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EASTERN SPRING CHAPTER 4 - The True Divine Painter

(© Neil Kulkarni 2009)

The call? My friend, he said he’d be over. Getting excited? I am.
OK, first of all for fucks sake relax, I can see you shifting in your seat. No-one’s on trial here. Stop being so fearful of incrim­inating yourself. Stop thinking that race is a minefield and just accept that now and then we all get our legs blown off when the way we’re made comes into contact with others. Relax and realise you’ll never be healed from the wound that is your skin. Its colour controls your past and your present and your future. That is not a limitation. Too much nervousness with talk of race, the instantaneous denials and protestations that in particular accompany the white response, a mistaken impulse for atonement, a dealing with, a righting of wrongs, that puts fears of inadequacy and bristling resentment in EVERYONE’s response. Just because I think you white folks have a bigger problem than us lot doesn’t mean we can’t talk, doesn’t mean that I can’t accuse you without you feeling like I also want to wield the executioners axe. The only ‘punishment’ here is perhaps a little tweak up in your self-awareness, perhaps a little change in the way you talk and the way your brain works to make you talk. And of course, the deeper tweak in my own prejudices so I can stop talking about you as if you’re not here. Astonishing how after so many years white folk can’t realise how their bleating about what words they can/can’t use, whining about what flags they can/can’t fly, make them sound like such spoiled little fucks in a world where the brown’n’black are still at the bottom in every substantive sense. Can’t talk race and pop because too many people think they’re in the shackles or being given the slave masters’ whip, that every word is gonna get pounced on. Anxiety of accusation means that we can’t all acknowledge that racism isn’t some single-issue habit that can be avoided or ejected but part of each and every one of us, not someone else’s ‘problem’ but in ALL of our souls and thus a part of all of our responses to music. So, first, as if it’s possible, relax, it’s the best way to stay vigilant. It’s nearly morning again. We’ll be done with each other soon, I just want to point out that racism isn’t just a problem for Western music, it’s something that threatens to defile any music wherever racists see a chance. Listen to any Bismillah Khan, perhaps the single most inspirational musical artist of the 20th century this side of Miles Davis, and remind yourself how little any of us know, how much any of us can feel, how little caste and creed and colour can matter, how much they can matter.

“Is there no joy in music – is it all to be this foolishness? Money is nonsense. So long as the shehnai is with me, what need do I have for anything else? Musicians should be heard and not seen. See this shehnai? This is such a thing that when I lift it, I start thinking from my heart”

Born in 1916 in Bihar into a family of court musicians, Bismillah Khan was trained in the art of playing the shehnai, a small oboe/recorder style reed instrument that in Khan’s hands could summon up eternity. More than anyone else, Khan helped bring what was essentially a folk instrument into the more formalised world of classical raga. A devout Shia Muslim, he was curiously also a staunch devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music. His music and his religion were a divine unity. He lived in Benares and eschewed much of the wealth and trappings of success, picked up innumerable state honours, and spent his life making heaven in sound. Were I an expert, I could explain how Khan’s meld of drone, tetrachord and powerful ornamentation combine to make magic. But I didn’t learn this music; rather, it came to claim me. My dad would listen to him and it percolated through. When I’d take him a beer in the room with the stereo in it, I’d see him nearly in tears. Ever hungry for drone, I stole my dad’s tapes and jammed along with a cracked Les Paul. After my dad died, I inherited the vinyl – beautiful records pressed up by the Gramophone Company Of India, mainly from the Sixties – and listened even closer and the tears began to flow seemingly from my dad through Khan’s music and out of my own eyes. I realised that precisely the fucked-up beats, vocal freedom and anti-melodies I was digging in early Seventies Miles and Tim Buckley and drum’n’bass were being lashed down by these guys in the Twenties, never mind being played by innumerable genii since raga’s inception in the 3rd Century BC. But it was Bismillah’s glorious pipe-borne voice, Bismillah’s soul that he spilled out through his shehnai (I own a shehnai, and can’t even get a squeak out of it, let alone spend the two hours it takes Khan to tune the thing up), that perhaps first pulled me back in the late 90s to a fragile sense of belonging in Indian music. Within – on the plastic, in the grooves– were revolving doors to nebulae, trapdoors into galaxies, and turnstiles into a seemingly infini­tesimal self-awareness. There’s a peace to be found in Khan’s music, but there’s also anger, a celestial fury, the darkest blues and the bloodiest reds and the most tranquil yellows. It’s an alternate universe where emotion finds clear expression and the sculpting of sound enfolds you. There’s a soul-shaking humanity to his music, and that’s maybe the most brave and beautiful thing about the maestro’s undying art - the balance between restraint and abandon, surprise and fulfilment, and the sheer joyful melodic invention are inspirational, no matter what music you’re into. Find any of the albums he did with the incredible violin player VG Jog, especially the Ragamala series of ‘Morning To Midnight’ ragas, and get yourself blessed by them, soon as. Because only beauty can save us now. And only tears can wash us new. And like all truly universal music, Kahn’s sounds come from the tiny confines of his heart but illuminate anyone who dares step into their light. Kahn knew how music could be twisted for other ends, gently set in motion his music as glorious antidote to the perversion of sound for merely political intent. A muslim, who prayed to Hindu gods, played Hindu songs, an immortal embodiment of musical and spiritual freedom that in the mid-90s reminds me to be wary when music wears a flag, or even worse, a faith on its sleeve.

