North Indian Classical Music in the ‘Long’ 1940s

On January 19, 2013 by admin


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Amlan Das Gupta


Two Photographs


Let me start by telling you about two photographs (that I usually show), one taken probably in the early or mid- 1930s; the other in the early 1950s. The dates are approximate and based on internal evidence. The first photograph depicts a a fairly intimate group of male musicians and patrons: some of the figures are difficult to identify but the four musicians standing in the first row are Ustad Manji Khan and his father Ustad Alladiya Khan of Jaipur-Atrauli; Ustad Faiyaz Khan of Agra; and Ustad Abdul Karim Khan of Kirana. The presence of Alladiya, Faiyaz and Abdul Karim, undoubtedly the three most influential and versatile male vocalists of the early twentieth century in the same frame makes the photograph a rarity. The first three decades of the century, as we know, constitutes a period of intense uncertainty and experimentation. Artists grappled with altered conditions of patronage and performance, the presence of new technologies of sound recording and dissemination, new norms of pedagogy, and above all, changes in taste and audience expectation impel artists to engage with new strategies of self definition and stylistic innovation. Three of the most important vocal styles to achieve prominence were clearly the Jaipur-Atrauli, the Kirana and the Agra, setting the scene for the next half century or so. Legend has it of course that the relationship among the three was sometimes stormy, and in a condition of decaying patronage, occasionally riven with rivalry and prejudice. Even at this late date, one might speculate, the photograph expresses the power of the patron, whose august presence holds together these angular and brilliant artists in a formal and grave unity. A point about habitus if one likes: five figures have walking sticks, the invaluable accessory of wealthy civility: others make do with umbrellas.

The second photograph, probably dates from the early 1950s (Ustad Vilayat Khan reportedly said he thought that was taken in 1952). Rajendra Prasad, the figure in the centre of this photograph, became president of India in 1950, and it captures in essence the world of North Indian music in early independent India. Most obviously, it is marked by absences. The “long” 1940s, if I could call it that, is most significantly marked by a number of deaths. First, the figures in the earlier photograph. Abdul Karim and Manji Khan dies in 1937; Alladiya in 1946; Faiyaz Khan in 1950. Other significant deaths around the same time are that of Ramkrishnabua Vaze in 1945; Abdul Wahid Khan of Kirana in 1949; and equally significantly, Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in 1936. The dazzling array of talent surrounding the symbol of the unified source of patronage, honour and reputation, is actually an attenuated one, marked by absence and erasure. There is no significant Agra or Kirana singer in the photograph: the single representative of Jaipur-Atrauli is Kesarbai. What the photograph prophetically suggests is the ascendancy of instrumental music in the post-independence decades: consider the second line of musicians: from the fourth figure on the left we have Keramatullah Khan, tabla; Radhikamohan Maitra, sarod; Ilyas Khan, sitar; Bismillah Khan, shehnai; Kishan Maharaj, tabla; Yususf Ali, sitar; Ravi Shankar, sitar, Ali Akbar sarod; Vilayat Khan, sitar. The seated figures in the front row are appropriately an older generation of artists: Allauddin Khan and Hafiz Ali; Omkarnath, Krishnarao and Anantamanohar Joshi; Mushtaq Husain and Nisar Husain, Burhanpurkarbua, Ahmedjan Thirakwa and Kanthe Maharaj. Another aspect to reflect upon would be the uneasy memory that the photograph bears of the jagged fissure caused in the musical community by Partition: a notable absence in the photograph is the sarangi maestro, Ustad Bundu Khan: absent too is Bade Ghulam Ali, who went over to Pakistan after independence, only to return in the 1950s.

The single woman in the second photograph is appropriately Kesarbai, seated cosily next to Rajendrababu. Her unparallelled reputation as the great exponent of Alladiya Khan’s gayaki and standing in the musical world, make her an appropriate inclusion, but she also appears here as a single exclusion to the general prurience of the cultural policy of new state. This is, as far as I can tell, one of the earliest examples of a formal “group” photograph which has a woman artist in it: there are of course earlier examples of family groups, or tawayefs with their male accompanists. The significance of this inclusion is not difficult to judge. B V Keskar had famously laid down that “no one (woman) whose life was a public scandal would be patronized” by the radio and presumably in the wider world of state ceremonial.  Women artists were sought to be recruited from music schools, or from “respectable” familiies. As a result the great bulk of women artists – who had kept, for instance, the gramophone industry going – were excluded from the radio. In point of fact, this system of screening was far less effective than one would have expected. Partly this was due to the general lack of interest in classical music among radio administrators: more importantly, at the local level, programme executives and station directors made and followed their own policies, with apparently little central interference. As a result, a number of woman artists were recorded in the 1940s and 1950s and some of these recordings still exist: the relatively longer formats make them a valuable supplement to the extant body of sound recordings. It would, I think, be more accurate to see this as an index of the popularity of woman artists and the popular demand for their music rather than a mark of special favour and generosity on part of the administrators. Thus though Kesarbai is silently coopted into the grand durbar of Hindustani shastriya sangeet, Mogubai, Laxmibai, Hirabai, Gangubai to say nothing of Rasoolan and Siddheswari do not figure in the photograph. It may well be that Kesarbai jibbed at their inclusion: reportedly,  she gave up singing for radio because Gangubai had been given a National programme!

