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Faith and the Musician

The evolution of Hindustani classical music has consciously taken a trajectory that mirrors the nationalist project. In this experiment of defining a national music that is ostensibly secular, the position of the 'ustads' has always been attended by difficulty. Their image and musical practices have in turn popularised the secular, syncretic notion that Hindustani music has come to acquire. But in their history and that of the 'gharanas' they represent also lies the complex history of changing and evolving musical traditions, derived from and inspired by existing strands of music, traditional and adapted, and which also reflect the shifting political contours of the times.

Faith and the Musician

‘Ustads’ in Modern India

The evolution of Hindustani classical music has consciously taken a trajectory that mirrors the nationalist project. In this experiment of defining a national music that is ostensibly secular, the position of the ‘ustads’ has always been attended by difficulty. Their image and musical practices have in turn popularised the secular, syncretic notion that Hindustani music has come to acquire. But in their history and that of the ‘gharanas’ they represent also lies the complex history of changing and evolving musical traditions, derived from and inspired by existing strands of music, traditional and adapted, and which also reflect the shifting political contours of the times.


he recent decision of Aasish Khan, the son of the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, to embrace Hinduism and assume once again the old family surname of Debsharma has received some media attention. English language dailies have commented on this story with varying degrees of seriousness; there is, for instance, an attempt to explain Aasish Khan’s decision to reclaim an older Hindu identity and status in light of the paranoia that appears to have seized sections of the western world regarding Muslims, all of whom seem now to have a potential to become terrorists. At the same time, there is an element of discomfort produced by the event, that has been expressed poignantly in the father’s anguish at the son’s “misconduct” and “betrayal” of his ancestral memory

The reportage is, in fact, quite consistent with the way Muslim practitioners of music and their faith and identity have tended to be represented at a popular and also at a more informed level – a common assumption being that the ‘ustad’ as a devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, was somehow different and operated in a realm that could not be easily captured within neat categories of Muslim and Hindu. The assumption was not without basis but failed to engage with the complex nuances of the ustads’ location in the landscape of cultural practices in modern India. This failure as has been demonstrated in recent writings on the subject was tied up with the articulation of a nationalist cultural project spearheaded largely by the western educated Hindu elite. The latter, in its anxiety to reclaim and retrieve for the nation a cultural inheritance that was undiluted, pure and anchored in the practice of popular devotion on the one hand and supported by an older and authoritative textual tradition on the other, produced and perpetuated a discourse that preferred to position the actual practitioners

– predominantly Muslims – on the edge of the tradition.

This act of will was at once, at variance with the actual ground reality, and it produced a medley of consequences that forced the new patrons including the nation state and the practitioners, to redefine notions of personal and collective identity. A distinction must be made here between the recurrent and oft-quoted invocation of Saraswati by the ustads or the sort of intimate relationships that artists like Bismillah Khan enjoyed with the temple culture of Varanasi as a continuation of a hereditary professional engagement, and modern, self-conscious responses to the nationalist imperative of the sort that, Abdul Karim Khan, for instance, engaged in. What is being suggested is that while the practice

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

of music was traditionally a shared space of experience among Muslim ustads and their Hindu listeners, the location and selfdefinition of the Muslim musician was complicated, even ambiguous – a condition deriving from the ways the musical culture and communities of northern India had been configured historically. The intervention of nationalism and the politics of cultural syncretism espoused by the nation state complicated the issue even further – elaborate rituals that celebrated the idea of the Muslim ustad as the perfect subject embodying an official syncretism that had to be expressed by obligatory celebrations of Hindu divinities and the deployment of a symbolic language, meant that the Muslim ustad’s personal faith was a matter of no consequence. Note the way obituaries to Bismillah Khan talk about his inseparable association with Varanasi and about his steadfast devotion to Saraswati, a qualification carrying with it all the resonances of being a good secular Muslim.

Fissiparous Identities

What has this meant for traditional practitioners? How have they negotiated with issues of personal and national identity – what has it meant to be Indian and Muslim at a time when the post-September 11, 2001, the world chooses to remain complicit with racial profiling and associate any Khan as a potential Bin Laden follower and when the singing of ‘Vande Mataram’ is pushed down everyone’s throats as an obligatory mantra to demonstrate loyalty to the nation? There are no simple answers to these questions. What I propose to do is to try and address these issues by situating the story of the modern Muslim practitioner of Hindustani classical music in a historical setting and through a careful reading of the biography of modern Indian classical music, to grapple with some of the implications of identity politics for traditional practitioners responding to modern transformations. Here, the recent work of Janaki Bakhle merits mention (Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition, Permanent Black, 2006). Focusing on two premier figures in the early 20th century, namely, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, she demonstrates how a modern canonical setting for the modern Hindustani music tradition was instituted largely within the interstices of modern institutional space and how this not only eroded the richly hybrid nature of an earlier patronage and consumption context for music but also how it marginalised the communities of practitioners, mostly Muslim. This displacement was evident not so much in the domain of modern performance or even individual teaching as in the more pervasively public spaces of representation, where the derivation of classical music from authentic ‘shastra’ and its association with earlier traditions of Hindu devotion and esoteric systems of yoga and pranayama were foregrounded and its historical evolution during the long period of Islamic rule virtually obscured.

