Book: Voice of the Veena – S Balachander by Vikram Sampath

“Voice of the Veena – S. Balachander, A biography”, by Vikram Sampath, Rain Tree (Rupa Publications), 2012


S. Balachander, best known to many of us as a veena maestro, was very different from the musicians one usually comes across. He was much more than just a great vainika. A man with strong convictions, he stood up for what he believed was the truth, even if this meant he was standing alone against the rest of the world. He was often at odds with others and consequently, his was a life mired in controversies.

It is surprising to note that despite his monumental contributions to multiple fields, many of which he was self-taught in, and despite of his work having inspired so many people, not much has been written about him yet. It is as though many conveniently choose to forget/ ignore him and his contributions. Vikram Sampath’s latest book, the biography of this multi-faceted maverick genius, is thus a very welcome one.

It is not an easy task to write the biography of someone like Balachander and Vikram seems to have done a commendable job. He has tried his best to look at things impartially without seeming to get too much emotionally entangled with the subject. Sufficient details have been provided about the different things Balachander tried his hands at (carnatic percussion, sitar, cinema, veena etc) and about his key contributions to these, especially to the art of veena playing. Balachander’s mercurial rise in a field which was, at that time, dominated by very talented vocalists, his contributions towards making carnatic music internationally popular, his open mindedness at absorbing goodness irrespective of where it came from, his contribution to veena playing (including the changes he brought in to both the instrument as well as the  to the style of playing), his tussle with the establishment and his involvement in controversies (including the Swati Tirunal one) are very well documented. The book also provides a beautiful summary of the changes that both Carnatic music and the environment in which it existed underwent over the years.

I would recommend this book as a must read for anyone involved with art music just for the collection of Balachander’s thoughts gleaned from his dairy/ album entries and his speeches, if not for anything else.

Book: A.R. RAHMAN – The Spirit of Music

Read “A.R.RAHMAN – The Spirit of Music” today. It is a compendium of conversations that the author Nasreen Munni Kabir had with Rahman over a period of four years, all of it presented in one go (not divided into chapters/ sections per se).


  • Though a lot of the information in the book is already available in the public domain, it does carry that “authenticity” as coming straight from Rahman himself
  • There are ample details around Rahman’s thoughts on composing music, on spirituality and on life in general
  • There is a complete discography at the end of the book covering all of Rahman’s work till 2010
Some lines from the book that I really liked:
  • If you think in terms of success and failure, you can end up becoming too careful and lose the joy of creating music
  • I think people who stop thinking we’re all ordinary people, lose it all. It’s very important to stay grounded
  • Working within your own limitations can bring good results
  • As life unfolds itself to a man, the first lesson it teaches is humility; the first thing that comes to man’s vision is his own limitedness
Let downs: This book is touted as an official biography, but the way it is, I am not really sure if it can be called one. The Q&A format is fine, but it doesn’t give the book a flow.  There is really not much additional information on Rahman apart from what his fans already know about him from the public domain or from his fans email group.

Book: Hindustani Music – A Tradition in Transition

“Hindustani Music – A Tradition in Transition” (D.K.Printworld, 2005) is a collection of Deepak Raja’s writings on Hindustani Music.

The book is divided into 5 parts. Part 1 titled “Culture, Technology and Economics” discusses the changes that have happened in Hindustani Music and to its patronage over the years, the economics of Hindustani Music as a profession, the Hindustani Music market and how to make it more efficient, how musical achievement means different things to different performers/ listeners and the archival of music and its effects on the performers/ rasikas. Deepak discusses the problems he feels have led to the dilution of Hindustani Classical Music post its Golden Age.

Part 2 titled “Form, Idiom and Format” details the format of different forms of Hindustani Music, the way these forms have been handled by different performers, the increase in popularity of instrumental music, the ‘innovations’ made to make certain instruments suit Hindustani Music and presents a critical view on jugalbandis and tihayis. Part 3 titled “The World of Ragas” deals with the concept of ragas, their grammar, their transformations, their evolution and the time theory. It also has a chapter on how melody, poetry and rhythm have manifested themselves in the different forms of Hindustani Music and through the instruments – sitar, sarod, flute and santoor. Part 4 titled “The Major Genres” introduces the genres – Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumri and Tappa. Part 5 titled “The Major Instruments” discusses 8 instruments (Rudra Vina, Sitar, Surbahar, Sarod, Santoor, Shehnai, Sarangi and Indian Classical Guitar) – their construction, contribution to Hindustani music, musicians whose names are associated with them etc. The book ends with a bulky glossary that covers many terms one might come across while studying/ discussing Hindustani Music.

Deepak seems to have the ability to structure his thoughts very well and coin his own terms that aid in presenting the same to the reader. This along with his musical training and stints in journalism enables him to do justice to his analysis of topics related to music and mostly argue his points of view well.

