Essays in Music is seventeenth in the series of the Collected Works of Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, in the IGNCA’s publication programme. These essays were published in a few books, journals, etc., mostly in the early years of the twentieth century.
Coomaraswamy held that music in countless ways had been bound up with the Indian national culture, for it was the most universal expression of emotion— religious, amorous or martial. Music belonged to every part of life. The flute of Krsna, the vinã of Sarasvati, the dance of Siva, the Gãyatri as cosmic chant or music of the spheres; the hymns of passionate adoration of the Southern Saivite, all these belong to the association of music and religion.
In addition to the art music, he lays great emphasis on the folk songs of agriculture and crafts. This is music serving to lighten heavy labour, such as the songs of husbandmen, carters and boatmen. Music remained too intimately associated with religion, with drama, and with life, whether courtly or popular, and was faithfully guarded by tradition.
Coomaraswamy was much against the harmonium and gramophone, when compared to stringed instruments; even the piano, he held, was an inferior instrument. Every time these mechanical instruments were used in place of man, the Indian musician was degraded, his living was taken from him and the group soul of Indian life injured. Among musical instruments, he gave pride of place to the vina.
He firmly believed that the importance of music in education can hardly be overestimated. He bemoaned that foreign (English) education had paralyzed the living impulses of Indians, and driven India to a state of social disintegration. He advocated that the restoration of Indian folk and art music to its proper place in Indian education would result in the understanding of the self-expression of India in her music.
Prem Lata Sharma, a distinguished scholar of Musicology, Sanskrit and Hindi, secured Doctorate in Sanskrit from the Banaras Hindu University. Having received advanced training in vocal music from the illustrious Pandit Omkar Nath Thakur, she started her career as teacher of music, its theory, history and philosophy, and held the post of Professor and Head of the Department of Musicology at the Banaras Hindu University. She was Chairperson of U.P. Sangita Nataka Akademi, Lucknow (1983-6), and Vice- Chancellor of the Indira Kala Sangita Vishwavidyalaya, Khairagarh (M.P.), (1985-8). She was selected as Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, in 1992.
Author of several books, including the critical edition of Rasavilasa (1952), Sañgitaraja (1963), Sahasarasa (1972), Ekaliñgamahatmya (1976), Brhaddesi, vols. I and II (1992, 1994). She also translated many notable works in Hindi from Bengali; supervised the English translation of Sañgita Ratndkara (two volumes of which have already been published). Prof. Sharma was widely acclaimed as a poineer in initiating and establishing serious study of primary (Sanskrit) sources on Indian music.
Prem Lata Sharma passed away in 1998. She was at that time, Vice-President of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi.
I had been collecting Dr. AK. Coornaraswamy’s Writings on Indian music for several years, from sources in India, Sri Lanka and abroad. The manuscript containing his essays on music was entrusted to Prof. Prem Lata Sharma for editing and contributing an Introduction. Despite her indifferent health, she completed the task in 1998, and gave me the edited press copy of the present volume. But before she could see the labour of her work in print unfortunately she passed away the same year. It is now my painful duty to write a Preface for the work done by her. She had earlier meticulously edited another of Coomaraswamy’s book entitled Thirty Songs from the Punjab and Kashmir, which was published in 1994.
The earliest records of Indian music are found in the Veda. The drum, the flute, and the lute are mentioned. The chanting of the Sawn Veda shows that vocal music was considerably developed. The form of the Vedic chants is fixed, and constant throughout India. Indian music is a part of the national life, it is still an art. According to Coomaraswamy, Music is the most complete expression of the soul or genius of the Indians—a mirror faithfully reflecting their inner life’.
Coomaraswamy was among the lovers and admirers of Indian music who tried in the early days of the twentieth century, to present its character and basic structures to the English and later American audiences. His interest in Indian music was further strengthened by his second wife Mice Richardson, who accompanied him to India in 1911, and learnt Indian music from a traditional ustad.. She used an Indian name, Ratan Devi. During the New York theatre season in 1916 onward, Ratan Devi was giving recitals of Indian music and dance in association with a Eurasian dancer. Roshanara.