We’ve all of us, especially us British folk, got to be asking what it means to be one of us, be on the lookout for where that meaning hardens, and thickens. And we should all be aware of those frequent moments where music, a thing made of love, is used to shore up senses of national identity, simpler times, golden ages. As an Anglo-Indian (and Christ, how much do I have to suppress my gag-reflex when summating myself thus) who’s spent much of my life out-Englishing the English, I’m paranoiacly aware, through a need to know my potential enemies, of what it can mean when white pop looks back wistfully. By the 90s, Britpop gave me plenty of reasons to be suspect, to wonder what dreams were getting re-animated when people harked back. Yeah 67/68 can mean revolution, but it can mean the Immigration Act the Labour Govt. bought in, it’s neutering of Enoch’s 67 campaigns, it’s making of me as ‘non­patrial’, the grisly term of denial the act designated me and my folks. The letters I got from readers at the Melody Maker told me stuff – mainly that a lot of people were even wondering what the fuck I was doing writing for white music papers. Take my “black hip-hop shit elsewhere” was the most memorable advice, whilst their favourite bands draped themselves in the flag – I’ll leave it to you to care whether I cared but I was nurturing my own guilty revisionism too. Whilst Oasis were finally and fatally winning Britishness back for the non-fey and charmless for good, I’m trapped and tripped out and looking back, and hiding in my own vintage duds as well, listening to tapes in a CD age, trying to look like I’ve just stepped off a boat (i.e. smart and sharp). And my own tone of nostalgia for Marathi film-song finds ugly compassion in the 90s & 00s on the city streets and villages of Maharashtra. Mumbai, like Coventry, is a place where you have to work fucking hard to be a racist; you’re raised in a chaotic cosmopolitan fog of accents and languages – but in the past 20 years Mumbai, at its best is a model of daily natural religious tolerance, has been twisted by the equally idiotic manoeuvres of gunmen in hotels and the Shiv Sena.

Fascist thug, placater of the rich, hater of the poor and all-round loathsome cunt, Bal Thackeray
These self-proclaimed ‘Army Of Sivaji’ spread mayhem and fascist violence, spark anti-union riots and race-hate against Muslims and immigrant workers from other states, under the guise of bhumiputr (‘native pride’), declaring only Marathi Hindus as true ‘sons of the soil’. Their lunatic founder-leader, ex-cartoonist Balasaheb Thackeray, has spent his entire fetid Hitler-modelled political career spewing hatred of Islam and migrants to Maharashtra, calling for Hindu suicide squads to counteract ‘Muslim violence’, & only for “Marathi songs to be played on the radio”. And the ironies like a stink rose unfold - Shivaji used as a figurehead of hatred, the guy whose bronze bust I proudly polish on my mantel, a warrior-king smart enough to know that religious tolerance was the key to uniting the people because the people practised religious tolerance naturally.

