OK, so I am obsessed with Annapurna Devi. And Grigori Perelman, the mathematician who rejected the Fields medal when he was awarded it. Why is the idea of a reclusive genius so seductive?
The singers and dancers who can point us to the stars and give us a glimpse of immortality are frail beings, full of foibles and inconsistencies
Hindustan Times Carnatic singer Sudha Raghunathan and Hindustani classical singer Ashwini Bhide Deshpande are rock stars in the music world. I have heard Bhide Deshpande a couple of times in Bangalore and her rendition, sans flamboyance or frippery, is impressive. Raghunathan’s voice is her strong suit. Sudha madhurya bhashini (You whose speech is as sweet as nectar), goes a Carnatic composition. Or voice as sweet as nectar, in Raghunathan’s case. These are two musicians at the peak of their performing skills. Yet they leave me cold. Much as I admire their craft, the wholesomeness of their aesthetic rendition does not tug at my heartstrings.
My kind of artiste is a little more emotional; a little more frail and temperamental; full of insecurities and ideologies about what music can and should do. My kind of artiste is not a perfectly “cracked vessel”, like the Korean celadon glazes. Today’s artistes and musicians are this way: just cracked enough to be interesting; with just enough ego to be taken seriously; and professional enough to schedule multiple performances in multiple continents with discipline and rigour. Today’s musicians come with a price tag. A note (dollar, dirham, or rupee) can buy a note or melody. This makes me sad.
It wasn’t always this way; and I will argue that it shouldn’t be this way. There are some things that money cannot buy and artistic temperament ought to be one of them. The gold standard is, of course, the genius, Annapurna Devi—daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan; sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan; and divorced wife of the late sitar player Ravi Shankar. Prodigiously talented, she took a vow that she wouldn’t perform in public to appease her insecure husband and save her marriage. When the marriage fell apart, she became a recluse. I read about Annapurna Devi in a fantastic profile of hers written in 2000 by Aalif Surti in the magazine Man’s World, and reprinted elsewhere. The woman who was depicted in the piece seemed to carry the perfumes of an entire musical era on her frail shoulders.
Genius shouldn’t come easy. The singers and dancers who can point us to the stars and give us a glimpse of immortality are frail beings, full of foibles and inconsistencies. They overcome their torturous angst and connect us to divinity. Such musicians should not just be tolerated or nurtured; they should be celebrated. We have a lovely word for this: nakhras. The musicians of yore were known for their nakhras. Today, we call it “emo”, or “becoming emotional”. And we say it as if it were a bad thing.
The mother lode of good music is emotion: whether it is the spiritual bhakti rasa of M.S. Subbulakshmi or the introspective contemplative rudra veena of Ustad Mohammad Dabir Khan, Tansen’s descendant. Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to them all. With the professionalization of music and the arts; with the coming of agents and event managers, all these qualities, these nakhras, are slowly being beaten out of artistes who try to be all things to all people. What results is tame, practised music that attempts to please the crowd without touching those receptive listeners who are called sahrudaya, or kindred hearts in Indian aesthetic theory.
It used to be that India—a hot-weather, hot-headed country—was famous for its nakhras. Any chance we got, we displayed our moody eccentricity and childish tantrums. We were whimsical children of the spirit, victims of the muse that Paul Gauguin searched for when he fled his fellow Parisians (who are also famous for their nakhras) for the tropical splendour of Tahiti. Now we have been sanitized. We are professional, productive, uniform and unemotional. No more nakhras; not in public; and not if you can help it anyway. What happened to us? Artistes are famous for their nakhras. Something wounds their soul; some disrespect mars their spirit. They refuse to perform.
Throwing a nakhra is different from being a diva. Being a diva has to do with ego. Nakhra is about emotion. In Eric Berne’s psychology theory, he divides the psyche into parent, adult and child. Diva comes from the egotistical “parent” and is full of “what is owed to me” and shoulds. Nakhra comes from the child and is impulsive and erratic. Now, we are all “adults”.
Indian-style nakhras were not just the prerogative of geniuses. The most famous nakhra that I recently heard about happened at a marriage ceremony. An uncle, now in his 80s and shorn of his feistiness in cold New Jersey, walked out of a banana- leaf lunch because the poli (also called obittu) was served to him without the requisite ghee accompaniment. At weddings these days, we line up in front of faux Thai pavilions with plastic blue elephants, and ask for the diet water-chestnut flan. What depths have we fallen to? Bring back the nakhras, I say, musical or otherwise. It makes life interesting.
Shoba Narayan eats her puran-poli with lots of ghee and lots of nakhras. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns