Review: Chasing the Raag Dream by Aneesh Pradhan
An erudite Hindustani classical musician is perhaps a rarity and increasingly so in our time. While we seem to take pride in the various factors contributing to the growth and reach of Indian classical music and want to believe this is an assertion of progress, what we see and hear from our musicians paints a deeply contrasting picture. Their concerns don’t transcend the musical, most refuse to look beyond performance, recordings, gharana systems and other woolly notions of music making while choosing to be largely silent about the ecosystem they inhabit, which like all other arts is riddled with shortcomings. The complacency and insularity of the Hindustani classical musician is beyond perplexing. In such a scenario, a book like Aneesh Pradhan’s Chasing the Raag Dream is a much needed intervention in an otherwise sterile landscape of Hindustani music discourse still dominated by formal aspects of music making and learning as if music is made in a vacuum and the individual producing it is bereft of a sociocultural context.
Books on critical writing on Indian music in English are few and far between. Ashok Da Ranade, who is also mentioned in Pradhan’s book, wrote some seminal works which are still used and commonly cited. Such writing which may exist in various Indian languages remains inaccessible for lack of translations. Non-academic music book publishing invariably favours reminisces, memoirs, autobiography, analyses of gharana music or a performer’s style. Pradhan’s book marks a significant departure from that tradition of music writing. It critically analyses music policy, work done by several government and non-government agencies, music education, syllabi, the overseas performance network, civil society and corporate patronage of music, music festivals and event management companies, amongst a bunch of other critical matters that demand scrutiny and attention. I can’t think of another book in English written by a contemporary Indian musician that covers such a wide expanse with insightful critique and suggestions. I also admire Pradhan’s integrity and honesty as a performing artist who voices concerns that many know exist but very few would publicly acknowledge for fear of the adverse reactions it might evoke.
Performing artists ought to write about performance and the performing arts more than they usually do. It is not the reserve alone of ethnomusicologists, many of whom may be trained in theory but lack necessary music training to comprehend the complexities of the music they endeavour to discuss. Pradhan rightfully cautions us about writing on music which can be either sentimental or lacking the academic rigour of other disciplines. He states, “But it must be noted that those trained in other disciplines, both outside India and here, are often not educated in the subtleties of the performing tradition, due to which preconceived theoretical constructs creep into their writing.” UR Ananthamurthy used the term ‘critical insider’ in a wonderful essay about being a writer in India. Pradhan, a career musician who thinks of reading and writing about music in India as an extension of his music practice, is the kind of ‘critical insider’ Ananthamurthy envisioned.
Chasing the Raag Dream also makes a strong case for artists’ rights by discussing contracts and copyright in great detail. It further probes and questions the role of the music archive in disseminating information about music. Some overzealous advocates of the digital archive would discount its limitations citing the reach it creates and documentary value. How many of these archives actually seek permission from musicians before uploading their work on a public platform or before entering into an agreement with a record label to publish these recordings? Do we think before recording a concert clip and uploading it on social media? These are very important discussion points. Pradhan also talks about demonetisation and GST adversely impacting musicians. Besides the thoughtful analyses, the biggest strength of the book is that it locates music in a broad sociocultural setting. Pradhan concludes saying we ought to jettison our saviour attitude towards Hindustani classical music and embrace a culture of open dialogue and critique. That is the need of the moment.
Kunal Ray is a keen listener of Indian music and teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.