The Tears of the Rajas:One Family’s Experience of Serving the East India Company

Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster 2015) tells the story of his grandmother’s family—the Lows of Chatto–who spent a century serving the East India Company. The book focuses on Mount’s  great-great grandfather, John Low, who arrived in India in 1805 and finally retired after the Mutiny of 1857 (the First War of Independence as it is known in India). John’s sons also served the Company, with one of them—General Sir Robert Low—being involved in the 1895 relief of Chitral, the northernmost outpost of British India (now in Pakistan).  The Lows were also related by marriage to other prominent British Indian families, including the Thackerays (which included the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray) and the Metcalfes. John Low’s daughter Charlotte married Theo Metcalfe, the son of Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident at Delhi.  Through the stories of these families, Mount provides an enlightening perspective on what life was like for the British as they consolidated their Indian Empire during the 19th century.

It is ironic that John Low, who firmly believed in leaving native kingdoms alone whenever possible, was involved in the deposition of several princes from their thrones.    The first of these was the Maratha Peshwa, Baji Rao II.  In 1817-18, Low was the assistant to Sir John Malcolm and was responsible for getting the Peshwa to surrender and go into exile in Bithur, a small town just outside Cawnpore (modern Kanpur).   He also served as Baji Rao’s jailer in Bithur. The Peshwa’s surrender brought an end to the final Anglo-Maratha War.

Later, while serving as the British Resident at Lucknow, Low was responsible for deposing Munna Jan, the boy-king of Oudh (Awadh).  In 1837, after the death of Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider, the British decided to put his uncle, Muhammad Ali Shah (Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s grandfather) on the throne.  However, the late Nawab’s stepmother, The Padasha Begum, had other plans and led a coup in favor of Nasir-ud-din’s son, Munna Jan.  Low thwarted this rebellion and sent the Begum and Munna Jan to Chunar Fort, near Benaras, where they were locked up for the rest of their lives.  A sepia drawing by Monsieur Dufay de Casanova, the Court Painter, entitled The Begum’s Attempt to Usurp the Throne of Oudh for Moona Jan, 7th July 1837 “conveys the darkling chaos with the heroic Resident standing firm and his brother-in-law John Shakspear with his huge black mustachios being manhandled by the supporters of the Begum, who is just visible in her palanquin below the throne” ( Mount 295).

In contrast to John Low, who did not believe that the British should annex territory, various Governors-General were interested in increasing the revenue of the Company and expanding the area under direct British rule.  The chief example is Lord Dalhousie, who is responsible for the final annexation of Oudh that sent Nawab Wajid Ali Shah into exile in Calcutta. Mount writes: “Across the path of these vital modern communications there still lay a wodge of native principalities, as much a barrier to the spread of British justice as to the British spirit of modernity. The petty princes of Bundelkhand, the greater rajas of Nagpur and Jhansi and above all the King of Oudh were an offense to His Lordship’s pious and impatient eye. With their eunuchs and their dancing girls, they stood, or rather rolled, in the way of progress” (416).  John Low was against Lord Dalhousie’s intent to annex territory, arguing that deposing native rajas who had not broken their word to the British alienated the people as did “remitting large portions of the revenue for pensions and salaries in England (which bring no return to India), instead of spending such revenues within the countries which produce them” ( 421).  He went further and wrote that “the natives of India are in one respect exactly like the inhabitants of all other parts of the known world, they like their own habits and customs better than those of foreigners” (423). Low recognized that British annexation was the cause of great resentment among the Indian people.

