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A Sensitive Portrayal

Abhik Majumdar

By Uma Vasudev
Shubhi Publications, Gurgaon, 2005, pp. 350, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

Uma Vasudev’s biography of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, the renowned flautist, comes across as a mixed bag. At one level, there is little to distinguish it from most run-of-the-mill hagiographical accounts of musicians and their lives. Other reviewers hold that it reads more like an autobiography. I feel compelled to agree; to my mind it comes across exactly like a ghosted autobiography written for some reason in the third person. And yet the book contains several strongly redeeming features. Hagiographical or not, it is a sensitively rendered portrayal of the maestro’s life. More importantly, it manages to shed light on a crucial period in the history of Hindustani music.   The narrative starts on a rather drab note. It frequently tends towards the overblown and sentimental, which is underscored by the extensive use it makes of the active voice. In an autobiographical account, such a device comes across as perfectly normal. However, in a work rendered from a third-person perspective, it only serves to test our credibility. How, for example, is the author so sure about the exact words young Hariprasad’s father employs when telling him of his mother’s death?   Be that as it may, the maestro’s early life was every bit as eventful as his later years. Born into a thoroughly unmusical family, the son of a renowned wrestler, he sustained his passion under the most harrowing of conditions. His father dreamt of making his son a champion wrestler, and would fly into a rage at any mention of music beyond votive bhajans. A kindly dhrupad singer who lived in the neighbourhood agreed to give him lessons on the sly. Young Hariprasad would leave the house on the pretext of going to the temple, and spend time with his mentor instead. As he grew older, he began to learn typing, and even secured a job as stenographer. This phase of his life ended with his getting radio assignments, and finally a job as staff artist.   The post-Independence era marked the end of princely states and the zamindari system, the traditional sources of benefaction for musicians. In their place, four new institutions of patronage began to assume significance, namely the radio (and other government agencies), cinema, the concert circuit and, eventually, record companies. Chaurasia’s career also began from around that time. In successive stages, he drew sustenance from each of them. Through the maestro’s eyes, ...

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