The Cooking of Music and Other Essays by Sheila Dhar; Permanent Black; pages 114, Rs.195.
IN 1995, a book with an ungainly and over-stretched title came out and created considerable sensation. I was completely bowled over by it. Reviewing Here's Someone I Would Like You to Meet; Tales of Innocents, Musicians and Bureaucrats. I wrote:
Page after page, the author offers us enchanting moments, suspended in semi eternity. She creates and recreates, captures and recaptures the memory of pure emotion, the resonance of a raga, the idiosyncrasy of a great artist, and much more, with enormous sensitivity, inspired wit and originality. The vibrations linger and linger. The verbal and situational humour makes the book a real treat.
It is a great pleasure to review this 114-page volume and an austere pleasure to record that it is not a second masterpiece. Having said that, I must also record that The Cooking of Music is still a splendid example of specialised writing about a specialised subject. If I remember correctly, it was E.M. Forster (himself an amateur pianist) who said that music was the deepest of the arts and deeper than all of them.
Sheila Dhar died on July 26, 2001, a few months before her book was published. Her distinguished husband, P.N. Dhar, sent me an inscribed copy and I am thankful to him for doing so. Among my elder friends, P.N. Dhar I admire greatly.
I am not competent to comment on what the author writes about: the complexities and intricacies of classical Indian music. But this book has tutored me about some aspects of it. "Raga is a central concept of all Indian music. It is a Sanskrit word which literally means passion, colour and attachment, something that has the effect of colouring the hearts of men." Or, "in Hindustani Music, a note is not thought of as a fixed point but, rather, an area through which a melodic line passes." Then she explains what bandish (composition) is and what tala is. She enlightens the reader about the various Gharanas - "family in the same lineage". The well-known Gharanas are Gwalior, Agra, Kirana, Jaipur, Patiala. We get to know something about the infusion of sufi influences from Persia. Carnatic music is not ignored. Great masters and their craft are duly acknowledged. Sheila Dhar, herself an accomplished singer, knew many of them personally.
What is the connection between music and cooking? She gives examples of musicians for whom good food was almost as essential as good music.
The author was a student of literature with a deep knowledge of the historical process, a subject to which most Indians pay little attention. Of all the great peoples, the Indian lacks a sense of history. We are expert verbalisers and the oral tradition in our country is still very strong. And the oral tradition in Indian music is extremely strong. Improvising matters, not imposing. This is not so in the West, the Islamic world, China or Japan.
The essay on Begum Akhtar is something special. According to Sheila Dhar, Begum Akhtar "flowered into almost a cult figure, an ideal personality invested with such charm and charisma that an entire generation of women passionately wished to emulate her."
I met the Begum for the first and last time in 1969. Indira Gandhi was on a state visit to Afghanistan. The Prime Minister thought it a good idea to take the great Ghazal singer with her. The Begum was a house-hold name in Kabul. Almost everyone knew her popular songs - "Ai muhabhat tere anjaam pe rona aya" - Oh love, your termination makes me cry, is a rough translation.
Indian writing is not replete with humour. When I read Chapter VIII of this book, I caught myself laughing loudly and uncontrollably till my stomach ached and my eyes watered. "Go Lady, Go - Lady Linlithgow and the taming of the Raga Adana" is the funniest piece I have read in the past 30 years. Lord Linlithgow (heavy of mind and heavy of body, Nehru called him) was Viceroy of India from 1937 to 1943. A farewell function was organised for the Vicerene. It is impossible to convey the flavour, the disingenuousness of Vinayak Rao, who wrote the farewell ode, the Vicerene's bewilderment and the discomfiture of Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar, a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council (Cabinet) who escorted her Ladyship. As an example of spontaneous hilarity I cannot think of a parallel. Neither is it possible for me to paraphrase this outrageously funny piece of brilliant recall.
Almost equally funny is her essay on British Guian (now Guyana) where she spent some time with her husband who was there on a United Nations assignment. And the harmonium. Like Nehru she loathed the instrument but discovered its virtues in New York.
The book carries two deeply moving and perceptive obituaries of Sheila Dhar. One by Dilip Padgaonkar and the other by Rukun Advani.
Delhi is poorer without Sheila Dhar. Her books will, I am confident, ensure that we do not forget her. She was an original, and for a time, she pushed back the menacing march of mediocrity.