S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Monday, 9 April 2018

Are gharanas relevant today?

A tabla player’s perspective 

By Soham Bhatt

While it is commonly perceived that gharanas are losing their relevance in today’s times, this article attempts to put forth a persuasive case for the relevance of gharanas in Indian classical music.

Literally speaking, the Hindi word “gharana” means “home”. It commonly refers to a distinctive school, ideology, style and pedagogy of north Indian classical music, generally originating from a lineage of teacher and disciple, traditionally called the guru-sishya parampara. In Sanskrit, 'guru' means someone  who enlightens, 'sishya' is a student, and 'parampara' the lineage or tradition. According to the Natya Sastra, music comprises vocal, instrumental and dance. Gharana refers to a homogeneity of the musical ideologies, aesthetic appreciation, styles and techniques in north Indian classical vocal, instrumental and dances, and is typically named after the place of origin of the musical ideologies. For instance, khayal music has ten prominent gharanas—Agra, Patiala, Gwalior, Kirana, Indore, Jodhpur-Mewati, Rampur-Sahaswan, Bhendibazar, Jaipur-Atrauli, and Sham Chaurasi. The tabla has six distinct gharanas—Delhi, Ajarada, Farukhabad, Lucknow, Banaras and Punjab; and Kathak has three major gharanas—Jaipur, Lucknow and Banaras. All these gharanas derive their names from their place of origin.

The origin of gharanas can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century around the collapse of Mughal rule in India. Ethnomusicologist Daniel M. Neuman, in his book The Life of Music in North India: the organization of an artistic tradition (1990, University of Chicago Press) describes the origin of gharanas as an adaptive response to a changed socio-cultural environment after the mid-nineteenth century, with the introduction of railways and telegraph systems, the Indian uprising against British rule in 1857, and a gradual increase in urbanisation.

Gharanas in Tabla

It is widely believed that the tabla evolved through experimentation from the pakhawaj, the single barrel-shaped north Indian drum, sometime in the early 18th century. The word tabla collectively represents a pair of drums of which one is the treble drum, also called the tabla or dayan, or right drum (generally played with the right hand), and the other is the bass drum, also called the bayan or dagga or left drum (since it is generally played with the left hand). Siddhar Khan Dhari of Delhi is commonly credited with the invention of the tabla in early 18th century. This was the period when khayal was gaining prominence in the royal courts. The pakhawaj, dholak and naqqara prevailing in those days were not most suited to accompany the subtle, soft and highly-modulated khayal style. Hence, the need to have drums that could lend accompaniment to khayal led to the invention of the tabla.

As Siddhar Khan Dhari’s sons, grandsons and their students began to settle down in other parts of India namely Ajarada, Farukhabad, Lucknow and Banaras, developed new styles (including ideology, playing technique and repertoire of compositions), and taught the style to their students, the need to have a distinct identity for their styles led to the formation of gharanas. Thus, the Delhi, Ajarada, Faruukhabad, Lucknow and Banaras gharanas got their names from the places where a new ideology, technique and repertoire of tabla playing evolved. The Punjab gharana in the west developed independent of the Delhi gharana.

As per musicologists, to be recognised as a gharana, a musical tradition has to survive at least three generations of the guru-sishya-parampara pedagogy which is an age-old Hindu traditional way of imparting knowledge, including music, primarily through the oral tradition. It has its roots in the Vedic era, when students spent several years at a gurukulam to seek knowledge from the teacher. In this format of teaching, the teacher-student relationship is highly intimate and spiritual. The student unconditionally surrenders to the guru, pays obeisance to the teacher, stays with the teacher for several years, helps in daily chores and learns with a deep sense of gratitude and humility. In return, the teacher not only imparts knowledge and wisdom satisfies the student’s musical curiosity, but also teaches life-skills and values such as commitment, focus and hard work. Teaching occurs in both formal and informal set ups. While the teacher and student formally engage at a defined time and the student is required to practice rigorously for several hours daily, informally, the process of teaching and learning continues through the day and night. For instance, when I am with my guru, whether  taking a stroll, or having meals, or even while resting, the discussions revolve around music, including great maestros, recitation of tabla compositions, and exploring their beauty.