However, for Lord Dalhousie, Oudh was “a cherry which had long been ripening” (430).  In February 1856, Wajid Ali Shah was deposed. Mount writes: “Wajid Ali Shah was the last of the weeping Rajas to discover how much British friendship was worth. Every native prince’s dealings with John Low and his clan seemed to end in tears” (443). Continue reading “The Tears of the Rajas:One Family’s Experience of Serving the East India Company”

Advertisements

The Depiction of the Indian Subcontinent in 19th Century French Grand Opera

During the mid-nineteenth century, European composers experienced a vogue for depicting the Orient on stage.  Not only was the Orient an exotic location, but the operas set there spoke to the imperial anxieties of various European nations.  In their essay published in Imperialisms: Historical and Literary Investigations, Linda and Michael Hutcheon write: “Opera may not appear at first to be quite the same as these other Western means explored by [Edward] Said of ‘dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’. But it is important to recall that Opera was a powerful discursive practice in nineteenth century Europe, one that created, by repetition, national stereotypes that, we argue, are used to appropriate culturally what France could not always conquer militarily” (Hutcheon 204).

In this paper, I will analyze two French Grand Operas from this period—George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (1863) and Leo Delibes’s Lakme (1883)—in order to determine the stereotype of the “Oriental” that was being presented to French audiences.  As a point of contrast, I will also discuss Indrasabha (The Heavenly Court of Indra), an operatic drama written by the Urdu poet Agha Hasan Amanat and produced in 1855 in the palace courtyard of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh.  This contrast will serve to illuminate how the operatic tradition was adapted by Indians themselves as well as the differences in the narratives about the Orient as conceived by the Occident as opposed to the Orient itself.

The Pearl Fishers is set on the island of Ceylon—the modern nation of Sri Lanka.  The opera tells the story of of how two men’s vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman. This woman, in turn, faces a dilemma between secular love and her sacred oath as a priestess. The score is perhaps best known for “Au fond du temple saint”, the “friendship duet” for Tenor and Baritone.

In his essay “The Pearl Fishers and the Exotic”, musicologist Ross Hagen writes that “the orientalist musical language of Le desert, The Pearl Fishers, and similar works became essentially a catch-all signifier for any foreign culture full of danger, violence, superstition, taut tanned bodies and permissive sensuality.” He further argues that “the accompaniments of ‘exotic’ melodies often relied on drone pitches and fairly static rhythms as a way to lend a ‘primitive’ touch” (Utahopera.org).

Presenting such a work in the early twenty-first century has its challenges. As Hagen argues, the fact of globalization “doesn’t do these exoticist works any favors… Indian culture is also much less alien to an opera audience today than it would have been in nineteenth century Paris” (Utahopera.org).  He argues that presenting a period-faithful production in which a cast of white singers attempts to look “Indian” risks being perceived as an exercise in “brown-face”. However, setting the opera in a blank “postmodern” space seems dishonest. He concludes his article by noting that: “Regardless of the path taken by an individual production, it is useful to remember that The Pearl Fishers was designed to appeal to the imaginations, prejudices, and preconceptions of a nineteenth century Parisian audience. Acknowledging the desires of the original audience perhaps creates a measure of critical distance and allows the audience to appreciate the opera without denying its place in the lineup of vaguely colonialist and patronizing works from the time period” (Utahopera.org).  As John Mackenzie notes in his book Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts: “Again perhaps, it might be possible to see the central plot conceit of a sacred virgin yielding to love as somehow parallel to the seductions of European imperialism, but it was a favorite Romantic theme and in the opera it takes place purely within a Ceylonese context” (Mackenzie 151).  Thus, it is debatable whether simply setting a work in a foreign culture such as Sri Lanka makes the opera inherently colonialist.

Continue reading “The Depiction of the Indian Subcontinent in 19th Century French Grand Opera”

Review: Something Wonderful–Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution

I don’t recall when I first became familiar with the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  I must have around nine or ten years old when I saw The Sound of Music on video. Immediately, I fell in love with the story and with the songs—the title number, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, “Do Re Mi”, “My Favorite Things”, and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.  As I became more interested in Musical Theater, I would become familiar with the Great American Songbook, including such standards as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” from South Pacific, “If I Loved You” from Carousel and “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I.  In Seventh Grade, I would perform in the chorus of my middle school’s production of The Sound of Music and later in high school and college, I studied many of these standards in my private voice lessons.  In other words, Rodgers and Hammerstein were a large part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

