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From Brahms to Brahmins

3 17

By Jawed Naqvi

Between silence and music lies imagination. The unspoken rule should apply to every realm of human art. Consider the quandary of a painter who could stare endlessly at his easel in absolute seclusion. But if he or she hadn’t walked the busy street or the green or arid field to get to the studio, there would probably be a blank canvas, with nothing to stir the brush.


Imagination is thus nothing if not a rephrasing of our daily experiences that open the door to exhilaration or discovery, and which occasionally lead to an unexpected point of departure. Mirza Ghalib in the 19th century had a word of caution (with a sense of discovery) about the world, the entire universe, in fact. “Aalam tamaam halqa-i-daam-i-khayaal hai,” the poet-philosopher wrote in a verse about the limitless dimensions of the world we live in. In other words, as Ghalib says, one’s capacity to think and imagine could be likened to a fisherman’s net. The universe would then fit, with room to spare, into just one hole of our vast web of imagination.

Ghalib’s notion of imagination is shared by T.M. Krishna, a terrific singer in the Carnatic genre of Indian classical music. Their idea of imagination, however, has been under stress of late by a mushrooming pursuit of self-limiting identities on all sides of the globe. The 42-year-old singer, who rejects the idea of borders, sees patriotism too as a jarring invention of human deprivation. Fellow musician John Lennon had offered a similar idea in a different song he called Imagine. As a social activist, apart from being an unusually gifted musician, Krishna finds himself inevitably rejected by the Hindu right. The singer’s upper-caste roots notwithstanding, his criticism of Hinduism, in his famed essays and through his music, makes him a Hindu apostate, if such a category is conjured. Other critics of Hindu nationalism — such as Gauri Lankesh, and at least three upper-caste men opposed to a deliberate spreading of blind faith by right-wing groups — have paid with their lives.

Krishna’s greatly stimulating theories on music and life and art are predicated on his rejection of patriotism — a holy cow for India’s burgeoning nationalists. And he reminds us of how the word itself derives from ‘patrice’ or ‘pater’, which points to the patriarchal origin of the idea of nation, therefore, of nationalism. In our society, patriarchy is pervasive. It drives practically everything, and music is among its main charges. But Krishna is a trenchant critic of patriarchy, including in music.

Indian classical music in particular shares this unsavoury feature with its Western counterpart. In the West too, major professional orchestras have historically been mostly or entirely composed of men. Some of the earliest cases of women being hired in professional orchestras were in the position of harpist. The Vienna Philharmonic did not accept women to permanent membership until 1997.

The so-called Western classical genre, however, was historically clothed in religious jargon by powerful usurpers of extant traditions. It was no surprise that Western classical music emerged from the jostling for cultural spaces between Protestant and Catholic churches, although the repertory of music that is exclusively Lutheran seems relatively small. Heinrich Schutz, a leading Lutheran composer of the 17th century, wrote music that was strikingly in the idiom of Catholic composers active around 1600. His point of departure came in the use of the vernacular German text. The Lutheran tradition peaked with Bach and waned with a few church pieces by Brahms.

Yet, the term ‘classical music’ does not appear until the early 19th century. The earliest reference to ‘classical music’ recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from about 1829. Subsequently, ornate baroque art, music and architecture was spawned by the Catholic Church to overwhelm Protestant simplicity. However, it was not before the rise of the middle classes, spurred by colonialism, that great composers detached themselves from their powerful patrons and embarked on a journey of their own.

As the precursor in classical genre of Western music was the handiwork of Catholic monks who diligently notated and codified music from 11th century on, Indian classical music (translated with a purpose perhaps as shastriya sangeet or liturgical music) was codified as recently as the 20th century. Some claim, however, that Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1937) had sought to re-codify ancient Indian music, which they allege was disrupted by Muslim influence.

At any rate, Bhatkhande is credited with the introduction of an organised musical system, as did the Catholic monks, which reflects in much of the current performance practices. As I have indicated, there is a growing belief for better or worse that the historical tradition of music in India was destroyed during the mediaeval times. The claim may seem exaggerated, but it persists nevertheless. “Since then, music in India has changed so considerably that no correlation or correspondence was possible between Sanskrit musicological texts and the music practised in modern times,” says the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, considered by many to be an authentic platform of musicians and musicologists.

Krishna’s questioning of the Brahminical hold on India’s music has disturbed his detractors and he is getting dire threats. His efforts to recast classical music into a non-Brahminical milieu has met with obvious resistance from the Hindu right.

Imagine this. We can date the advent of the piano to the advance of metallurgy. We can divine Amir Khusro’s qawwali before the arrival of the harmonium in India with the Europeans. Thus, according to Krishna, there could be more imaginative ways to appreciate music and other arts than to relegate them to an obscure origin with an insidious intent. In Bertolt Brecht’s imagination, on the other hand: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”.