Classical music managed to escape the court boundaries of the ruling Nawabs and Maharajas in India to delight mass audiences of concerts, television and radio. But in Nepal, both classical music and its players are on their last legs.
Prominent musicians from India’s centres of excellence had for centuries been coveted guests at the darbars of Nepali kings. Mahindra Simha Malla is known to have invited Muslim ustaads in the early 18th Century to play for him at his palace, and his successors followed his example. By the Rana period, Kathmandu was recognised as an important centre for shastriya sangeet, the classical Hindostani music that is the main subject of this article. There were frequent exchanges with other centres in the Subcontinent including those at Benaras, Darbhanga, Lucknow, Rampur and Calcutta. Ekraj Shamsher, for example, was an accomplished dhrupad singer who, in later years when his voice began to fail, went on to master the rudra veena. Bir Shamsher, a great lover of music and patron to the great Taj Khan and Dunnee Khan, invited India’s best musicians to play at a huge music conference at Bagadi, in the Tarai, in 1900. The conference is said to have helped in in the revival of classical music then sweeping the Subcontinent.
The latter half of the 20th Century, though, has been less kind to music and its artistes in Nepal. Indian masters who had settled here returned to India during the last years of the Ranas and during the Panchayat system, shastriya sangeet was pushed into the doldrums. Good classical musicians, today, have either left the country or are scraping a living together by doing other jobs as well as making music. The standard of teaching is low and Nepal’s most promising students are once more forced to head south for likely gurus. Meanwhile, potential students of shastriya sangeet are being discouraged from studying the genre through anti-Indian feeling and the notion that Nepal has less claim to shastriya sangeet than does India. Yet, while shastriya sangeet is declining in Nepal, it continues to flourish in India. Indian musicians travel the world to play to audiences that are increasingly knowledgeable about the Hindostani classical music tradition. While musicians themselves are partly to blame for the demise of shastriya sangeet in Nepal – through seeking only patronage as a means of survival – its roots lie in the enormous political and economic changes the Subcontinent has undergone since the end of the 19th Century.
Nawabs and Maharajahs
Classical musicians regard the last century as the “golden age” of music. They played at the courts of the Indian Nawabs and Maharajahs who not only enjoyed shastriya sangeet for its own sake, some of them becoming accomplished singers and players, but also benefited by the refinement and status that such music lent their courts. Each court might have employed hundreds of musicians. They enjoyed a pampered life, being both highly respected and highly paid. To reach this zenith of the musical career, a musician had to learn from a master, and finding one was never easy.
Allauddin Khan, one of the greatest musicians of recent times and the teacher of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar, appeared to have learned mostly by steadfast determination. He ran away from home to study music, first in Dhaka and then in Calcutta. His first important teacher, Gopal Chandra Bhattacharji, died long before Allauddin Khan could complete his 12-year apprenticeship. He then decided to devote himself to studying sarod, after being greatly impressed by Ustaad Ahmed Ali Khan. Ahmed Ali Khan accepted him as a student but taught only a little. However, Allauddin Khan learned much simply by listening to the ustaad´s concerts and practising what he heard. His reward for having learned more than he was directly taught was to be turned out by his teacher.
After much travelling, he arrived in Rampur and sought to become a pupil of Wazir Khan who was, in his time, unequalled in playing the veena. But Allauddin Khan found it impossible even to meet the ustaad. Only by throwing himself before the Nawab of Rampur did Allauddin Khan obtain the opportunity to play for the Nawab and impress him enough to gain his recommendation and introduction to Wazir Khan. At last he was formally accepted as Wazir Khan’s pupil only to serve him for the next two years without receiving any lessons at all! He stayed with, and eventually learned from, Wazir Khan for the next 20 years before settling down in Maihar in 1918, at the age of 56, to teach the local ruler.