The nation state after independence, concentrated on pushing the idea of India’s musical inheritance as the common legacy of an idealised syncretism while the actual context for patronage and performance had undergone a fundamental transformation. This had shifted music from a truly syncretic, complex and inclusive traditional location to a much more homogeneous, narrow metropolitan one. This new cultural project was obliged to adopt the musical forms and genres that were current at the close of the 19th century but necessarily uprooted them from their natural cultural sites and thereby began the process of detaching them from communities in which they had developed. The replacement of courts, individual princes and aristocrats by the new urban elite with their organised musical associations as the principal sponsors and patrons of musical performance radically altered the world of the traditional performer. It was no longer a case of singing for the prince and the temple and expecting consequent support, and even largesse. It was now a question of passively embracing an external description of one’s orientation and practice. The musicians were not always capable of responding to the changing situation, some of them responded with alacrity. Abdul Karim Khan for example was able to negotiate with and neutralise brahmanical critiques by demonstrating the musically correct way to sing the ‘Gayatri Mantra’, and a number of leading ustads migrated to Mumbai and Kolkata to become teachers to an overwhelmingly Hindu constituency of students. Amjad Ali Khan was happy to function as the nation’s cultural ambassador while Bismillah Khan was able to publicly state in a television interview (November 2004) that musicians were beyond narrow bigotry and subscribed to the universality of religions. In actual fact these responses were not entirely pragmatic or informed by self-interest. As a historical formation, the community of musicians represented a composite identity drawn from a miscellany of groups and castes – of old and new converts alike – and constituted a hybrid group forged in the long and complex crossover between popular mystical Islamic and Hindu devotional practices that had its most eloquent expression in music. In authenticating their experiential dimension, many of them claimed legitimating markers as belonging to the ‘senia parampara’ (having practices based on canonical musicology derived from the ancient, pre-Islamic, shastric traditions) and to being of brahmin stock (having pre-Islamic origins of respectable high status). Such claims basically constituted a personal expression of their ambivalent location within mainstream Islam and within the pre-modern, colonial and modern state as well as being an expression of shared sentiment that transcended limited categories of modern religious identity.

Let us pause to consider what this community of Muslim ustads looked like in pre-colonial India and how they had coalesced into a hereditary community of practitioners. The community was stratified and included a variety of castes and lineages whose status was determined largely by their location and proximity to courts and Sufi silsilas and by what they practised in terms of musical genres. The castes included the kalawants, the most influential and respected group, who were recognised as the traditional musicians and singers of dhrupad. Dhrupad had its origins in the music of the temple, was cultivated by brahmins and remained, it was believed close to its original forms. Dhrupad singing lineages probably converted to Islam in the context of political patronage of the Mughals – a decision that has to be seen in the context of the complex and rich interchanges between vaishnav and sufi devotional practices. Because of the patronage, practice and appreciation of music and the ready acceptance of vaishnav imagery as the most apt matrix of poetic metaphor for devotion among the chishtis and other sufi silsilas, conversion, in the context of the Mughal courts, was attractive to and relatively easy for musicians; Tansen being the best instance in point. The title “kalawant” stood for senior members of established musical families who specialised in the dhrupad. Other castes included the dhadhis, gandharps and gunkars (all of whom are referred to in the 16th century Raag Darpan by Faqirullah), qawwals, doms and nats, each

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006 group specialising in one form or the other but whose specialities had a tendency to break down in the melting pot of the Mughal capitals, where new, adapted musical forms of court and shrine or ‘khanqah’ (dhrupad and ‘khayal’) were less unambiguously hereditary property.

