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THE ARTS OF HUMANKIND
- Kumar Mukherji’s The Lost World of Hindustani Music

“For a sixteen-year-old youth who had yet to begin to shave,” writes Kumar Mukherji in his memoir of life as a music lover, “the winter of 1942 would best be remembered as the year when he heard Kesarbai [Kerkar], Roshanara Begum and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan perform.” Were I to recall the year I turned sixteen, my memories would be cricketing rather than musical. The year was 1974, and it began with me watching, in Bangalore, G.R. Viswanath score a century and Erapalli Prasanna claim five wickets as Karnataka (then Mysore) defeated Mumbai (then Bombay) en route to winning the Ranji Trophy for the first time. The year ended with me watching a test match in Delhi where an Antiguan youngster whose first names were Isaac Vivian Alexander hit his first hundred, this studded with no fewer than six sixes.

In Indian history, 1942 is remembered as the year that Gandhi called the Quit India movement in a desperate do-or-die effort to get the British to leave the sub-continent. A hero of that struggle was the socialist Jayaprakash Narayan, who escaped from Hazaribagh jail and wandered underground for months before being re-arrested. But in his recollections of that year, Kumar Mukherji has no time for politics or politicians — even the best ones. As it happens, 1974 — the year I turned sixteen — was JP’s second great year in Indian politics, when he launched his “Quit, Indira” campaign. Although I lived through it, I have no personal recollections of the ‘JP movement’. But I can remember, as if it were yesterday, the floater with which Prasanna dismissed Gavaskar, and, even more clearly, Richards’s sixth six, which travelled out of the Ferozeshah Kotla into the Ambedkar Stadium, in effect, all the way from New Delhi to Old Delhi.

In the work mentioned above, published in English as The Lost World of Hindustani Music, Kumar Mukherji is described as a “company director, musician, organizer of prestigious music festivals, music critic, cricket fan, globetrotter and photographer”. Of these seven identities it is — given the title and scope of the book — naturally the second, third, and fourth that predominate. His professional life is barely mentioned, nor do we hear of his travels overseas. The photographs are undistinguished, and not his in any case.

There are, however, some references to the author’s favourite sport. This must surely be the first — as well as last — book on Hindustani music which mentions both the greatest of all cricketers, Garfield Sobers, and the loveliest of all cricket grounds, Lord’s. And, in an analogy which I understood immediately, Kumar Mukherji observes that Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was to the art of the khayal what Syed Mushtaq Ali was to the art of batsmanship. Both were rigorously trained in the classical style, both perfectly capable of adhering to the canons of tradition and technique. But both were prone to transgression, to displays of flamboyance that were in part a manifestation of individual idiosyncrasy and in part the product of a desire to please. These departures from orthodoxy, however dazzling, were not always rewarding. Thus Bade Ghulam could so easily lose the thread of a raga, or Mushtaq get out for a quick twenty or thirty when the situation demanded that he play a long innings.

“The question that arises,” writes Kumar Mukherji, “is, why did Mushtaq play like that'” “The simple answer,” he continues, “is because of a certain temperament and the desire to play to the gallery. Like Bade Ghulam Ali, he too was a victim of his own skill and virtuosity. Those who are lucky enough to amass wealth easily can be wild spendthrifts. This applies to Ghulam Ali Khan’s music. He was the slave of his own exceptional skill and talent, not their master.”

As I said, The Lost World of Hindustani Music does not mention politics or politicians, although its author lived through the tumultuous last decades of the Raj and the still more tumultuous first decades of a free India. Nor, although the author was the son of an economist and himself a company director, does the book acknowledge the existence of either the Stock Exchange or the Planning Commission. This is how it should be. For while our lives are determined by politics and economics, from very early on in our existence as a separate species, humans have sought meaning in activities other than making a living or exercising power.

The four most creative forms of human expression are art, literature, music and sport. Of these, sport can safely be acknowledged as being the most inferior. For one thing, it largely excludes the superior sex. For another, it cultivates xenophobic feelings among its supporters. The two are related; it is men, and men alone, who break heads in the name of nation or religion. Since sporting allegiances often involve faith or (more often) country, they tend to intensify social differences and sometimes give them a violent form. There is, of course, an ineffable beauty in a Tendulkar cover drive or a Beckham free kick. Watching one or the other, we marvel at the genius of the man behind it. Unfortunately, their act is aimed at a target, and when this is a Pakistani bowler or a German goal, the act rapidly loses its meaning — and beauty — in a surge of nationalist sentiment.

Literature can be chauvinist, too. However, the more bigoted it is, the less appealing. Novels that serve an ideological agenda die an early death. The best novelists — and poets and playwrights — are always those that most effectively transcend their religious or national upbringing. (Think of how many non-Russians admire Tolstoy, or non-English-speakers, Shakespeare.) With sport, on the other hand, the better the sportsman, the more likely is he to win laurels for his country — at the expense of another.

A young writer recently wrote in a cricket journal that “Ramachandra Guha has led a life which will seem, to readers of this magazine most of all, one of exceptional privilege and good fortune.” This was because I had, by my own admission, lived a life crowded with cricket: “long days at the game or by the radio or TV, hours reading books and trawling archives, chats with cricketers and serious students…” I must say that I was struck by a comparable sense of envy while reading Kumar Mukherji’s book. For his life was even more privileged and fortunate than mine. While cricket may (or may not) be superior to football, as a form of human expression sport as a whole is distinctly inferior to music, particularly classical music. And Mukherji was lucky enough to live at a time when the old gharana system was still extant, when the best vocalists had a far greater range of compositions at their command than is now the case, and when they sang as much for themselves as for their patrons.

Between the ages of 11 and 21, my life was dominated by a single ambition — to play cricket for India. Two things came in the way of realizing that ambition: first, that it was shared by roughly sixty million others; and second, that I was nowhere near good enough. Unfortunately, it took a decade (and more) for these elementary truths to strike home. How many books could I have read in that time' And how many concerts might have I attended' These are the melancholy, frustrated thoughts which come to me whenever I meet — in person or in print — a human being who is more civilized than myself, that is, who knows more about music, or art, or literature, than I do.

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