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‘Ustads’ in Modern India

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    Posted: 29 December 2006 at 12:03am
Original article

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

The recent decision of Aasish Khan,
the son of the sarod maestro Ali
Akbar Khan, to embrace Hinduism
and assume once again the old family sur-
name of Debsharma has received some
media attention. English language dailies
have commented on this story with varying
degrees of seriousness; there is, for in-
stance, an attempt to explain Aasish Khan’s
decision to reclaim an older Hindu identity
and status in light of the paranoia that
appears to have seized sections of the
western world regarding Muslims, all of
whom seem now to have a potential to
become terrorists. At the same time, there
is an element of discomfort produced by
the event, that has been expressed
poignantly in the father’s anguish at the
son’s “misconduct” and “betrayal” of his
ancestral memory
The reportage is, in fact, quite consistent
with the way Muslim practitioners of music
and their faith and identity have tended to
be represented at a popular and also at a
more informed level – a common assump-
tion being that the ‘ustad’ as a devotee of
Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning,
was somehow different and operated in a
realm that could not be easily captured
within neat categories of Muslim and
Hindu. The assumption was not without
basis but failed to engage with the complex
nuances of the ustads’ location in the
landscape of cultural practices in modern
India. This failure as has been demons-
trated in recent writings on the subject was
tied up with the articulation of a nationalist
cultural project spearheaded largely by the
western educated Hindu elite. The latter,
in its anxiety to reclaim and retrieve for
the nation a cultural inheritance that was
undiluted, pure and anchored in the prac-
tice of popular devotion on the one hand
and supported by an older and authorita-
tive textual tradition on the other, pro-
duced and perpetuated a discourse that
preferred to position the actual practitioners
– predominantly Muslims – on the edge
of the tradition.
This act of will was at once, at variance
with the actual ground reality, and it pro-
duced a medley of consequences that forced
the new patrons including the nation state
and the practitioners, to redefine notions
of personal and collective identity. A dis-
tinction must be made here between the
recurrent and oft-quoted invocation of
Saraswati by the ustads or the sort of
intimate relationships that artists like
Bismillah Khan enjoyed with the temple
culture of Varanasi as a continuation of a
hereditary professional engagement, and
modern, self-conscious responses to the
nationalist imperative of the sort that, Abdul
Karim Khan, for instance, engaged in. What
is being suggested is that while the practice
Faith and the Musician
‘Ustads’ in Modern India
The evolution of Hindustani classical music has consciously
taken a trajectory that mirrors the nationalist project. In this
experiment of defining a national music that is ostensibly secular,
the position of the ‘ustads’ has always been attended by difficulty.
Their image and musical practices have in turn popularised the
secular, syncretic notion that Hindustani music has come to
acquire. But in their history and that of the ‘gharanas’ they
represent also lies the complex history of changing and evolving
musical traditions, derived from and inspired by existing strands
of music, traditional and adapted, and which also reflect the
shifting political contours of the times.
Page 2
Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006
of music was traditionally a shared space
of experience among Muslim ustads and
their Hindu listeners, the location and self-
definition of the Muslim musician was
complicated, even ambiguous – a condi-
tion deriving from the ways the musical
culture and communities of northern India
had been configured historically. The
intervention of nationalism and the politics
of cultural syncretism espoused by the
nation state complicated the issue even
further – elaborate rituals that celebrated the
idea of the Muslim ustad as the perfect
subject embodying an official syncretism
that had to be expressed by obligatory
celebrations of Hindu divinities and the
deployment of a symbolic language, meant
that the Muslim ustad’s personal faith was
a matter of no consequence. Note the way
obituaries to Bismillah Khan talk about
his inseparable association with Varanasi
and about his steadfast devotion to
Saraswati, a qualification carrying with
it all the resonances of being a good
secular Muslim.
Fissiparous Identities
What has this meant for traditional
practitioners? How have they negotiated
with issues of personal and national iden-
tity – what has it meant to be Indian and
Muslim at a time when the post-Septem-
ber 11, 2001, the world chooses to remain
complicit with racial profiling and asso-
ciate any Khan as a potential Bin Laden
follower and when the singing of ‘Vande
Mataram’ is pushed down everyone’s
throats as an obligatory mantra to demon-
strate loyalty to the nation? There are no
simple answers to these questions. What
I propose to do is to try and address these
issues by situating the story of the modern
Muslim practitioner of Hindustani classi-
cal music in a historical setting and through
a careful reading of the biography of modern
Indian classical music, to grapple with
some of the implications of identity poli-
tics for traditional practitioners responding
to modern transformations. Here, the re-
cent work of Janaki Bakhle merits mention
(Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the
Making of an Indian Classical Tradition,
Permanent Black, 2006). Focusing on two
premier figures in the early 20th century,
namely, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and
Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, she demon-
strates how a modern canonical setting for
the modern Hindustani music tradition was
instituted largely within the interstices of
modern institutional space and how this
