Classical claim for Odissi Music-II: Odissi music beyond the shadow of Hindustani Classical

(Odissi music accompaniment during a performance. Photo: Madhumita Rauut/FB Page)
A lot of practices in Hindustani music changed when it started getting taught at schools and colleges—leaving its traditional channel, at the “feet” of the Ustad or Guru.

One such change is the importance accorded to bandish.  In today’s discourse on North Indian classical music, bandish are reduced to just a body of lyrics but at one time, a bandish was everything that a new pupil was taught—sometimes for years, before he was told about nuances of raga and tala.

“Earlier, Ustads and Gurus taught khyal singing to their disciples through Bandishes. All that the disciples, some of whom became big names in Hindustani music did is to simply try imitating them and other senior disciples,” said C R Vyas once in a Vividh Bharti program.
“Few disciples even dared to ask the raga and tala in which the bandish is composed,” he said. In effect, the bandish was an embodiment of the entire offering. It was characterized by its words, its raga (sometimes with slight variants), taal and tempo (whether it is in drut, vilambit or madhyalay). No one dared to separate them out.  Very often, while highlighting a point about the raga or laya, it is bandishes that were used to illustrate it.

Kumar Prasad Mukherjee in his book, The Lost World of Hindustani Music—arguably the most readable yet informed narrative non-fiction written on Hindustani musical traditions in English—described how gharanas and even families and lineages within a gharana zealously guarded their bandishes.

“In the Gwalior tradition, a Bandish is seen as a miniature representation of the raga structure. The design and mood of the Raga are modeled in the bandish. The bandish likewise provides a model for how to operate gracefully within Taal. The integration of raga and bandish can be so great that some ragas have become synonymous with certain bandishes and vice versa. (For example, Karim Naam Tero in Miyan ki Malhar, or Yeri Ali in Yaman),” writes Dr Vikas Kashalkar (Punyswar, 2011: A publication of Lalit Kala Kendra, University of Pune).

While Hindustani has lost that tradition, in Odissi, it is still there. When Prafulla Kar talks about Manika alo alo Manika, he refers not to raga and tala but Dekhago Radha Madhaba ranga as his inspiration.

But the similarity ends there.

No matter how important were the bandishes, their words were always filled in by the musicians and not poets. So, their poetic value was not much (though there are notable exceptions).

Secondly, bandishes were essentially musical compositions. So, a bandish can be composed for an instrument too, which, of course, does not require words.

While it is often highlighted that thumris  give a lot of importance to lyrics, in reality, it is few words that get all the attention of thumri singers. A thumri singer may just sing one word/a few words over and over to emphasize the bhava. As such, most thumris are not more than 3-4 lines.
Nevertheless, thumris are still referred to by the lyrics—baju band khul khul jaye, ka karoon sajani, not to forget, babula mora. These gems are sung in films, even today.
While Carnatic music has great poetry, it is dominated by bhakti, whereas in Odissi, Radha and Krishna are treated as any human lovers and all the emotions are portrayed. In most Odissi song compilations, even the songs are marked with the asta nayaika classification, depending on the content.

The Discourse on Odissi’s Classical Claim
Most of the scholarly discussion about Odissi music’s status as a classical music has focused on three aspects—its ancientness (prachinata), its systematicity (ritibaddhata) and its uniqueness (moulikata) (that is distinctiveness from Hindustani and Carnatic). Jiwan Pani, who was one of the first after Kavichandra Kalicharan Patnaik to raise it at a national level, has used these three parameters to argue Odissi music’s case.  Others such as Kirtan Narayan Parhi have also focused on these aspects.

David Dennen, in his paper, The Third Stream: Odissi Music, Regional Nationalism, and the Concept of “Classical”, makes a good summary and analysis of the “Odia” position on this debate.

The classical tag to Odia language as well as research around various aspects of Odisha’s history is now leading to a broader consensus about the ancientness of Odisha and Odias—which probably predates the Vedic period. In any case, the linear history of Hindustani and Carnatic music too can be traced only to last 5-6 centuries and so can Odissi’s. So, the claim of ancientness of Odissi music would be not so difficult to prove.

Systematicity can easily be proved, as there’s enough evidence today.

It is the uniqueness which is the real challenge. While the Odissi exponents and scholars give their viewpoints, lack of discussion outside this circle has become a challenge. The first challenge, therefore, is to get this discourse mainstream. The subtle difference of lyrics’ treatment in Odissi vis-à-vis Hindustani would then be a major factor.

Generations of Odissi singers, right from Pandit Balakrushna Dash had their training in Hindustani music. Some like Sunanda Patnaik and Pandit Damodar Hota are revered names in Hindustani music. Their Odissi must have been influenced by Hindustani as their Hindustani by Odissi. So, the distinctiveness would be more and more challenging to prove, going forward.

Interestingly, it becomes even more challenging, as the effort here, unlike getting a classical tag for the Odia language, is not to convince a body or formal institution, but a community; the fraternity of musicologists and scholars. It can happen only if they get interested. Since the target is not well-defined, only a pull strategy will work, rather than a push strategy—just to use a bit of marketing jargon.

So, Rasaraj’s observation becomes even more important in this context. Instead of trying to be more like them to get to the coveted club, our effort must be to make them notice the uniqueness of our tradition.

[The writer is a Delhi based senior journalist and a classical music enthusiast. This is second part of a two part series on Classical status to Odissi music.]

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