Though they are now considered old-fashioned and even conservative, it is easy to forget how revolutionary Rodgers and Hammerstein were in the 1940s and 1950s.  Prior to their collaboration, must musicals—with the notable exception of Show Boat (1927) with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein—were classified as “musical comedies”. The librettos were often slight and even meaningless, just an excuse for a succession of hit songs.  The idea of the “integrated musical”—the notion that book, music and lyrics should cohere into a larger whole and that the songs should serve to advance the plot rather than simply as excuses for brilliant tunes and clever wordplay—was first advanced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, particularly in their first collaboration, Oklahoma! (1943).   This concept of the “integrated musical” or “musical drama” has since become the standard in the American Musical Theater.

In his new book, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution (Henry Holt, 2018), journalist Todd S. Purdum provides a double biography of the two men at the center of this collaboration. The book proceeds chronologically, examining their careers prior to the beginning of their partnership and ending with Rodgers’ death in 1979. Purdum analyzes almost all of the team’s shows, though he focuses largely on the impact of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music.  He describes the conception of each of these shows, the rehearsal process, and the critical reaction. Though many of the details are familiar to fans of the 20th century American Musical Theater, Purdum does a remarkable job of examining the duo’s careers as a whole and placing them in the broader perspective of the genre’s transformation.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collaboration began with Oklahoma!(1943). Rodgers’s artistic partnership with his previous partner, Lorenz Hart, had deteriorated and he was in search of a new lyricist.  The two new collaborators decided to work on an adaptation of Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), a play by Rollie Lynn Riggs.  However, this play did not seem to be natural material for a musical comedy. Purdum writes: “Their first and most basic problem was that nothing much happens in Green Grow the Lilacs, certainly nothing that would lend itself to the traditional storytelling techniques of musical comedy.  Rodgers and Hammerstein did not set out to break the usual Broadway conventions so much as they decided that it would be all but impossible to adhere to them and still do justice to the spirit of their tale” (69).  After much discussion, they decided to open their musical exactly as Lynn Riggs had opened his play, with Aunt Eller sitting alone on the stage churning butter and Curly the cowboy heard singing offstage. This opening song would become “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’”, one of the first great R &H songs, and one which remains an American standard today.  Purdum writes: “In fact, Dick and Oscar’s first song set the tone for the whole of their collaboration, combining fidelity to the source material with a novelty, simplicity, and directness of expression that seemed so fresh as to be shocking” (71).  Since the character was a cowboy, Hammerstein decided he would not sing in the standard thirty-two-bar format of a popular song, but in the form of a folk ballad “with a repeating chorus, and verses in which the first two lines are each sung twice—in the manner of the turn-of the-century ‘field hollers’ of farmworkers that gave rise to the blues. And in writing this single song, Hammerstein set the pattern that prevailed for 90 percent of his collaboration with Rodgers: he would write the words first, as he had always wanted to” (71).

The critical reaction to the show was effusive. Purdum quotes the review from the Herald Tribune, which stated: “Songs, dances and a story have been triumphantly blended… a jubilant and enchanting musical,” while the Daily News called the show “the most thoroughly and attractively American musical comedy since Show Boat. It has color and rhythm, and harmony plus” (92).  

Oklahoma! won a special honorary Pulitzer Prize and would run for a record-breaking 2,212 performances in an era when no musical had ever run longer than 1,400 performances.  However, as Purdum writes:

Oklahoma! was much more than a Broadway hit; it was a huge cultural phenomenon, and much of that had to do with World War II. When Celeste Holm was cast in the show, her grandmother, the chairman of the drama committee of the New York State Federation of Women’s Clubs, told her that it would be “the most wonderful musical for right now, when people are going out to fight for this country, and may die for it, to be reminded of the kind of courage, the unselfconscious courage, that settled this country.”

Purdum goes on to quote the theater historian Max Wilk, who wrote that the show presented wartime audiences with “a lovely two-hour promissory note set to music that we could take back home” (94).

