On a tragic note
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.