The history of Hindustani classical music, through the lens of an Ustad

The history of Hindustani classical music, through the lens of an Ustad

By MAHIMA DAYAL | | 26 January, 2013
Ustad Mahmud Mirza performing at the Delhi Sangeet Sabha on January 2, 2013
Sitarist MAHMUD MIRZA is perhaps one of the last purists, searching for those elusive notes of unadulterated beauty. He talks to MAHIMA DAYAL about his problems with Western-style notation & how teaching can’t capture the essence of Hindustani classical

An unadulterated raga slowly seeps in and leaves a distinct flavour", says Ustad Mirza while he waits for his cup of black coffee. The Ustad is one of those rare musicians who may have accepted the idea of change absorbed by classical music over time, but does not wish to be remotely attached to such hybrids. He quotes a shair to explain the emotion he wishes to capture with his performances:

Isi bayiz toh daya tiflat ko aafyoon deti hai,
Ke ta ho jae lajzat aashnaa talkhi-e-douran se.

(A midwife feeds opium to an infant thinking that the child may learn with every morsel, the bitterness of time.)

He explains that a raga must be heard in its purest unadulterated form, to be able to understand its true nature. Ustad Mahmud Mirza performed recently at the India Habitat Centre where he played raga gavati on the Sitar and was accompanied by Pt Subhash Nirman on the tabla. Ustad Mirza had suffered a minor injury on his right hand prior to the performance, because of which he was unable to render the jhala section with the same dexterity which he is popularly known for.

Dressed in a golfer's cap and a Khaki coloured jacket, Ustad Mirza came to Triveni Kala Kendra for a cup of masala chai. While the chai brewed in the kitchen, he shared with us his philosophy behind rendering a classical composition. At the age of six, Ustad Mirza began learning the sitar from his uncle, the legendary sitar maestro and doyen of Jaipur's masitkhani gat, Ustad Haider Khan, who traces his lineage to the legendary Tansen. His uncle's demise led Ustad Mirza to musicologist Pandit Jeewan lal Mattoo, the disciple of kirana legend Abdul Wahid Khan.

Panditji was also the founder of All India Radio's First National Orchestra called Akashvani Vadya Vrinda, which later came under the direction of Late Pandit Ravi Shanker. It was during this time that Mirza topped the Junior Classical Instrumentalists' list in a competition organized by All India Radio in 1954. Though Pandit Mattoo was a vocalist, Ustad Mirza was able to imbibe the essence of kirana gayiki in his instrument.

His purist outlook took him further away from the silver screen as he found better opportunities to perform outside India. Ustad Mirza, who is now based in London, says "I didn't like the atmosphere of the film industry; you get lost there. It is commendable that Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia survived the industry, while also staying true to their music." According to the Ustad, "the entire process is soul destroying." He also feels that the film Industry leaves a distinct influence which becomes difficult to shed. He adds knowingly, "There was a very good sitarist who I don't want to name, who is an Ustad in the true sense. But years of playing for films has given his music a very filmy touch. In a national programme this sitarist played Raga chayanat, but those light filmy harkatein, wouldn't leave his hand."

The history of our country can be traced with the variations in its musical pattern", he says. Ustad Mirza believes that it was only after the reign of Aurangzeb that a decline of sorts began. "The arrival of the British left the rulers living in danger, because of which the quality of the music gradually declined" he adds. According to him classical music had undergone a systemic decline with the shift in political control post 1907.

He truly believes that classical music has become lighter with time, and then scrambled out. "People are serving their vested interests for instant pleasure, like instant coffee" he adds. His understanding of the 'decline' in classical music then draws him back to our conversation. He says, "The transition of the genre clearly shows political deterioration. The society was in a process of decline, which was why forms like the thumri and ghazal gained popularity in Wajid Ali Shah's court. Classical music goes slow, it has to go slow otherwise we risk losing something very precious."

Dropcap OnHis ideas then, also questioned the musical renaissance that took place in the early 20th century and popularized classical music. "The renaissance which began with Ram Mohan Roy, Bhatkhande and Palluskar, brought about an institutionalisation of classical music. This happened only because the khansahibs were suffering from an ailment; the decline of a society." Though he agrees that the renaissance brought the art to the fore, Mirza continues to remain disillusioned by the entire concept of teaching classical music as a theoretical subject. He believes that the method employed by well-known institutes like Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, Prayaag Sangeet Samiti, or Bhatriya Kala Kendra may be raising basic knowledge, but the students are not able to garner the kind of expertise that was passed down to disciples by their gurus."Music is not a canvas that you can stand in front of and intellectualise, you have to initiate yourself. Once you start creating, only then does it gradually reveal itself." He also gives an example of a banner that he had come across in Kanpur advertising raga darbari being sold as a commodity in the market for Rs 50.

The arrival of the British left the rulers living in danger, because of which the quality of the music gradually declined” he adds. According to him classical music had undergone a systemic decline with the shift in political control post 1907.

The reason for Ustad Mirza's distrust stems from the nationalist movement, which brought about a revolution for the classical musical scene during the 1920s. The movement was immensely inspired by western ideology and conduct. This influence let to a growing need to form a nationalised identity which could be traced to a high art, for noble representation. A cleaning of sorts then took place; notations were devised to create a theoretical backup for an art form that was being passed down for generations orally. "Western classical is a different kind of music, and can be captured in a notation and theorised. Hindustani classical is extempore and progresses horizontally, whereas the former has a vertical progression. We cannot ape the western system while trying to popularize Hindustani music, for they are poles part," he explains.

The idea of attaching middlemen to the process of learning Hindustani classical music does not work, according to Ustad Mirza. "Even the musicians attached to these institutes like Shubha Mudgal, for one, was learning from Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, and then from Nainadevi. Vinay Chandra Maudgalya's own son Madhup Mugal, who is also the principal at Gandharva Vidyalaya, had to go to Kumar Gandharva to acquire expertise as a khayal and bahajan singer. A model is required to shape your voice. These schools provide stepping knowledge for starters, but when it comes to specialisation, they are not able to create artists," he says.

Though Mirza has set his faith in the tradition of the gurushishya parampara, he does not have students or children of his own to continue his legacy. He smiles and says laughing, "I came close to getting married thrice but it didn't work, and I am yet to find a student whom I can call a shishya." Mirza frequently performs in Britain, France, and the United states, where he draws a vast following. "I want to start performing in India more often, for the audience is nuanced and willing to listen," he concludes.

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