not only eroded the richly hybrid nature
of an earlier patronage and consumption
context for music but also how it
marginalised the communities of practitio-
ners, mostly Muslim. This displacement
was evident not so much in the domain of
modern performance or even individual
teaching as in the more pervasively public
spaces of representation, where the deri-
vation of classical music from authentic
‘shastra’ and its association with earlier
traditions of Hindu devotion and esoteric
systems of yoga and pranayama were
foregrounded and its historical evolution
during the long period of Islamic rule
virtually obscured.
The nation state after independence,
concentrated on pushing the idea of India’s
musical inheritance as the common legacy
of an idealised syncretism while the actual
context for patronage and performance had
undergone a fundamental transformation.
This had shifted music from a truly syn-
cretic, complex and inclusive traditional
location to a much more homogeneous,
narrow metropolitan one. This new cul-
tural project was obliged to adopt the
musical forms and genres that were current
at the close of the 19th century but neces-
sarily uprooted them from their natural
cultural sites and thereby began the pro-
cess of detaching them from communities
in which they had developed. The replace-
ment of courts, individual princes and
aristocrats by the new urban elite with
their organised musical associations as
the principal sponsors and patrons of
musical performance radically altered
the world of the traditional performer.
It was no longer a case of singing for the
prince and the temple and expecting
consequent support, and even largesse.
It was now a question of passively
embracing an external description of
one’s orientation and practice. The
musicians were not always capable of
responding to the changing situation,
some of them responded with alacrity.
Abdul Karim Khan for example was able
to negotiate with and neutralise brahmanical
critiques by demonstrating the musically
correct way to sing the ‘Gayatri Mantra’,
and a number of leading ustads migrated
to Mumbai and Kolkata to become teach-
ers to an overwhelmingly Hindu con-
stituency of students. Amjad Ali Khan
was happy to function as the nation’s
cultural ambassador while Bismillah Khan
was able to publicly state in a television
interview (November 2004) that musicians
were beyond narrow bigotry and subscribed
to the universality of religions. In actual
fact these responses were not entirely
pragmatic or informed by self-interest.
As a historical formation, the community
of musicians represented a composite
identity drawn from a miscellany of
groups and castes – of old and new
converts alike – and constituted a hybrid
group forged in the long and complex
crossover between popular mystical
Islamic and Hindu devotional practices
that had its most eloquent expression
in music. In authenticating their ex-
periential dimension, many of them
claimed legitimating markers as belonging
to the ‘senia parampara’ (having practices
based on canonical musicology derived
from the ancient, pre-Islamic, shastric
traditions) and to being of brahmin stock
(having pre-Islamic origins of respectable
high status). Such claims basically
constituted a personal expression of their
ambivalent location within mainstream
Islam and within the pre-modern, colonial
and modern state as well as being an
expression of shared sentiment that
transcended limited categories of modern
religious identity.
Let us pause to consider what this
community of Muslim ustads looked like
in pre-colonial India and how they had
coalesced into a hereditary community
of practitioners. The community was
stratified and included a variety of castes
and lineages whose status was determined
largely by their location and proximity to
courts and Sufi silsilas and by what they
practised in terms of musical genres. The
castes included the kalawants, the most
influential and respected group, who were
recognised as the traditional musicians and
singers of dhrupad. Dhrupad had its
origins in the music of the temple, was
cultivated by brahmins and remained, it
was believed close to its original forms.
Dhrupad singing lineages probably
converted to Islam in the context of
political patronage of the Mughals – a
decision that has to be seen in the context
of the complex and rich interchanges
between vaishnav and sufi devotional
practices. Because of the patronage,
practice and appreciation of music and
the ready acceptance of vaishnav imag-
ery as the most apt matrix of poetic
metaphor for devotion among the chishtis
and other sufi silsilas, conversion, in the
context of the Mughal courts, was attrac-
tive to and relatively easy for musicians;
Tansen being the best instance in point.
The title “kalawant” stood for senior
members of established musical families
who specialised in the dhrupad. Other
castes included the dhadhis, gandharps
and gunkars (all of whom are referred to
in the 16th century Raag Darpan by
Faqirullah), qawwals, doms and nats, each
Page 3
Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006
group specialising in one form or the other
but whose specialities had a tendency to
break down in the melting pot of the Mughal
capitals, where new, adapted musical forms
of court and shrine or ‘khanqah’ (dhrupad
and ‘khayal’) were less unambiguously
hereditary property.
Kalawant families had a special relation-
ship to court and shrine and were by the
18th century able to carve for themselves
a very distinct status. In the imperial court
of Delhi after Aurangzeb’s death, they
would appear to have become a very
influential group involved in the factional
politics so typical of the age. We have, for
instance, references to Lal Kunwar, the
favourite mistress of the emperor Jahandar
Shah and her brothers who for a brief time
dominated affairs in Delhi and alienated
a powerful section of the ruling Mughal
nobility. ‘Sadarang’ (Niamat Khan) who
is credited with major inputs in the deve-
lopment of the khayal genre in north Indian
music in the 18th century was recorded as
being the “brother” of Lal Kunwar, but
was perhaps a cousin. They are believed
by their descendants and the music world