‘Verily, Islam and Hinduism are terms of contrast. They are used by the true Divine Painter for blending the colours and filling in the outlines’ - Shivaji Bhosle

Lata Mangeshkar, like all Marathi singers, sang songs about Shivaji because he was a hero to Marathis. In fact, she sang songs to him at the formation of the Maharashtran State, May 1st 1960 in Shivaji Park, Bombay. 50 years later in 2010, Lata, now convinced and close to the Thackeray’s, sings in Bandra park Mumbai for Shiv Sena, at a celebration of Maharashtra’s Golden Jubilee. Also in 2010, Asha Bhosle, Lata’s sister, keeps the tension in their prickly relationship going by publicly declaring in Pune, now a Shiv Sena stronghold, that ‘India is for all Indians, [regardless of religion]’, much to the disgust of the Thackeray clan. Asha & Lata of course have history, a juicy half-century of fractiousness now legendary, but that starts in humble surroundings that hugely remind me of my own parents. Born, like my folks, into a large \Brahmin family in a tiny Maharashtrian hamlet (also including their lil composer-bro Hridaynath & lil’ Sis & singer Usha who both also ended up making huge contributions to the explosion in Marathi film), the sisters are inseparably close at childhood. Lata drops out of school when told she can’t tote her little sister along. As with my parents, Bombay eventually called the musical Mangeshkars out of the jungle. Upon the death of their theatre-actor father Asha & Lata moved to Bombay and quickly found themselves singing for the growing movie industry to support the family. A common move to the big smoke - with everyone born in such circum­stances in the 30s, Bombay is the city in which dreams of education or artistry or fame find themselves walking or washed up, and once roots are laid down, a flat found, a floor to sleep on, an understanding auntie or uncle, that city takes these people over, becomes their internal geography, becomes the place where they make it or fail. Lata and Asha would take trains and trams around Bombay, clutching umbrellas to auditions, frequently rejected as ‘too thin’ in vocal tone, in a fledgling movie-era where composers and songwriters always aimed for the loudly flamboyant. Lata made her Maharashtrian film-debut aged 14 in 1943, Asha in the same year aged 10. At age 16, Asha elopes with the 31-year-old Ganpatrao Bhosle, Lata’s personal secretary, against Lata & her family’s wishes. “It was a love marriage and Lata didi did not speak to me for a long time. She disapproved of the alliance.” admitted Asha. Long-periods of total non-commu­nication between these previously intimate sisters have charac­terised their relationship ever since. A miserable marriage filled with mistreatment, Asha is thrown out by Bhosle in 1960, pregnant with her 3rd child, still singing for money, looking on as a raging, unforgiving and lovelorn Lata ascends to stardom. As the girls mother, Mai Mangeshkar said: “The more Lata suffered, the more her art excelled.”

Certainly, there is something immutably astonishing about Lata’s voice, something pure, something undeniable, something instant and miraculous, something that transcends time and language and messed up this little Indian boy even though I frequently had no idea what she was singing about (in fact got annoyed when my mum or dad tried in vain to explain it). No less an authority than classical music titan Ustad Amir Khan said: “What we classical musicians take 3 and 1/2 hours to accomplish, Lata does in 3 minutes.” Crucially, it was Lata’s playback singing that transformed Bollywood song, that freed up composers and directors to extend their compositions not only beyond what an actress or actor could manage, but beyond what most profes­sional singers could achieve. In the early days of Marathi film the throaty, shouty nature of actor’s singing-voices were matched by one-note, simplistic compositions – Lata opened that all up, gave composers a way-wider palette to play with, with her softer, more translucent tones, a means whereby subtlety and suggestion could find their way in. Veteran Bengali movie-star Kanan Devi summed it up: “Before the advent of playback singing the songs that we actresses sang were songs only in name. It is only after Lata started giving playback, that real music happened.” And Anil Biswas, the pioneer of Bollywood playback-soundtracks and the first Indian composer to really introduce full-blooded orchestration into Indian film also admitted that “. . . Lata was a Godsend to us composers because with her around there was absolutely no limitations placed on our range. Such was her vocal artistry that we could explore the most complex reaches of compositions in the knowledge and confidence and that she could take it all in her stride.” At the top of her game by the early 60s, and in a position of musical-godhead she’s never let slip since, still Asha’s relationships continue to infuriate Lata as the 60s & 70s roll on, especially as Asha’s second-fiddle status to Lata starts getting more complexly evened out. Asha’s relationship with legendary composer/ director O. P. Nayyar widened the rift between the two sisters to the point that Nayyar decided that he would never work with Lata again. Lata herself insisted that directors work with no other singers before she’d sign on for them. “Asha and Lata” Nayyar observed, “staying in opposite flats at Bombay’s Peddar Road, had a common maidservant. Now this maidservant had merely to come and tell the younger sister that Lata had just recorded something wonderful for Asha to lose her vocal poise. Such was her Lata phobia that it took me some months to convince Asha that she had a voice individualistic enough to evolve a singing style all of her own.” Asha: “I worked for years to create a voice and a style that was different from Lata, so that I could carve my own niche and not be banished to live in my sister’s shadow.” To this day, Asha for me remains the true star, able to damn the entirety of current Hindi movie music with divinely weighted quotes like “There is a distinct lack of efforts on the part of the singers, as a result of which the songs being rendered are sans tone and emotions.” She’s still a glamour puss where her sister is settling nicely into the role of elder­stateswoman. Their variance and totally different responses to Shiv Sena are revealing and I think, make Asha the clear winner of my heart , in a sense the real constant pure musician in all of this. And still the stink rose keeps unfolding. Last time my mum went back a few months back, she found herself apoplectic at just how many of our relatives seemed to think it was OK to engage in precisely the kind of Islamophobia Shiv Sena have smeared across the Maharashtrian body politic. (Shiv Sena are currently co-opting protests about a planned nuclear facility in Konkan, the precise area of Maharashtra that my mum’s family comes from). Feels like they’re pressing in close. In the 90s, just as I’m finding my identity, it’s getting hijacked by cunts and thugs, and I’m meeting more narrow-minded English Marathis, later arrivals than my parents, whose politics cause massive late night arguments with my folks when they come to our house, idiots with idiot offspring who grass me up for popping out for a fag.

