Music from the heart
This book captures rare vignettes from the lives of 21 of India's greatest classical musicians alive today.
Living Legends of Indian Classical Music
Price: Not stated
Format: Coffee Table
The magic of Indian classical may have found a select if numerically limited audience for millennia but it has been an audience that has been fanatically loyal. It has been one that has appreciated the finest of nuances of this highly developed art. An art whose top proponents have been revered as demi-gods not just in their own lifetimes but for ages after they have performed. And this tradition is still a living, breathing one.
Though in today's 'fast world' where few have the patience to learn to appreciate the subtle variations of sur and laya, this art, in some ways, is a threatened one, yet it is the living legends of Indian classical music who command a respect that is accorded to few others. It is Indian classical musicians above all who are transcending national borders, winning accolades and gathering fans across the globe.
This book, sensibly enough, chooses to focus on the living practioners only. For choosing the greats from eras gone by is a mission fraught by more pitfalls than one.
So we have 21 living legends - from the globally popular Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan to lesser known but equally great Gangubai Hangal or Zia Fariduddin Dagar. The greats of Carnatic music like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Umayalpuram K Sivaraman are also included.
Each has a chapter dedicated to them, which not just includes a short biography but also a few questions asked to each of them.
It is in this part that the book is most likely to be criticised. For lovers of these legends, the biographies are too short, too simplistic; the questions too few. Most fans are unlikely to be satisfied with anything less than detailed biographies, and even more explicit interviews, preferably including a few music lessons as well! If these are the expectations, the book does indeed fall short.
The stress for most of the chapters is deservedly on tracing the evolution of the artiste and his or her place in the modern classical music pantheon. Each journey seems to have been traced fairly meticulously, looking at the backgrounds, formative influences, guiding factors, and the driving forces which have helped many overcome considerable obstacles to reach the pinnacles of their chosen art forms.
What will add to the reader's experience is the lesser known aspects of these greats. As a child, Bhimsen Joshi ran away from home more than once 'to learn music'. Gangubai Hangal's mother, renowned Carnatic singer Ambabai gave up singing 'to make sure that the conflicting strains of Carnatic music in the house did not lead to contamination or confusion in the budding vocalist who chose the Hindustani classical style for her career.' Hariprasad Chaurasia's father, a wrestler, had him train in that direction.
But then, covering 21 legends is not a small task. Some names are invariably left out. Thankfully the Epilogue mentions that this could be corrected in a subsequent volume. Lalgudi Jayaraman finds place but not his maestro, Ustad Vilayat Khan! Nevertheless, covering so many musicians in a comparatively brief space is commendable and despite the subjective criticisms that will be leveled at it, the book is a treasure.
What commends the book most are the excellent photographs; the book is in the coffee table format, but there is more text to be found than is customary in that genre of books. From rare archival material and family photographs to recital ones, the visuals alone would make the book worth possessing for any music aficionado.
And of course, however brief be the interviews, that each of the featured musicians gets to speak in first person is remarkable. A sentiment that emerges almost universally is perhaps best voiced by Zia Fariddudin Dagar: "Today's audience seems happy showmanship, speed and volume. And today's performer is quick to wind up, collect his payment and disappear! Earlier, the best of artists used to listen to others. I remember, learned ustads used to sit in front rows, before the general public. …Today everything is mercenary, there's no heart. Each one is busy trying to promote and project himself! Trying to get the media to acknowledge his dubious 'innovations'." The not-to-be-missed interviews include the ones with Kishori Amonkar and Zakir Hussain.
Qualitative differences between chapters are understandable. The chapters cover vocalists and instrumentalists, people who trained in lost established traditions and those that dared to innovate, reached perfection in playing instruments that had existed for centuries to those that revived instruments that had not been played for a long time, which were not considered good enough for classical music. Above all these are accounts of arduous journeys that brought extraordinary results.
The glossary at the end is fairly exhaustive, and should also help those apart from the very well versed.