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.
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