One of my most vivid memories of returning to India at age 10 was sitting in Heathrow, listening to kids who looked like us but with American accents. Me and my sister did what we’ve always done when confronted with kids who ostensibly have the same genes & upbringing as us – we freaked the fuck out. My parents definitely always wanted us to be aware of our roots, but they let us pursue that very much on our own reconnaissance, through our own reading and listening. When my mum and dad set up an organisation called Marathi Mitra Mandal in the mid 80s as an attempt to get Marathi-speakers and Maharashtrian people together across the UK we finally started meeting los of kids who should’ve been like us, but whose desire for life extended no further than their parents predictions and limitations, who eventually wanted to move back to India. These kids, born and bred here, still seemed like they’re visiting, like composites of their parents intransigence and their own cowed acceptance of that. Our folks left us to our own explorations. One crazy horrific week one long summer holiday my mum (wanting rid of a bored boy for a week) with a startling foolishness and to my sobbing protest, assented to let me go with a boy I hated to an RSS Hindu boys-training camp, wherein we were drilled and taught karate and emerged with a frighteningly militaristic mindset that my friends were appalled to see had taken me over like a zombie-virus. My memories of this are hazy for several reasons. Firstly I’ve tried to blot it out. Secondly, the boy I went with was a twat and I have no desire to get in touch with him to recall the events. I just remember sleeping in what seemed like a school-hall in Leicester, woken at 6 by a whistle, horrible breakfast of rice pudding (no toast in the new Hindu nation), martial arts training for the unspecified reason of ‘a Hindu needs to fight for his faith’, some light work with weapons. I came out a fruitloop. It had only taken 7 days of harsh routine but for a while back there, I knew what it felt like to become a fascist, a nazi, an unthinking automaton convinced you’re the only one thinking, a stormtrooper. What I did notice about the other boys there was that their folks had their whole lives planned before they even got to live them and it was encounters like this and my return to reality afterwards that ensured I have always felt alienated not just from England, but from any notion of a homeland, and any notion of a community within the frequently shitwitted racist Brahmin community. Once a game of footy in my back-garden had enabled me to return to my own natural abnormality, that week in that RSS camp and my immediate thoughts afterwards, coming back to reality, were close to madness, the feeling of being on a physical plateau of mechanical glee, then realising it’s built on mental tricks and outright lies it takes a day to clamber down from. In truth, and scarily, it was a rather weak Midlands-version of the much-scarier khaki-shorted neo-fascist schools in India currently churning out fascist thugs by the bucketload – now it seems like a dream, a week in which though I’d not under­stood anything but had ended up believing every word of it. Quickly surmised anyhoo- fatherlands is for hatstands, brain­washed robots of their hateful parents creation. I now pity those boys dim enough for it to last within, even that twat I went with (my constant need for a fag during the week also militated against my total militarization somewhat). It was frequently those same parents, desperate to prove their ‘loyalty’ to their abandoned birthplace, who ended up having night-long arguments with my mum and dad, I’d lie awake hearing raised Marathi voices always on the same subject, nationalism, race, Islam & Hinduism. My dad would emerge from these shouting matches hoarse, appalled, initially cos of our youth insistent that me and my sister should be protected from his own communities’ frightening ability for prejudice, later on letting us hear it in all its stupidity and venality. I’ve been hearing it & reading it from stuck-up, idiotic Maharashtrian Brahmins ever since.

