Millennium Post

History deserves a better tonal treat

In the latest controversy in the literary circle, Girish Karnad accused V S Naipaul of many deficiencies and the most vulnerable one was his being a tone deaf. Karnad said that Naipaul could not appreciate the power of music and the role of Muslims in holding the flag of music high.

I cannot comment on Naipaul’s musical sense but I certainly feel that music needs a serious appreciation, not only by people like Naipaul, but all historians.

Karnad must treat music as an important source of history and  keep the contribution of Muslims to the field of music aside.

Religions have used music for prayers, meditation and conversions. But, music attracted mankind much before the Gods were given shapes and religions were crafted. It has been a major stress-buster from time immemorial. It has also been an essential part of the social and personal life of human beings and that needs to be traced carefully to give real subaltern finish to history.

Recently, I was interviewing a great sufi singer from Pakistan who was in India to perform in the Jahan-e-Khusrau concert in Jaipur. He narrated a story about the origin of sufi music in India. He said that Nizamuddin Auliya had a dream where he was told that Indians loved music and to attract them to Islam, Muslims needed to use it as a tool. He shared his dream with his great disciple Amir Khusrau, who in turn wrote poetry, composed them, modified some Indian instruments and invented some to create a sufi atmosphere with melody and beats. This kind of lore hardly found any place in history.

Every instrument has a story to narrate. Take the example of Violin. This instrument is not very old, but the use of this instrument in Carnatic music came as a big game changer. It influenced people so much that in one of the Tanjavur temples, an old statue was modified and a violin was carved out of the old figure, probably replacing an old instrument. Ranjan Srivastav, an accomplished violinist, says this shows the influence of this western instrument on Indian music and its mass appeal.

The most integral part of Hindustani classical music is the Tanpura, which is referred as a drone instrument by western critics. The present form of Tanpura and Sitar has a strong African connection, but this is hardly known to any of the artists. The resonance chamber of Tanpura, the tumba which is made of gourd has its origin in Africa. In the colonial era, honey, gums and other liquid items which were imported from African countries were packed in large gourds and shipped to far off places. Plastic and metal jars replaced those gourd jars in the 20th century only. An entrepreneur from Miraj in Maharashtra, who was in the business of making Tanpura and Sitar, once spotted those empty jars on the docks of Bombay dockyard in the 19th century. He used those empty jars to replace the traditional wooden and metal tumbas, which was appreciated by the singers, including Ustad Abdul Karim Khansahab. The enterprising craftsmenship of Miraj managed to get some seeds from those emptied jars and started cultivating th se large gourds near Pandharpur and  thus propelling the craftsmanship of string instruments. My documentary film
Shahad ka Tumba,
which was released in 2010 captures this sweet African connection of Indian classical music.

We talk a lot about the court musicians of Akbar, but history does not do justice with the musicians, who rejected various offers to accept the patronage of kings. It is a curious fact that many kings and chieftains got converted to Islam in the medieval period and they were followed by their court musicians. Some did that with choice and some because of the fear of losing patronage. Gypsy musicians and Roma musicians, who are forced nomads and are hardly owned by any country in the West, belong to the community that has the longest history of association with music. Their origin is traced to Katasraj group of Hindu temples, now in Pakistan. They fled that temple when Mehmud of Ghazni attacked the rich temples of Katasraj.

The bandish or poetry of many ragas narrate many interesting aspects of contemporary social, political and economic life. We need to compile compendiums of folk and classical poetry that are sung by generations in aural tradition without analysing the content. If we analyse the content, they can be as important source of information for history, as written archival materials are.

Bricks, stones, mosques, temples and other buildings do form an important source for writing history, but if we take music, folk or classical seriously, they will add the flavour that will blow the dust from those boring details of incidents and accidents. Imagine if you are browsing a research paper on some topic of history and hyperlinks of footnotes or endnotes take you to some musical rendition and explain the event or establish a fact, instead of taking you to another piece of article! History does deserves a better tonal treat.

Akhilesh Jha is a government servant. The views are his own
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