In comparing the music of East and West, Coomaraswamv held that in harmony and combined effects, the West excels in a field which is almost unknown to the East, but on the other hand, there can be no doubt that in individual singing, whether technique, expression, or subtlety, the East far exceeds the West. Each has much to learn from, and admire in the other. W.B. Yeats has said that Indian music, though its theory is elaborate, and its technique so difficult, is not an art, but life itself.
AK. Coomaraswamy’s perceptions on Indian music have permanent value as well as a distinct historical setting on account of their expression having come at a time when a radical change in attitudes, modes of patronization and association with mechanization was visible. The period covered in these writings is from 1908-31. This period was marked by the following features that have been noticed by Coomaraswamy with great intensity:
1. Introduction of the gramophone in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and harmonium, the latter having come earlier.
2. Appreciation of and glamour for Western instruments like the piano and its music and despise for Indian music and its instruments, not only among the colonial rulers but also among ‘educated’ Indians.
3. Shift of the gravity of patronization from the aristocrat and the temple to the urban middle class which is cut off from its cultural roots.
4. Growth of the university system of education, borrowed from the British, which had no place for music.
5. A study of selected topics from sañgita-sastra like Sruti.
6. Widespread impact of mechanization in general which involves division of labour and deprives the worker from the joy of creating a whole piece.
Gramophone has now been far superseded by audio and video cassettes, compact discs, radio, television, etc. Amplification, preservation, reproduction and dissemination of sound is now possible in so many ways that the gramophone is almost out of date. The harmonium has come to stay with regained vigour after its re-introduction in All India Radio in the mid- seventies where it was banned after independence. All the same, it cannot be denied that the most perfect mechanization cannot replace the live voice of the human being or a musical instrument. The above gadgets have not improved, rather they have impaired our sensibility to the purity of sound. The lamenting of Coomaraswamy over the introduction of gramophone is more than a hundred-fold valid in the current situation.
Classical Western music is not widely known in India but contemporary jazz, pop and rap music are a craze among the younger generation. Movements like Spic-Macay are trying in their own way to inculcate an appreciation for Indian classical music and dance in schools and colleges but the glamour for ‘modern’ music is far too powerful.
His observations on the primary position occupied by oral tradition in the transmission of Indian music are equally valid today. No system of notation or mechanical device can replace it.
Patronization has shifted from the aristocracy and temples to the urban middle class. In the post-Independence era, government agencies like Departments of Culture, Sangeet Natak Akademis, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, etc., and business houses that have stepped in only recently represent the latest modes of patronization. The bureaucrat, the manager, the middle-man and the like are new faces of patrons. It is strongly felt by sensitive individuals interested in the preservation of the cultural heritage of India that the pursuit of music, dance and theatre cannot be left to the mercy of market forces. To quote the Haksar Committee report, 1990, p. 21, . . this cultural production has been accomplished in a social context in which the mass media and the market have emerged as arbiters of taste and quality in aesthetic activity. Having separated art from the artisan, modern economics have converted art itself into a commodity, often mass-produced, like any other material goods In the generation of cultural values—more so than in the generation of material values— the market needs to he tamed and harnessed to serve (he interest of man, nature and society.
All the above attempts of patronization have emerged to counter the market forces but they have entailed a new set of problems which need not be discussed here.
The number of universities in India started growing in the first quarter of the twentieth century and their number swelled after Independence. Music departments in universities were established from 1950 onwards and their number has been multiplying. By and large, their main thrust has borne the impact of non-statutory teaching and examining bodies which preceded them by two to three decades. They have brought about a lot of proliferation in respect of the number of music students but the objectives have not been clear and this proliferation cannot be said to have been conducive to the setting of standards.
The study of Sangita-sastra in the first quarter of the twentieth century was solely centred around twenty-two srutis and Coomaraswamy has duly noticed Shri Deval’s work towards demonstration of Srutis through a specially constructed harmonium.
His sensitivity to the creative faculty of the human being was deeply hurt by the division of labour and drudgery that are in-built in the process of mechanization and in the process of production of various goods. The joy of creating a whole object is lost in this process and he has emphasized this point in his inimitable style.
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