As a rule, this column does not mention or review books recently published. If I make a exception this fortnight it is because the work in question is exceptionally good, and because its author died before seeing it in print. The book is Kumar Mukherji’s The Lost World of Hindustani Music, a wonderful anecdotal history of an art form that has perhaps not got its due from historians and writers alike.
I met Kumar Mukherji once, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, who thought we would get along owing to our common love of cricket. The meeting did not pass off very well. Hearing that he had studied at Lucknow University, I told him about my interest in the work of the sociologist Radhakamal Mukherjee, a pioneer of ecological research who had taught there. This remark promptly led Kumar Mukherji to lose interest in me. For in those more class-conscious days, Lucknow University had only one Professorship in the social sciences; and, by occupying the post, Radhakamal held up the elevation of Kumar’s own father, the distinguished sociologist D. P. Mukherji.
Years after our first—and unhappy—meeting, I read a riveting article by Kumar Mukherji in The Telegraph, containing his childhood recollections of the Lucknow-based singer S. N. Ratanjankar. This, a Bengali friend told me, was a translation of an essay published in the magazine Desh, part of an extended series paying tribute to the great Hindustani musicians of the twentieth century. Later, I heard that the series had become a successful book in Bangla. Now, and not a moment too soon, it has been published in English. Apparently, Kumar Mukherji died the very day that the first lot of copies was sent by the publishers in Delhi to his home in Kolkata.
The Lost World of Hindustani Music is the product of a long life’s love affair. Some of it draws on personal recollection; some on folklore handed down from generation to generation; some on books and pamphlets published in English, Hindi, Marathi, and Bangla. The first chapter narrates the birth of his own interest in music; the second chapter traces the birth of the khayal; later chapters deal, one by one, with the great gharanas. There is a bias towards vocal music—the author was himself an accomplished singer who once performed on the National Programme of All India Radio—yet there is much new material here on great instrumentalists, notably the author’s close friend Ustad Vilayat Khan. There are also some technical interludes, but these can be easily skipped by those, like me, who lack the training to understand them and are more interested in the stories anyway.
Kumar Mukherji owed his interest in music, in the first instance, to his father. Among D. P. Mukherji’s publications on the subject were a book, in Bangla, containing his correspondence on the subject with Rabindranath Tagore; and a booklet in English, published in 1945 and entitled An Introduction to Indian Music. Here, the elder Mukherji memorably wrote: ‘There is no Pakistan in Indian music at least’.
Although the son quotes neither the booklet nor the line, his own book is in many ways an extended amplification of that single, superb sentence. There are vivid recollections of the early meetings of this Bengali Brahmin boy with Muslim vocalists such as Mushtaq Hussain Khan and Faiyaz Khan. The latter once concluded a night-long recital in Lucknow which began with Bismillah Khan’s shehnai and continued with Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod—a true ‘dream team’ indeed.
There are moving stories here about the love of Muslim teachers for their Hindu students, and the devotion they got in return. When a new Maharaja of Gwalior withdrew his patronage from the court musician Bade Nissar Hussain, his student Shankar Pandit stepped into the breach, housing and feeding him, to the extent of offering his guru a rupee a day for his dose of opium.
That said, this book is anything but exhortative or didactic. The stories it tells are intended only to draw attention to the greatness of the musicians or to the quirks and eccentricities of their character. Some of the stories make one marvel, others provoke laughter, yet others, tears. Sometimes they bring out all these reactions at once, as in the encounter between the tabla virtuoso Ahmad Jan Thirakwa and an officer at All India Radio who insisted on a signed receipt instead of the thumb impression he was being offered. The tabalchi asked the babu how many graduates there were in the whole of India. A rough estimate was offered, to which Thirakwa gave this unforgettable answer: ‘Maybe a hundred thousand, did you say? Well, remember, there is only one Ahmad Jan Thirakwa in the whole of Hindustan’.
The Lost World of Hindustani Music is easily the best book I have read this year. I would go further—it is one of the most enjoyable works of non-fiction to be published in India (in English, at any rate). More’s the pity that it appeared after the author died, and that the publishers did not provide his magnificent book the courtesy of an index.
MUSIC OF THE GODS