durga Puja and fish curry.

Odisha’s is a case study in contrast. Take Odissi itself. All of us are so proud of it. Yet, few know the contribution of people who shaped it in the early days and established it in the world stage.

Well, the lobbying with Sangeet Natak Akademi was spearheaded by many Odias and non-Odias (like Rahman) in Delhi but most of the core research for this was led by one individual, whose powerful lecture accompanied by a demonstration convinced the learned audience about its classicism.

That person was Kavichandra Kalicharan Patnaik.

Kavichandra who? I was actually asked by someone of my generation (born in the 70s). And you can well imagine about today’s generation. While many have heard his name, they are not sure what he has done (“kavichandra, must be a poet”).

Kavichandra may or may not be as creative as Tagore. But arguably, he has contributed to more aspects of Odia culture than probably even Tagore has done in Bengal. The idea is not to compare the two individuals but to show the way they have been treated by their respective communities.

I do not mind saying, without the fear of any exaggeration watsoever that no one in modern Odisha has contributed to so many facets of Odia culture—Odissi dance and music, Odia literature, Odia theater, Odia modern music and Odia cinema—as Kavichandra has done. And his involvement with all these areas have been in various roles—a creative composer/creator, a performer, a professional entrepreneur, a researcher and above all as a teacher/trainer.

Without getting into too much of details, here is a brief overview of his contribution.

  • He worked with various groups to create the standard postures and rules of modern Odissi dance
  • He visited different conferences to establish that Odissi, as a music, is not just classical but is very different from both Hindustani and Carnatic music.
  • He named Odissi. David Denen, an American scholar, who has done extensive research on naming of Odissi, has concluded, after referring to half a dozen scholars, that it was Kalibabu who named Odissi. And the name itself was a master stroke. Not only did it secure its Odia connection forever, but it also created a classical aura for it, which would not have been in a generic adjective like Odia.
  • It is his powerful lecture, accompanied by demo, that convinced everyone including famous Indologist and dance critic, Dr Charles Fabri that Odissi is a classical dance form. Indrani Rahman worked closely with him and was trained by his disciple Guru Deba Prasad Das.
  • He established the modern theater culture in Odisha. His Odisha Theaters was the first professional theater group in Odisha.
  • He was the first to experiment with modern themes in theater and music. A playwright and lyricist par excellence, he wrote on traditional themes as well as contemporary social themes and popularized them.
  • He was a pioneer in modern recorded music from Odisha. He himself and his protégé Sumati Devi recorded a number of songs for HMV
  • His association with early Odia films is a subject by itself. He not just wrote lyrics for many early movies such as Lalita, Rolls-28, Kedar Gouri and Dasyu Ratnakar, he scored music too in one movie, Naari. His association with Odia cinema continued well into the 60s, when he wrote for movies such as Manika Jodi, Ghara Bahuda and Kie Kahara, the second movie for Akshaya Mohanty as a composer. He wrote  the story for Rolls-28, script for Jayadeba and co-directed and acted in Nari
  • Some of the songs written by him such as Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansaa (sung by both Balakrushna Dash and Shyamamani Devi) are milestones in popularity of Odia palligeeti. Here are some of the recorded songs written by him that are available online.
  • He even dabbled with recording in Odisha by establishing a recording company in Cuttack.
  • He tried his hand at publishing a full-fledged music journal, probably the only such journal to be published in Odia ever.
  • His direct disciples and proteges—Sumati Devi and Angurbala in music, Deba Prasad Das and Indrani Rahman in dance and actors like Samuel Sahu (Babi), Priyanath Mishra (Pira) and Gloria Mohanty who excelled in theater and cinema—too contributed immensely to their respective fields.

In short, whatever could be imagined in all these areas, Kavichandra has done that. While there have been great poets or dramatists, singers or composer, researchers or gurus, there is no one in modern Odisha who has contributed so much to such a diverse set of areas in Odia culture.

Yet, his contribution has gone largely unrecognized. Believe it or not, the following statements are true. I will be more than happy to be proven wrong.

  1. There is no Odissi institution named after him.
  2. There is no major award in Odissi music or dance which is presented in his honor.
  3. There is no major institution or award in his name in the entire gamut of creative fields he was active in, some of which I have discussed above.
  4. If this write-up is to be believed, then there is conscious effort to erase his name from the history of Odissi music.
Kavichandra Memorial at Cuttack. This is where he lived for a good part of his life. (I am indebted to media person and community radio pioneer in Odisha, Viraj Shukla for the visit)

Kavichandra Kalicharan memorial at Cuttack. This is where he lived a good part of his life

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The entrance to the house.

I have deliberately not talked of his financial condition etc. In many places across the world, great artists and creative people often die in penury but after their death, they are recognized and honored. That is not the case with Kalibabu.

Compare what Tagore has done for Bengal and Kavichandra has done for Odisha. And then, see what Bengalis have done to Tagore and what Odias have done to Kavichandra. And you will probably never again complain about Odia not getting enough recognition outside.

If we do not honor our own tradition and people, how can we expect others to do that for us?