Arrivals and Departures

What I have tried to suggest then is that the “long” 1940s marks a kind of watershed in the troubled and tension ridden history of North Indian classical music. If age, disease and accident cause a significant rupture, it also sees the arrival of a generation of artists, largely born in the first two and a half decades of the century, who come into musical maturity around the moment of Indian independence. From an archival point of view it would be important to point out that this is the first generation of artists whose reputations are significantly tied up with the means of mechanical reproduction. Many of them traverse the whole distance from 78 rpm shellac records to digital media. It is also this generation, which would include Ali Akbar, Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan among instrumentalists and Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Mallikarjun Mansur and the slightly younger Sharafat Husain Khan, set the norms for a new kind of performance culture. By this time the “music conference” is firmly established as the principal site of performance: along with the radio, the other great institutional presence in the field, it signals the emergence of a large heterogeneous audience whose tastes and inclinations must figure largely in the performance strategies of musicians.

In more intimate and reflective moments practising artists may be persuaded to slip out of the heroic tales of selfhood that they so often construct and retail, and reflect on the lachari, the force of necessity, that works upon the musician. Such reflections appear to me to recapitulate the history of music from its origins in the performative arts traditionally practised by occupational groups. If one looks at the condition of classical music around the middle of the 20th century, one sees the presence of a number of powerful and charismatic artists, who on the one hand are closely rooted in traditional and orthodox discipline, but themselves achieve musical maturity at a time in which social and political change is as it were felt on the pulse. It is in this generation which would include Ali Akbar, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Bismillah Khan among instrumentalists, and Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam, Mallikarjun Mansur and Sharafat Husain among vocalists, that the condition of modernity in Indian music is most clearly experienced, a process that probably began with the decay of traditional patronage of music in and around Delhi in the  mid-19th century, and proceeded in the negotiations of classical artists with the changing maps of listenership and patronage. From the early the 20th century musicians encounter first the technology of mechanical reproduction and somewhat later the technology of radio transmission. By the mid-century, the exclusive patronage of the aristocracy was more or less a thing of the past:  artists looked also to concert audiences, radio performances, recording sessions and teaching as avenues of sustenance. From the end of the 40s for some artists who were able to engage with the vagaries of the nation-state as musical patron – which effectively meant dealing with individuals who commanded influence in government circles – were able to add to these means the opportunities of foreign travel, first as part of cultural delegations and then by the end of the 60s cashing in on the increased possibilities of international concert tours.

It is interesting to speculate on the different kinds of audiences that artists were habitually addressing. Some were still familiar in terms of their scope, small performances for elite audiences, but others were unseen and heterogeneous, like those of radio performances or gramophone discs. The large concert audiences that emerge in a big way from the 1940s would also club together the expert and the novice, the committed listener and the philistine, in increasingly unequal mixtures. I think that the nature of audiences inevitably affects the ways in which artist project their musical identities. Since the artists that I have just mentioned (and others of the time) were recorded widely, both commercially and privately, and large parts of these recordings still survive, the archive illuminates these vital questions of competence, repertoire and performative choice. Ali Akbar for instance began his career as a radio staff artist, went on to become court musician at Jaipur, an unparalleled concert performer, made extensive commercial recordings and spent the last four decades of his life as a near-permanent resident of California. Some artists reveal themselves as being unwilling to engage in all these available fields: Vilayat Khan abjured the radio for the better part of his life, others showed little interest in seeking to project their music abroad. Yet all artists when they were performing for local audiences implicitly assumed a cultural connection with their listeners inasmuch as there could be no confusion about the recognition of music as music. Performing in metropolitan centres – where there  were the largest number of listeners, and also by the same token the most diverse audiences in terms of taste or expertise – artists often privately expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of comprehension or the predictability of taste.


