Friday, November 25, 2005

Bengali Music: Of Changing Times and our Robust Aspirations - 3

5. Era of Commercialism: The Dawning of Abuse

“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.

Bengali Music: Of Changing Times and our Robust Aspirations - 2

3. Now and Then: The Hard Job of Songster-ing

"O innocent victims of Cupid, remember this terse little verse: To let a fool kiss you is stupid; to let a kiss fool you is worse." American lyricist E. Y. Harburg (1896-1981)

Since time and space is the hypotheses to advance arguments in this essay – the digression above on poems/SMS was necessary as we have been criminal accomplices to a thought process that dilutes Music, as if it were a ‘stand alone’ entity in our culture. That Music is a hugely mind, imagination driven and an intense cultural component is seldom discussed, and rarely if ever acknowledged by pundits. ‘Writing songs’ has always been made out as the easiest thing possible and lyricists quite unfairly fit into domains of inarticulate and plain ‘dull headed people’ for a starter, condemned to remain the most underrated link in the entire process of ‘songster-ing’ to this day.

Yet in all fairness the responsibility of a lyricist far outstrips those of a Poet, Composer or even the singer. Other than a solid knack for poesy, he has also to be an accomplished mathematician, understanding well the complexity of bars, rhythm, meters, quantize etc, as much as a complete control and mastery of rhymes within lines, to an acute sense of tackling bizarre phenomenon’s that differentiate sound-patterns of a word reflecting its inherent meaning (onomatopoeia) and how they eventually correlate in its completed meaning – and that is not all.

Way before Music could be preserved in what we call ‘recorded’ formats today; the lyricist had to add a ‘signature line’ – stamped as a seal of intellectual proprietorship, the only known way copyrights could be protected. The lyricist had also to handle matters that would best suit musicologists: pre-Chorus, Chorus, Verse, and Bridges – and much, much more before a song could be …well called a song. That is if we are talking only about songs and not music.

Indeed the lyricist/poet/bard took it on himself to imbed in his compositions ‘sound signatures’ (different from signature lines) – which were basically written words that gave directions to what the background scores would be or could be. Who wouldn’t work this hard to protect work – meant he also had the most rudimentary knowledge of intellectual property right laws?

Then there is the very hard job of taking stock of ‘written scores’ for Music. For reasons best know to our beloved ancestors, this was an area that we have remained the weakest, and while International Staff Notations (ISN) and the hand pumped poor mans keyboard – the ‘pseudo-religious’ Harmonium -- were still centuries away, what we have been left with is a legacy of reams upon reams of ancient text, basically lyrics and poems, with absolutely no clue what the tunes were like, and worse if there was at all any music to go with it, that we can recapture for benefit of a millennium audience.

4. The Gaan Wala – Of Music Makers Extraordinary

"There is nothing which tends to develop a higher degree of coordination between mind and body, nothing which demands more accurate thinking, nothing that develops the memory to a larger capacity and a higher degree of responsiveness, nothing that accelerates the mental processes to a greater speed; nothing that imparts a finer sense of form and balance than does Music." - Anonymous.

Music Makers from our tradition were essentially creating history in ways more than one. Music being the vessel that traditionally encapsulated and fired Mans ideas and inspirations at the shortest possible time to move the farthest at speeds that could never be determined, controlled or manipulated – meant Music and its Makers were viewed with understandable awe and reverence. What a ‘gaan wala’ could accomplish in minutes – in only a few lines – authors, poets, playwrights, journalists i.e., the entire gamut of ‘wordsmiths’ could never ever contemplate in thousand and thousands of words, and a lifetime would go by without even being noticed.

He was an acknowledged authority on how the complete idea of a Novel or Novelette could be interpreted in less that 10 lines, or maybe less than 50 words, of how a ‘cold poem’ written on colder paper, or a magnum opus play, tucked in an ignored corner of some ‘rich archive’ of useless paraphernalia’s (with or without dry rose petals!) could be literally lapped, wrapped, gift packed and power-delivered to please the auditory senses of fellow Man.

There was also the reinterpretation of ancient words that happily addresses our recent problems whether they be in our spiritual, private or public realms, to the more rudimentary and basic needs in difficult times – an old story that stood tests of times and answers our diabolical distresses, a battle cry here, a rallying point there, a song that unifies in seconds despite all our frailties, surprising even the politicians who have pathologically divided us in the decades gone by.