Shiv Sena’s rise is part of the reason I haven’t been back in many years. Thackeray’s project was to take on the Marathi-extremism of Savakar’s Hindutva ideology and make it even more extreme, even more violent. Shiv Sena’s own newsletter (called Saamana – ‘Confrontation’) is clearly inspired by Tilak’s inflammatory tactics if not his secular politics. In it through the 80s & 90s Thackeray vomits up his race-hate, his religious hate , his immigrant-hate, calls Islam a ‘cancer that must be operated on’, criticises Sachin Tendulkar as a ‘traitor’ when he dares to publically state that he’s ‘a proud Maharastrian but an Indian first and foremost’. In 1992, when BJP & Shiv Sena thugs destroy the Babri Masjid mosque in Ajodhya, kicking off 2 days of riots that lead to a thousand Muslim deaths he’s unrepentant, starts being known as ‘remote control’ cos of the power his extremism exerts over policy-decisions and rhetoric in mainstream gover­nance.

When Sena try and wage cultural wars in Maharastra, and attempt to protect Mumbai from immigrant influence, they always run into trouble, ill-equipped as their rhetoric is to deal with culture's slipperiness in India, or the tolerant realities of Mumbai life where in truth only about 28% of the population are Marathi. Mumbai's history is not of purity - not even of being a 'Marathi' stronghold until Thackray's father Prabodhankar, alongside his fellow dipshits in the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti movement that pushed for Marathi independence in the 50s, start creating this entirely erroneous picture of Mumbai as ancient Maratha stronghold. As 'Bombay' Mumbai was a string of islands first held by the Portugese until the mid 17th century, then the British. Shivaji never developed Mumbai as his base, preferring Raigad in Konkan. The Maratha empire's expansion in the 18th century came culturally & politically from Pune and the Peshwas Sivaji had established there, not Mumbai at all. Sena's attempted 'Mumbai-isation' of the Marathi identity is perceived by many to be the cause of the decline in Marathi culture, far more damaging than the constant influx of immigrants that has been Mumbais lifeblood since its beginnings. Sena's paranoid focus on Mumbai as stronghold has marginalised those places like Pune, Kolhapur & Satara that were traditional places of Marathi scholarship. The diversity of local theatre, art and poetry, and the cinema that reflected an indigenous Marathi ethos has been swallowed whole by Mumbai's purely mercenary cultural instincts. Sena's rise as a state-backed, anti-working class force of thugs has effectively snuffed out centres of living Marathi culture like Girangaon, the area my family first lived in in Mumbai & one in which they still do, a once proud working-class neighbourhood now decimated by the hostility of Sena's cretinous mobs. Even though Bal Thackeray's caste, like many high-castes except for Chitpavan Bhramins, was actually pro-British during the Raj, him and his brothers now rail against North Indian cinema such as Bhojpuri films as corrupting a pure Hindutva Maharashtrian culture. Thackeray's brothers are caricatures of Bal, just as he himself is a fascist caricature of the humanist Marathi cultural leaders who came from places like Girangaon. It is as yet unclear as to whether Shiv Sena's star is still on the rise, or beginning a swandive into the footnotes of history. Thackeray, Shiv Sena & the BJP’s use of Marathi music to perpetuate their rot is almost enough to make me stick all my old Marathi vinyl and tapes up in the attic to wait for a calmer age. Of course, the lies of Thackeray are why I never can do that. Music’s mis-use by racists and racist nations particularly irks because it’s an exploitation of an artform that survives because it’s communication between times and places and contains the history of ALL the people who pass it on that journey. Marathi music whether classical, folk or cinematic is always absolutely dependent, as is all Indian music, on the influence of Islam, and the intransigent eternity of ancient Vedic music, and the way those two forces do the do, get busy, get down and get funky with it - drone derailed, melody endless and triumphant. Listening, as my dad did nigh-on incessantly to another genius of Indian classical music, Bhimsen Joshi, what you can hear, through his cracked alcohol-drenched voice, is the sound of Sena-style prejudice blasted apart.