The reluctance of masters to take students, and then to reveal all they know to them, is a reflection of the fact that musical knowledge was treated as a commodity which could be traded and therefore had to be jealously guarded. This way of looking at music was particularly strong at the turn of the century when the gharana system of teaching was growing in influence. Gharanas have been characterised as closed groups, largely within families, in which apprentices belonged to a sort of musical guild that offered support and a recognisable (and saleable) style of playing. Gharanas were highly competitive and sometimes used by local rulers as prestige objects. For an aspiring young musician, apprenticeship in a gharana could mean years of servitude and learning simply by absorption – listening to what the players said and how they played and copying it all later – before ever being directly taught music. The system began to fall apart as India moved into the modern world. Today, artistes would rarely claim to have been the product of a single gharana. The gharana system did not exist in Nepal.
Breaking out of Court
The disappearance of the gharana system is not the only change to have affected the passing on of musical knowledge. As already implied, the “golden age” ended with the demise of the princely courts. In his book, Hindustani Music in the 20th Century (Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd), Wim van der Meer outlines the major factors influencing the renaissance of Indian classical music in the early part of this century. After the Indian mutiny of 1857, the British changed their attitude towards local rulers and encouraged them to Westernise and become allies in British rule of India.
Some did, give up their interest in things Indian, including shastriya sangeet but others, notably Maharajah Scindia of Gwalior, Maharajah Sayajirao of Baroda, Nawab Hamid Ali Khan and his son Raza Ali Khan of Rampur, continued to support and encourage music and musicians even when they had very little power and influence left. As the princes lost power, they concentrated on the pursuit of the trivial. And as they sank into debauched lifestyles, music sank with them. Musicians found their places of work shifting from princely courts to entertainment houses in the cities and before long they, and their music, suffered the stigma of that decadence.
The end of the 19th Century saw the simultaneous rise of the newly rich, the merchant princes who had made money in trade, and the zamindars, or tax collectors who had settled in as hereditary landlords. Imitating the princes, they became the new patrons of music. Their decadent lifestyles were a little different from their aristocratic models and, if anything, music sank further in status. India was changing on other fronts, too, all of which affected society and therefore music. As the British clutched at straws to maintain power, the nationalist movement was on the rise; the Indian National Congress held its first meeting in 1885. By 1900, the main network of railways had been established. Radio was increasingly popular, the film industry was growing and gramophone records were becoming available.
Musicians increasingly realised that they could no longer find the same kind of positions as they once held at the courts. Greater mobility from improved transport, presses and broadcasts brought music to a vast public and changed the make-up, aspirations and lifestyle of the modern musician. The film industry in the 1930s was one of the largest employers of the best classical musicians. Although this has changed, All India Radio is still a very large employer of Indian musicians.
For the emerging middle class, who had a European education, music was something to look down upon. The nationalist movement stimulated patriotic feeling and it was only the movement’s recognition of the important role that music could play in fostering Indian pride and unity that helped musicians to regain respect. Meetings of the National Congress included classical songs and Gandhi led the Dandi March of 1930 to the strains of certain classical pieces written by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Paluskar and another Maharashtran called Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, led the musical renaissance which was to reach its peak after 1900.
Paluskar was a musical missionary, popularising and stimulating interest of music among the middle classes. He played devotional music at temples and personally visited middle class homes to announce his programmes. In 1901, he opened his first music school in Lahore, followed by another in Bombay a decade later, to spread musical knowledge and understanding. Bhatkhande travelled extensively and collected a vast body of musical literature and manuscripts from which he published a number of books. Some of these are still source material for music students today. He organised the first All India Music Conference in 1916 in Baroda and followed it with others in Lucknow and Delhi. With the support of Maharajah Sayajirao of Baroda he reorganised the music school and later went on to open music schools in Gwalior and Lucknow. These schools became models for others to open the doors to mass musical education.