Importantly Music lays bare the critical synergy that beguiles us between the ‘spirit’ as in spiritual – as opposed to ‘religious’ as in religion. Music is hope, because it takes grueling hard work bordering on ‘divinity’ and is the end results of very many in the creative process: lyricists, composers, singers, musicians – and the audience or listener who then accepts or rejects the final outcome.

In the centuries gone by ‘Making Music’ in Bengal was never a profession, nor restricted to any particular class or community, neither were they commissioned works. More often they flowed from inspirations dictated by time. They were thoughts and aspirations of men and women of great wisdom and intellect, whose talent lay in fact that they best knew the fastest way to communicate, a skill which is inherent in Man’s nature. Music attracted our ancestors as it had the innate ability to capture the speed of Time – at any time, and Music Makers were always a time driven and restless lot, who wanted to ‘move furthest’ in the mental realms, when all too often, it was not possible to do so physically

Why we sing when we can very well talk, write and hear is unknown, but social-scientists find Music’s dominant acceptability in all cultures and societies because it has valuable therapeutic qualities. Other than creating a rush of adrenalin and the whole retinue of merry-making, dancing, festivities that it triggers, it also played a significant part in calming the human race: chants and incantations were possibly initial music forms which invoked deeper contemplations and meditation all too often leading to tears, as much as on the flip side, rapturous serotonin ‘spiritual highs’ representing the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ dance ensembles of the 13th Century Sufi orders in the Ottoman Empire.

Quintessentially, it is also in Music that we have the ‘all in one’ geniuses to contend with – men and women who are lyricists, poets, composer and performers. From Man’s earliest time this breed has carved its niche and its individual schools of thoughts. Ironic that it is possibly because of the accomplishments of these ‘one-man citadels’ that Music as indicated earlier has been confused a ‘stand alone’ entity. Ruefully – it may not be inappropriate to make a note at this point: Music like many other demanding fields of performing arts, is not Democratic – but feudal and autocratic in character, and explains why at the dawn of civilisation, as and when Music came to be noticed, it was the landed gentry, and aristocrats who turned its biggest patrons and promoters. They well understood the phenomenal possibilities at exploitation simply by being associated with the fine arts and in a round about way helped retained some of the oldest forms in it originality, by infusion of wealth.

Bengali Music: Of Changing Times and our Robust Aspirations - 1

1. Borrowed Time and the Great Bengali Shock:

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

It is usually at the dawning of a new age that we ponder on times gone by and the new millennium as sheer luck would place us in - is one such. It is all the more important that we start penciling in issues more than events over the centuries, on where we might have gone wrong and adjusting our priorities is the right way forward, and perhaps the only known mechanism for something as intangible as ‘cultural enquiries’ to commence.

At the outset it is pertinent to point out exactly what this essay is not about. It is not a discussion on individual songs or the major players or trends and styles: this is a deconstruction derby, a pointed reminder that we Bengalis have never looked at Music beyond spheres of the curious, tokenistic or worse a cliché driven necessity to ‘earn’ social acceptability bordering on an ever hard to attain elitism. We have remained by choice ‘music illiterate’ and the sorry state we are in today – speaks all the louder about our ingrained ignorance, which tragically has become our racial trait.

This essay is all about the character and composition of what constituted Music over centuries, and how they shaped our Bengali lives, what they meant to us then, and how do we mean them today. Importantly this is an attempted cultural commentary coming at a time when Bangladesh is supposedly beset and gripped with very many forces of strife. For the moment we believe, or are being led to believe that an emerging neo-theocracy championed by mullahs hawking hate have gained strategic advantage, and are apparently all set to derail, outclass, outwit and make redundant all our accumulated cultural gains of centuries.

This ‘belief’ being a wake-up call at best, is also a clearly indicator that the gongs for many rounds of cultural punch-ups have been ominously sounded, and the bout has all but begun. It is not the first time that this has happened; neither will it be the last, but the fight and our struggle for cultural emancipation can be more focused and in perspective, if we can look back at our acquired strength – and nurture a hope – a big HOPE at that, that nothing is lost. Our gains over centuries indicate many things about our culture not all of which may make us extremely happy – but what it does not is fragility – so let’s start with a happy note here. But at what point can we can nail things down and say ‘here is where our woes began’?