Rodgers and Hammerstein followed up Oklahoma! with Carousel, an adaptation of Liliom, a 1909 drama by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, which had first been produced on Broadway in 1921. At first the Hungarian setting gave the collaborators trouble. However, eventually “Rodgers lit upon the idea of setting the story in New England in the late nineteenth century, which everyone agreed might work. Liliom, the title character, would become the euphonious Billy Bigelow, still a carnival barker. Julie would be a millworker instead of a housemaid” (106).

Rodgers and Hammerstein began the play with a pantomime: “In eight minutes, the central dynamic of the plot is laid bare, to the accompaniment of a sweeping set of waltzes by Rodgers. Dick had long felt overtures were wasted on Broadway audiences, with an auditorium full of distracted, rustling latecomers still taking their seats, and was eager to try something new. So the curtain would rise as the first notes of music sounded…” (107).  Just as he had done in adapting Green Grow the Lilacs, Hammerstein “hewed closely to the original playwright’s scheme, while deftly turning spoken dialogue into sung lyrics” (108). The “Bench Scene” which culminates in “If I Loved You”—perhaps the greatest “conditional love song” of any Broadway score—consists of sung dialogue in the manner of opera, not recitative but with a “natural conversational tunefulness.” According to Stephen Sondheim, “The Bench Scene” was “probably the singular most important moment in the evolution of contemporary musicals” (109).

Another important moment in the show is Billy’s “Soliloquy”, when he realizes he is going to be a father. He sings “first with pride of the growth of a boy, and then suddenly realizes it might be a girl, and changes completely with that thought”. Purdum writes: “The ‘Soliloquy’ Rodgers composed would be a tour de force, nearly eight solid minutes of soaring music tailor-made for [John] Raitt’s iron-clad baritone” (115).

Just as with Oklahoma!, the reviews were rapturous. John Chapman of the Daily News called it “one of the finest musical plays I have seen and I shall remember it always.” The original production ran for 890 performances on Broadway and the national tour for two years. Purdum writes: “With the war in Europe now ending, and so many American households touched by years of death and loss, Carousel resonated in a darker, more visceral way than Oklahoma! had two years earlier. Now audiences were filled not with soldiers preparing to ship out to war but with veterans returning from the grim rigors of the battlefield.” He goes on: “To the end of Rodgers’s life, Carousel would remain his favorite score, his favorite show. ‘I think it’s more emotional,’ he would say. ‘The whole subject matter cuts deeper. I feel it has more to say about human relationships. And I also think it’s the best score we’d ever written. I have more respect for it. I just like it better” (120). Continue reading “Review: Something Wonderful–Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution”

Book Review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker 2018) —Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut novel—begins with Mr. Hancock, a merchant and ship-owner, being visited by one of his captains, who informs him that he has sold his ship and bought a mermaid. Mr. Hancock puts this mermaid on display and as its fame grows he is drawn into a world he has never dreamt of, a world of high society brothels.  It is at a party thrown by Mrs. Chapell, a notorious London madam, that Mr. Hancock meets Angelica Neale, a famous courtesan. This meeting changes both of their lives and drives much of the novel’s plot.

The central theme of Gowar’s novel is commerce, whether it is the goods that Mr. Hancock trades in, or commerce in flesh which is what Angelica and Mrs. Chapell sell.  Gowar is focused on economic factors. The mermaid makes Mr. Hancock’s fortune and allows him to become a gentleman who can invest in London real estate.  Angelica is constantly concerned with finding a “keeper”, a gentleman who will protect her and support her lifestyle. Mrs. Chapell is concerned with running her brothel (referred to in the novel as a “nunnery”) and profiting off her girls, whom she thinks of as her assets.   All the characters in the novel are selling something, whether it is goods or themselves.

A particular strength of the novel is its characterization, especially of the two central characters.  Angelica is described as follows:

Whoredom appeals to Angelica’s character in a great host of ways: she likes to live closely with other women and share her secrets with them; she likes to sing and drink and dance; she likes to be cossetted; she likes to be looked at. What she likes best of all of all is to be desired.”

