Bengali Music: Of Changing Times and our Robust Aspirations - 3
“Music like religion unconditionally brings in its train all the moral virtues to the heart it enters, even though that heart is not in the least worthy.” Jean Baptiste Montegut
The time in history when Music moved from being an Art form and became an ‘Industry’ as in Commerce, is when problems we seemed to have inherited possibly started. Man moved away from creating, composing and performing and focused this art form to ‘please patrons’ – who in turn passed on the secrets of ‘sharing musical pleasures’ to their kin, and by that, they were certainly the richest of the rich in times gone by.
The visual imagery all too often played over in South Asian movies, of strings of pearls, jewelry and diamonds being flung in appreciation at dancers and singers by Maharajas and their cohorts, are indicators of the wealth and prosperity that logically followed Music Makers, and it would be inappropriate to imagine that this did not lead on to competition. It did, and in most cases, they were of the most unwholesome kind. The Gharana (Music School) Wars revolved around affinity and approachability of musicians to Imperial Courts of the time, to Ministers and noblemen. Musicians moved and jealously guarded their turf, sometimes with deliberate stories that revolved around the surreally absurd – the ‘Star’ was born!
Take for instance the near mythical figure in Mia Tansen in the 16th century courts of Emperor Akbar. It is said that no musicians could claim to be a musician if he was not good enough to ‘challenge’ the court sage and one of Akbar’s acknowledged ‘nine jewels’ of reverence. If any of this is to be believed, the Courts of the Mughals not only set the highest standards in Music, it also laid bare the highest penalty in its cruelty – death - should anybody ever ‘dare’ and fail. It tragically underscores that Music in the Court of the Mughals was akin to Gladiatorial Sports of the Romans, and many gifted musicians actually had to pay the penultimate price with their lives.
Thankfully it had to be the insane captive Baiju Bawra who eventually challenged Tansen, defeated him by ‘melting a marble slab by his song, a feat witnessed by no less than the Emperor’ – and in turn made two wishes to Akbar; wishes which history records were granted. The first that Tansen (who was prepared to be executed should he lose) be spared his life, and secondly that everybody be able to sing. Music in a round about way returned to where it all started -- to the people. Yet what never stopped was other then the ‘marble slab melting’ phenomenon’s, are astounding tales debated for centuries over whether or not Tansen could bring in the rains by singing Megh Malhar or create a forest fire by the Dipak raga?
All these phenomenon borders on the mythically ‘spiritual’ and an element of ‘religiosity’ had made an entry into Music by that time. Making Music that didn’t satiate ears of the royalty was Music not worth the reckoning. Clearly Music by the time of the advent of the overzealous Mughal had become a sanitized ‘upper class’ fare, and as argued earlier, imbibed competition, nepotism and corruption within its practitioner that did more harm then good in the long run.
6. Essence Man: Does Music have a ‘Religion’?
"Music is an agreeable harmony or the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul." - Bela Bartok, 1881-1941
That brings us to focus the hard question if Music has a ‘religion’ as such – or as many of us remain perpetually confused -- is this is a religion in totality, or has the potentiality to be driven by religious rituals? In the case of Muslims in our part of the world the debate of whether or not Music is taboo in Islam has been vexed and unnecessary for if we only look at it historically, three bare and hard facts emerge:
Firstly, Muslims were the ones that first looked at Music as a mathematical science, the calculations in ‘freita’ the precursor to the fret-boards in guitars (also a Muslim invention and a direct descendent of the oud) being the most significant invention and one that have remained untouched and unchanged in that many years. It was a necessary invention because Muslims turned music from a 'hearing' regime to a mathematical science - to take off the stigma of the uneducated wilderness prevalent then, since the Harp was the most 'un-tunable' instrument known to man. Also, it was Muslim musicians who invented harmony as a concept about 1200 years' ago - together with 'tones' the precursor of tonality.
With that came newer inventions like tempo, meter et al. And as if that it isn’t enough – the Betaksari Sufi Order of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim invention ‘Mehtar Bant- Jannissary band’ – or concept of the military marching bands which for centuries accompanied marching Ottoman armies into battle, was a symbol of sovereignty and independence, and its ardent sounds instilled soldiers with strength and courage. The military band was in fact one of the three symbols of independence in Islamic States.