A thought provoking book that I would highly recommend to performers, rasikas, music lovers and students of Indian Classical Music.

Book: The Lost World of Hindustani Music – by Kumar Prasad Mukherji

Anybody who comes in contact with Indian Classical musicians and/or moves around for quite some time in the ‘music circle’ will hear a lot of stories and anecdotes, not just about the current crop of musicians, but also about past practitioners. Many of these usually cannot be verified but do serve as the primary source of insights into the life and times of the masters, especially due to the dearth of written material on Indian Classical Music in general and on such topics in particular.

There have been attempts in the written form in the recent past at tracing the evolution of Hindustani Music and its Gharanas, at trying to make Hindustani Music easier to understand to the lay reader/listener and at chronicling the life of  the great masters.  If there is one book that tries to do all of this together, it is Kumar Prasad Mukherji’s “The Lost World of Hindustani Music” (Penguin Books, 2006). The following are some reasons that, in my opinion, combine to make this one of the most interesting reads on Hindustani music:

  • Kumar da, the author, was an accomplished musician himself, apart from being a rasika, a music critic and an organizer of music festivals
  • He did a lot of (formal) research into the music of the masters of different gharanas. This adds richness and a certain authenticity to the observations he makes vis-a-vis those made by other writers who, though endowed with good language skills, may not have been musically that adept
  • He had many  opportunities to interact/move around with other musicians from which he managed to collect a lot of stories/anecdotes
  • He seems to have read a lot of other books on the subject and has drawn references from them extensively
  • He wrote this book towards the very fag end of his life which enabled him to pen down most of his musical experiences with a maturity that usually only comes with many quality years of serious/passionate pursuit of music

Book: “Raga’n Josh – Stories from a Musical Life” by Sheila Dhar

Sheila Dhar had the knack for penning down in an interesting manner, her experience interacting with different people she came across in her life. In her book “Raga’n Josh – Stories from a Musical Life” (Black Kite, 2005) that combines her two earlier books “Here’s Someone I’d Like You to Meet” and “The Cooking of Music and Other Essays”, she writes about her interactions with bureaucrats and musicians, about her experience listening to some of the great masters of Hindustani Classical music and about her own thoughts on Indian Classical Music and the changes it has gone through during her times. Neither does she make attempts to unduly glorify the people (especially the musicians) she writes about, nor does she make attempts to tarnish their characters. Their frailties, wherever indicated, just give us a better idea of their personalities as a whole.
Coming back to the book, chapters 4 to 9 contain many interesting anecdotes related to the musicians Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Bundu Khan, Pandit Pran Nath, Begum Akhtar, Ustad Fayyaz Ahmed and Niaz Ahmed, Siddheshwari Bai and Kesar Bai Kerkar. Sheila writes about Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s fondness for good non-vegetarian food, which was almost a prerequisite for him to sing well, and his initial aversion towards getting recorded on the radio based on his belief that the microphone would suck out all the life from his voice. She describes how Ustad Bundu Khan was always absorbed in his music, how he played his sarangi at every single opportunity that presented itself – sometimes even playing for the flowers that bloomed during spring time and about how much precious he considered the art of Indian Classical Music to be. She describes her tutelage under Pandit Pran Nath and his strong views about the superiority of the style of music he had learnt/imbibed. The chapters on Pran Nath and Begum Akhtar contain some beautiful one-liners that summarize what many musicians/rasikas usually only realize after many years of practice/listening. The chapter on Siddeshwari Bai makes an interesting observation on how circumstances make rivals out of contemporaries and how despite admiring each other, artists might still resort to making snide remarks against each other. This is something I can see happening in the music circle today also.
The best part of her book to me is “Part II: The Cooking of Music and Other Essays”. This is where she condenses years of her experience in Hindustani Classical music into a few really powerful essays. One has to read these to experience the richness in the content. Put together, these offer a concise tutorial on Hindustani music and offer a lot of food for thought. Some of her conclusions, especially those regarding the changes that have happened in the field, are debatable but nevertheless it is interesting to know her points of view on these matters.
To summarize, this is one of the most interesting books I have read in the recent past and one that I would highly recommend to all connoiseurs of good writing, in general, and Indian Classical Music, in particular.

Book: A Rasika’s Journey Through Hindustani Music by Rajeev Nair

Though there are many books on Hindustani Music, Rajeev Nair’s “A Rasika’s Journey Through Hindustani Music” is one of the few I would highly recommend to all rasikas of Hindustani Music – from the uninitiated to the seasoned ones. Rajeev’s mastery over the English language is no surprise I guess, given that he is a teacher of English Literature at St. Stephens College, Delhi. The author’s literary prowess aside, what is really special about the book is that instead of dwelling a lot on technical details, Rajeev has chosen to elaborate his own musical experience, drawing from other writers on the subject, wherever required. He uses a lot of metaphors, especially while talking about the music the masters produced (sometimes at the risk of overdoing it).

