Around 1925-26, I had been to Delhi to undertake a political study–to gain knowledge about the condition, status, and the future of India’s Princely States. I met Captain Ajab Khan to gather information about the army and other personnel employed by the Princely States. Ajab Khan hailed from Punjab. He had served as a Commander of one of the units engaged in the First World War (1914-18). He had been nominated as a Member of the then Rajya Sabha. Right Honourable Srinivasa Sastri had written a letter of introduction to the Captain after suggesting to me that Ajab Khan would supply the most accurate information and details that I needed.
Ajab Khan expressed joy upon reading the letter and asked me to meet him the next morning in his room at Hotel Maidens where he was lodged. Accordingly, when I arrived there, Ajab Khan warmly greeted me, “come, let’s first finish breakfast and return here. We can then talk in leisure.” When I expressed my apologies that I wasn’t supposed to eat out, he said, “That’s ok. You can sit next to me and join the conversation with my friends who’ll meet me there. Okay?”
The Renown of Vina Seshanna
This exchange took place on the threshold of Ajab Khan’s room. And even as we were talking, a prominent-looking man emerged from the adjacent room and said salaam to Khan Saheb. In turn, Khan Saheb introduced me to him.
“He is Sir Harichandra Vishan Rai from the Sindh Province, owner of several mills. He is someone you must necessarily be introduced to.”
Then he introduced me as someone from Bangalore. Rai turned to me and asked: “Bangalore…Bangalore belongs to the Mysore Country, right?”
Me: “Yes. Bangalore is the chief city of the Mysore Princely State. Mysore city is the residence of the Maharaja and therefore its capital.”
Rai: “There’s a musician named Seshanna in Mysore. Correct? Do you know him?”
Me: “I know Sri Seshanna slightly. He’s elder to me in all respects–tremendously elder. It would be brash to state that I know him well.”
Rai: “If you indeed know him, I need a favour from you.”
Me: “I shall treat it as a command. If it is within my capacity and ability, I shall gladly do it.”
Rai: “I have savoured Seshanna’s Vina recitals on three or four occasions in Bangalore. Now I wish to savour it once more. I’m eighty now. Therefore, I lack the courage to travel so far, to Mysore, at this age. If he is willing to grace Mumbai, I shall gladly bear all expenses. It’s my desire to listen to that Vina at least once more before I die.”
* * *
How can I express the surge of immense pride I felt when I heard these words? Just as India earned renown in other countries as “Gandhi’s country,” Mysore had earned fame as “Seshanna’s country” in other regions [of India].
The purpose of narrating this anecdote is to illustrate the musical fame that Mysore enjoyed at a certain point in history.
It could be said that the Mysore State occupied a prime spot among all places in South India that were renowned for music. Or one can equate the fame of Mysore with that of Tanjavur.
Indeed, this prestige had originated much before Seshanna’s period. Krishnaraja Wodeyar III had earned profound scholarship and mastery in the theory, practice, and traditions of music. He not only created musical compositions but gave generous patronage to countless music Vidwans. Prominent Vidwans included Vina Sambayya, Sadashiva Rao, Shivaramayya, Padmanabhayya and others. Of these greats, several have remained as mere names today; details of their lives have not been recorded anywhere.
In the realm of music, Bangalore never attained the stature that Mysore did. The reason behind Mysore’s distinction lies in the abundance of Vidwat [loosely: scholarship, learning, etc], and the reason in turn for this abundance is the royal patronage it enjoyed.
It is said that in a democracy, there’s little encouragement and patronage for arts like music, dance and sculpture. Another viewpoint argues that this is not true. Some folks point in the direction of Europe and America and claim that there is enormous patronage in these countries for painting, museums, sculpture, miniature art, plays, and music.
A Medium for Sensual Pleasure
It appears that there is a point to ponder in the foregoing view. The ordinary people in the Western countries are typically interested in the sensual pleasures and luxuries at the bodily level. In their perspective, even art is a vehicle, instrument and tool that affords physical pleasure.
They go out to someplace in the evenings and spend time leisurely. Having been fatigued from working for eight or ten hours in the factory or office, the mind needs relaxation and levity. Music, dance, art galleries…those people dress up trimly in the evenings and visit music halls, dance and drama theatres, and so on. And there, loud music like that of Jazz become vehicles for passing time. Mere passing of time–meaning, as a method for forgetting their boredom and worries.
Indeed, there’s nothing wrong in this. Programmes of this nature are awaited and welcomed by a large number of people. Entertainment is a necessity for the mind just as food for the body.
But there are gradations in food. Some people feel content soon after their hunger is sated. What such people mainly need is size and quantity. It’s not that they don’t appreciate taste, variety, and variety in taste. But in their case, the size of the portion invariably takes precedence over taste.
But those endowed with a higher level of refinement place the greatest emphasis on Rasa (enjoyment) over size and quantity. They savour just one or two spoonsful. But in those paltry spoonsful, they need the fragrance of cardamom, of Kesari, of camphor. To such folks, the perfume of sandalwood, flowers and incense must gently waft all around the room as they’re eating their meal. Melodious music must play in the background. Indeed, it was customary to chant Vedic Suktas (verses) and do recitals of Ramayana, etc during lunch time.
A simple meal of Ragi Balls and gruel most certainly quells hunger. Equally, from the perspective of merely the physical body, an elaborate and opulent meal also performs the same function. But then, an opulent meal accomplishes two things: in it, mental exuberance joins bodily nourishment, and as a result of this exuberance, the mind attains renewed energy and vigour.