Born in the State that borders Maharashtra to the south, Karnataka, Joshi actually grew up in the care of his parents & grandparents in a Kulkarni household, the Brahmin-home of the village scribes. A strangely unbending, stubborn child, Joshi was in a constant state of running-away-from-home, once legging it to the wild yonder for the simple reason that his mum wouldn’t give him a second-spoonful of ghee with his dinner. Music pulled and entranced him from a young age, he stole a Tanpura that’d been hidden from him by his school-teacher dad who had an engineers-future planned for him, and frequently absconded from the family’s room altogether to locate sounds, whether a passing bhajan singing procession or an azaan from the nearby mosque. Like so many of us since though, it was a recording that first made the young Joshi think about music as not just a fasci­nation but a way of life: a scratchy 78 of Abdul Karim Khan’s Thumri “Piya Bin Nahi Aavat Chain“ was enough for Joshi to leave his home in 1933, 11-years-old and hungry to find a master and learn music. Sleeping on Bombay railway platforms, eating leftovers, with the help of money lent by his co-passengers in the train Bhimsen reached Dharwad first and later went to Pune. Later he moved to Gwalior and got into the prestigious Madhava Music School, a gharana or music-community under the tutelage of the famous sarod player Hafiz Ali Khan. Wanderlust, and the need for new sounds had him then travelling for three years around North India trying to find a good guru, passing out in­front of mosques out of sheer starvation, kicked awake hearing ghazal, before his dad could track him down and drag him home. In 36, legendary Marathi actor Rambhau Kundgolkar, a native of Dharwad, agreed to be his guru. Joshi stayed at his house in the traditional guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition, gleaning knowledge of music from his master as and when he could, while performing odd-jobs in his house till 1940. By then, the 18-yr old Joshi was ready to take on the world and the cosmos: playing live in ‘41 got him a record deal by ‘42 and by ‘43 he was in Bombay, a radio star, hailed by critics, loved by crowds. Part of the reason for that acclaim was down to Joshi’s restless spirit: it was clear to anyone who heard him that here was a musician who’d steeped himself in all kinds of different traditions and memories, a musician who was ever the wanderer, engendering brilliant phrases more intuitively than through deliberation, mixing the cerebral, austere, sensual and spiritual whenever he stepped to a mic, proof in sound that music thrives on the half-caste, the mixed-up, the human heart more than the human religion, or the human nation.Missionary, evangelical Abrahamanic faiths whether Mughal or British have always run into the same problem with India. The vastness and variety of unscripted, unbroken spiritual practice, local but linked, was always finally impervious to books, the written word of god. The smartest invaders soon realised that giving India architecture and infrastructure could impose a control stronger than the superimposition (for that is all it ever could be) of a foreign faith. Akbar knew it, and so Shivaji followed - people meet and play together, can’t be stopped. And so in the middle of the last millennium, Sufi mystics and Sultanate courts bring new tunes, new instruments, new forms like ghazal and qawwalli. As ever, music’s potential for abstraction gives it a generosity - a universality too slippery for politics’ dull manoeuvres, too powerful a slipstream to not careen over those divides, only existing when flowing on beyond petty man-made notions like race, nation or state, living irrefutable proof that Shiv Sena’s project is a contemptibly ignorant, anti-artistic battle cry of inhumanity. Why else would an Islamic shehnai master like Ustad Bismillah Khan be most famous for playing Raghu Pati Raghav Raja Ram, a tune I vividly remember my mum and dad singing at the temple in the morning, an ageless ancient tune ostensibly Hindu but as memory-burned by the desert and the mountain range as it is by the jungle and the river? And the city’s own new seething. One of Gandhi’s favourites, another old Indian who knew how precarious notions of Indian identity could be when shot through with bigotry or fear, the way wilful historical ignorance so often ignores the ways people really are, preys on resentment to turn natural respect and love into a deviant enmity (“To think that I should be dubbed an enemy to an art like music because I favour asceticism! I, who cannot even conceive of the evolution of India’s religious life without her music!”). Throughout Bhimsen Joshi’s work, that ancient history of cross-pollination and bastardised intrigue is bought to its soulful zenith. Listening to him, you hear a man pushing his voice and himself to the limit, actually thriving on that razor’s edge where you have to admit you’re seeking something entirely unattainable. In Joshi’s work, the lies of Shiv Sena are destroyed in a breath, obliterated in a moment.

