Shrinkhla Sahai’s book, India’s Classical Music and Dance, describes a complex world in simple language
From circa 500 BC / 500 CE, when the Natyashastra is estimated to have been written by Bharata Muni, to the 21st century where Indian classical arts are thriving and growing on the global stage, is a complex and varied journey. It is also a story of a cultural buffer state that has survived the socio-political upheavals of the subcontinent.
Every twang of the sitar and tinkle of the bells on the dancer’s feet has crossed the chasm between reinvention and authenticity and helped keep the performing arts traditional while giving space for exploration. It is this exciting ride through time that Shrinkhla Sahai writes about in her book India’s Classical Music and Dance. Published by Red Panda, the children’s imprint of Westland, it is part of the Let’s Find Out series that focusses on introducing young readers to a subject through anecdotes, fun activities and prompts, supplemented by beautiful photographs and stunning illustrations in the hope of turning the subject into a life-long fascination.
Sahai is an educator, arts writer and media professional who has trained students from six to 60 in the performing arts. A consulting editor for Sangeet Natak Akademi’s quarterly publication, radio presenter with Radioweb Hindustani, and a CID-UNESCO certified therapeutic movement facilitator, she brings to the book the heft of her knowledge and skill without letting it overwhelm the young reader.
This not to say that the 87-page book can be flipped through at a glance — filled with facts, it is easier to take it one chapter at a time, given how complex the subject can be. The book traverses the timeline of history and dance in India, the navarasas, the guru-sishya parampara, and places of performance in its introductory chapter. In its activity corner, aptly termed ‘riyaaz room’, it encourages young readers to pick a song and identify the rasa experience it creates. In ‘qissa (story) corner’, it travels back, bringing alive anecdotes from a time when Hindustani classical vocalist Gangubai Hangal was learning music in the house of Pt. Sawai Gandharva or when 107-year-old vocalist Ustad Abdul Rasheed Khan recounted the time he was poisoned by a fellow court musician but survived with voice intact, only disfiguring his fingers.
In the Indian Classical Music section, Sahai dips into the elements of classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic.
The artistes who deflected class snobbery and persevered to become doyens, the instruments that accompany a bandish — a musical composition akin to the Carnatic kriti — and the gharanas — Agra, Gwalior, Dharwad — scattered across India that were famed for their baithaks.
Each of the descriptions, be it of the time ragas or the ragamala paintings inspired by them, or the story of how Gauhar Jaan became the first Indian musician to record on the gramophone in 1902, is short and fits in like pieces of a puzzle into the greater picture that is Hindustani classical.
The details of how slow, medium and fast compositions are built on fractions of time that allow the performer to improvise a raga’s framework, the ability to sing from memory with microtonal inflections of the voice, building of poetic meter, and the evolution of forms like the khayal from the even more ancient dhrupad is laid out in simple lines.
The book does justice in the section on Carnatic music, especially when discovering the Trinity — Syama Sastri, Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar.
Sahai tells their stories and introduces a ‘shruti box’ for each on the page that splits their compositions into ragam and talam. When it comes to the trinity of women — M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari — the book becomes part memoir and part women’s emancipation history. The famed Margazhi season is also mentioned as are newer artistes to show the evolution of the tradition.
The book, replete with illustrations, comes to life in the Classical Dance section, where Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Chhau, Manipuri, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam and Sattriya are discussed.
Each genre is traced from its history through its styles, footwork, costume and mudras. How the weight of their popularity shifted from its few progenitors to the many who now practise and popularise them is an important part of the narrative.
The book is a useful encyclopedia for children, who can find in it information on many cultural issues, and dip into it as a quick guide. Sahai tells it well, describing a complex world in simple language.