Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition

By Thompson, Gordon | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition


Thompson, Gordon, Yearbook for Traditional Music


Bakhle, Janaki. Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xv, 338 pp., photos, notes, glossary, bibliography, and index.

The waves of political and social change that washed over South Asia in the first half of the twentieth century swept up all and sundry, including some of the most notable figures in Hindustani (North Indian) classical music. As Gandhi, Nehru, and others shaped India's complex balance of religious and secular identities (as did Jinnah with Pakistan), they set in motion cultural forces that reverberate to this day.

Every scholar of this musical tradition arrives already under the influence of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872-1931). Their simultaneous campaigns to shape and spread the teaching of Indian music significantly formed not only how India understands concepts like rag and tal, but consequently how the world views these musical phenomena. The careers of performers like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Ustad Vilayat Khan emerge from the vortex formed when middle-class and largely Hindu South Asians sought to wrest control of the subcontinent from the British. And yet, our understanding of the socio-musical debates of the early twentieth century and the nature of their impact on modern musical tastes and practice remain largely shrouded in the vigorous repackaging of modern India. Indeed, the most popular conceits of India's classical musical traditions often rest on little more than rationalizations.

Bakhle, an assistant professor of history at Columbia University, has constructed a compelling comparison of these two men, appraising their strengths and weaknesses-foibles and triumphs-and has projected these against the backdrop of India's struggle for independence. She begins by describing the court of the Sayajirao Gaekwar of the princely state of Baroda (known today as Vadodara and located in the Indian state of Gujarat) and the professional life of musicians in relationship to that court. Her second chapter describes the rise of music appreciation societies and Marathi theatre in the context of colonial India. Thus, she begins by setting the historical context into which Bhatkhande and Paluskar step in the third and fourth chapters, even if one finishes those sections wanting to know more. Chapter five brings the two protagonists into the realm of the music conferences of the early twentieth century and the fate of the schools they established. Chapter six contains the story of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan (1872-1937) and his daughter, Hirabai Barodekar (1905-89).

The author rightly emphasizes the complex of missed opportunities, defensive egos, and outright bigotry that ultimately shaped Bhatkhande's and Paluskar's programmes. That the two men pursued different paths remains clear: one sought a rigorously scholastic solution to place Indian music on a par with other musics of the world (and particularly of the West's), while the other aimed at broad acceptance of essential performance skills and the spread of what Bakhle describes as "gendered and devotional" tradition (p. …

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