Sangeet versus sur

May 01, 2022

How the theory of music, and if it can be said, putting music in a larger context became attached to the culture of the subcontinent

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Baray Ghulam Ali Khan


I

n one of his interviews, Baray Ghulam Ali Khan observed that there was more stress on “sangeet rather than the sur.” In other words, he meant that there was an obsession with theory rather than the practice of music itself.

The practice of music since has been a continuing activity without any stop or gap, and by its nature, an inclusive act incorporating much that there was and by masticating, making it part of the growing tonal culture. The theory of music, and if it can be said, putting music in a larger context became attached to the culture of the subcontinent. The most important aspect of the debate, about its authenticity was dovetailed to its antiquity. The older it was, the more authentic as the age granted it the legitimacy of being an integral part of a civilisation that was old or older than that of the colonisers – the Europeans.

Of course, it was the central argument that legitimised the demand for freedom from the colonisers during the freedom struggle in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The genuineness of the demand for independence could only be verified if it rested on its cultural and civilisational depth.

The scholars or the musicologists, even before the term or the discipline were so recognised, started to look at the relationship of the musical expression with other aspects of society like philosophical maturity and its aesthetic underpinning. They also set about to identify the changes that had taken place from the original sources, if any. The more objective scholars could not really chart the changes that took place in music and these did take place, if seen against the backdrop of the imagined antiquity of the musical expression as read in the ancient text and some seen exclusively as religious shastras for performing rituals. They were thus content with analysing the musical expression in their own time. This they called or labelled as “murawwajamausiqi” and did not bend over backwards to fill in the missing gaps.

The scholars or the musicologists, even before the term or the discipline were so recognised, started to look at the relationship of the musical expression with other aspects of society like philosophical maturity and its aesthetic underpinning. They also set about to identify the changes that had taken place from the original sources, if any. The more objective scholars could not really chart the changes that took place in music and these did take place, if seen against the backdrop of the imagined antiquity of the musical expression as read in the ancient text and some seen exclusively as religious shastras for performing rituals.

But, the later musicologists were not that objective.They tried to fill in the huge gaps with extrapolation and guesswork. This created two or three streams in the understanding of music: one that stressed on some pure, pristine stream that has come down to us so that it should be valued; the second as one which extolled the external influences to the extent that it almost undermined the premise of a pristine unalloyed stream; and the third which looked at it as a product of change by not overly stressing on any one stream but content with looking at the state of music in its own time.

These three strands of scholarships emerged and with the passage of time became more and more puritanic or exclusive. The political history of the subcontinent too bore upon the various types of scholarships, be it political, sociological, historical or cultural and the integrated approach suffered at the hands of those wanting to build a narrative that suited the concerns of the present.

In India, in particular, since the movement for independence was justified on the basis of a culture that was ancient and was specific to the territory, the trend continued to be strengthened by the insularity that the thesis demanded. A whole culture of looking back at music started as a reconstruction on an industrial scale. The thesis rested on the premise that there was something pristine that was polluted or corrupted by the sands of centuries and the current forms were the result of that corruption and impurity. It was about time that all of it was dusted and the sheen restored to the original parameters or framework as the independent country demanded this of its scholars and ideologues.

This puritanical reading of history and culture was not limited to India. It also had a bounce-back effect in the creation of similar approaches in Pakistan. The authentic was totally denied and another under frame was substituted that labelled this musical system as having been qualitatively altered from the one found in the shastras, the scriptures and older texts.

Of course, the truth rested somewhere in the middle but the two opposing positions made the study and understanding of music as part of a larger agenda which did not suit the nourishment of the musical expressions and forms. This was what UsadBaray Ghulam Ali Khan was referring to when he pointed out to the obsession with the “sahihkhawani”— what was authentic and it was loosely applied to the ragas, their structure, the progression and then the intonation. Instead of music being an aesthetic experience, it was seen as an academic exercise that measured up to the rules laid down, either in the past or an imagined past.

Baray Ghulam Ali Khan passed away on April 25


The author is a culture critic based in Lahore



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