Music had at last escaped the domination of the ruling class and the financially privileged to reach a much wider audience. In 1936, the first tickets for a concert of shastriya sangeet were sold in Calcutta. Later, music clubs became popular all across northern India. The members were enthusiasts who understood the intricacies and subtleties of classical music. They paid an annual fee for the privilege of hearing the best musicians. Non-members were charged an entrance fee. Although the pay was low, musicians were keen to play for such audiences because they were so well understood and appreciated – something rare after the loss of the small, specialised audiences of the princely courts. Today music clubs are still popular and there are music schools and colleges in almost every neighbourhood of the large cities. Music continues to flourish.
In contrast, classical musicians in Nepal earn a living by playing watered down versions of the raagas to tourists who listen between mouthfuls of food in the restaurants of expensive hotels. During the past decade, the ghazal, a musical vehicle for Urdu poetry, has become very popular and groups are to be found at many restaurants in Kathmandu. Those who cannot or would not play at such venues survive by teaching. Many of the older musicians barely manage to survive, despite their talent. A sad example is the former court musician, Shambhu Prasad Mishra, now 76 years of age and the finest tabla player in the country, who can be seen hauling his bicycle up the five kilometres or so from his home in order to gain a few rupees. There is no support for musicians and they find it impossible to survive by music alone.
Shastriya sangeet may have been inaccessible to the common people during the Rana regime, but it flourished in their courts. Since the return of monarchy, however, even this court music-making almost disappeared. There is still token appointment of court musicians, but they rarely play and have few other responsibilities. Music continues to be neglected and so continues to wither. The Ministry of Culture and Education today provides almost no support for classical music. The Royal Nepal Academy has been likened to a tomb – there is so little that is of interest to the living going on within its walls. There are a few cultural scholarships to be won but none specially earmarked for students of music. People in positions of influence in the relevant ministries do not seem to have any interest in music.
Nepal can offer its students two colleges at which to study up to Bachelors level, where students can pick up the rudiments of classical music and take examinations set to the standards of Indian colleges. Teachers in Nepal need a Masters from an Indian music college to begin teaching. Yet there are not enough teachers, they are paid very little, and the average standard is very low compared with India. In any case, a college-based musical education is still regarded as just a first step on the road to good musicianship. It has to be followed up by 10 to 20 years of dedicated study and practice with the best masters. Nepali teachers would benefit enormously had they the opportunity to study with ustaads, but unfortunately there is no such scholarship scheme here to encourage such aspirations. And musical ambition in children is discouraged. Music is a dead end job.
The musical education of the public has also suffered. Radio Nepal allocates just 90 minutes per week to shastriya sangeet. Lok sangeet, folk music, gets 8.5 hours per week. In contrast, aadhunik sangeet is allocated 11 hours per week. Nepal Television, last summer, virtually stopped broadcasting shastriya sangeet because, it was said, they could find no one willing to attend and record. Homnath Upadhyaya, a tabla player called their bluff and has been invited to record some programmes. There is little live music to be enjoyed even by those in the capital and major towns but for the majority of the population, who rely on radio.
The result is a circle of neglect spiralling towards the eventual death of shastriya sangeet in Nepal. Music, like all art, is organic. The more concerts that are staged, the more music that is broadcast, the more people will want to hear it and the more young people will want to study music. Without a critical number of music lovers, students, teachers, performers and artistes or music will simply die.
Fighting against this ignoble end, are a few musicians who are using their own money, time and talent to pump life back into Nepali shastriya sangeet. Among them are participants of the Kirateswar concerts on full moon evenings at Pashupatinath, where young musicians come and play for free. The atmosphere is good and the event looks promising, with the musicians sharing the costs of transport and refreshment. Some musicians open their homes to music groups with the aim of establishing music circles where music can be enjoyed.
If Nepali music is to survive and, more than that, find its rightful place among the many other musical traditions with which it has to compete today, it must first find pride of place in the public consciousness. This means more concerts, more broadcasts and more emphasis in the curricula of primary and secondary schools and a notation method and systematic teaching of shastriya sangeet. Many more scholarships, to enable study with the best masters for at least five years, are also needed for those of whom shastriya sangeet has touched.
~ By Omar Sattaur and Gert-Matthias Wegner