Cerebral Fodder

May  2005



Contrasts and Compromises—fruitful and decadent


by Jayant Deshpande


first published in

NEW Quest, No.154 (Oct-Dec) 2003

a quarterly journal of participatory inquiry

devoted to politics, culture, literature & society


In a playful moment it occurred to me that I could describe Amir Khan’s and Krishnarao Shankar Pandit’s vocal styles in geometric-topographic terms.


Sitting on a hill, surveying the lumpy green and wet landscape on a typical monsoon day, I instinctively broke into a khayal in Miya ki Malhar in the Amir Khan style. I thought to myself: Amir Khan sang in a slow, meditative manner as though he were stamping a filigree on a flat background, a blank musical canvas. The classic figure-ground gestalt. But all Indian classical music may be heard that way, figure on ground, varying only in degree. One could think of it as an X-Y plane on which a third dimension, Z, represents the nature of the relief. A kind of musical topography in 3-D.

The contemplative style would be like a relatively smooth plateau, with occasional hills, outcrops and mounds occurring in a cyclical manner. It would be a comparatively low relief landscape, say, like the Western Ghats, maybe even the rugged Deccan plateau, crisscrossed as it is by renegade hills and ranges. Then along comes the grandiose, bravura, sporting style of a Krishnarao Pandit, who throws every note and phrase into high relief, even as he teases and coaxes them at every opportunity with a palpable showmanship, creating a Himalayan landscape. A very jagged topography, with sharp peaks, canyons, steep valleys, rushing rivers. Phrases cascading every which way. Inspiring heights and profound depths, scaled and plumbed in tightly controlled cycles of taal. In contrast, Amir Khan built his edifice with a patient accumulation of detail.

To me they represent two very different musical dimensions. Sharadchandra Arolkar, who hailed from the Gwalior tradition, trod the middle road, exploring a richer, more complex third dimension.

Amir Khan’s singing aspires to the meditative state, at least in his alaapi. It sounds like the musical counterpart of chiarascuro. Often seductive—the ornaments are deeply felt and delicately sculpted in slow tempo: recordings of serious recitals from the 50’s of ragas like Miyan ki Malhar, Miyan ki Todi, Darbari Kannada show him at his best.


Krishnarao’s vocal style might be described thus: it moved in unexpected leaps and bounds, at times resembling gusts of wind howling and whistling around the skyscrapers of a big city, rising swiftly up the sides, then suddenly swooping down into the canyons between them. Moving air has a way of starting anywhere, appearing to come from nowhere and ending up anywhere, tentatively. It seems almost indeterminate. Though one senses a waywardness, a sportive quality in Krishnarao’s singing, the discipline and dynamics were very much there. A very masculine singer; there was a certain ferocity in the way he presented a bandish.


The Twin Peaks (as I like to refer to them) of Indian vocal classical music in the period just before independence, and the two decades succeeding were Amir Khan and Bade Gulam Ali. Both took the listening public by storm; both apparently had their own agendas shaped by the demands of their listeners.

Amir Khan and Bade Gulam Ali were influential singers who also won critical acclaim. Yet their art was a study in contrasts. Bade Gulam sang to entertain, sending his listeners into raptures. Amir Khan supposedly sang for the connoisseur, with a repose worthy of a dhrupad singer, and refused to sing anything but khayal and tarana in public. He was determined to secure a large audience for serious music, without gimmicks. But even he couldn't resist the urge to impress his audience with the range and suppleness of his voice.


Bade Gulam claimed to sing raginis, not ragas. His voice had all the grace and suppleness of a woman’s body. He had no intention of singing with repose as Amir Khan did, nor did he try to emulate him. Nevertheless, he was a showman who wanted to dazzle his listeners, impress them with his virtuosity. Amir Khan might be thought of as a more masculine singer, but who used feminine graces to embellish his slow alaap. His voice had depth, texture, but it could also caress. No singer, after all, can really escape the most salient feature of Indian music: ornaments or alankars to decorate the body of a raga.


Amir Khan developed a style peculiarly his own; one that has become something of a paradigm for the two succeeding generations of singers.


