Amit Chaudhuri was content with singing songs on his guitar till he heard Govind Prasad Jaipurwale and was struck by his beautiful voice as he went through bhajans and devotionals his mother wanted to learn. “He was a great voice to listen to – the tone of his voice, and a mastery that made you believe that he could do anything with it he chose to. He sang softly, without insistence, and almost never sang the same phrase twice. His aim, achieved with modesty, was to surprise and be surprised,” Chaudhuri writes in his book, Finding the Raga, a memoir about music and relationships. Chaudhuri wanted to do what he was doing, and thus began a long journey in Indian classical music. Along the way, his writing career took off with A Strange and Sublime Address and a host of other fiction and non-fiction.
Chaudhuri would soon listen to Bhimsen Joshi. As he began to “explore, in passionate detail, the notes of a thumri,” Chaudhuri felt the urge to replicate what he had heard, which seemed near-impossible. “Each encounter — Kishori Amonkar; Bhimsen Joshi; the singer Balgandharva — was a jolt.” Years later he would ask Amonkar what was she searching for in her music. She said she was looking for ananda (bliss or joy), and share it with her listeners and everybody else. In his book, Chaudhuri traces the history of the khayal (Arabic for ‘imagination’; and ‘thought’, ‘idea’, ‘whim’ in Urdu) which entered the Mughal court reign of King Jahangir via qawwali singers of the Sufi sect; and how khayal is a development on an earlier form called the dhrupad.
Like Chaudhuri, Namita Devidayal’s The Music Room also begins on a personal note on how her mother dragged a reluctant 10-year-old for music lessons with Dhondutai in Bombay who had trained with the legendary Kesarbai Kerkar. In her first lesson, Dhondutai asked her to close her eyes and listen to the singer’s “loyal accompanist”, the tanpura. As four notes were played over and over again, Devidayal felt that it created a “constant murmur of serenity.” Her teacher made her sing just one note, sa, the foundation, the first and last note, the point at which the circle begins and ends, till the sound of her sa matched the tanpura’s. “Sa encompasses all the notes, just as pure white light contains all the colours of the rainbow,” Dhondutai told the little student.
Musicians live a life dedicated to their art, and one of the most cherished practitioners of the craft is M.S. Subbulakshmi. In his masterful biography, Of Gifted Voice, Keshav Desiraju writes in the preface that she was a classical musician of the highest order, and “it is as such that her life’s work must be assessed.” Apart from the portrayal of the genius of M.S. Subbulakshmi, Desiraju profiles Carnatic music in all its richness, as also the social and political milieu that prevailed during her long stint. Devidayal’s biography of sitar maestro Vilayat Khan ( The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan) is a rich addition to literature on Hindustani classical musicians.
In a diverse country like India, musical strands are also bound to be layered. As Desiraju writes, “It is commonplace today for the Hindustani and Carnatic systems of music to be regarded as the ‘classical’ music of north and south India; what is undeniable is that two different traditions grew, not all at once, and over a long period, but deriving from the same base material.” Both, for instance, are based on raga, but the ragas are “handled differently.”
Many more biographies or autobiographies need to be written on and by Indian music greats. In rock music for example, Bob Dylan set the bar high in the first part of his memoirs, Chronicles (2004), where he talks about his early years, his writing block (just before penning the ‘Oh Mercy’ album) and his influences. A second book, on the American music tradition, The Philosophy of Modern Song, is due for release this November.