Enlightening the Listener, book and cassette by Prabha Atre. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi.


It’s obvious that many Indian classical musi-cians are willing to blend their music with other styles. What is not so widely acknowledged is that classical music itself has changed over the centuries and continues to change today. The assumption is that classical music itself is an unbroken and unchanging tradition, even if classical musicians might occasionally want to combine that tradition with other elements. Prabha Atre, however, sees things differently, and there are good reasons for taking her views seriously.

She is one of the foremost female khyal vocalists representing the Kirana Gharana, having received the Padmashree and the Sangeet Natak Academy awards from the Indian government. She has been an assistant producer for All India Radio, and once ran a classical record label called Swarashree.

And perhaps most importantly, she is familiar with both the modern and traditional methods of training musicians. She was trained in the traditional gurukul system by the late Sureshbabu Mane and his famous sister, Padmabhushan Hirabai Badodekar. But she has also been Head of the Department of Music, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, and taught at the University of California on a senior Fulbright fellowship.

In her recent book Enlightening the Listener, Atre draws on this rich domain of experience to make some refreshingly original observations on the differences between traditional and modern systems of music and of music education. The first essay, which takes up about one third of the book, is an introduction to the fundamentals of Hindustani music, with an emphasis on vocal. This sort of thing has been done many times before, but Atre does it well, and even the most experienced listener will pick up something new and interesting from her analysis. Especially helpful are the sections on vocal ornaments which, thanks to the accompanying cassette, are much clearer than mere verbal descriptions could ever be. She also has created some charts that show relationships and differences between various styles of music. These are quite original and ingenious, and yet the connections and distinctions still seem undeniable once she points them out. The real meat of the book, however, are the numerous short essays which build on the information in the first essay, and give persuasive arguments why much of what passes for common wisdom in Indian music needs to be reconsidered.

One of her biggest concerns is the fact that the university system produces scholars and the gurukul system produces musicians. Having learned and taught in both worlds she can see the strengths and weaknesses of each. She boldly suggests that the reason the gurukul system requires years of work to produce great artists is that it is not very efficient. Because so little theory gets taught, it is difficult for the artists to expand what they know to new territory, or to overcome blocks and obstacles to their progress. The university system, on the other hand, often produces people who can pass tests and do research about music theory, but do not learn how to perform. She suggests a variety of specific solutions to these and other problems, based on her experience as a teacher: creating more performance opportunities in universities, and utilizing modern technology such as the tape recorder and the metronome to speed up the learning process.

Performance is a learning experience not only because it gives an opportunity to practice. A discriminating audience also teaches the performer by responding to her best moments with cries of encouragement, and those elements that inspire the audience naturally become more prominent in the repertoire of the performer. Atre even asserts that film music has had a positive influence on classical music, because it has forced khayal singers to work on beauty of tone in their singing, and not just focus on creativity in improvisation. She also has a very effective series of exercises for learning a melody, concentrating on each musical element separately, so that words, melody, sargam, and tabla bols are each absorbed through separate forms of practice.

Sargam, in particular, is her passion, for she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the subject. Although her dissertation became the basis for two award wining books which were first published in Marathi, then translated into Hindi, this book contains her only English writings on this or any other subject. And these English writings are clearly only the visible tip of a highly developed set of arguments and theories. Atre points out that no singer marks every single note he/she sings with a sargam syllable, especially during those long ornamented passages called murki. The choice of sargam syllables thus 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. The increasing importance of sargam is also an indication of the artist’s constant need to free herself from the words, and to express the raga as a pure abstraction with it’s own uniquely musical meaning. Atre sees this trend as essential for the development of Indian music.

This last claim may seem uncontroversial to Westerners, but it puts Atre in conflict with traditional Indian music theory. If ragas are purely abstract, then the system of rasas, which is designed to describe the emotional content of works of art, is not a universal set of transcendental principles, but only a set of social agreements and conventions. It also means that the idea that each raga should only be played at certain times is also only a social convention. Some may find this hard to accept, but Atre bites this particular bullet with enthusiasm, giving numerous arguments why these principles cannot be as universal as traditionally believed.

Her arguments undeniably have some merit, but personally I am inclined to lean more towards the traditional view. The idea that music is completely abstract was embraced by many 20th century Avant-garde composers in the West, and it often caused them to create music which was sterile, cerebral, and lifeless. Perhaps there is some middle ground between these two extremes. Couldn’t we say that even though the rasas are based on traditions and conventions, that they are still a valid basis for creative expression?

After all, the meanings of words are based entirely on social conventions, and poets still manage to create art with them. Why couldn’t musicians do the same? I don’t know what Atre’s reply would be to this suggestion, but I am sure it would be perceptive and thoughtful. Her openness to new ideas is beautifully expressed in this quote from her book: “In the sphere of art, no questions have final answers or need to be answered with finality. They are open ended. It is enough to examine them, ponder over them, in which process many a cobweb is brushed away.”

Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.

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.