Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Itinerant: They Do It Differently

In 1953 L. P. Hartley began his novel The Go-Between with the words, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But it isn’t just the past that is a foreign country; the lifestyles of one’s next door neighbour may be so radically different as to ensure that every visit is a journey into the foreign.  There was occasion for just such a voyage of discovery while attending the lectures offered by ShubhaMudgal at the Goa University some weeks ago.

Trained in the Hindustani style of music Mudgal has also successfully ventured into what could be called pop demonstrating in this process a certain amount of fluidity. If this fluidity and willingness to engage with different concepts marked her lectures at the Goa University, it was the radical absence of these virtues that seemed to mark a good number of those who were casually attending the lectures. The questions posed to Mudgal demonstrated that some enthusiasts of Hindustani music are trapped within inter-twined layers of nationalism, racism, mysticism, and the anxieties that these produce. Take for example a question which inquired if Mudgal thought that persons from India or an Indian background were more adept than foreigners who might learn Hindustani music. Located at the core of this question was a belief that Indians are genetically equipped with the capacities to learn, appreciate and perform Hindustani music. To her credit Mudgal indicated her discomfort with such a suggestion, indicating that if a South-Asian was able to outperform someone from another continent, it was because the South Asian born and raised in the subcontinent had the added advantage of being introduced to the cultural codes within which cultural forms like Hindustani music are made sense of it. These skills had nothing to do with race.

Another innocent question from the audience was the predictable one: “we have heard that spiritually powerful were able to make it rain when they sang the Malhar. Why is it that we do not see such occurrences today? Is it because we are of a lesser spiritual stature than those from the past?” The question revealed the extent to which some regard Hindustani classical music as closely twined with magic. The debate that Mudgal initiated attempted to explain to the audience that these images of persons like Miyan Tansen causing it to rain were really metaphors that should not be taken literally. The discussion suggested that raag system of music existed within a larger cultural universe that determined when they were to be sung and when not to. Within this universe the forms of praise were often exaggerated, leading us, who live in another time, to take these literally.

A more bothersome question was the typically Indian nationalist one which lamented that the audience for Hindustani music was depleting especially among the youth. Mudgal initiated a discussion that was able to give an uncommon response suggesting that Hindustani music had always been music that was restricted to an elite segment of Indian society. A good amount of the oeuvre of Hindustani music emerged from out of the patronage of the Islamicate courts of the northern part of the subcontinent. If anything, this discussion suggested that through the influence of nationalism and the democratising impacts of music companies, the market for Hindustani music had in fact been expanded. What could be added to this discussion is that if Hindustani music is restricted, then it is probably because of the restrictions that Indian nationalism and the restrictions of the caste system impose on it. The votaries of Hindustani music often display a certain snobbery, as was demonstrated by the persons who posed the questions in the course of Mudgal’s lectures. They see Hindustani music as one that had to be fixed within certain ways of singing, ways of dressing, devoid of change, tied to Hinduism and its spiritual practices. These fixities are intimately tied to the upper-caste locations of these individuals; and caste based skills, as we know, are necessarily restrictive and exclusive. Within such a self-imposed restrictive environment that is further limited by a belief in racism and magic, it is natural that the perception that Hindustani music is dying would emerge.

 (A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 19 Oct 2013)

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