It tickles her to see men grown stupid when they gaze upon her, all soft-eyed and slow in the head… to discover that secret otherworld of commerce in which she is at least as powerful as they: all this provokes in her the most exquisite excitement, and she goads them into ever greater passions of fever and fury. She likes to be pursued, but she does not feel she is ever captured, for it is only by her own decision that they lay hands on her” (135).

 

In contrast to the glamourous world that Angelica lives in, Mr. Hancock lives in Deptford, at that time a small town outside London. At the beginning of the novel, he lives alone with his niece/housekeeper, having been widowed for many years after his wife died in childbirth.  He is responsible for providing for his sister’s children but has very little ambition of his own. It is the mermaid that changes all that. Gowar writes:

“A man without the immediate demands of wife and children finds himself called upon for a multitude of little wants elsewhere. He has three sisters living, each with more children than she can be expected to raise up on only her husband’s fortune.”

Later in the same scene, she describes Mr. Hancock’s thoughts:

The scales are falling from his eyes day by day and he sees now that he has spent the greater part of his life at the periphery of things; an obscure planet through whose weak and inconstant orbit pass sisters and nieces and maids and housekeepers, before each is drawn away to her proper calling. This is no way for a man to be, whose natural place is as the axle to a wheel. ‘I have lived an unexamined life,’ he says. ‘And I have now been shown a great thing. I would be a fool to want no more for myself.’ (101-102).

Angelica Neale represents a new world for Mr. Hancock, which is what initially draws him to her. Continue reading “Book Review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock”

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel

This book review was originally published in DAWN in November 2014

Anyone who follows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon becomes familiar with the basic issues that are impediments in the way of a political settlement: the status of Jerusalem, the Jewish-only settlements that cut through the occupied West Bank, the separation barrier dividing Palestinian villagers from their agricultural land.

Pakistanis are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and most of our discussion focuses on how Palestinians experience daily life under occupation. While these issues are obviously important, there has been much less focus on the effects of conducting the military occupation on Israelis themselves. Brutalizing another people obviously imposes great psychic costs on the society that is carrying it out, requiring the dehumanization of the “Other”.

One source that addresses the price that Israelis must pay in order to sustain the occupation is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel by American journalist Max Blumenthal. A first-person account based on five years that Blumenthal spent traveling through what he refers to as “Israel-Palestine” (acknowledging that there is de-facto one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River), the book provides a unique perspective on the darker undercurrents of Israeli society. The author’s privileged status as a Jewish-American allowed him to travel to areas that would have been inaccessible to a reporter of another background, particularly one of Arab or Muslim origin.

Israelis often refer to their country as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” defending this claim by pointing out that the Knesset (parliament) contains elected representatives of Palestinian Citizens of Israel — referred to within the country as “Israeli Arabs” in order to deny them their identity as Palestinians. However, these representatives from “Arab parties” are often viewed as fifth-columnists. Blumenthal describes an incident that took place in the summer of 2010 when Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian Israeli parliamentarian from the Balad Party, addressed her colleagues after the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that had attempted to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

Though she had been promised five minutes to speak, the parliament’s speaker ordered Zoabi to leave the podium after a minute and a half, most of which was consumed by heckling and interruptions. Blumenthal writes:

As she passed through the Knesset gallery, legislators lunged at her again, one by one, shouting, ‘Where is your knife?’ and calling her a ‘terrorist’. Finally, a female security guard lifted Zoabi off her feet and attempted to carry her out of the main hall. But when she reached the door, Zoabi broke free from the guard, stomped back into the hall, took a seat in her chair, and crossed her arms in a defiant pose while the red-faced screamers surrounded her, their violent fury restrained only by a wall of security guards and a few of Zoabi’s colleagues from Balad. Many Israeli liberals were shocked by the spectacle, but the scenes were nothing new in Israel’s Knesset.