in general to be the descendants of Tansen’s
daughter Saraswati and her husband Mishri
Singh (the famous Naubat Khan Binkar of
the paintings in Jehangir/Shah Jahan’s
time), the son of Raja Sammokhan Singh,
the Rajput binkar who came to Akbar’s
darbar and accompanied the singing of
Tansen. While there is no documentary
record of his early training in “been” or
dhrupad, what may be inferred with a
reasonable degree of certitude is that
Tansen’s family became the leading teach-
ing lineage for 19th century musicians
paralleled only by the Sufi musical silsilas
of the Qawwal Bachche that had incorpo-
rated the repertoire of Sadarang’s songs
and his system of “ragdari” . Recent work
by Catherine Butler Brown would also
strongly suggest the close connections
between court music traditions and the
Sufi silsilas – a circuit that made music for
the practitioners and the listeners an inte-
grated and composite practice whose af-
fective dimensions could not be captured
in restrictive categories of orthodox
The decline of Imperial Delhi was for
a while offset by the cultural efflorescence
of regional courts like Lucknow, Jaipur,
Rampur, Benaras and even the kingdom
of Nepal, where court patronage would
appear to have sustained the cultural
traditions of music and performance. There
were admittedly important changes in
the content and orientation of music, the
18th century version of the khayal itself
being a case in point. Abstracted from its
older space within Sufi musical practice,
it went on to become a major genre in court
sponsored art music while the develop-
ment of the “thumri”, as Peter Manuel has
argued, was emblematic of the new em-
phasis on musical entertainment. At the
same time, the mixed nature of Indian
musical expression both as a performance
practice as well as in its reception meant
that certain musical families were closely
attached to certain temples and their ritual
cycles. This became even more pronounced
after the revolt of 1857 when the newly
reconstituted princely states and the
local zamindars consumed music and
integrated it within the established
network of devotion, entertainment and
social practice. All this meant that the
relationship of the ustads with their vari-
ous patrons and sites of identity was part
of a complex dynamic, mediated both by
historical processes of interaction and by
their own self-definition as special artists
with a different experience of faith, one
that was closely tied up with the very
practice of music. Added to this was the
practical imperative of responding to the
nationalist cultural project of the Indian
(mostly Hindu) elite that sought to retrieve
the tradition and practice of Indian music
in a manner that reconstituted the Muslim
ustads and contained them in rigid catego-
ries. It is in this somewhat mixed and
complex historical backdrop that one may
try and locate the recent controversy about
Aasish Khan’s decision without of course
detracting from the fact of personal choice
and whim.
While there have been several instances
of actual conversion to the Hindu faith
determined by immediate practical con-
siderations of security and safety, it is
equally important to see in these instances,
a complex pre-history of identity and
self-description. Keeping in mind the
earlier processes of conversion by local
practitioners, and also their rich and lay-
ered experiential reality in the milieu of
political and devotional space, it is easier
to see why musical families like the Dagars
emphasised their brahmanical status or
musicians like Alladiya Khan chose in
his autobiography to refer to his Hindu
ancestry and how in his reconstruction of
the genealogy of vocal music, the space
of the seers in his mind and memory was
a shared one between Allah’s call to the
angels and the gandharvas of Indra’s
court. The experience of participating in
a practice that was truly mixed – in terms
of language, metaphor and melody and
deployment – meant that the issue of a
singular identity became problematic
and even undesirable. It is not entirely
coincidental that musicians and patrons
who practised music and consumed
music and were in deep contact with
mystical practices on the ground should
have made it a point to venerate a figure
like Saraswati who seemed to embody the
essence of the practice and in that embodi-
ment remain free of a strict scriptural
association. One could simply be a
Saraswati ‘bhakt’ and a practising Muslim
at the same time.
In the case of Allauddin Khan’s family
in rural eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh),
the inheritance was even more interesting–
as a non-kalawant family which had in a
very short time emerged as a major per-
forming family, enjoying the confidence
of the Bengali bhadralok, among whom
the negotiation with the social space of
cultural practice and devotion was more
relaxed. The extreme veneration that
Allauddin Khan had for Sharada Devi in
Maihar served to emphasise the impor-
tance of the musical experience and the
subsequent institutionalisation of Saraswati
worship by many Muslim musicians only
serves to indicate the tenacity of the
community in keeping alive, a memory
and cultural inheritance of shared mean-
ings in a situation where the religion of
the state and the external trappings of
secular devotion have demanded the
demonstration of blind loyalty expressed
in banal artefacts. Perhaps this is an
inevitable consequence of modernity and
nationalism forcing hyphenated entities
like Muslim ustads to retreat behind a
screen of syncretism and remain vigilant
about projecting the correct self. But
surely, it is time we looked more closely
into the politics of representation and took
a harder look at the orthodoxy of self-
descriptions that have distorted a very
simple skein of shared practice into a
coarse fabric of ownership, appropriation
and control.
Email: [email protected]
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abuzuhri View Drop Down
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Joined: 12 September 2006
Location: Malaysia
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote abuzuhri Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 March 2007 at 1:45am