Fulfilment of Life
In the same manner, the realm of art is two-pronged. Actually, three-pronged.
At first, it becomes a vehicle, tool, instrument or means for passing time. Then it becomes entertaining as well. And then, after the mind has blossomed, it might become life-fulfilling. What is meant by life-fulfilling is this: a temporary suspension of the routine and ceaseless business of the mind and turning towards deeper quests and pursuits.
Those who listen to or read Ramayana and Mahabharata might appreciate merely the storytelling technique. Others maybe elated by the descriptions and dialogue. The mind thus elated may also turn to the deeper questions of life.
In the silence that lingers in our ears after listening to a Tyagaraja Kriti, we detect a note that emanates from the profound depths of our heart. That note is the life-fulfilling music.
In the Era of Democracy
Does art of this nature and standard obtain patronage in an era of democracy?
It can’t be claimed that art in the West hasn’t attained this standard. The paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and others in the halls of the Pope’s Church in Rome depict scenes from the life of Jesus Christ and his disciples in an extraordinarily life-like manner. In the same manner, saints like Cardinal Newman and others have sung some soulful devotional songs. In recent times, I’ve heard that sculptors like Epstein have carved masterpieces that reflect deep emotions, which touch our lives. It is said that the oceanic melodies of Beethoven, Bach and others flowed, pouring out various Rasas such as Adbhuta (Wonder), Karuna (Pathos), and Vira (Heroic).
Given this, we must concur that there exists in the art of Europe a life-elevating element. However, our question at present is this: is there encouragement, patronage and respect for this sort of life-elevating art in the age where the emphasis is on the citizen?
It is doubtless that there definitely is patronage and appreciation for an ordinary standard of music in the current age. Those in the kitchen come out upon hearing the rhythmic and loud beats of the drummer (Tammate) on the streets. All the kids at home perk up their ears when songs like “La-re-lappa la-re-lappa,” “C-A-T Cat, Cat maane billi” emerge from the radio or gramophone. Our youth congregate by the dozen outside cinema halls or hotels to gawk at the colourful posters and to listen to the songs played from within.
All of this is just one level of art: it generates endearing pleasure to the sense organs. But how many people are there who can truly appreciate an art that is far elevated than this level?
Necessity of Samskara
A fair amount of Samskara [broadly: culture, refinement] is essential to understand and appreciate the nuances of a higher standard of art. So, does this sort of Samskara exist among common citizens?
Historians have deduced that the plebians of ancient Greece in the city of Athens possessed such Samskara. These Athenian plebians had the faculty of critically analyzing the merits of the plays of such literary luminaries as Aristophanes, Aeschylus and others when they were staged.
Be that as it may. It cannot be said that the people of our own country, at least in the present time, are not endowed with that standard of refinement. Today, even those who call themselves educated are under the illusion that gaudy colours, bombastic usage of language, and loud singing constitutes high art. At a wedding, after the main rituals were complete and it was time for Tambula, a gentleman apparently questioned, “What’s this? I don’t hear any auspicious noises?” He was obviously referring to music. Perhaps the quality of music out there deserved his description!
What this shows is that our people haven’t cultivated the inner Samskara essential for savouring refined art. The conclusion that flows from this examination is the fact that royal patronage is necessary for the flourishing of excellence in art. The Mysore Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III provided precisely this kind of unstinted and munificient patronage to Vidwans after subjecting them to arduous examination. It was due to this that the artistic prestige of the Mysore Princely State grew, flourished and endured.
A Commerical Mindset
Today, in an era of democracy, Rajas and Maharajas have become extinct and zamindars have fallen to the streets. Given this, the patronage provided to the arts will not be conducive for nurturing excellence in art. Today, anything that captures the fancy of the masses is considered art and regarded as valuable. And any art that brings more customers to a business is defined as true art.
In the earlier days, there used to be a guy named Gidda Jatti (literally, “Short Wrestler”). He was enormously wealthy but also a severe miser. He would routinely abuse and chase away any Brahmana who came to him asking for Dakshina. However, on one occasion, a Brahmana came determined to obtain Dakshina from him. The wrestler posed him a challenge: “I will give you a Rupee if you compose a Mantra in my honour.” The Brahmana: “Oh ho! Why not? I’ll compose it right away!”
kubjo mallAkhyah |
mallAkhyO brahmaNAn |
brahmaNAn bAdhate ||
The Short Wrestler |
The Short Wrestler, the Brahmanas|
The Brahmanas he does torment ||
He chanted this elaborately, correctly employing the Udatta, Anudatta and Swarita in the Krama and Jata modes. The overjoyed Gidda Jatti gave him the Rupee and Tambula.
This is the nature of commercial art. Today, nobody can predict from where patronage will flow for true art in our country in the future. Here’s what Bhartruhari said:
Prabhavah smayadooshitaah |
jeernamange subhashitam ||
The scholars who can act as guides are jealous of each other
Kings and wealthy people are haughty owing to their wealth |
Ordinary people are steeped in ignorance
Literature, music and wise words fall into decay ||
(This is the eighth chapter of D.V. Gundappa’s “Jnapaka Chitrashale” entitled “Mysoreina Sangita Khyati” appearing in the volume entitled “Kalopasakaru.” Translation by Sandeep Balakrishna.)