Evidence from the Archive

Till the 1940s, the only recording medium used commercially was the shellac disc. In its sole reign for about 4 decades, it acquired considerable importance, and became the site for displays of immense skill and virtuosity.  Kesarbai herself recorded seven Broadcast discs around 1936, shortly after her talim from Alladiya. Many of her recordings are from the 1940s., though: the thirties and the forties also saw recordings from nearly all the artists who would assume canonical status in the post independence era: Ali Akbar recorded his first discs in 1945. But the field of commercial recording, reviled and disdained in its early years, also received the patronage of an older generation: for example, Faiyaz Khan and Krishnarao Shankar Pandit (who cut his only two discs in 1946). But there are surprises here as well. Mallikarjun Mansur, notably, stopped recording in the 1940s, even after having released 18 discs in his Gwalior phase. After his talim from Manji Khan he recorded just two 78 rpm discs of supreme artistic merit. From the 1940s, however, other recording means were in use, at first sparingly and then in much more widespread manner, as new technology became more widely available. Let me begin this part of the survey with the radio. Early broadcasts were “live”, with radio broadcasts of artists singing in the studio. However, from the late 1940s studio discs were used for recording, facilitating deferred (and presumably repeated) broadcasts. Descriptions suggest that the medium used was the 16” transcription disc, perhaps those manufactured under the Presto label. They could record, existing reproductions suggest, up to 20 minutes of sound continuously. The discs themselves have not survived apart as collectors’ curiosities, but a small fragment of recordings made from them were transferred on to other media usually while they were being broadcast. The radio later shifted later to the use of reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorders and they were in use until very recently. It appears that radio archives still contain some part of the great wealth of recordings made by them over the decades. The entire corpus of radio recordings of Faiyaz Khansheb have survived through these means. Agra connoisseurs consider them a pale shadow of the ustad at his prime, but admit that they obviously provide invaluable data for the archivist and historian. The less snobbish, like us, of course think that they are are marvelous in every respect. The only surviving recording of any length of Abdul Wahid Khan, a two part Darbari of about 40 minutes, also owes its existence to this technology.

However, from the late 1940s reel-to-reel wire and tape recorders started being available in India, giving patrons and enthusiasts a chance of recording longer recitals. The most important fact about the very large body of music that exists in magnetic tape, and is still accessible, is that it was managed neither by commercial organizations, nor by broadcasting companies: they remained entirely in private hands. Spools were not sold commercially with “pre-recorded” music: they were directed towards private efforts, and music of all kinds – and of course all other kinds of recordable sound – were preserved in this format. A small part of this did at a later stage work its way back into the commercial sphere, but the greater part of this remained in private hands. These are obviously of great archival value, because they were in most cases unique copies: only after the advent of cassette tapes was there some dissemination of these recordings, again within a fairly small band of music enthusiasts. The reasons for prizing them so highly are many. Firstly, they are often of performances given in intimate surroundings, with often a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, who might spur the artist to produce an exceptional recital. The problem of time was all but eliminated: for the duration of the spool was usually more than that of the longest single concert. The concert recording also gives us a privileged understanding of the aesthetics of the mehfil or baithak, the conversation between artist and audience, the codes of appreciation appropriate to different kinds of concerts, explanation and comments by musicians. Briefly, the body of tape recordings gives us an insight into the practices of the musical world with an intimacy that is often missing in the more clinical sound of commercial recordings, or even of recordings made in large concert halls. 1940s and 50s recordings are prized highly for their relative rarity, and many of them have iconic status in collector’s circles.


Epilogue: Alarums of State

The new Indian state embraced classical music with great fervor. Veterans of the All India Radio at this time remember the common perception that the radio under Keskar and Vallavbhai Patel promoted classical music excessively: undoubtedly there was a concerted attempt at many levels to incorporate the wealth of traditional music into the ceremonial of state. The notion of classical music therein expressed of course bears little similarity to the realm of practice: the official discourse, inevitably, remained depressingly mired in the rhetoric of reform, familiar to all alike from British orientalist and nationalist musicology. The famous Keskar report placed the blame for the decay on music on North Indian Muslims, who “had appropriated and distorted the ancient art, turning it into the secret craft of exclusive lineages”: in Muslim hands music was no longer ‘spiritual’; it had become ‘erotic’, the special preserve of ‘dancing girls, prostitutes, and their circles of pimps’. With the state increasingly taking over as both patron and consumer, such an opinion, when part of an official policy document,  sounds dangerous in the extreme.  The great thing about absolutist state policy of course is that the more it seeks to create homogeneity and unity, the more things tend to fall apart: the gharenadar ustads who continued to perform merely made appropriate noises, reinvented their life stories, and continued much as before. Undoubtedly two great names in post independence khayal singing are Amir Khan and Bade Ghulam; in instrumental music we have Vilayat Khan and Ali Akbar. Earlier musicians had negotiated the wilfulness of aristocratic patrons; post-independence artists had to do the same with the pomposity of state officialdom.

The real casualties of the alarums of state I have argued elsewhere were the professional women artists, both singers and dancers: some managed to reinvent themselves forging kulin identities, or by sheer artistic genius commanding enough respect to keep questions of identity in abeyance. The presence of Kesarbai and the absence of Rasoolanbai in the darbar photograph of 1952 are alike indications of this. But even Rasoolanbai enjoyed respect and recognition for the better part of her singing career (sadly, only to die in utter penury and destitution). So many others simply disappeared, erased by repressive legislation, and middle class prejudice. Let me conclude by citing Munirbai of Lucknow, herself a reputed dancer and student of the kathak dancer Shambhu Maharaj, who attributed the final breakup of the tawayef community to three principal causes: Gandhiji, independence and the Arya Samaj:

“The Arya Samajis were always against us. They said we were a corrupting influence and deserved no place in civilized society.”

Munirbai’s testimony locates a major point of disjuncture in the history of women performers in India. Perhaps it also allows us to consider more clearly the legacy of the 1940s.


Amlan Dasgupta is Professor of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata


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