Last month early february 2007,it happens by the winds of fortune the seeker was flown to new delhi india for a bilateral economic msia-india meeting with Foreign minister Syed Albar and Mr.PranapMurkherji. Part with wing of dunya and wing of hikmah-wisdom.

 Many years ago, we had read the sufic books by Sh.Waliyullah Dehlavi, sh.Nizamudin awliya, Hayatus sahaba by Maulana Zakaria etc. so we put a secret wish to visit the tomb and mosque of Nizamuddin at old delhi if fnish our official business. alhamdulillah, we manage to ride the vespa taxi cost about 50 rupees from Taj Palace hotel to city centre about 15 km away. We saw goats, flowers, beggars, tablighis, many women and children, some sufis may be along the narrow street leading to Nizamudin Dargah. After 2 quick salat tahiyatul masjid, we go round the small maqam of the sufi master outside, put some sadaqa into the box and wisper our prayers. Mission accomplish.

Now next visit to Connaught Place in central new delhi, we manage to locate a few bookshops and found two jewels : The Essential Rumi by Colemans Bark and The Last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar by William Drimple. After a few pages, we realize how the great Muslim Mughal were torn apart, betrayed, internal strife, opulents, mixing raw sufism and hinduism and shiasm, lost of true ulama and fuqaha and finally the British massacred the whole lots after the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The former kings, princes, Nawab, Begums, Maharajas of smaller states were exiled, driven out and left to die in the street during the turbulent times.

What left is the Deobandi wahabi schools/ulama versus the Barelvi /sufis school and mazhab in many debates and divisions while the British ruled and exlpoited the riches of India with real power. They allow the weak, apolotical, castrated jihad and moralistic da;wa movement of Tablighi to flourish as a kind of opiate to lull the bitter defeats.

Islam is keep pure and alive by shariat command of leadership, fiqh, fatwa, execution, distribution of justice, wealth, zakat, taxes, awqaf, madrasahs, muftis beside the sultans and amirs. Now we know why 200 millions muslims in india are powerless and minority enslaved. Not to say about 10-20 millions of Shias, Batini, Qadianis, Ismailis spread out among the faithful believers. Lost of true tariqa masters and sufis, make millions others worshipping and honoring the dead awliya and its tombs more than the living ones.

If Sharukh Khan, Salman Khan, Kamal Hassan, Ghalib, Saif, Ustadh Here and There or Abdul Kalam..were going off the right track, who can pull them back. Oh this is Dunya so sweet, so vast and sensous, the dance and Bollywood music and women stars and its films CD sold like hotcakes even in taliban ruled Afghanistan and poor Pakistan.

Please do not forget the poppy fields in Afghanistan that supplied half of western drug narcotics needs of worth about USD20 billions. who cultivate, pick, processed and distribute and taxed it. Tubba alal-ghuraba, to survive you have to live as a stranger of Allah Path. To fight with arms and explosives against kuffar and enemies, please do not blow up your dear self and innocent lives. India cannot stand alone but it belongs to true muslim ghazis, sufis and fuqaha and amirs of the future. One man of Allah can transform the whole society, only if you know how to arrive there and then.

Wa man yataqillah yaj-alahu makhraja. Allah will give victory to the people of taqwa, wait and work for the right time and place like a tree growing up to bear frutits and flowers at the ripe season. HasbunaLlahu wa ni'mal wakil.

So my dear traveller Jamal Morelli what are your insights and reasons to post this piece of news of people retreated into ideal dream space of nihilism. Everyting is allowed, nothing is sacred. Implosion. Fusion. Black hole of modernity. Already Mittal and Arun Nayar left old India but forced to return drinking its great past empty soul and spirits.

abuzuhri shin
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