THE MUSIC ROOM by Namita Devidayal. St. Martin’s Press, 2009. Hardcover. 310 pages. $24.95

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Kennedy Bridge, described by Namita Devidayal in her poignant memoir as a “neighborhood known for prostitute’s and gentlemen’s clubs,” must have been a shock to the well-bred Indian girl’s system. And yet, Devidayal made her way there with her mother first, then with a nearly blind ayah, in order to study with the woman who would become her guru, the legendary singer Dhondutai. By her own admission, Devidayal was “dragged into the world as a reluctant ten year old,” and probably no one could have foreseen the mutual respect that would develop between pupil and maestra. A relationship based first on music evolved into something even greater.

Dhondutai trained under the finest classical Indian singers of recent memory: Alladiya Khan and the difficult but brilliant Kersarbai Kerkar. Dhondutai single-mindedly devoted her life to the study of music and wanted nothing more than to pass on all that she had learned to someone worthy—someone who also possessed the talent and gift. Western readers should disabuse themselves of the images of popular singers in the western tradition. As the memoir teaches us, learning Indian classical music requires devotion in the truest sense of the word and is more about expression through a beautiful medium than it is about aspiring to fame and fortune.

Devidyal presents a meticulous, thoroughly interesting and entertaining history of Indian classical music, but this is no textbook on form. Rather, it is a memoir of learning, devotion, regret, and even the downside of having talent that is often unappreciated. Devidyal shows us the sacrifices that her guru, Dhondutai, made as a woman devoted to her goddesses and her music. She also takes the reader on her own recursive path, which included a degree from Princeton, marriage, a child, and a life back in India. The memoir comes full circle in the end, a testament to the fact that talent, like a light inside of us, may dim from time to time. But, if we are lucky, it is never totally extinguished.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

 

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