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Updating Khayal History

Partho Datta

By Deepak Raja
D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 316, Rs. 460.00


There is much to recommend in Deepak Raja’s book. India’s premier Hindustani vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar has written the Foreword and the Introduction is by Lyle Wachovsky, the well-known American producer of Indian classical music who runs the label ‘Indian Archive’ from New York. The book comes overloaded with appreciative blurbs—I counted at least fifteen—which includes people highly placed in the music world as performers, scholars and critics. So many endorsements may make a review like this one redundant! The publisher, D.K. Printworld has done a good job, the format is attractive and there is the bonus of photographs of the vocalists discussed in the book.   What Raja sets out to do is to bring up-to-date the history of khayal performance through individual essays on contemporary performers. This is very welcome. Alarmists have always fretted about the future of Hindustani music. Some have rued its elitism. Others have worried that the age of maestros is over. Mass popularity except for the lucky few has eluded most performers. It does not help that the label ‘classical’ comes loaded with conservative values which does not resonate easily among young urban audiences. Yet new and younger vocalists are emerging and there is also a better appreciation of senior vocalists, the latter not necessarily stars but whose presence as teachers and performers has quietly sustained diverse traditions in khayal vocalism. Definitely the web revolution has had a decisive impact in consolidating this trend, just as digitization and the wide circulation of MP3s has released dependence on the trickle of commercial recordings.   One of the important vocalists discussed in this book is Purnima Sen. She sings the Atrauli-Agra style and has led an unassuming and low-key performing life in Calcutta with brief stints in the US where the Asia Society has brought out her music on CDs. Her teachers were giants of their time, Vilayat Hussain Khan, Ata Hussain Khan and Sharafat Khan, the latter a very talented vocalist who tragically died young. Together with Lalith Rao of Bangalore—another important vocalist Raja has inexplicably left out—they represent the seniors of the Agra school of music. But this sweet revenge goes unnoticed by Raja. Thus the very ‘masculine’ Agra school is today best represented by women. And this is true of other vocal schools as well. Kishori Amonkar is the reigning queen of the Jaipur gharana and Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, ...

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