By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Maestro Ravi Shankar Mows Down Music Critics!

My memories of Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar are spread over almost 50 years, and it's one of the greatest joys of my life that I was able to write about his music and personality on several significant occasions.  One of those occasions was purely imaginary and was concocted by me in a humorous vein in the evening paper in New Delhi;  but it was actually a forceful comment on a very serious and intricate issue concerning Indian classical music which still remains to be resolved satisfactorily.   I did have an opportunity several years later to show it to Ravi Shankar, who had a hearty laugh.
By the way, for the benefit of foreign readers who may not be familiar with Indian music and names, let me add a glossary of native terms figuring in the article below.  (I must also mention that the names Sitar Ali Khan and Veenachalam are imaginary, but they bear a striking resemblance to real-life Indian names like Amjad Ali Khan or Arunachalam). 
Carnatic/Hindustani music:  Classical music of South/North India.
Jugal-bandhi:  In Hindustani music, a joint venture between musicians belonging to different disciplines or schools of music.  Extended use, to indicate joint ventures between Carnatic and Hindustani music
Pandit/Ustad:  In Hindustani music, traditional titles adopted by musicians belonging to Hindu/Muslim faiths --  hence Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan
Sitar/Veena:  Important string instruments of North/South India
Tanpur:  String instrument providing a continuous background drone in Hindustani music  (cf. tambura in Carnatic music)
Tablah/Mridangam:  Main percussion instruments in Hindustani/Carnatic music.
Vidwan:  Accomplished musician, in Carnatic music (cf. feminine Vidushi)
Evening News, New Delhi
9 June 1978

Music critics and mince-meat
 (with apologies to Ravi Shankar)
Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, it is reported in the Press, has come out with some strong comments against music critics in India in his autobiography which is being serialized in a Bengali weekly.  According to him, says the report, they are "scholars in language but paupers in music."
But Ravi Shankar is not the only musician with a grouse against music critics.  The enterprising musicians Vidwan Veenachalam and Ustad Sitar Ali Khan have been hounded by music critics ever since they started experimenting with the so-called 'Carnatic-Hindustani jugal-bandhi.'

After their first jugal-bandhi in Madras in 1973, a critic there wrote that Hindustani music had unduly dominated the event, reducing Veenachalam's role to that of a mere accompanist, and that all basic elements of Carnatic music had been dumped in the Bay of Bengal.

The musicians thought over the matter carefully;  and when they gave their next jugal-bandhi recital in Bombay in 1974, Sitar Ali Khan was more restrained and let Veenachalam have his way in many things.  A Bombay critic wrote that the Northern musician had been swamped by his colleague from the South, and that Hindustani music had been consigned to the Arabian Sea.

So, when they performed again together in Calcutta in 1975, the musicians tried to be absolutely fair to each other, and both of them under-played their roles.  And a Calcutta critic wrote that both of them were acting like dummies, and had merely accompanied the tanpur-player.

So in their jugal-bandhi in Ahmedabad in 1976, they had a word with the tanpur-player and asked him to tone down his instrument.  The upshot of it was that an Ahmedabad critic promptly said the tablah-player had made mince-meat out of the mridangam-player and the concert was a fiasco.
When the jugal-bandhists gave a performance in Madras again in 1977, they cautioned the tablah-player.  This time they thought they had everything squared up properly.  But our old friend, the music critic, was not impressed:  he asserted that the mridangam-player had swallowed the tablah-player.
I am sure Pandit Ravi Shankar knows all about the woes of Vidwan Veenachalam and Ustad Sitar Ali Khan, for I understand from reliable sources that they met the Maestro some time ago and asked for moral support.

"Don't worry!"  Ravi Shankar is reported to have told them.  "My autobiography will be appearing soon in a Bengali weekly.  I will be making mince-meat of the music critics, and you can swallow them!"


Postscript, 2013
So far as I can see, enterprising Carnatic and Hindustani musicians (both old and young, whether famous or otherwise) are by and large still struggling to achieve a proper equilibrium in their provocative joint ventures.   They do manage to get things right sometimes, but that usually seems to be a matter of chance rather than of cultivated control.  Of course, there are some exceptional cases where excellence and success are the natural results of such endeavours.

Both before and after I wrote the above light-hearted article, I had/have written several serious reviews and essays on such North-South encounters (as well as similar East-West encounters, between Indian and foreign musicians). I shall pull them out from my records in due course, for a critical re-look at these endlessly ongoing experiments.

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