A little girl and what her teacher taught her
This book is now just about two years old, and has so far sold 20,000 copies worldwide, of which 10 or 15 must go to my account – I loved it so much that I bought at least a dozen copies as presents for friends. It is a memoir, and its central character is Dhondutai, the inheritor of the riches of the Jaipur gharana, one of the most powerful schools of Hindustani classical music.
A few months after The Music Room was released, I wasn’t surprised to read that it was on the “Best Reads of 2007” list of Sonia Gandhi, Shyam Benegal and Ramachandra Guha.
In February 2008, a book discussion group I belong to in Pune read The Music Room and invited Namita Devidayal to answer questions. It was a lovely morning, we sipped coffee with little fingers outstretched, Namita played us some rare tracks of the complex genius Kesarbai Kerkar who features in the book, read out an excerpt, and even sang a short raga for us in her beautiful baritone voice.
After the event we were supposed to have a quiet lunch together with a few friends but the media had got wind that the famous Namita Devidayal was in town and reporters from one newspaper and then the next and then the next kept her busy as we sullenly played with our food and waited for them to go away.
Now the thing is, Namita has been a dear friend for many years. When Sunday Mid-day asked me to review her book, I had a difficult choice to make. To have refused would have been to do my friend, and her wonderful book, the injustice of refusing them space in one of the few widely-read publications in India that has a books page. To write a review would be very difficult. Even though I knew I could look at the book objectively, it was also very important to me that the review be SEEN to be objective. So for every sentence I wrote, I stopped and asked myself whether I was fawning, or whether I was being needlessly nasty.
In the end, here’s the review which appeared on 4 November 2007, but before you read it, I must confess that what I enjoyed most was being able to call my dear friend Namita, one of the most warmhearted and generous people I know, a “ferocious professional” in public.
This is an autobiographical novel whose author was fortunate enough to be steeped, at once, in separate worlds that seldom intersect. Born into a traditional upper-class business family, her mother was well known for her penetrating and humorous art rather than her ikebana or table linen.
At a young age, Namita was sent for music lessons to an area of Bombay that few of her compatriots would have dreamt existed, let alone experienced. When her rendition of a classical raga wins her a school music competition – by a wide margin, one would imagine, considering the years of rigorous training that preceded it – and was met with the taunt, “Heh heh, did you forget the words?” all she could do was to collude with the sniggering.
Soon she was travelling on her own by bus and train to the Mumbai heartland of one BHK flats with noisy steel cupboards and water-shortage, which might even have caused her peers to recoil from her with shuddering looks of alarm had they known. Most exotic and exclusive of her worlds is the one she chose as a backdrop for her debut novel, the world of Indian classical music.
Dhondutai, Namita’s teacher, had inherited the spectacular legacy of the Jaipur gharana and it was a fond dream that Namita would carry it forward into the next generation: “Give up your foolish studies and focus on something you are uniquely gifted with. Anyone can go out and get a BA. It is an insult to God to throw away a gifted voice,” she urges her. With her exposure to the different worlds, Namita already has a perspective that allows her to examine each one and objectively select or discard. Now Dhondutai inducts her into the great secrets of her art. But she teaches more than just music, even more than the rigour of backbreaking practice that holds no room for anything less than perfection. The simple act of making a cup of tea is unobtrusively turned into a lesson on the interconnectedness of all things, and a warning not to allow one’s ego to puff up at every small achievement. When introducing her to the relationship between melody and rhythm, she makes her conscious of the circular recurring rhythms of our own life: breathing, the diurnal routine, and the motions of the universe. Praising a student from England, Dhondutai observes, “It’s their work ethic and desire to succeed against all odds that we should take from the west. Instead, we take the worst – their dress habits and their music!” The secret of performing pure music, she later confides, is that when you are singing a particular raga, you have to train your mind to pretend it is the only raga you know.
Dhondutai’s unrelenting morality, her boundless faith in her gods, her superstitions and her skill at warding off their ill effects, her jealous guardianship of the sacred musical IPR that rests with her, all hold lessons of their own. But the book is also richly strewn with engaging historical facts, and stories about the great singers of yore, about kingdoms where their art was revered and cultivated or sometimes even colonised.
As compelling as any of these legends is the one of how Dhondutai, a young woman from an orthodox Brahmin family, came to acquire her wealth of knowledge from a very traditional family of Muslim men.
At Princeton, Namita’s learning crystallizes, and she tries to put into practice what was written thousands of years ago: “try your best and accept the rest”. She has now acquired for herself a double burden of heavyweight education. One is the unique gift of music in the tradition of the Jaipur gharana which traces itself all the way back to Haridas Swami, guru of Tansen himself, as lovingly tendered by Dhondutai, with all her deep spiritual wisdom in attendance. The other is the degree in political science from Princeton.
Finally choosing to follow neither path but to carve one out for herself, Namita has produced this book. It is thoroughly researched, with deft extrapolation of events from the lives of the great musicians of this gharana such as Kesarbai Kelkar. It is startlingly frank, with intimate events from Namita’s own life and random musings about the teachers. And the imagery is great fun, with a street display of hanging brassieres likened to filigreed stalagmites, and a placid tabla player who plays with his eyes shut likened to a sleeping turtle. Like its author, The Music Room professes an outwardly relaxed and amused demeanour that masks the ferocious professional within. You will want to read it through at one sitting. Enjoy it by all means, but don’t do it this injustice – you’ll miss all the wealth that you can absorb between the lines.