What Indrani Rahman inferred about Odias may not be correct per se but the reality is not far more encouraging than that.

As for myself, while I never really blamed Rahman for her conclusion, the Odia in me was too sensitive to allow that paper to remain there after my leaving. Though it remained there for all the four years that I stayed there—just to keep reminding me of the bitter truth—I could not resist tearing it off when I moved out.

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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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A Book on SD Burman: The Making of The Genius

“The book is nothing but an expression of the man. The book is nothing but the man trying to talk to you, trying to impart to you, some of his feelings,” said Arnold Bennett, in his classic work, Literary Taste, while urging the reader, especially the beginners, to “acquire some biographical information about the writer.” 

Benett’s advice should apply to all forms of creative art, not just literature. An understanding of the creator’s life — its evolution, phases, milestones, and most importantly, all things that have had an influences on the man — can makes us appreciate his work far better.

It becomes almost imperative in something like Hindi film music, which attracted — it still does —  musical talent from across the country, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu; from East Bengal to Goa. These creative people had diverse upbringings, diverse cultures and exposures to diverse forms of folk, popular and even classical music. While Hindi film music (or Hindustani Cine Sangeet as some prefer to call it) is now considered a genre in itself, it is important to understand how each of its early founding fathers contributed by adding their bits while absorbing from other musical genres/sources.

S D Burman: The World of His Music, a book by Khagesh Dev Burman written originally in Bengali and translated to English by S K Ray Chaudhury, serves this purpose beautifully. For not only does it provide a very deep and mature insight into the formative years of Sachin Karta —  as he was known in Tripura and East Bengal, from where he hailed —  but also how he acquired his musical soul.

It would not be exaggerating to conclude, based on information from the book, that Dada Burman was not just a creative genius, but was one of the first serious ethnomusicologists who actually recognized the potential of folk music and roamed around the length and breadth of East Bengal to systematically collect folk tunes and songs, even as he kept improvising and playing those on flute. This musical repertoire from East Bengal, the author claims, would in later years serve as a significant source of his musical inspiration, not just for his Bengali songs but also for the vast treasury of popular songs he created for Hindi films. 

This claim — that folk music formed a major inspiration for Dada Burman’s work —looks credible because even in Bengali, despite being so close to Rabindranath Tagore who was a good friend of his father and despite his close friendship with Kazi Nazrul Islam, the most prominent poet-musician from East Bengal, he never really got too much into Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti. In Calcutta, he also trained in  Hindustani classical music. Yet, folk music was always his first inspiration.

The fact that he had an erudite father from whom he not just got his musical taste but encouragement to pursue music,  and the fact that he had freedom to roam around collecting and listening to common people’s music even though he was from the royal family of Tripura and the fact that he had his formal grounding in classical music in Kolkata — all contributed to the making of the musical personality that was Sachin Dev Burman. The book does an excellent job of  giving us how this musical genius was made in his formative years.

However, the book’s real insights actually stop there. Though in terms of length, most number of pages are devoted to his Bombay years — providing a lot of information, that too strictly chronologically, which makes the book a lot more usable for those seriously interested in historical musicology of Hindi film music — it does not do full justice to his contribution to Hindi film music, for which he is best known globally. That part of his life is treated as more of a linear history, with no major insights per se, except probably, the relationship of S D Burman with his son R D Burman and how exactly was the junior Burman influenced by his father and where he broke away from the tradition. This insight about the making of R D Burman is not even found in the book on R D Burman, penned a couple of years back by Anirudh Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, which own the National Award for Best Book on Cinema in 2011.  

The absence of major insights on his music making in Bombay and his relationship with singers, musicians, and film makers beyond Dev Anand, are probably because of the an excessive tendency on part of the author to relate all his creation, sometimes at the individual tunes and lyrics level, to Bengali sources, a lot of which are Dada Burman’s own work in Bengali. So much so that at places, it is almost unreadable if you do not know enough about Bengali music.

But then, the author cannot really be faulted for that. He had written it for a Bengali audience, and had probably presumed some basic knowledge about Bengali music. That is the problem in a translation. It is not just changing the text from one language to another. The original work was written for a different set of audience. 

The only complaint, then, is that the words “world of his music” as the subtitle of the book,  sounds a little too grand and exaggerated. It should have been something like S D Burman: The Making of the Musical Genius.

But if you ignore this one aspect — just a little too much of reference to Bengali music — this is one of the best books on Hindi film music on my list of books. While most other books fall into one of the three categories — adulatory passages with sprinkling of some flowery language;  journalistic works based on lots of information and anecdotes; and more scholarly, research based works with great new ideas and findings but difficult to read — this book is a very good balance. It is adulatory but  stops to analyze and even mildly criticize; it is full with facts and anecdotes; and it has some great new insights, especially regarding the making of S D Burman, and to a lesser extent the making of his son, R D Burman.  

(In last few months, a few books on Hindi film music/music personalities have been released. I am planning to move my post on books on Hindi film music to a list in a static page and keep updating that page)

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