One of the highlight of this relationship is the ceremony called ganda-bandhan, wherein the teacher ties a sacred thread on the right hand wrist of the student and formally accepts him as a student under the guru-sishya parampara. Ganda-bandhan symbolises the guru’s faith in the student’s commitment to imbibe the traditional knowledge, nurture it and carry it forward. It establishes an enduring and intimate connection between the two. Over time, this relationship evolves into a spiritual bonding, which enables a seamless transmission of thoughts and knowledge between the two. The guru-sishya relationship is symbiotic, and not one-way traffic in which only the student learns from the guru. The student inspires the guru to teach in a manner that suits the student’s style, temperament and personality. This tradition puts an onus on both the guru and the student—for the guru, it is the responsibility to unconditionally open his knowledge bank to the deserving student, and for the student it becomes a responsibility to nurture, sustain and share the knowledge received from the guru in its purest form and to take the tradition forward.

Therefore, the fundamental ingredients of a guru-sishya-parampara are unconditional surrender to the guru, not getting distracted by external stimuli, not being constrained by time, and unconditional and selfless flow of knowledge from guru to sishya. These ingredients ensure effective transmission of the knowledge, intricate style, technique and repertoire of compositions of a gharana from the teacher to the student and preserve the purity of a gharana. No wonder, in today’s fast-paced world when students are in a hurry to learn, perform and get accolades and with socio-economic and technology (mobile, social media) distractions, it is almost impossible for a musical tradition to survive three generations of uninterrupted guru-sishya-parampara. Hence, the formation of a new gharana today is a distant reality.

Are gharanas relevant today?

Traditionally, students of a particular gharana were expected to abide by the traditions and musicianship of that gharana and not abiding was often frowned upon by the guru and the audience. Gharana, in that sense, is a limiting concept. It confines the musician to the ideologies of that gharana. In tabla, each gharana has its own nuances, beauty and constraints, making them more appropriate for a particular form of music. For instance, the Lucknow and Banaras gharanas are more appropriate for accompaniment with Kathak dance, whereas the Delhi gharana is more appropriate for accompaniment with khayal. By limiting to one gharana, the tabla player limits his ability to accompany varied forms of music. On the contrary, the knowledge of and ability to play the repertoire of different gharanas makes a tabla player versatile and well-rounded. For instance, Ustad Zakir Hussain, one of the most famous tabla players of this century, can beautifully draw compositions and phrases from the vast repertoire of different gharanas and play them in solo as well as accompaniment performances. Does it mean that the concept of gharana should be done away with?

No. A student must rigorously learn one gharana for several years, at least seven to ten years under the guru-sishya-parampara, and gain proficiency over the ideology, technique and repertoire of that gharana. This develops a strong core and foundation. Proficiency in one gharana offers the student an ability to better appreciate the subtle nuances and differences in other gharanas.

Knowing a gharana is like knowing a language. A language enables you to read and understand the literature, philosophy and culture of people who are native to that language, and connect with them. However, how do you connect with people of other ideologies, culture and philosophy? By learning their native language and appreciating the literature that has shaped their minds. Thus, the knowledge of more languages enables you to connect with more ideologies, literature, cultures and people, and become more well-rounded. It helps in developing empathy and an appreciative attitude towards people from different regions with diverse socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds. However, it is important to have mastery over one language to be able to express oneself effectively in other languages as well. As research done by UNESCO has shown, children learn better in their mother tongue. Once children have mastered their mother tongue, they can possibly pick up other languages quickly. Likewise, proficiency over one gharana is a must before learning other gharanas. Knowing different gharanas makes an artist more well-rounded by exposing the artist to the ideology, language/phrases, thinking process, compositions and their interpretations, manner of expression, thus expanding an artist’s own repertoire, making him/her more versatile and better connected with fellow musicians and a diverse audience.

Today, when students can learn the compositions and the styles of different gharanas through freely available online videos of maestros of different gharanas, it is still imperative for a student to maintain focus on learning one gharana from a guru, before dabbling in other gharanas. To conclude, gharana will continue to remain the backbone of the art and science of the tradition of tabla.

(The author is a student of tabla and a recipient of the National Scholarship in Tabla from the Center of Cultural Resources and Training, Ministry of Culture, Government of India. He can be contacted at soham291103@yahoo.com.)

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