Kalawant families had a special relationship to court and shrine and were by the 18th century able to carve for themselves a very distinct status. In the imperial court of Delhi after Aurangzeb’s death, they would appear to have become a very influential group involved in the factional politics so typical of the age. We have, for instance, references to Lal Kunwar, the favourite mistress of the emperor Jahandar Shah and her brothers who for a brief time dominated affairs in Delhi and alienated a powerful section of the ruling Mughal nobility. ‘Sadarang’ (Niamat Khan) who is credited with major inputs in the development of the khayal genre in north Indian music in the 18th century was recorded as being the “brother” of Lal Kunwar, but was perhaps a cousin. They are believed by their descendants and the music world in general to be the descendants of Tansen’s daughter Saraswati and her husband Mishri Singh (the famous Naubat Khan Binkar of the paintings in Jehangir/Shah Jahan’s time), the son of Raja Sammokhan Singh, the Rajput binkar who came to Akbar’s darbar and accompanied the singing of Tansen. While there is no documentary record of his early training in “been” or dhrupad, what may be inferred with a reasonable degree of certitude is that Tansen’s family became the leading teaching lineage for 19th century musicians paralleled only by the Sufi musical silsilas of the Qawwal Bachche that had incorporated the repertoire of Sadarang’s songs and his system of “ragdari” . Recent work by Catherine Butler Brown would also strongly suggest the close connections between court music traditions and the Sufi silsilas – a circuit that made music for the practitioners and the listeners an integrated and composite practice whose affective dimensions could not be captured in restrictive categories of orthodox religion.

The decline of Imperial Delhi was for a while offset by the cultural efflorescence of regional courts like Lucknow, Jaipur, Rampur, Benaras and even the kingdom of Nepal, where court patronage would appear to have sustained the cultural traditions of music and performance. There were admittedly important changes in the content and orientation of music, the 18th century version of the khayal itself being a case in point. Abstracted from its older space within Sufi musical practice, it went on to become a major genre in court sponsored art music while the development of the “thumri”, as Peter Manuel has argued, was emblematic of the new emphasis on musical entertainment. At the same time, the mixed nature of Indian musical expression both as a performance practice as well as in its reception meant that certain musical families were closely attached to certain temples and their ritual cycles. This became even more pronounced after the revolt of 1857 when the newly reconstituted princely states and the local zamindars consumed music and integrated it within the established network of devotion, entertainment and social practice. All this meant that the relationship of the ustads with their various patrons and sites of identity was part of a complex dynamic, mediated both by historical processes of interaction and by their own self-definition as special artists with a different experience of faith, one that was closely tied up with the very practice of music. Added to this was the practical imperative of responding to the nationalist cultural project of the Indian (mostly Hindu) elite that sought to retrieve the tradition and practice of Indian music in a manner that reconstituted the Muslim ustads and contained them in rigid categories. It is in this somewhat mixed and complex historical backdrop that one may try and locate the recent controversy about Aasish Khan’s decision without of course detracting from the fact of personal choice and whim.

While there have been several instances of actual conversion to the Hindu faith determined by immediate practical considerations of security and safety, it is equally important to see in these instances, a complex pre-history of identity and self-description. Keeping in mind the earlier processes of conversion by local practitioners, and also their rich and layered experiential reality in the milieu of political and devotional space, it is easier to see why musical families like the Dagars emphasised their brahmanical status or musicians like Alladiya Khan chose in his autobiography to refer to his Hindu ancestry and how in his reconstruction of the genealogy of vocal music, the space of the seers in his mind and memory was a shared one between Allah’s call to the angels and the gandharvas of Indra’s court. The experience of participating in a practice that was truly mixed – in terms of language, metaphor and melody and deployment – meant that the issue of a singular identity became problematic and even undesirable. It is not entirely coincidental that musicians and patrons who practised music and consumed music and were in deep contact with mystical practices on the ground should have made it a point to venerate a figure like Saraswati who seemed to embody the essence of the practice and in that embodiment remain free of a strict scriptural association. One could simply be a Saraswati ‘bhakt’ and a practising Muslim at the same time.

In the case of Allauddin Khan’s family in rural eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), the inheritance was even more interesting– as a non-kalawant family which had in a very short time emerged as a major performing family, enjoying the confidence of the Bengali bhadralok, among whom the negotiation with the social space of cultural practice and devotion was more relaxed. The extreme veneration that Allauddin Khan had for Sharada Devi in Maihar served to emphasise the importance of the musical experience and the subsequent institutionalisation of Saraswati worship by many Muslim musicians only serves to indicate the tenacity of the community in keeping alive, a memory and cultural inheritance of shared meanings in a situation where the religion of the state and the external trappings of secular devotion have demanded the demonstration of blind loyalty expressed in banal artefacts. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of modernity and nationalism forcing hyphenated entities like Muslim ustads to retreat behind a screen of syncretism and remain vigilant about projecting the correct self. But surely, it is time we looked more closely into the politics of representation and took a harder look at the orthodoxy of selfdescriptions that have distorted a very simple skein of shared practice into a coarse fabric of ownership, appropriation and control.



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Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

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