It’s strength lies in the elaborate merkhand alaapi (characteristic of the Bhendibazaar gharana, which indulged in seemingly endless permutations and combinations of the notes of a raga) in extremely slow tempo when rendering a khayal; its depth, repose, and meditative quality give it a spiritual dimension found in the dhrupad style. Amir Khan intended to create this effect. In slow tempo his use of theherao—resting on a note by prolonging it at the end of a phrase, as though contemplating the next move—enhanced that effect. In a private recording of a drut bandish in the raga Ahir Bhairav (Piya par bin param sukha chatur), Amir Khan starts in madhya laya and goes on steadily increasing the tempo, but without becoming too quick towards the end. Very controlled. His sarangi training is evident (especially in the abrupt slides and ghaseets, and in the intricate contours of his taans), as are the gayakis of Wahid Khan and Amanat Ali Khan. There’s a kind of syncopation in the Bhendibazaar style of sargam that almost hints at jazz.


But Amir Khan also brought elements of his talim, or riyaaz into his recital. So much so that when he sings sargam and then the taans, it sounds like riyaaz, however tuneful, however spirited, however impressive—it seems incongruous. The earlier repose is undone, and the balance of the whole is upset. In small doses virtuosity can be judicious. But in excess it seems extravagant, even superfluous. Why did he insist on doing it?  The demands of public performance; playing to the gallery; showmanship; the desire to impress?  Perhaps all of these. In private (to those who knew him) he came across as a dedicated, modest man. Or did he?


He had his conceits: “Tamam log ga baja rahe hai, lekin usme koi poetic sense nahi hai…….”  (Everyone is making music but there’s no poetic feeling in it…)

I think I know what he meant, but suppose we can decipher the word ‘poetic’—would it then be a legitimate comment?  The comment is loaded with irony because Amir Khan was seldom known to pay any serious attention to the lyric or song-text (bandish). His enunciation was distorted; indeed, in the drut composition, it was tired and hurried—you’d think he sung it as an afterthought, not as a fitting finale. The fast figures (sargam and taan) come cascading, and are sometimes a delight to listen to because his voice moved easily in any tempo. But after his vilambit alaap, the aesthetic pleasure is gone. The disconnect is often too much to take. His sarangi training, his elaborate riyaaz, the suppleness of his voice, his mastery of badhat—all affected his style and approach, but do they rise to the level of impeccable musicianship?

As one who was practically brought up on such a gayaki, I feel great affection for his strengths, and his weaknesses. I listen to him and think: that’s very touching, very moving, simply wonderful, profound. At times I murmur, “there you go again, Khansahib, indulging your flights of fancy, but I love you anyway.”  You end up loving his indulgences, his excesses, but not without feeling a little cheated. I know what I like about his music, what its virtues are, and cherish that. The rest leads me to the strengths of other singers.


Sharadchandra Arolkar, who in addition to being a singer was also a philosopher of music, occupies the hallowed middle ground where shabda, sur and laya meet and achieve a true balance worthy of the finest traditions of the Gwalior gharana. Indeed, he pointed out that the Gwalior style aspires to this ideal condition.


One of my gurus, the late Sriram Devasthali—who was also groomed in the Gwalior gharana—had similar views, though he had also received some training in the Agra and Jaipur styles. His deep, broad, resonant voice did justice to all these styles.


Devasthali’s aesthetics were predicated on the ideal balance between shabda, swara and laya, much as the Gwalior tradition was, and much as Arolkar’s musical ideas were. In essence one sings a bandish that combines these three elements, not merely the notes of a raga. No virtuosity for its own sake, neither in the presentation of swara nor laya. Indeed, a slight variation in tempo within madhya laya would be worth striving for; Arolkar would often subtly convey the sense of micro-temporal variation within a given theka, and a set tempo. Great care has to be taken in using the text to carry the swara, with the bhava intact. The notes need to be caressed with the words within a proper time sense. The intricate beats and sounds within a given taal framework must be scrupulously observed to give those notes and words the necessary weight of expression. This is not to say that Devasthali was not occasionally tempted to engage in vocal gymnastics. But the underlying feeling I got was that if you miss out on the basics of presentation, in the spirit of the composer of the bandish, these flourishes are superfluous, even vain. They don’t even amount to icing on the cake because there is no cake; there is no foundation to build on.

