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Stalwarts of Hindustani Music

Partho Datta

By Sheila Dhar
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1995

By Kumar Mukherjee
Penguin, 2006

By Ashok Ranade
Promilla and co., 2010

By Chetan Karnani
Sangam Books, 1976

VOLUME XL NUMBER 1 January 2016

TBR completes four decades of publication. Which were the most significant books on Hindustani classical music published in these years? Four titles immediately come to mind, one symbolically for each decade. Right on top is Sheila Dhar’s brilliantly funny memoir Here’s Someone I’d Like You to Meet (1995) now available in the omnibus edition Raga ’N Josh (Permanent Black, 2005, 2015). The book is an anecdotal classic about the earthy world of Hindustani vocalists, a perennial favourite among music lovers. As a vocalist and interested student, Sheila Dhar sought the tutelage and friendship of some of the great names in the field—Kesarbai Kerkar, Siddheshwari Devi, Begum Akhtar, teachers Pran Nath, Fayyaz and Niaz Ahmed. Her’s was a quest to understand musicians, their reserve and capacity for hard work, the child-like tantrums and emotional responses to the big bad world. Among the many beautifully written accounts, the one on Siddheshwari Devi stands out for its wit and understanding of human foibles. All the essays exude a nostalgia laced with wistfulness that has the capacity to be immensely moving. This is the kind of book one can read for pure pleasure, there is never a dull moment. Even the tone deaf reader will laugh out loud at the humour. Kumar Mukherjee’s The Lost World of Hindustani Music (Penguin, 2006) is inspired by Sheila Dhar (they were friends) but the range is wide, the goal ambitious: to write an anecdotal history of Hindustani music for the first half of the twentieth century. Mukherjee’s book Kudrat Rang Birangi (1998) written in Bengali, published serially in the literary magazine Desh had already become a classic of sorts when it came out as a volume. For the English version, Mukherjee re-wrote the book, cut out the chatty adda stories about Calcutta in the 1950s. But the core of the Bengali book remained, which was an exploration of the lives and music of pioneering modern maestros: Alladiya Khan, Faiyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan and the forgotten trailblazer and early eclectic Bhaskarbua Bakhle. Portraits and evaluations of the second generation of modern vocalists Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Kesarbai Kerkar and others helped to provide a rounded picture of the golden age of Hindustani vocalism which was forged on the cusp of modern technology, gharana competition and nationalism. Mukherjee had his biases—he left out Kumar Gandharva, and his account does not tell us much about ...

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