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Music and the South Asian Identity


The tradition of Hindustani classical music represents an important stage in the evolution of the south Asian culture and identity. It is an elemental force that emotionally blends diverse sources of cultural inspiration and social creativity. It is something that still unites people in the way no other expression of 'high culture' does. It is perhaps the most forceful statement of what is popularly called the composite culture of the Indian subcontinent. Its sources and impact reach far and wide from southeast Asia to Central Asia, West Asia and North Africa.

Hindustani classical music grew in a social milieu which was both feudal and folk-popular. Patronised by the courts and durbars of various princely states and kingdoms, it found a way of mixing the syncretic forms of popular spirituality with the sensual and earthly yearnings of everyday life. It was this interweaving of shringar and bhakti, the secular and the devotional, pain and pleasure, meditation and celebration that made it a vibrant cultural tradition with which people wholeheartedly identified despite limited access to it. Thousands of families of musicians, invariably of low-caste and low-class origin, developed, sustained, defined and redefined and preserved this tradition through generations, by creating gharanas (schools) and paramparas (traditions). Music, like popular religion, has also been a great source of solace amidst distress and injustice, and often an expression of rebellion. This has given it a certain kind of moral stability among the cultural forms. From the time of the great renaissance man and statesman-poet-musician Amir Khusro (13th century) to the era of Ustad Amir Khan (20th century) Hindustani classical music has traversed a long and diverse terrain. The old form of Dhrupad gave way to Khayal in 18th century when two rebel musicians of the court of Muhammad Shah Rangila broke with the esoteric tradition to develop an entirely new form which immediately gained popularity. Enthusiastically supported by the patrons the vibrant new form started a process of innovation and openness towards folk music which soon brought into existence the light classical forms like Thumri, Dadra, Tappa, Hori, Chaiti. These were the times of great political upheavals and disintegartion, and, as if confirming the age-old wisdom, the unprecedented flowering of Hindustani music. It was on the ruins of old empires, darbars and havelis that the good times of Hindustani music began.

The emerging middle classes in India during the colonial period developed a taste for the musical heritage and started supporting it. The era of large audiences and popular concerts began. The rise of nationalist consciousness also gave a new fillip to the Hindustani music as it was seen as a great expression of indigenous genius and cultural assertion.

After the end of colonial rule in south Asia in late 1940s, the Hindustani music got support from the radio broadcasting, discerning patrons, governments and institutions. The age of great masters is past. There are no golden voices like those of Kesarbai Kerkar, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Faiyaz Khan, DV Paluskar, Begum Akhtar, Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Devi, Mallikarjun Mansoor and Sharafat Hussain. Musicians like Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal and Kishori Amonkar still remind us of the values of that era. It is now the eclectic generation of people like Rashid Khan, Mashkoor Ali Khan, Ajoy Chakraborty, Ulhas Kashalkar and Veena Sahasrabuddhe that will determine the role of tradition amidst change. The rise of interest among the youth of the subcontinent from the 1970s in classical tradition has kept the spirit of dynamism alive in Hindustani music.

Reproduced from Akhbar,
a website produced by the South Asian Network for Alternative Media

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