Just like that | Notes on classical music, heritage and my own annual traditions

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Amjad Ali Khan, the great exponent of the sarod, tells a story where his father Hafiz Ali Khan, himself a musical giant, was asked by the then Indian President, Dr Zakir Hussain, to he could do something to help her. Hafiz Ali Khan replied that by the grace of God he has everything he needs, but since the president asked, can he use his high office to save the chastity of the classic raga Darbari? The anecdote is not, affirms Amjad, apocryphal. His father was even in the 1950s concerned about the erosion of time-tested traditions for the exhibition of raga.

A raga is a creation of rare creativity, delicate as a filigree but taut in the rigor of its structure. A raga can represent the mood of the time of day, early morning, afternoon, dusk or late evening, or changing seasons. It can also represent different emotional moods – of love, languor, separation, joy, contemplation, detachment, devotion, etc. What is amazing is that the artist, whether vocal or instrumental, does not have a notation of notes in front of him, but can interpret a raga For hours.

It is important to preserve this tradition without bending myopically to so-called “popular” demand. undeniably classic evenings, previously confined to the salons of the rich or royals, have experienced a welcome democratization over time. But audience growth and concomitant commercialization require greater vigilance to ensure that the basics are not diluted. In London, Hyde Park attracts thousands of people when a pop band performs, but theaters of tried-and-true Western classical music also have people queuing for tickets. In a mature cultural civilization, appreciation cannot be a monoculture, the popular must flourish with, and not at the expense of the classic.

To preserve the sanctity of Indian classical music, much depends on the development of the ragameditative and mood-building slowness vilambit to the fast and culminating tempo of the shit. This sequence cannot be arbitrarily accelerated. However, many leading exponents of the genre today, whether singers or instrumentalists, seem to have no desire to patiently develop the mind of a raga in their performance. In a way more appropriate to a teenage pop group, they are rushed through the slow early phases of a composition to reach the rapid crescendo, thus mutilating the rasa or essence of the raga.

Classical dance requires the same discipline — and the same vigilance. In our tradition, Shiva is Nataraja, the king of dance, and Krishna is Natwar, the prince among dancers. The timeless bronze images of Shiva doing the tandava, the cosmic dance of destruction and regeneration, have inspired countless generations with their sheer poetry, elegance and contained energy.

How then can we experience this ancient art? Obviously, creativity cannot be hampered by the legacy of the past. But it is legitimate to wonder about the quality of what passes for “contemporary classical dance”. Experiments with established and highly evolved art forms only succeed – if at all – in the hands of those who are deeply rooted in that tradition and know the limits of what can change and what cannot. The world may be flat, but not everything lends itself to “merger”. When Russia’s famed Stanislavski Theater sought to stage Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam, veteran kathak dancer Maya Rao, who was recruited as an advisor, found the hardest part was getting the Russian ballerinas to walk on their feet and not on their toes!

I know this is a subject that can provoke people who have a pro-change point of view. Feedback from readers is welcome.

The week that was

Another Diwali has come and gone. In my case – and I’m sure in the case of millions of others – it’s an occasion when the family comes together in festive attire. My wife, Renu, prepares phutte ki poori, a kind of paratha filled with chana dal, for lunch. Gifts are exchanged, games of chance are played for symbolic purposes to attract Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and there is much merriment. Everyone ends up overeating. In the evening there is the pooja at home, and then the diyas are on. Luckily this year there were less crackers, a big relief – not only for the pollution levels – but also for my dogs who are terribly bothered by the explosions.

As every year on this day, we went to dinner at the neighbor of Aroon Purie, the president and editor of the India today media group. His wife, Rekha, hosts a wonderful spread and creates a very relaxed and welcoming vibe.

Pavan K Varma is an author, diplomat and former MP (Rajya Sabha).

Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares world nuggets of history, culture, literature and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers

Opinions expressed are personal

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