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The Reality of the Accompanist

prelude to the composition. The elaboration of the composition was largely The Reality of rhythm-bound, allowing and even demanding an anticipatory role from the pakhawaj player. Thus, the dialogue be the Accompanist tween the singer and the percussionist was ANEESH PRADHAN Lakshmi Subramanian


The Reality ofthe Accompanist


akshmi Subramanian’s article (EPW, April 8, 2006) on the role of the accompanist in the larger aesthetic of Indian music presented a fresh look at the issue, particularly so, after the now mediasensationlised and much-hyped “Shanmukhananda Hall” episode. Ironically, it took an episode involving celebrity musicians to bring media attention to the role of the accompanist, and yet, the discussion that ensued over the next few days in leading dailies was restricted to trivia, without any attempt at understanding the dialectics within the musical process that has given rise to the current image of the accompanist. Moreover, public memory being what it is, the episode has become but another anecdote for music lovers and musicians to be recounted over and over again, often with added ‘masala’, completely skirting the more important issue at hand. Subramanian’s article was therefore a welcome change from all this.

Her piece focuses on the Carnatic music experience concerning the role of the accompanist since the 19th century. The broader framework of her argument, that of examining Carnatic performance practice and aesthetic in its social context is noteworthy, but as a tabla player interested in a similar study of Hindustani music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I would like to present a situation that may be at variance to the position stated by Subramanian.

It is indeed a truism that music does not take place in a social vacuum, but it is equally true that all musical trends need not always stem from the extra-musical situation. In other words, factors like patronage certainly play a role in deciding the fate of artistic expression, but they are not solely responsible for the same. Any assertion of the latter, would not only take away from the individual’s role in shaping the music, but would even paint musicians as a gullible bunch of performers, willing to be pushed any which way if only for a bit of patronage. Meaning no disrespect to listeners, vocal compositions on the intelligence of the listeners or the lack of it are proof enough of the musical ingenuity of the performer!

As with most things related to the oral tradition in India, the evolution of musical forms and the reasons for the rise and decline in popularity of instruments are aspects often etched in mystery. The lack of documentary proof and the prevalence of anecdotal references that are often tailored to suit the narrator’s purpose have made these aspects a problematic area of examination and analysis. Even so, we can attempt at assessing the logic supporting phrases like ‘uttam gaanaa, madhyam bajaanaa’ – phrases that have been used in common parlance among Hindustani musicians.

Instruments in Hindustani music are used today in two formats – solo and accompaniment. Until the 18th century, they were primarily used to accompany the ‘dhrupad’ form. The decline of dhrupad and the rising popularity of ‘khayal’ and ‘thumri’, relegated the ‘pakhawaj’ and ‘been’, rhythmic and melodic accompanying instruments to dhrupad, to the background. Conversely, this led to the rise of tabla and sarangi, the rhythmic and melodic accompanying instruments to khayal and thumri.

The aesthetic basis of khayal and thumri was significantly different from that of dhrupad, though all three forms adhered to the ‘raag-taal’ paradigm in varying degrees. This basis manifested itself in khayal through the ‘vistaar’ or free-flowing melodic elaboration with percussion accompaniment. Earlier, dhrupad allowed a free-flowing melodic exposition of the raag in the form of an ‘aalaap’ or a long prelude to the composition. The elaboration of the composition was largely rhythm-bound, allowing and even demanding an anticipatory role from the pakhawaj player. Thus, the dialogue between the singer and the percussionist was more overt and mathematical, interestingly, much in the same vein as the current Carnatic music aesthetic.

There were different styles of khayal, some of which were more influenced by the dhrupad framework, and yet the emphasis on free-flowing melody with percussion accompaniment was quite evident. Consequently, the demands placed on the role of the percussionist in this musical dialogue were different from those in the dhrupad form. The need for a uniform rhythmic canvas was important for this free-flowing melodic exposition. This had nothing to do with the presentation of a new “streamlined” performance, nor does one come across a discourse among musiclovers, critics and scholars to this effect. It had nothing to do with making the performance a more accessible musical experience for the listener. It had more to do with the specific requirements of the musical form.

