The book under review is part of the ‘India Library’ series not ‘learned treatises on Indology, nor meant to be reference works … ‘ but’ … to give encyclopaedic, compressed information on each subject’. As such, this book is a simple plebian attempt to undergo a journey into Raga—the sound of Indian music.
The book, as the author admits, unlike other books on Indian classical music does not attempt to explain either the history or the technical details of the raga, nor does it go into the philosophy of classical music which has direct relation to Indian philosophy. It only attempts to outline the nature of the sound of Indian music, and ‘in the direction of the source from which the true enjoyment and meaning of the fantastic heritage of our raga music emerges’.
The author states that the raga can only be enjoyed by a conscious listner, ‘it demands far too much of their attention and intelligence to merely entertain or amuse’. However, it is not the grammar, which is ‘important, but the response to the emotional life. It is the feeling of the tala which binds the listener, with the musician’. Here, it is the Guru Shishya Parampara which plays an important role in imparting music from generation to generation. The various gharanas may produce a style but it is the genius for attainment of Swara which makes a musician exceptional. ‘Gharanas are somewhat like a vessel containing a fluid consisting of hereditary effort and talent, training and inspiration of a single family dissolved in a strong solution waiting to boil and release vapour.’
The process of learning Indian music is that of transformation rather than mere learning. This transformation comes from practice or sadhana to attain Swara as distinct from notes in western music. Swara according to Menon is part of living human utterance, giving essence to the notes which otherwise are just sweet sounds. This learning of Swara in the bramhacharya stage is the base upon which he learns the ragas and renders them. In this ‘tanpura’ plays an important role without which music is like ‘crossing the Atlantic without a boat’. The chapter on ‘The Place of the Tanpura’ could have been summarized in a paragraph. It makes little sense how Kumar Gandharva or Faiyaz Khan get submerged in the raga metaphorically with the aid of the tanpura.
His chapter on ‘The Adventure of Raga’ while not explaining the form of the raga only relates to the necessity of Swara in raga. Thayagaraja, and Mirabai compositions are popular not because of the text or words but because of swara which blends the composition into a single whole related to a spiritual cause. It is this involvement of feeling in the Swara which cannot be repeated in the same flavour by those who do not possess the same feeling.
Further, in another chapter ‘Swara or Nothing’ he again lays emphasis on Swara as an impulse and an essence. To work for swara is an unrelenting search. It is the saints who lead this Swara and thereby gave the society the music and philosophy it needed.
The book does not state anything new. It is non-musical even in reading, a criticism he levels against the western counterparts. He has only put forward the half-truths which anyone with any knowledge of Indian music would know. He begins by criticizing most books on Indian music but fails to add anything substantial to existing literature. On the other hand he adds to the literature which confuses a lay reader by putting together in one category Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ameer Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Kumar Gandharva, Begam Akhtar, Pankaj Mallik and K. L. Sehgal.
Sudhir Chandra Mathur is a student of M. Phil (History), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.