Bhatkhande: The Contradictions of Music’s Modernity

I am excerpting this post from my personal blog. This semester,in my “Evolution of Music in South Asia” course, I gave 2.5 lectures on Chapter 3 of Professor Janaki Bahkle’s book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition—  focusing on Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.

In her book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition(Oxford University Press 2005), Professor Janaki Bakhle extensively discusses Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936), a musicologist largely responsible for the standardization of Hindustani Classical Music. Bakhle describes Pandit Bhatkhande as “one of Indian music’s most contentious, arrogant, polemical, contradictory, troubled and troubling characters. It may be better to view him not as a charlatan or a savior, but as a tragic figure, one who was his own worst enemy. All through his writings, there is ample evidence of elitism, prejudice, and borderline misogyny” (99).  She goes on to note the irony that though Bhatkhande is revered as a great figure in Hindustani music, his vision for the art form is not being followed today. For example, Bhatkhande wanted to create a national tradition for Indian music, not necessarily a Hindu tradition.  Yet today, much of Hindustani Classical music is “suffused with sacrality” (99). Bakhle describes how at a recent musical gathering in Bombay, Bhatkhande’s portrait was adorned by a marigold garland with a silver incense stand placed in front of it.  She asks the crucial question: “How did it happen that a vision that began with scholastics, debate, and secularism culminated in garlands and incense?” (100).

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande was born on August 10, 1860, into a Brahmin family in Bombay. Although neither of his parents was a professional musician, he and his siblings were taught music. This was not unusual in a family of his class background.  At age 15, Bhatkhande began receiving instruction in sitar and studying Sanskrit texts on music theory, a field of inquiry that would remain his obsession throughout his life.  In 1884, he joined the Gayan Uttejak Mandali, the music appreciation society, which exposed him to a rapidly expanding world of music performance and pedagogy. He studied with musicians such as Shri Raojibua Belbagkar and Ustad Ali Husain, learning a huge number of compositions, both khayal and dhrupad (100-101).

In 1887, Bhatkhande received his LLB from Bombay University and began a brief career as a criminal lawyer. After the death of his wife in 1900 and of his daughter in 1903, he abandoned this career to turn his full attention to music.  The first thing he did was to embark on a series of musical research tours, the first of which was conducted in 1896.  He traveled with a series of questions. His major project was to search out and then write a “connected history” of music and it began with these tours, which he believed would give him some clues to help recover some missing links.  He was less interested in the actual performance of music than in the theory that underpinned the education of the musician.  He kept several diaries of his tours, which served not only as an account of his travels but also as blueprints for his future writings.  Bakhle notes that he “did not interview the people he met so much as he interrogated them, seeking out what he judged to be their ignorance. In all these encounters Bhatkhande met only men. He had little regard for women musicians and did not believe he could learn anything from them” (103).

Bakhle describes several encounters that Bhatkhande had with various scholars of music. One that is particularly indicative of his attitude towards practicing musicians and to Muslims in general is the dialogue he had with Karamatullah Khan, a sarod player from Allahabad.  During this conversation, Khan argued that knowledge of Hindustani music did not come only from Sanskrit texts but also from those in Arabic and Persian. He also stated that it did not matter if the ragas had come to India from Persia or Arabia or gone from India to those countries.  This argument deeply upset Bhatkhande who was obsessed with finding a Sanskrit origin for an Indian national music. Bakhle  writes: “From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Karamatullah Khan was voicing a prescient and progressive claim against national, ethnic and religious essentialism when it came to music. But Bhatkhande was looking for a ‘classical’ music that existed in his time not one that used to exist in ancient times” (112).  She goes on to note that Bhatkhande was “not unique among late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalists in caring deeply about a classical and pure past… All nations ought to have a system of classical music” (113).

Bakhle argues that “Bhatkhande’s search for the origins of Indian music was not a simple Hindu nationalist search. He emphasized that music as it was currently being performed belonged to a different period, one that was constitutively modern and adequately different from previous periods so that any reliance on texts such as the Dharmashastras as a guide for everyday life was seen by him as romantic at best and anachronistic at worst. [He] rejected the idea that the claim for an unbroken history of music could be sustained merely by asserting that Hindustani music could reach back into antiquity, to the Sama Veda chants, as the origins of contemporary music. He also came to discover that music’s relationship to texts more than two hundred years old was difficult, if not impossible to prove” (115).  

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5 Replies to “Bhatkhande: The Contradictions of Music’s Modernity”

  1. Interesting narrative . On the whole , Persian/arabic inputs into Hindustani music is as important as that Hindu; even though as a non-specialist I cannot say how/what each contributed. Generally ragas/ talas came from Hindu traditions – since Carnatic music has the same raga names – but different takes on ragas. Other aspects like instruments , appreciative audience and critics came from persian background

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    1. Hindustani Classical Music comes from the Natyashastra. But there was a huge Muslim contribution. Hazrat Amir Khusrao played a role in this, inventing various talas and ragas. He is supposed to have invented Raga Yaman (So we are told). It was the Muslim rulers who took music out of the mandir and into the darbar, leading to the evolution of Hindustani Music as it stands today.

      The Muslim influence in North India also partially explains why Indian Classical Music split into Hindustani and Carnatic.

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  2. Going through this review (not the book itself) , I get the impression that Bhatkande tried to bring Hindustani music to an emerging urban Indian middle classes – Hindu or Muslim. Somehow he saw Hindustani music aficionados till his time came from Muslim feudal background , so Bhatkande was not anti-Muslim as such as much anti-feudal. On the whole I agree with Karamatullah Khan – it does not matter where a music is alleged to have come from – are you a ‘rasika’ or are you a good performer in that music and get some audience interested in it.

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    1. Bhatkhande was a nationalist in the sense that he felt each nation needed to have its own classical music. His central question was “What is our Sanskriti?”

      He did believe very strongly that Hindustani Classical Music belonged to Hindus though it was currently in the hands of the “Musalmaan”. This is a direct quote from his diary that Professor Bakhle uses to build her argument.

      His nationalism also explains his emphasis on Sanskrit (as opposed to Arabic or Persian) texts. That’s what the debate with Karamatullah Khan was about.

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