On a tragic note

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Jawed Naqvi

RAMA nee samaanamevaru ' in Tel­ugu trans­lates as: 'Ram, who is your equal?' The words her­ald a most loved com­po­si­tion by the South In­dian mae­stro Thya­garaja which he cre­ated in the Car­natic raag Kara­harpriya . I was amazed to re­cently hear a scratchy 78rpm but mag­i­cal record­ing of Us­tad Karim Khan sing­ing Kara­harpriya . Lav­ish­ing praise on Lord Ram, he sounds like an eth­nic Tamil mu­si­cian who had mas­tery over Tel­ugu. The record­ing must be at least 70 years old.

I vis­ited Karim Khan's sim­ple grave in Meeraj some years ago. An an­nual mu­si­cal con­gre­ga­tion is held there by his fans and fol­low­ers from all re­li­gions and prov­inces of In­dia. Re­cently, Hindu-Mus­lim ten­sions gripped the mu­si­cal re­gion.

At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury around 1905, the us­tad had set­tled down in this mu­si­cally en­dowed town near mod­ern Kar­nataka's border with Ma­ha­rash­tra. This was where his le­gendary daugh­ter Hirabai Bar­o­dekar was raised with her equally mu­si­cally gifted brother Suresh­babu Mane and sis­ter Saraswati Rane. They all be­came fa­mous as Hin­dus­tani clas­si­cal vo­cal­ists and Marathi stage singers. Rosha­nara Begum who mi­grated to Pak­istan was one of Karim Khan's favourite dis­ci­ples but leg­end has it that he stopped teach­ing her af­ter she chose to sing for movies.

How many north In­dian mu­si­cians can speak or un­der­stand a south­ern lan­guage much less sing in any one of them? Karim Khan's ge­nius lay not in the fact that a seeker could travel from Ki­rana in Pun­jab to Bar­oda, marry a Maratha princess there, have chil­dren with her in Meeraj and en­rich a di­verse range of cul­tures. It stemmed more from the fact that he did so un­con­sciously, sim­ply, nat­u­rally. From Meeraj his mu­si­cal quest took him fur­ther south where he fell in love with the mu­si­cal beauty of Balasaraswathy. He learnt to sing Kara­harpriya and other raags from her mother.

How­ever, a truly mae­stro-like fea­ture of his dab­bling in Car­natic mu­sic was that he not only used its math­e­mat­i­cal pre­ci­sion to re­cast his Hin­dus­tani moor­ings into a unique north-south blend but ac­tu­ally ex­per­i­mented with the mar­riage of Marathi stage mu­sic and Car­natic raags, both of which were not part of his eclec­tic métier. For ex­am­ple, one of Karim Khan's com­po­si­tions for the Marathi stage mu­sic - or Natya Sangeet - was cre­ated in the south­ern raag De­va­gand­hari .

Not many of to­day's Ma­ha­rash­trian singers can ac­tu­ally dis­cern the com­plete range of the mel­liflu­ous notes Karim Khan used in the com­po­si­tion. Some singers con­fuse it with a north­ern raag De­va­gand­har . How­ever, that is com­pletely dif­fer­ent and comes close to some­thing re­sem­bling the morn­ing north­ern raag Jaun­puri .

So there you are. Take the essence of a most vi­brant south­ern com­po­si­tion - the raag De­va­gand­hari - and dec­o­rate it with the most lyrical words from a Marathi stage song - Chan­drika hi janu -and you have wo­ven magic. When the In­dian govern­ment de­cided re­cently to give the high­est civil­ian award - the Bharat Ratna - to Pan­dit Bhimsen Joshi, even though there is no way to de­ter­mine ob­jec­tiv­ity in these mat­ters, I still won­dered if there was some­one we had left out.

Bhimsen is by all ac­counts the most knowl­edge­able liv­ing clas­si­cal singer in north­ern In­dia to­day. But he was taught by Karim Khan's cho­sen dis­ci­ple. I don't think Karim Khan's soul would have felt slighted by the recog­ni­tion given to an il­lus­tri­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Ki­rana Gha­rana he had founded. How­ever, there was an­other claimant to the man­tle too, and that was Gan­gubai Han­gal. It is cu­ri­ous that in this overtly po­lit­i­cally cor­rect world - though no such as­sis­tance was needed in her case - a great, if not greater, singer than Bhimsen Joshi, that too a woman who rose from the hell­hole of the de­vadasi sys­tem, was deemed a lesser heir to Karim Khan.

How­ever, there is not much to be sur­prised about ar­bi­trary choices peo­ple make, that too in the realm of art or mu­sic. For­tu­nately, it was Bhimsen Joshi and not A.R. Rah­man who got the Bharat Ratna - the Jewel of In­dia award. There is no quar­rel with the tal­ented Rah­man, but he per­haps needed to sit at the feet of the si­tar guru Pan­dit Ravi Shankar be­fore dar­ing to cre­ate mu­sic for the re­cent Com­mon­wealth Games cer­e­mony. Ravi Shankar's Swaa­gatham , a tune he com­posed for Delhi's Asiad Games in 1982, still res­onates with its time­less spir­i­tual ap­peal. Rah­man should con­sider him­self lucky that his com­po­si­tion is al­ready for­got­ten.

A glimpse of In­dia's un­mu­si­cal drift was in ev­i­dence re­cently when I went to meet a friend at the im­pos­ing new air­port just a day be­fore the Com­mon­wealth Games were to be­gin. A shop in the wait­ing area was sell­ing books, mu­sic CDs and movies. I asked the at­ten­dant if there was any clas­si­cal In­dian mu­sic she could di­rect me to. It turned out to be a night­mare for both. She showed me old film mu­sic, Hollywood clas­sics but ev­i­dently there was no work by any of the great mu­si­cians of In­dia. I help­fully sug­gested that she might look for Ravi Shankar. She came back with DVDs of a pop­u­lar god­man known by the same name.

A coun­try like In­dia, trou­bled as it is by its mind­less cul­tural drift and a shal­low if bor­rowed mu­si­cal id­iom that more eas­ily re­flects easy money than a durable an­cient tra­di­tion, and which is riven by un­abated parochial strife, should have reached out for Karim Khan's heal­ing magic as a na­tional panacea.

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