It’s simply not possible, let alone desirable, to listen to Indian classical music, such a huge part of Maharashtra’s pre-cinematic & Bollywood-cinematic musical history, without hearing Islam’s influence. Shivaji himself as Emperor of the Marathas, declaring independence from Muslim rule, was clever enough to realise that it’s the secular state that endures, and it’s in the 17th century, when Shivaji’s empire sought to emulate the tolerance and open­mindedness of Muslim sultanates around India, that Maharashtrian music takes massive leaps ahead, absorbing hugely important lessons from Iran, schooling itself from the ghazal of Pashtuns from what’s now Afghanistan and Pakistan (and back then was all Bharat, or India), from the Mughal-court musicians who bought their own traditions and instrumentation from as far afield as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Indian classical music is a polyglot mess of this itinerant innovation and intrigue, so it’s no accident that when Bhimsen Joshi died in January 2010, Shiv Sena made no attempt to pretend he was some voice from a faux-Hindutva past. Shiv Sena, like Balchandra Tilak, like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and the BJP/RSS cretins who have followed him all hail back to Shivaji’s Maratha empire, the last Indian empire before the invasion of the British, but they miss its tolerance, miss the fact it succeeded for 150 years by being open to older ideas from elsewhere. Politically, for all the progress the 20th century brings to India, there’s also a lot of regression, revisionism. Pune, the city from which so much Chitpavan political subversion and resistance originated from, was only built into a city through the largesse of the Peshwa system, Peshwa itself a Mughal word meaning ‘foremost’. The movie songs which celebrate Shivaji, which can still be tied in with a Marathi film-industry and a golden age concurrent (although still pre-dating) independence are utilisable by poltroons on the right – the ancient music that is the wellspring of those folk and film songs is less easy to crowbar into such modern rigidity. When I first heard Joshi I pissed myself. His voice made me laugh - it may well do the same for you, possibly because like me you’ve grown up thinking that voices can only do certain things, that someone like Tim Buckley is the limit of what the throat can do.

Stay with Joshi and you’ll find yourself breathless, wracked, hand on mouth to keep in the gasps. Listen to his rendition of Raag Miyan Ki Todi, or Dadra In Raga Mishra Gara, or his epic reading of Raag Puriya Dhanashree and you’ll hear that his music, like all great Indian music, consis­tently defies the post-colonial partitions, the opportunistic games played by politicians with Indian ‘identity’. His voice, when you hear it and let it take you, is an inexhaustible repos­itory of human experience and emotion that absolutely breaks over such barriers like a tsunami, that reveals exactly how much he learned from the Muslim pioneers of modern vocal-Raga and Kyall (Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Wahid Khan), how he was astonishing precisely because his music destroys even the confines of his Gharana (perhaps the last lesson of the Gharana) and springs from the faithless wonder, and sacred fearlessness that has characterised Indian music for thousands of years. Muslims and Hindus have sung in each others temples and mosques for a millennium - Joshi’s music is proof that Raga is simply a framework within which anything can happen, his melodies the most astonishing modernist improvisations within that ancient framework, his songs as Islamic as they are heathen, as prehistoric as they are futuristic, as civilized as they are untamed. The honest rawness you can hear in a Joshi recording is down to the humility and no-bullshit conviction of the man himself. When people would applaud a particularly dazzling vocal run, he’d grab the mic: “clap after it’s all over”. As his health failed him he’d simply stop mid-concert: “Can you stick a plucked flower to the plant and expect it to blossom?! No, I can’t continue any more…”.

What I learned in the 80s and 90s, digging deep into the concepts behind Indian music, is that those strictures -raga, swara, shruti, alankar, taal - you might read as confinements are there to be broken and blended and played with, that music only progresses when the societies that musicians come from are invaded, overthrown, absorbed, kidnapped, emancipated, returned palpably and audibly changed. It’s something that’s encoded into the very structures of Indian classical-music learning itself. A gharana is a fuzzy, secret concept, impervious to outside interrogation: the only insight you can gain into its closed-doors are when its students emerge and start singing – less a conventional school or academy, more a system of social organization linking musicians or dancers by lineage and/or apprenticeship, and by adherence to a particular musical style. It’s a school, unlike my own, (and perhaps unlike the Western stageschool models that seem to be churning out the shite drowning us all right now) that thrives on multiformity, on teaching and learning advancing to the point where they are one. What you can tell when you hear the work of Joshi, or Ustad Abdul Karim Kahn or Ghulam Ali Kahn is that what went on in these places wasn’t simply the passing on of a tradition. It was the exploration of resonances, of the lexicon of music and how it related to grammatical structures, conceptual patterns and modes of imagination and expression fed in from diverse individuals and the rich traditions they belonged to. That diversity is key, Bhimsen Joshi was nurtured and shaped by a musical culture that had multiple traditions so what emerged was entirely heterogeneous, a rigorous training that through oral transmission incorporated both living and non-living voices, that then encouraged experimentation with that voice freshly found, the sharing of experiences to push music beyond the merely sterile intellectual framework you might imagine when you read about the daunting esoteric concepts behind raag.

