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The Musician and His Art: Deepak Raja's essays on Hindustani music deserve serious consideration

Deepak Raja is a musicologist and writer with a unique skill set. He has been trained in the Etawah gharana of the Surbahar/Sitar. He has prestigious professional degrees including one from IIM-Ahmedabad and has held senior executive positions in the fields of media research and newspaper management. He writes with knowledge of the art that he derives from having been a performer himself and an avid and careful listener. He commands a sharp pen and is not given to meaningless homilies or woolly abstractions.

His writing, where possible, is grounded on verifiable, observed phenomena, and always reflects clear analysis, from which conclusions are meticulously drawn. He also brings to his writings an awareness of the need for remaining true to the ethos of Indian classical music — even though one may think and write in English. His mentors in musicology, graceful tributes to whom open his latest book, The Musician and His Art, are Philosopher Prof SK Saxena and Gwalior Gharana exponent and brilliant musicologist, Dr Ashok Ranade, both of whom, but especially the latter, were deeply conscious of the reality of intellectual imperialism.

How far this ideal is realised, is another matter. The very enterprise of abstract thinking about the nature of Raga, such as we find in many of these essays, is not indigenous. While we have a long and prolific tradition of lakshanagrantha — the textual tradition of music — in both Sanskrit and vernacular, these texts concern themselves with description and classification of the music of their times. There is hardly any grappling with the abstract principles of music making and listening. The immensely sophisticated tradition of Alankarasastra that deals with the nature of the experience of literature seems to be the only serious engagement with philosophical issues of art and its experience.

 The Musician and His Art: Deepak Rajas essays on Hindustani music deserve serious consideration

The Musician and His Art, by Deepak Raja

So when Dr Ranade, as recounted by Raja, rightly speaks of the need to stay grounded in the Indian ethos while writing about Indian music, there is no laid out path, no conceptual armoury from which the writer may draw. It is no surprise then that Raja draws extensively from Western scholarship to make his arguments, even clothe his conclusions. Consider, for example, the third chapter titled Perspectives on Raganess, which is a version of the 4th Kumar Gandharva Memorial Lecture that he delivered at the Raza Foundation, New Delhi. The very title is a delicious suggestion of the twin pulls — the desire to remain grounded in Indic thought traditions, but the inevitability of Western ways of thinking and writing. “Raganess” is the English rendering of the Sanskrit “raagatva”. In the traditions of Indian darsanas, this refers to what may be called the essence of an object. Hairsplitting discussions of this postulate using say, a stock example of go and gotva — cow and cowness – occupy reams of the manuscript.

While the title thus evokes a hoary Indian concept and intellectual obsession, the essay contains within it the central theory that a Raga is a psycho-acoustical hypothesis, in the manner of scientific hypothesis, clearly situating itself in Western traditions.

In pointing this out, I am not debunking Raja’s effort; this is the fate of university educated Indians trying to grapple with our traditions. A truly indigenous approach with a global reach seems impossible. Academia is becoming conscious of the disadvantage that non-English speaking members of the community of scholars and practitioners are at while engaging with the global world of scholarship; it is also acknowledging the fact of the loss of such restricted participation.

And, this double existence is a reality for those of us, even practitioners of the art, who think and speak English and yearn for the heart of the tradition. Raja’s work is an important specimen of thinking and writing of and for this community. The questions he poses, the metaphors he evokes, the arguments he makes are all of this dual citizenship.

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Deepak Raja

The essay on Raganess meanders through a maze of references: references to the 8th century definition of Raga by Matanga Muni in the Brihaddesi, Noam Chomsky’s views on language, George Soros’ ideas about the stock market, Susanne Langer’s idea of the commanding form in art and Prof. SK Saxena’s application of this idea to Indian Music, Ustad Vilayat Khan’s vision of raganess, Somanatha’s idea in Ragavibodha of the Devamaya form of raga (the transcendental, divine aspect of raga) and finally, the Jungian idea of archetypes. This takes him to his thesis that ragas are culture-specific archetypes and then to the idea that Songs are the primordial sources of ragas. As it evolved, however, the song or the bandish is not always given centrality and is even regarded as a mere peg around which the raga elaboration happens. Raja finally makes his way to a simple and lovely thesis that Kumar Gandharva's music reveals a rethink of raganess, one that brought the Song back into the heart of presentation of raga.

“He did not permit the appeal of his Song to become subservient to the demands of raga grammar or to the intellectualism of Khayal architecture.”

This perspective on Kumarji’s music explains many aspects of his music. That it may not explain all aspects of his music is hardly a critique: that is a given because it is only a perspective. And a stunningly simple and effective one.

Other essays in the book cover a wide range — the impact of amplification on Hindustani music, changes in audience tastes, music criticism, the idea of bhakti in music and a few essays on the idea of raga grammar. The book is a collection of essays and lectures published and delivered at various forums over the past seven years.

All of them are carefully argued and lucidly presented. And in all of these Raja draws from many sources, many disciplines. While they are indeed thought provoking — many ideas and metaphors tingle the mind — the possibilities of pitfalls of such an approach, one that sometimes leads to a “collage”, as he calls it, are real. Even if only to disagree with it, his work deserves serious consideration.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at

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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2019 17:56:56 IST