Last if not the least, the greatest of Islam’s contribution to the modern world has been Music that it sent pummeling from the heartlands of Arabia and Persia, to Europe courtesy of the Moors down to the shores of Spain and beyond, the finest of written treatise on Music that date back as much as 1400 years were penned by Muslims and documents evolution of music as a technology with emphasis on instruments, accompaniment and experimentation on newer forms. Fusion between Persian and Vaishnavite forms in Bengal is first thought to have been tried successfully between 1265 and 1325 i.e. in the lifetime of the legendary Amir Khusro and help compliment Islamic music tradition with that of the rich Hindu traditions.
Which brings us to conclude this essay – and confront present realities in Bangladesh, of supposed blood thirsty mullahs hawking hate, and turning against all that we hold most valuable, our tolerant Sufi heritage which fused with the Buddhist and Vaishnavite trait’s of our forefathers --- that not only taught us Music, but fundamentally implanted the first ideas and inspirations that makes us Muslims in the first place today.
Nowhere in the Koran does it claim that Muslims may not indulge in Music, nowhere in the Koran does it say that Music is the ‘devils incarnate’, and nowhere are there any evidence to suggest that all Prophets ending and up to Muhammad (PBUH) the Prophet of Islam, could have consciously overlooked the use of Music – for the rapid and phenomenal spread of religions, at times when Music was the only known, tested and workable method to pass on the Message from the Almighty – to Man.
If there was a rocket science then – it surely was Music. No Prophet of God could have ever been so naïve, to ignore an invention that manifested use of every faculty of the imagination and what better way than to ‘recite and sing correctly’ – note for note that great revelation The Koran – or simply translated from Arabic, The Recitation. ? What better time to surrender in sublimity, in silence, to the Creator than that mellifluous song – the Azaan?
However ‘Essence Man’, stripped off all worldly manifestations, whether that is society, kinship, peer pressures and/or the vexed and misunderstood notion of culture in all his frailty and frivolity is left to question and be questioned during his time on mother earth, ONLY about the ‘ultimate relationship’. By that is meant our tarry with the unseen, unspoken, sexless, formless entity, and whatever he wished to call ‘it’ and decided to give colorful names as the history of creation would attest -- for now we much rather stick to the very simple and un-hazardous English expression ‘God’! Amazed as we are: Mans annihilation of fellow man have been prompted only because it was necessary to promote the ‘superiority’ of our respective Gods?
Humans as a quixotically natural entity, devotes more time to the unseen than the ‘seen’ although he prefers to take principled positions against ‘blind belief’, yet in his psychological design displays pathetic lapses. He is driven by just one specific purpose – in his speech and thought – to speak (sing?) the glory of a God, who ‘lives’ for all practical because – Man lives.
If it weren’t for Man, apparently ‘the best of God’s creation’; one wonders if God would conceivably exist in the sphere of the rationale? If there is a God as most believe, the favours he allegedly did to Man was create him, and the favours he received in return from his ‘creation’ is – he was broken up, split into so many pieces that now, it is very hard to recognize ‘Him’ anymore! He has moved way too far from the soul of Man, to Mosque, Temples, Synagogues…..whatever.
Thus, what is extremely difficult to explain in mans tryst with Music in his destiny is when in the unending quest – which for most part is meant to satiate his ubiquity – we take stock of the complex yet correlative ‘spiritual soul’ – is also very possibly the juncture when religions intervened and derailed individual quests. Religions were invented for institutionalised invocation of deities, ritualized collaborative mass hysteria that could well be controlled or was, if we may a ‘controllable’ phenomenon – yet one only has to stop and reflect on the word ‘control’ alone, is when we begin asking ourselves – ‘who is it that is doing the controlling’ ? Music practitioners then as even today, have their ways to answer those hard questions and bridge conflicts of the spirit.
Some answers may lie in fact that somewhere doing the many unexplained equinox of Mans time on earth, somebody had to ‘play God’, and do it purposefully – somebody had to make that ‘one giant leap for mankind’, to trap him for ions to come ‘half innocently’ in the sphere of the macabre theatre, and permit that ‘wee bit’ of intolerance, turn a blind eye to blind faith, in murders and mayhems all associated again – in the names and debates on the forms of ‘God’. Music practitioners then as even today had ways to see through the glib façade and make every body else see, what the ‘unseen’ would not reveal!
The spirit in us Bengalis have to be rejuvenated by the sole message in these troubled times that Music is still the missile fired by the fastest and keenest, yet harmless weapon delivery system invented by Man, a common indicator of defiance, of resistance of equality and importantly LOVE.