Immigration of people and ideas is the lifeblood of music ­has been since time immemorial - and when you hear Joshi, there can be no doubt. You hear that, yes, vocal chords and lungs and minds and imaginations can be trained within a society to do things that are superhuman, but they can only resonate within you still, can only attain true immortality, when tied to a heart open to all human experience, all human lives, all human music. Indian classical music is so often talked about as a system and that implies strictures and in the west, strictures imply impris­onment - a blueprint whose confinements and limitations you can’t stray beyond, something to resist like any good romantic. But in contrast to the pointless piddling-about that Western models of musical-freedom so often inspire, the discipline and intense intent of Eastern music is peopled by artists who can’t help but use the confines of their training to explore the infinite: these aren’t people who see being a musician as essentially pissing about prettily, but people for whom music is the only discipline in their life. And crucially, that discipline can be appre­ciated when listening, but can be ignored – and then you’re in a firestorm of the soul, the endless sound of a heart’s supernova. Ragas are meant to be played at certain times of the day but how right do they sound at when nothing else makes sense? Joshi was a raging alcoholic but even in his later recordings and especially on his stunning film-soundtrack work with Lata, you can hear an artist absolutely committed - spiritually, intellec­tually and musically - to exploring all the possibilities, pushing the boundaries to unlock the infinity of expression and precision that the raga mode affords it’s most expert proponents. Lack of notation is key - oral transmission as opposed to the tyranny of text opens up the possibility of whispers going awry, of learning being challenged before it can turn into orthodoxy, of sounds mutating through race, religion, and in the white-hot inferno that forges the two in the heart. Every time I hear Joshi I hear something new. It’s because Indian classical music isn’t a system. It’s a launch pad into infinite space, whether that’s cosmic or metaphysical, emotional or intellectual.

Perhaps it’s that daunting rigor of Indian classical music that’s made its absorption in the West so cosmetic and piecemeal, the mistaken idea that simply by copping the instrumentation you’re taking on the culture, the fkn Nehru-jacketed hippy-move of sticking a sitar where a guitar would’ve been. The only western musician I think to genuinely try and take on the structural as opposed to superficial oddity of this music is Miles Davis. ‘On The Corner' is perhaps a dilletante's treatment, layered with sitar & tabla, but by the time he’s making pieces like ‘He Loved Him Madly’ & ‘Mtume’ you can hear the same sense of repetition as both hypnosis & scarifier, the same impossibly huge mathe­matical structures coming across as pure improvisational heat, perhaps only possible with Western modes of playing if you’ve got a genius like Teo Macero on the cut. Beyond Miles’ omnivourous omnipotent genius though this stuff is mis-used everywhere. If musicians can’t get a handle on it, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it suits racist scumfucks like Shiv Sena to fundamentally misunderstand music, to bound it to an earth they see in terms of fear and loathing and lines between us. By the 90s, I was realising that the attempt to either assert a false racial history, or worse (because a dishonest liberal move) pretend that race has no part to play in music, were two sides of the same ignorant-assed coin. It both denies music its real signif­icance and runs scared of confronting those moments when music is given new uglier significances. The difference being that by the 90s I was writing about it. I remember, it took me three reviews to figure out what it was I wanted to say and I’ve been banging on about it ever since. Don’t be daft, you’re not going to start me making sense now: the English stain I am cannot be bleached out, even if what I have to say is nearly done, even if I’m minded at my age to let it go, leave it, let it go, leave it, hide out with my fam for the next 50 years and let the natural destruction of race-as-monolith take a few generations of fucking and making gorgeous little mixed-race babies to finally kick in. Before the dawn, I want to break down your pedigree to find out mine. You’ve got to stay awake and witness. I want both us mongrels to meet.


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