In The sword and the flute, an exquisite documentary on Indian culture told entirely with miniature paintings, the court and the temple offer clashing views of human experience. The dominance of the 16th-century Muslim Mughal emperor, Akbar, adopts a symbiosis with the Hindu Rajputs that is evident in Indian music even today. The lighter-skinned potentate stands respectfully while hearing the great Tansen sing songs that depict the cowherd girls sporting with a dark, flute-wielding god, Krishna himself. Thus the ascetic meets the worldly in a rich mulligatawny brew.
That courtly Northern master, Amir Khan, was in a similar stance to the Southern Balasaraswati family style. It was mutual admiration, and he always stayed with Bala when he had a concert in Madras. One could hazard that two minorities, the Muslim and the devadāsī temple-dancer caste, were equally challenged to excel. Khansahab’s father didn’t let him perform in public until he was thirty; Bala’s and Viswa’s performances, stellar though they might have been, were met only with fault-finding from their mother Jayammal.
The dynamic of North/South borrowing today retains the Mughal/Rajput imbalance: There are numerous examples of Karnatak musicians doing credible and even excellent renditions in Hindustani style, but the reverse is not true.
Amir Khan, however, was an alert witness to the depth in the Balasaraswati style, where some of the most inventive and profound music could happen in friendly competition between Bala and Viswa while sitting around preparing the evening meal. Because Bala engaged even me in lick-trading at her house, it’s hard to imagine musical exchanges not arising with some frequency, on an Olympian level, between herself, Viswa, and Khansahab during his stays.
And yet the same Karnatak rāga Chārukeshī, from Amir Khan and, say, M.S. Subbulakshmi, reflects these contrasting world-views.
From the get-go Amir Khan diverged. He learned sāraṅgī from his father before settling on singing. He introduced a super-slow version of tālas for the dhrupad-like development of his slow khayāls. And he appropriated rāgas and rhythmic concepts from Karnatak music. I think these came especially from the family of Balasaraswati.
Without a gecko on the wall, we can only guess at the specific nature of Amir Khan’s musical exchanges with Bala and her family when he stayed with them in Madras. He surely kept his own twice-daily riyāz practice, as he did with me in my Calcutta flat. I remember the house scene in Madras as rāga- and tāla-soaked, continually.
Here I’m thinking about Ranganathan, Bala’s brother and one of my first Indian teachers at Wesleyan. In addition to the special skills needed to accompany dance, like any good mṛdaṅgam player Ranga never stopped figuring out pieces, at or away from the instrument. In his final days, bed-ridden, he seemed to do nothing but. At odd hours, he’d call up old students like me:
Tom. This one’s in khaṇḍa [5 beats]. Do you have a pencil and paper? Any number fits in this piece. They won’t get it because it’s anti-dramatic. [By “they” he meant the general Indian audience.]
Two people are talking. At each exchange, the first person (A) keeps his speed, while the second (B) talks slower. So it’s
B: 2x. [Twice as slow]
B: 4x. [Four times as slow]
This gives you 10 exes, so everything fits in five beats, regardless of the value of x. So for the tisra (3) version of this ingenious little piece (spoken simply as ta ki ta), you’d have:
A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (3) ta ki ta
A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (6) ta – ki – ta –
A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (12) ta – – – ki – – – ta – – –
which gives 30, a multiple of 5. Try it with 4, 7, 9 . . . they all work!
Wow. I’m not a math person, but this is elegance itself. It’s really a paradigm for making more pieces, itself a model modularity.
Although Bala refrained from improvised swaras in performance (“too unladylike”!), the entire family were rhythm whizzes, and it’s very likely that such pieces as Ranga’s were aired while Amir Khan was a guest. In a rare interview, Khansahab speaks of his rhythmic approach in the dhrut (quick) sections of his music. Without acknowledging the devadāsī family specifically, he rattles off the classic Karnatak jātīs (in the traditional order!): chatusra, tisra, misra, khaṇḍa, and sankīrna, 4, 3, 7, 5, and 9.
Amir Khan was of course also a master of North Indian rhythmic approaches. There was, for instance, a legendary exchange of sophisticated pieces one evening between him and the great tablist Ahmedjan Thirakwa. But he obviously benefited from his stays with perhaps the most eminent music and dance family of the South.