Accompanist’s Independence

It is well known that certain Indian intellectuals influenced by a Victorian sense of morality labelling of women singer-dancers as being a “debauched” lot led to the social stigmatisation of these performers and by the same token of musicians in general, many of whom were associated with them as teachers or accompanists. The shoddy treatment meted out to tabla and sarangi players even among the community of musicians was also due primarily to the condescending attitude towards thumri and its practitioners. But this did not in any way tell upon the importance of tabla in a thumri performance. In the latter case, dance played an important part in the rendition, with the result that the tabla player had to reproduce, anticipate and suggest rhythmic passages that were in tandem with the singer-dancer’s footwork. This section known as ‘laggi’ or ‘laggi-chanti’

Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

was once again a requirement of the form. In fact, it became such an inseparable part of thumri that even when the dance element was removed from thumri, laggi continued to be played at the tail end of the vocal rendition to bring about a climax.

Concomitantly, changes in the construction of instruments like the sitar and sarod, and the creative genius of some musicians enabled some instruments to move out of their conventional roles like providing accompaniment to vocal music. They established a solo status for themselves and developed a repertoire that was specific to instrumental solo performance and in some ways different from the older dhrupadbased treatment. Similarly, tabla players built on the language of their instruments and developed a solo repertoire involving special forms that were influenced by the pakhawaj repertoire and other percussion instruments used in folk music. Undoubtedly, these changes would not have been possible without the patronage they received, but it would be difficult to map a direct correlation between patronage and other extra-musical factors on the one hand, and the larger aesthetic on the other.

Also, the foregrounding of one performer from amongst the ensemble in Hindustani music has been and is as much due to the peculiar nature of the music as to the professional arrangement between soloist and accompanists. Musical decisions of performance repertoire and general presentation may be taken by the performers if they consider themselves members of a team, but those of pitch and instant tempo changes are and have been the prerogative of the soloist. This does not have anything to do with the status of the accompanist. The social status of the accompanist is in fact determined by extraneous factors like the ratio and mode of distributing fees (in most cases, even to this day, payments are made directly to the main performer by the patron – whether corporate, government, or individual patron), or the publicity of the event (it is not uncommon to find huge advertisements with no mention of the accompanists). This in turn colours the manner in which the accompanist is regarded by the general public, though musically the accompanist in many cases contributes much to the performance and is equally free to do so without any reproach on the part of the main performer. Of course, there are those who feel threatened if the accompanist plays well and also receives applause from the audience, but that is something that does not even merit mention here.

Issues of Musical Reality

We also need to take note of the fact that the early recordings of Hindustani music whether from the acoustic or electrical eras, used a single microphone, with the result that the main performer was seated closest to the device and the rest of the ensemble sat behind him or her. The muffled sound of the accompaniment on these recordings, does not therefore represent the nature of the accompaniment in those times, and if at all only projects it as a secondary entity in the entire performance. The disc jackets then and the CD covers even to this day rarely mention the accompanists’ names prominently. Once again, these circumstances do not take away from the music or do not determine the nature of the accompaniment or the musical relation between the main performer and the accompanists.

Clearly, the musical reality is not always commensurate with social and economic reality. The flip side of the argument also needs to be discussed briefly. There are times when lovers of Hindustani music swear by the music they had heard several decades ago, when the accompaniment was ostensibly less “noisy” or when the tabla player did not “play the song” on the instrument (meaning thereby that the tabla player did not anticipate the melody and text and reproduce it on the instrument – an element that is considered by many oldtimers as a device only to cater to uninformed listeners). Similarly, there are many who believe that the recognition tabla has received in the west in a variety of musical situations, has harmed the general tone of an art music concert, with the tabla player either straying into musical areas that are not customary for Hindustani art music or with him or her demanding louder amplification. Leaving aside the subjectivity of such opinions, if indeed this freedom to place demands on the amplification and the music is considered an indication of the rising social status of the accompanists, then nothing could be further from the truth. The attention is still focused on the main performer, though the accompanists may contribute equally in heightening the musical experience of the listener.

The musical inputs of the accompanists in Hindustani music may often be driven by the need to making a personal display of their talents, but there is no denying the fact that the inner dynamic of the musical forms also demands such inputs. Such inputs may be guided by a need to cater to a larger and diverse audience, but this is not a ground rule. While some accompanists may gain popularity due to their talent, their status as accompanists does not always change to their benefit.

Finally, one also needs to remember that in the performance context, musicians often take spot decisions based on the relation they share with their co-artistes. Today, the status or level of expertise of a tabla player is often judged by his or her ability to render solo passages while accompanying a vocalist or instrumentalist. However, the aesthetic involved in accompanying Hindustani music has a much deeper intent and may involve, but is not necessarily restricted, to solo passages. Even the most understated accompaniment can enhance the beauty of the performance, and once again, this is a decision that is not always guided by extraneous factors.



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Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

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