In all probabilities it was when we started mixing one too many social stimuli in our life, which ought not to have been the case at all. For instance, Politics driven by Culture usually produced high degree of Civility – whilst nothing can be plainly more horrific than Culture driven by Politics, which is acquiescing to macabre theatres of those that we call ‘uncultured’. Bangladesh thoughtlessly has allowed itself a front spectator seat to unreal shadow boxing of friends, fiends and foe, willing victims (collaborators?) of our historical follies – the question here is what convinces us so emphatically that this is only the beginning of the last fight? Let us not even talk about Politics dominating Religion or vice versa!!

It is thus, not surprising that millennium Cultural debates in Bangladesh have all been about how we intend to position our culture in face of challenges of a new world with the infectious dynamics of ‘time’ and to take stock on available variables that convinces us -- things are ‘just alright’? Do we have undetected ill health regimes or more sinister, have ‘they’ already overtaken our otherwise robust aspirations? For now there is no answer.

2. ‘Time Critical’ in Critical Times:

"Time will take your money, but money won't buy time." American country singer James Taylor

Cultures definition being as skewered and complex as Economics; one is left only with the faculty of non-condescending minds to fall back and record nuggets that ‘time’ has an uncanny ability to throw up to our faces and change the way we have been thinking or acting. Time moves way too fast these days, displace, and ‘makes history’ what we thought were ‘new ideas and newer philosophies’ – if we had stumbled into them only about 48 hours too late? Everything evolves, revolves and dissolves around the new cult expression ‘Time Critical’ -- Culture and its many components and composites being no exception to the rule.

If the expression ‘time is money’ was bane in our good old ‘Marxist progressive days’ when we indulged in that stimulating ‘high art of adda’ to make our presence felt – today to survive similar millennium variations in ‘cool joints’ – if one is less than a few minutes ‘behind times’ to the latest jargon, the newest body language – well, too bad -- you are OUT of the IN crowd. Even before you had time to settle down on your ‘laid back’ back - be prepared for a 14-year old out there to blow to smithereens your fossilized 40-something ‘convictions’ – for strong as you thought they have made you over the years – they do not unfortunately represent TIME as current as last week, worse even the last hour.

Culture is all about the central nervous system – however never before in Mans history has critical interaction time dwindled down from seconds, millisecond to the now -- ‘nanoseconds’ – the dawdle clock certainly looks like doodling its way out!

With changing times, it is not unusual that critiques and alternative opinions overtly come into foreplay. Culture have more ‘acculturative elements’ than we may appreciate, that have remained at perpetual loggerheads and challenged the parameters of what we had previously ‘deified’ and thought were unchangeably ‘stagnant’. The dynamics of Time now compels us to juxtapose realties we see on a day-to-day basis and turn those into deeper introspections on newer trends with the forever ‘happening millennium devices’ that have more or less overtaken our lives and made us its willing captives.

Gone are the days when we put ‘pen into paper’ to write out whatever it was egging our creative faculties. Today we tap fingers on keyboards (sometimes held painfully pleasurably in our palms) that electronically conjure our thoughts into ‘screens’— that we manipulate till it turns ‘pretty-pretty cyberically’ --- walla for the world to see, or is it that the world has instead turned right around and made a precision landing on our fingers by a quirk of fortune!

Gone are the incurably romantic times when we wrote poems ‘burning precious midnight oil’ – and ‘offerings to our beloved’ were papers masked by fresh petals aroma of ‘martyr’ rose -- where we faultlessly inked in our revered, secret and sacred thoughts to that ONE person on earth who mattered and all else could well --- ‘go to hell’!

Today we receive cold SMS text (love) messages from total strangers that have a tendency to jump right into your cell phones with unabashed alacrity especially at times when one is least prepared. Critically it could well be in a language we still haven’t mastered: Sample - ‘Ilu’ for ‘I love you’ or ‘Atbb’ – ‘ami tomai bhalobashi’ among so many other ‘gr8’ ‘great’ stuff – ‘newayz’!

If that isn’t hard enough to swallow, it had to be the maverick Nirmalendu Goon who is probably the only poet on face of planet earth to have written an entire book of poems by SMS text in 2004. “Muthofoner Kabyo” -- ‘Grip’ Phone Poems — is an almost unheard of cultural icon which confirms decisively that Bangladesh’s literati have caught up with changing times and embraced the new millennium without thinking of batting an eyelid twice. Notice the munificence in choice of the Bengali word ‘muthofone’ which implies, not the cell phone, but the ‘grip’ with which we hold those precious devices in our palms or is it vice versa? Bengalis as a race will continue to thrive on its faithful representation of the ironic.