Sunday, December 02, 2012

Book: Raga 'n Josh by Sheila Dhar

I have always been curious about Indian classical music. Often wondered about this great  legacy from our  times past. I have received no training in this esoteric art to be able to completely appreciate it, but I have always had a healthy respect for this type of music and its practioners. After all, one can not ignore the fact that classical music is the result of hundreds of years of dedicated labors of so many practitioners. In essence, classical music has come to mean excellence in music.

Before the advent of the omnipresent television channels, when All India Radio ruled the roost, Hindustani or Carnatic music was what they  usaully broadcast towards the end of their morning programs. The start of the alaap would usually be the signal to most people to turn off the radio sets.

After listening to light, popular kind of music for years, only in recent years I have opened my ears to the classical music. The experience has been sort of cathartic! Almost everyday these days I turn to classical to calm the nerves jangled by the noise from the traffic.

When I recently came across this book with the rather quaint title, I was drawn to it. The book definitely threw some light on the history of Hindustani classical music and also on the lives and motivations of some of the luminaries of this genre from the twentieth century. The title of the book is a play on the non-vegetarian dish  "Ragonjosh". As you will find in more than one story in the book, some of our great hindustani musicians were connoisseurs of good food too.

The book written by Sheila Dhar, herself a trained classical musician, breathes music from the first page to the last. Yet, the wonderful way in which the stories are narrated makes the book more than just a book on music. She writes about the time when she was sixteen, when she was asked by her father to receive Bade Ghulam Ali Khan at the station and to escort him and his accompanists to the house of his host, and fetch them to the concert hall after they had refreshed themselves and had their dinner. The hosts happened to be vegetarians. The maestro could not stomach the sight of this unfamiliar food. He exploded: "Do you think I can sing the way I do if I have to feed on grasses swimming in fluids of various kinds? Every note I sing has the aroma of kebabs." Sheila then describes how everyone ran helter-skelter to prepare a meal consisting ofa rich chicken curry.

Writing about music is writing about an experience, and Sheila displays a huge talent in the way she describes music without any jargon or pretentiousness. From Pandith Pran Nath, for example, she learnt to think about ragas in terms of colors. "It was natural for him to dive into the dark depths of early morning ragas like Lalit and Bhairava, where there was no sun. Sometimes we would hear the greys and dusky ochres of twilight ragas like Puriya and Marwa, the midnight blue of magical and mysterious ragas like Malkauns, and even the restrained gold of the majestic and courtly Darbari." 

In Chapter Twenty Four, titled "The New Face of Listening" the author comments about the changing dynamics of the classical music performance and listening. She talks about the perception of silence and how it has changed. Her observations are poignant. "The portrait of a raga" she says, "was thought to consist of unbroken melodic lines drawn on the canvas of silence". According to her, the gradual erosion of silence by ever increasing noise levels is the single important change that has come about in the music world in the last fifty years. 

At one place in the book the author lists the following as the most attractive attrributes of Indian classical music - grace and romanticism, purity and restraint, depth and serenity. I am sure it would not be amiss to use some of these same attributes to describe this beautiful book.

A preview of the book is available on Google Books. Here is the link-

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