January 25, 2020
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Music Of The Spheres

A work that belies expectations

Music Of The Spheres
The Great Masters
By Mohan Nadkarni
HarperCollins Rs 500; Pages: 453
We are all aware that improvisation is the essence of Hindustani classical music, and hence the least one expected in a new offering from an author of Mohan Nadkarni's skill and experience was some improvisation on his previously published profiles of eminent musicians. Nadkarni brings a quantitatively impressive collection of over 50 profiles of Hindustani vocalists, preceded by a general introduction to Hindustani music in his recent The Great Masters: Profiles in Hindustani Classical Vocal Music. Indigenous writing on Indian music is becoming quite a rarity. Hence it's with eagerness that music lovers await works by qualified authors of Nadkarni's stature. However, high expectations often lead to disappointment and Nadkarni's book is disappointing in more ways than one. But let's begin by listing the aces.

While Nadkarni may not be rated as the raconteur of the millennium, his anecdotes concerning legendary musicians of all times provide useful information for lovers and students of music. His account of the nationwide collective agitation by musicians in protest against All India Radio under a united front called 'Akhil Bharatiya Sangeet Kalakar Mandal' is inspiring. But while anecdotes make interesting reading, one wishes that analysts like Nadkarni would use them as a basis to infer the sensibility of a musician. Or else, getting to know that Capstan was Begum Akhtar's favourite brand of cigarettes remains mere trivia for the curious reader.

Did you know that classical divas Hirabai Barodekar and Begum Akhtar did several stints as singing actresses in films? Or that the legendary Omkarnath Thakur worked as a cook and as a mill hand before he was recognised as a master musician? Although Nadkarni's writing provides these nuggets of information, it also abounds with many a fancy adjectival reference to "render lyricism", "eloquent expressiveness", and "superhuman discipline".

A first reading of the profiles leaves one puzzled by the sombre openings that read like obituaries. The opening lines on Siddheswari Devi read thus: "It can well be said that with the passing away of Siddheswari Devi in March 1977, the great era of leading lights of the Thumri tradition of eastern Uttar Pradesh came to a sad end." A similar epigraphic start to the chapter on Mallikarjun Mansur says: "Incredible is about the only word to describe the maestro, Mallikarjun Mansur, who passed away at the age of eighty-one in September 1992. He was one of the last titans of Hindustani vocalists and was amazingly active on the concert stage till a few weeks before his death..." One could not help but wonder if the profiles owed their origins to articles and tributes that Nadkarni had published in newspapers and publications. Indeed, reviews of his past writings revealed that the author had borrowed generously from his own earlier writing, at times without even attempting to recycle or reword. For those who find this less than credible, compare the earlier quote with its near-mirror-image from Nadkarni's column in the The Times of India of January 31, 1986: "Incredible is about the only word to describe Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, who turned 75 on December 31, 1985. He is the last titan still amazingly active on the Hindustani concert stage." Surprisingly, the cloning doesn't stop with a few opening lines and one finds that on more than one occasion entire articles are replicated. This would not have been disappointing but for the claim in the preface. In fact, a recompilation of Nadkarni's articles would have their own value even without the unfulfilled promise of being unpublished. But to give him his due, it is also creditable that Nadkarni chose not to be star-struck and has included musicians in his book for their musical merit and not merely for their star value.

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