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Review: The Oxford Encyclopaedia...

books Updated: Apr 23, 2011 17:13 IST
Gautam Chikermane
Gautam Chikermane
Hindustan Times
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The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India, Vol 1-3
Edited by Pandit Ghosh and S Devadas Pillai
Oxford University Press
Rs 9,950 n pp 1,470

As someone who enjoys Indian classical music and is interested in an intellectual understanding of its nuances, there is nothing on this planet that matches this product of love, commitment and enterprise. To be able to track down two millennia of the subcontinent’s music into 5,000 entries and 200 photographs takes some doing — 250 musicians and scholars took 12 years to complete this project, scrounging for financial resources on the way. Behind this three-volume set lie the spirits of masters — 75 artists, from sitar player Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan to tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, played in fund-raising concerts to finance this project.

The result: an astounding rediscovery of India through the prism of music. Between taal (beat) and laye (tempo), ragas and their construction and instruments and their classifications, or gharanas and the personalities behind them, this 1,470-page tome is a must-have for every Indian music enthusiast who wants to take even one step beyond listening to it. As far as history goes, this encyclopaedia travels as far back as 1,500 BC to track Vedic sangeet (music of the Vedic times) through Sama (stanzas of the Rig Veda).

My fear was that in order to appease the ‘modern’ reader, the editors might compromise on the spiritual base of Indian classical music and at best glean bits from religion. I’m glad to report that the soul of India, where spirituality is part of music and life itself, has been retained. “Meditation is supposedly easier when a deity is described in a stanza,” the entry on Raga Dhyan says. “Students of music, before performing a raga, were taught to recall the concerned stanza and ‘see’ the form of the deity, in a meditative mood. Thus, when Bhairav is to be performed, Siva is to be invoked.”

As a student, I have seen this invocation to Hindu deities preceding the concerts of not only Bhimsen Joshi (with a respectable entry that apart from exploring his music also touches upon his life — “Bhimsen’s is a story of the travails of a seeker” who “wandered with an obsessive mind but no guru took him seriously”) but Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar (whose brilliance and depth has been restricted to two insignificant paragraphs under a broader entry, Dagar Brothers) as well. At one lecture-demonstration, I was surprised to see Dagar put a picture of a Hindu deity before him, bow before it and invoke it before starting his concert. That is when I realised that the spirituality of Indian classical music transcends religions.

As anyone who is enthralled by this music, there will be pet peeves. Mine is the missing entry on Kumar Gandharva. To dismiss an institution like him — a singer with a single lung, beyond any gharana, singing Nirguni bhajans and folk songs — in one passing line as merely a student of Annanibai Malpekar, is a poor reflection on the editors of this encyclopaedia. In panic, I shuffled the pages to the entry on Mallikarjun Mansur and was relieved to find him there, though the sense of proportion is missing — the entry of this great maestro is smaller than Lata Mangeshkar’s or Asha Bhosle’s. While on Bollywood pop singers, Kishore Kumar has been flushed away in a line on yodelling, Manna De is missing altogether though Mohammad Rafi has managed to retain his identity. I’m sure a future edition will rectify these oversights.

I also hope that the publishers will make this encyclopaedia available online with multi-media technologies and with it, provide us with the real sounds of ragas, forms, dance — and the inner spirit weaving them all together into a complex and enriching superstructure called Indian music.