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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

ALONG THE PATH OF MUSIC by Prabha Atre. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Available at Throughout history there has always been friendly conflict (or perhaps a conflicted friendship) between the scholar and the artist. The scholar wants to preserve tradition, and explain the essential elements that must be preserved. The artist wants only to create, and often bridles at the formal structures imposed on his creations by the scholar. Sometimes this dichotomy is described in terms of The Rational West in conflict with the Intuitive East, but this is romanticized Orientalism. India has great rationalist philosophers like Nagarjuna, and scholars like Bhatkhande and Venkatamakhi, who codified the wild intuitive creations of artists like Thyagaraja, Syama Sastry, Mian Tansen, and Amir Khusro. One could just as easily speak of the Rationalist East in conflict with the Intuitive West if we focused only on the Asian scholars and philosophers, and contrasted them with European poets like Coleridge and Blake. It is good to remember that these two elements are embodied together in the personage of the Goddess Sarasvati. Two of her arms play a musical instrument and the other two hold a rosary and a book. Clearly, the ideal that she expresses is that the scholar with her books and the artist with her instrument should not see themselves as separate professions performed by different people. Ultimately they are one—it is only our provincialism and our ignorance that forces us to see them as different. “That’s all very well,” we might be tempted to say, “but Sarasvati is a goddess, and I am human. Sarasvati has four arms, and I’ve only got two. Can you give me a single example of a human being who has managed to serve both aspects of this divine Mistress?” After reading Prabha Atre’s new book, Along the Path of Music, you might be tempted to answer that question with her name. This is a small, slight book containing a loose collection of observations, anecdotes, and autobiography. But a casual look into an extraordinary life makes for fascinating reading. Born into a family of scholars, she became a great vocalist and composer, a gifted scholar, and a teacher who helped countless others to high achievements. Like Sarasvati, she offers us both books and melodies, and this book tells how melodies became the central focus of her life. It is not the frequently told story of harsh patriarchal discipline. Her guru did require her to start the traditional way—by singing nothing but Raga Yaman for over a year. Her musical life thus really began with the pure practice of art without scholarship: the voice of one teacher singing a single raga, without comparing it to others or abstracting intellectual principles. But her guru did not monitor her daily exercises, and in fact she was not even required to practice the same fixed compositions. Every day he would improvise new phrases for her to learn, saying, “The Yaman you sing must express yourself. It must have your mark.” The young Atre often thought it was boring to sing the same raga over and over. She would even study how this same raga would be slightly different for different music forms, such as thumri, bhajan, and khayal. But once she had learned how to explore Yaman in every detail, her guru taught her over a dozen ragas very rapidly. To this day she says that Yaman was the only raga she learned from him, but that was enough. “In his method of teaching, there was no traveling behind, but a walking alongside,” she says. He encouraged her to understand the nuances of all the music she was drawn to, even the film songs of actress-singer Noor Jehan.
Sarasvati is also the goddess of discriminating wisdom. Unlike her husband Brahma, who creates indiscriminately and loves all of his creations equally, Sarasvati uses her intellect to distinguish good from bad, so she can nourish the good and discourage the bad. When Atre was assistant producer of music at All India Radio, she used her discriminating wisdom to pick and choose amongst many talented musicians. She mastered every skill needed to disseminate the highest quality music to the public. She learned microphone techniques for broadcasting, recorded and edited musical performances, and produced programs in a variety of musical styles. She eventually became producer-director for the recording company Swarashree. As professor and head of the department of music at SNDT Woman’s University, she saw first-hand the differences between the guru-shishya system and modern academic methods, and she used her discriminating wisdom to select the best in both. Her Swaramayee Gurukul in Pune trains students who began learning music academically, and also wanted the benefits of the guru-shishya system. As a musician and composer, Atre has also used her discriminating wisdom to create a distinctive personal style from a variety of sources. Although firmly rooted in the Kirana gharana through her studies with Sureshbabu Mane and Hirobai Badodekar, she has incorporated elements from the styles of Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and Bhimsen Joshi. Sureshbabu Mane’s gurumantra for her had been, “Whenever you come across anything good, take it in,” and when he had passed away she felt that her musical education had become, in her own words, “a self-instructing journey like Ekalavya.” Perhaps this is why she became fascinated with the words designed to instruct us about music, i.e. the syllables of the sargam system. Her doctoral thesis showed that the choice of sargam syllables determines which notes the singer considers to be fundamental and which are mere ornaments. This shapes how the melody is heard in ways that cannot be duplicated by either an instrument or a poetic verse. This shaping process becomes even more pronounced for those listeners who have read her writings on the subject. This charming collection of essays will change your understanding of music, and the musical life, in many other ways as well. Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.