In my view, even the steady increase in tempo from ati vilambit to ati drut is sometimes musically suspect, at least in classical singing. Amir Khan did this with impunity because of the demands of performance in a competitively charged atmosphere (the Twin Virtuoso Peaks I alluded to earlier). Many lesser singers adopted the practice, which continues to this day. Taans turned out the way a whore turns tricks—just part of the routine. A practice more suited to an instrument rather than the human voice. The idea of a faster and faster gat suits an instrument, particularly a stringed one, but not the voice. Vocal chords are highly flexible, but they can be easily perverted, and it doesn’t take long before the voice begins to take on a falsetto. Any number of singers are guilty of this display; most notably, Bhimsen Joshi. Since he regards Amir Khan as his mentor, he has apparently tried to emulate some of his phrasing, and especially his intricate, virtuoso taans. But Bhimsen’s voice did not move with ease in faster tempos the way Amir Khan’s did. It seemed forced. Bhimsen unwittingly became a latter day culprit in the vocal sweepstakes, to his and everyone else’s detriment.


Yet in terms of dedicating himself to singing, and achieving a fairly high standard, Bhimsen Joshi is one of the great singers of our time. Something needs to be said about the unique character of Bhimsen’s gayaki in the pantheon of accomplished Hindustani singers.

His listeners are bound to have differing opinions about his musicianship, but to me Bhimsen made a valuable contribution: he embellished his music with ornaments that one comes across in Carnatic singing like the characteristic andolan, which in a slightly subdued form pervades his singing, giving it a body and sensuality that the North Indian khayal didn’t have before. He showed that the nuance and intonation found in Carnatic singing can work wonders when employed in khayal singing. Other singers who hailed from Karnataka (Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur) have also added their own flavors to khayal, but Bhimsen’s stands out especially. He may be revered and admired as a Hindustani vocalist, but he owes much to his southern background.


To my mind his style and temperament go back to the padas of the Kannada saint-poet, Purandara Das, which he sings with great feeling. His playback recordings for some old Kannada films are a delight to listen to. One of my favorite Kannada bhajans, musically speaking, is Yenna paliso karuna kara. Those andolans can be heard even in pieces like the drut composition Dhan dhan bhaga suhag tero in his self-composed raga, Kalashree, on a remarkable LP released by HMV in 1971. There are many other examples. His is a unique southern spirit in a music that came to us from the north.


Bhimsen raised ‘performance’ to a high art; he was determined to become a ‘performer’ of the first order. In his heyday his audiences were awed by his stamina and sheer virtuosity. His recitals were invariably polished, and his voice almost always in fine fettle, perfectly tuned. He often said that his singing combined the capacious, full-throated alto quality of Kesarbai Kerkar, and the thin, forced, but pitch-perfect voice of Abdul Karim Khan, his guru’s guru.


It wouldn't be out of place here to say that in some ways the popular and famous Hindustani singers were self-conscious artists. When performing, they revelled in their mastery of technique and exuded a powerful sense of authority over the classical form. And the urge to show off their vocal prowess was ever present. The listener of course is less concerned about motives or attitude than he is about his own aesthetic perceptions.


The notes of a raga are like formless clothing; the raga acquires a distinct personality only when performed, the way clothing does when a person wears it. The performer brings it to life, brings it into being, gives it an identity.

By itself the scale of the raga has no identity—it is the melodic ground upon which figures are etched, just as chords, keys, and scales in Western Classical Music (WCM) are the harmonic ground upon which a figure is carved—a theme emerges from that harmonic base; it is harmonically conceived. The gestalt principle is at work in both systems.

Here are the first two lines from a poem by Maragaret Rose Harris, titled Skeleton Ballade, quoted as a prelude in Wilson Harris’s book, “Jonestown”:


"There was a man went out one night a-seeking for a soul

And oh he met a skeleton, a grim and grisly skeleton"


What we seek is the soul of a raga; what we often get when we solemize it is a stark skeleton, devoid of feeling and spirit, depending of course on how we sing or play out the notation.


But written music, as WCM is, is open to reproduction and imitation, and that makes it monolithic in its impact on the entire culture. In this sense Indian Classical Music, when performed, is more open, more in tune with the variety in nature, which abhors singularity. And it is more intimate as far as the listener is concerned. Thus it exists in its myriad forms and personalities, preserving its separate avatars through countless interpreters who, as they endlessly improvise, also become composers.


The strength of Indian classical music is what it has always been: it is a form that continuously improvises, largely because it is passed on orally, and because the performer also becomes a composer. Its original impetus and its spirit are still alive, and it is inspired by our myriad cultural and folk traditions. This expansiveness is like an ocean's.



Related links:


Sriram Devasthali—my singing Guru


Pt. Bhimsen Joshi


Indian Music—a changing spectrum