Not only was there no condemnation of the treatment of an elected representative of the minority population, Zoabi was actually punished for her remarks. She was stripped of her diplomatic passport and barred from addressing the assembly or participating in committee votes for a full parliamentary season. The fact that a parliamentarian representing a constituency that forms 20 per cent of Israel’s population is treated as a traitor for resisting the official narrative reveals a society in which dissent is too great a threat to tolerate. Continue reading “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel”

Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State

This book review was originally published in DAWN in August 2014

NOW that Israel and Palestine have announced an indefinite ceasefire, it is important to remember that the root cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not Hamas, the blockade of Gaza, or even the Occupation. Rather, it is the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — which is how Palestinians refer to the formation of Israel in 1948, an event accompanied by the dispossession of approximately 750,000 Palestinians.

Though Israel was forced by international human rights norms to grant citizenship to those Palestinians who remained within its borders, these citizens remain subject to a host of discriminatory laws. For example, the “Law of Return to Zion” allows anyone of Jewish origin to immigrate to Israel, regardless of whether his or her family ever lived in Palestine. In contrast, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marries a Palestinian from the Occupied West Bank cannot reside with his or her spouse inside Israel. These discriminatory laws belie the claim often made by Israel’s supporters that the country is “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

It is this claim that Shira Robinson debunks in her book, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State. An associate professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, Robinson examines Israel’s history from its founding in 1948 till 1967. She argues that Israel is a liberal settler state, “a modern colonial polity whose procedural democracy was established by forcibly removing most of the indigenous majority from within its borders and then extending to those who remained a discrete set of individual rights and duties that only the settler community could determine. Jewish settler leaders seized the rights to the state, granting the new found Arab minority only a handful of rights within it.”

Israel is simultaneously a formally liberal state and a colonial entity. This structural contradiction arises in part because in order to gain recognition of its sovereignty, Israel was forced by post-World War II international norms to formally extend citizenship rights to the Palestinian minority within its borders.

Robinson notes that Israel was the first state in history to emerge from a settler-colony that extended citizenship and voting rights to its indigenous inhabitants in the midst of an ongoing quest for their land. She notes: “Whereas the United States, for instance, spent two centuries attenuating the land base of Native Americans before offering them citizenship in 1924, the norms of self-determination, republican citizenship and human rights that rose from the ashes and hypocrisies of the two world wars precluded the possibility that Israel would enjoy the same luxury.”

Citizenship in Israel has, however, been a tool of exclusion as much as the opposite; Robinson writes, “the juridical and social content of Israeli citizenship was determined not by an ideal vision of whom to include but rather by the stark imperative of whom to keep out.” At the time of Israel’s founding, the state faced a dilemma between its declared commitment to equality and its desire to provide for open Jewish immigration.

This dilemma was resolved by creating two different nationality laws: the 1950 Law of Return, for Jews, and the 1952 Nationality Law, for Palestinian Arabs. Robinson writes: “In December 1949, Israeli authorities had conceptualized the Law of Return as a way to quietly block the creation of a universal category of citizens. Their aim had been to entrench the legal divisions between Jews, who would enjoy exclusive national rights to the state, and all other residents — the ‘non-Jewish minorities’ — whose civic status they would eventually have to recognize therein. This distinction manifested itself most visibly in Israeli identity cards, papers that the population became required to carry at all times. Although state passports designated the citizenship of their holders as ‘Israeli,’ internal identity cards marked their holders’ nationality primarily as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Arab,’ the racial groupings built into mandatory law and endorsed by the League of Nations.” While the terms “nationality” and “citizenship” are interchangeable in most liberal democracies, they are not so in Israel where the two different nationality laws — one for Jews and the other for Arabs — continue to contribute to a system of racial segregation among citizens. Continue reading “Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State”