The book starts by describing the different musical forms of Hindustani Music, their origins, their evolution and their decline (wherever applicable). It then goes on to describe the major vocal gharanas in Dhrupad and Khayal, their origins, their development, their characteristic features and the singers who contributed to their development. The raaga system and association of ragas with time are also touched upon. All this is completed within the first 80 pages of the book itself. The rest 300+ pages are devoted to description of music of the great masters and their contributions. Both vocalists and instrumentalists are covered in sufficient detail. Apart from biographical and other important details pertaining to their gharanas/ lineage, significant space is devoted to discussing the music they produced in live concerts as well as in their recordings. Every time I read about a song rendered by an artist that the author described about, I just felt the need to procure it to relish the music and the author’s portrayal of the same.

2 states – the story of my marriage (Chetan Bhagat)

Chetan Bhagat’s “2 states – the story of my marriage(Fiction, Rupa & Co., Oct 2009), said to be inspired from happenings in his own life, is a story of how two IIM-A classmates – Krish Malhotra (a Punjabi boy) and Ananya Swaminathan  (a Tamil girl) fall in love with each other but have to deal with the problem of their parents not agreeing to their marriage.

Though the plot is very predictable and very much like the way most Bollywood movies would tackle such a subject, Chetan kept my attention throughout with his simple, witty writing. Having lived in the north (with many Punjabi friends) and by virtue of my living now in Chennai, I could relate to a lot of things Chetan has written. Given that Chetan’s books usually come across as apt material or as inspiration for movie scripts, we will have to see if a movie is made out of this one. Or may be he wrote the book with a movie project in mind/ already signed.

50 Maestros, 50 Recordings

50 Maestros, 50 Recordings” (HarperCollins Publishers, Dec 2009) is a tribute to select masters of Indian Classical Music who influenced its authors Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan (sons of sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan) the most. It starts with a very brief introduction to Indian Music – Carnatic and Hindustani, with a short explanation of some of the most often used terms in both the systems. There is a short chapter on each of the great artists consisting of

  • a short ‘bio’-like introduction
  • memories of the authors’ interaction with the artist or of having heard their father or of other elderly musicians talk about the artist
  • a list of select recordings of the artist
  • photographs of the artists, many a times taken with the authors

The book also comes along with a CD that contains 27 tracks performed by some of the artists covered in the book.

The target audience seems to be people looking for an introduction to Indian music and its maestros. It could include people who are new to one or both systems of Indian Classical music (Carnatic and Hindustani) and need help in identifying whom to and what to listen to. The book is certainly not a collection of biographies or a detailed account of what constitutes Carnatic or Hindustani music and anybody reading the book with such expectations is bound to get disappointed.

The artists covered in the book are:

  • Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan
  • Ustad Abdul Karim Khan
  • Ustad Ahmed Jaan Thirakhwa
  • Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
  • Ustad Amir Khan
  • Ustad Amjad Ali Khan
  • Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna
  • Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan
  • Begum Akhtar
  • Pandit Bhimsen Joshi
  • Ustad Bismillah Khan
  • D.K. Pattammal
  • Pandit D.V. Paluskar
  • Ustad Enayat Khan
  • Ustad Faiyaz Khan
  • Dr. Gangubai Hangal
  • Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan
  • Girija Devi
  • Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan
  • Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia
  • Ustad Imdad Khan
  • Pandit Jasraj
  • Surashri Kesarbhai Kerkar
  • Pandit Kishan Maharaj
  • Kishori Amonkar
  • Pandit Kumar Gandharva
  • Dr. L. Subramaniam
  • Maharajapuram V. Santhanam
  • M.L. Vasanthakumari
  • Mogubai Kurdikar
  • M.S. Subbulakshmi
  • Pandit Nikhil Banerjee
  • Pandit Omkarnath Thakur
  • Begum Parveen Sultana
  • Ustad Rais Khan
  • Pandit Ravi Shankar
  • S. Balachander
  • Pandit Samta Prasad
  • Semmangudi R. Srinivasa Iyer
  • Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma
  • Shobha Gurtu
  • T.R. Mahalingam
  • Pandit V.G. Jog
  • Ustad Vilayat Khan

There are short chapters on duets between the following artists at the end:

  • Ustad Alla Rakha and Ustad Zakhir Hussain
  • Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna
  • Ustad Bismillah Khan and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan
  • Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar
  • Ustad Rais Khan and Ustad Sultan Khan
  • Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Bismillah Khan