Bhatkhande: The Contradiction of Music’s Modernity

In her book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition (Oxford University Press 2005), Professor Janaki Bakhle extensively discusses Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936), a musicologist largely responsible for the standardization of Hindustani Classical Music. Bakhle describes Pandit Bhatkhande as “one of Indian music’s most contentious, arrogant, polemical, contradictory, troubled and troubling characters. It may be better to view him not as a charlatan or a savior, but as a tragic figure, one who was his own worst enemy. All through his writings, there is ample evidence of elitism, prejudice, and borderline misogyny” (99).  She goes on to note the irony that though Bhatkhande is revered as a great figure in Hindustani music, his vision for the art form is not being followed today. For example, Bhatkhande wanted to create a national tradition for Indian music, not necessarily a Hindu tradition.  Yet today, much of Hindustani Classical music is “suffused with sacrality” (99). Bakhle describes how at a recent musical gathering in Bombay, Bhatkhande’s portrait was adorned by a marigold garland with a silver incense stand placed in front of it.  She asks the crucial question: “How did it happen that a vision that began with scholastics, debate, and secularism culminated in garlands and incense?” (100).

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande was born on August 10, 1860, into a Brahmin family in Bombay. Although neither of his parents was a professional musician, he and his siblings were taught music. This was not unusual in a family of his class background.  At age 15, Bhatkhande began receiving instruction in sitar and studying Sanskrit texts on music theory, a field of inquiry that would remain his obsession throughout his life.  In 1884, he joined the Gayan Uttejak Mandali, the music appreciation society, which exposed him to a rapidly expanding world of music performance and pedagogy. He studied with musicians such as Shri Raojibua Belbagkar and Ustad Ali Husain, learning a huge number of compositions, both khayal and dhrupad (100-101).

In 1887, Bhatkhande received his LLB from Bombay University and began a brief career as a criminal lawyer. After the death of his wife in 1900 and of his daughter in 1903, he abandoned this career to turn his full attention to music.  The first thing he did was to embark on a series of musical research tours, the first of which was conducted in 1896.  He traveled with a series of questions. His major project was to search out and then write a “connected history” of music and it began with these tours, which he believed would give him some clues to help recover some missing links.  He was less interested in the actual performance of music than in the theory that underpinned the education of the musician.  He kept several diaries of his tours, which served not only as an account of his travels but also as blueprints for his future writings.  Bakhle notes that he “did not interview the people he met so much as he interrogated them, seeking out what he judged to be their ignorance. In all these encounters Bhatkhande met only men. He had little regard for women musicians and did not believe he could learn anything from them” (103).

Bakhle describes several encounters that Bhatkhande had with various scholars of music. One that is particularly indicative of his attitude towards practicing musicians and to Muslims in general is the dialogue he had with Karamatullah Khan, a sarod player from Allahabad.  During this conversation, Khan argued that knowledge of Hindustani music did not come only from Sanskrit texts but also from those in Arabic and Persian. He also stated that it did not matter if the ragas had come to India from Persia or Arabia or gone from India to those countries.  This argument deeply upset Bhatkhande who was obsessed with finding a Sanskrit origin for an Indian national music. Bakhle writes: “From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Karamatullah Khan was voicing a prescient and progressive claim against national, ethnic and religious essentialism when it came to music. But Bhatkhande was looking for a ‘classical’ music that existed in his time not one that used to exist in ancient times” (112).  She goes on to note that Bhatkhande was “not unique among late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalists in caring deeply about a classical and pure past… All nations ought to have a system of classical music” (113).

Bakhle argues that “Bhatkhande’s search for the origins of Indian music was not a simple Hindu nationalist search. He emphasized that music as it was currently being performed belonged to a different period, one that was constitutively modern and adequately different from previous periods so that any reliance on texts such as the Dharmashastras as a guide for everyday life was seen by him as romantic at best and anachronistic at worst. [He] rejected the idea that the claim for an unbroken history of music could be sustained merely by asserting that Hindustani music could reach back into antiquity, to the Sama Veda chants, as the origins of contemporary music. He also came to discover that music’s relationship to texts more than two hundred years old was difficult, if not impossible to prove” (115).   Continue reading “Bhatkhande: The Contradiction of Music’s Modernity”