“Rukmini Devi and I noticed a girl watching, day after day, from the window, the dance classes we were teaching in the Mirror Cottage in the Theosophical Society where Kalakshetra was then situated. The child did this invariably on her way back home from The Besant Theosophical High School.”
“Rukmini Devi—Athai—called the child inside and asked her: ‘Would you like to dance?’ The child’s joy knew no bounds and she readily tried to repeat the dance she had been viewing. Athai immediately arranged for her, Krishnaveni, to join Kalakshetra as a part-time student.”
Lakshmanan went on to become “a danseuse of exceptional talent, versatility, and genius. Indeed, a very rare combination of stage presence and presentation! Devoted and totally dedicated to her career, which balances both teaching and performing. Krishnaveni is God’s beautiful gift to the magic world of dance.”
Quoted from “Krishnaveni of Kalakshetra” (Sruti 241 [October 2004] 19–22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-34001.)
Today would have been Lakshmanan’s 80th birthday! Below, rare footage of her in performance.
A longstanding tradition among Karṇāṭak composers involves weaving hidden meanings into their song texts; generally known as mudrās, such terms may serve to identify the composer through a pseudonym, or they may indicate aspects of the music itself.
The highly revered composer Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar typically included his signature pseudonym Guruguha somewhere in his song texts. He also often worked in the name of the rāga in which the composition is set, sometimes ingeniously encasing the reference in two adjacent words that, taken together, reveal the rāga mudrā.
This according to Rāga mudrās in Dīkshitar kritis by K. Omanakutty (Thiruvananthapuram: University of Kerala, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-50861).
Above, a depiction of Dīkṣitar on a stamp issued by India Post; below, Gayathri Girish sings his Sārasa daḷa nayana, one of the works discussed in the book.
The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.
The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:
“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”
“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”
“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”
This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).
Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.
The four all-India music conferences that were organized between 1916 and 1925 by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande were seminal events in the formation of a nationally based urban middle class and a predominantly Hindu-oriented music culture that encompassed performers, patrons, and audiences.
The conferences were the first modern gatherings on a national scale to combine discussion and analysis of musical practice and theory with a showcase of musical performance. A close examination of the reports generated by the conferences offers an opportunity to examine the conflicting social and political ideologies that were shaping north Indian classical music over a critical decade, as the aristocratic music of the courts was transformed into a national music.
Bhatkhande believed that music had to be taken over by the Western-educated, nationally conscious middle class, and that the patronage of the wealthy princes formerly given to support their private music establishments should be transferred to national institutions supporting music. Through the medium of the conferences he took the initiative of bringing together these disparate groups: traditional musicians, traditional patrons, and the new, primarily Hindu intelligentsia.
A number of topics recur through all four conferences: discussion of śrutis and rāga variations; a call for adoption of a uniform, systematic notation for Indian music; and a proposal for the creation of a national academy of music. The extent to which agreement and action on these proposals proved elusive can be read as indicating the degree of cross-cultural conflict that underlay the conferences, and gives a sense of the extent to which Bhatkhande’s vision resonated with the broader concerns of his day.
This according to “The All-India Music Conferences of 1916–1925: Cultural transformation and colonial ideology” by David Trasoff, an essay included in Hindustani music: Thirteenth to twentieth centuries (Nai Delli: Manohar, 2010 331–56; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-15196).
Today is Bhatkhande’s 160th birthday! Below, a documentary on the Music Institute that he established.
In 1971 the turmoil and atrocities associated with the Bangladesh Liberation War led to a massive refugee crisis, with at least seven million displaced persons facing starvation and other humanitarian catastrophes.
Appalled by the situation in his homeland, Ravi Shankar spoke with his student and friend George Harrison about fundraising possibilities, and the idea of the Concert for Bangladesh was born. The initial gate receipts raised close to $250,000 for Bangladesh relief.
Writing for the introduction to the 2005 re-release of the concert album and accompanying documentary, Shankar recalled:
“Hailing from Bengal, my heart went out to the Bengali speaking people of Bangladesh, and it was natural for me to reach out and want to help the refugees and the hundreds of thousands of little children…What happened is now history: it was one of the most moving and intense musical experiences of the century.”
“Again and again I am asked which concerts stand out in my memory, and it is very difficult to remember all the prominent ones as my career spans over seventy-five years of performances; but the Concert for Bangladesh was very significant to me as the conception of the idea came from me and the people needing aid were very close to my heart—some of them, of course, being distantly related to me.”
Quoted from “The Concert for Bangladesh” by Ravi Shankar, which is included in The Bangladesh reader: History, culture, politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013, pp. 508–09).
Today would have been Ravi Shankar’s 100th birthday! Above and below, moments from the documentary.
BONUS: The full performance, from the concert album.
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Since being listed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010, Kalbelia dance from Rājasthān is now generally conceptualized as an ancient tradition from India. However, this same dance practice, also known as a form of “Indian Gypsy” or “snake charmers’” folk dance, appears to have originated as recently as the 1980s.
Ethnographic research with Kalbelia dancers’ families has elucidated how this inventive dance practice was formed to fit into national and transnational narratives with the aim of commercializing it globally and of generating a new, lucrative livelihood for these Kalbelia families. As a new cultural product of Rājasthāni fusion, the dance finds itself at the crossroads of commercial tourism and political folklorism and is grounded in the neo-Orientalist discourses of romanticism and exoticism.
This according to “Kalbeliya dance from Rajasthan: Invented gypsy form or traditional snake charmers’ folk dance?” by Ayla Joncheere (Dance research journal XLIX/1 [April 2017] pp. 37–54).
In an interview, the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi recalled how some performers of khayāl—the dominant North Indian classical tradition—looked down on ṭhumrī, which was considered a light-classical tradition.
“The new khayāl establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the ṭhumrī and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior.”
“This bothered me immensely, so I decided to match the competence of khayāl vocalists on their home turf, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my khayāl, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces.”
“In the khayāl we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the ṭhumrī we get into the emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry, so I handle poetry in ṭhumrī with sensitivity.”
Quoted in “Girija Devi: The queen of Benares” by Deepak S. Raja (Sruti 250 [July 2005] pp. 41–50).
Today would have been Girija Devi’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2015; below, performing the ṭhumrī Babul mora in 2014.
Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples.
The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history—it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theater, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India.
An analysis of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography, and current performance practice illuminates new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.
This according to India’s kathak dance in historical perspective by Margaret E. Walker (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Above, Birju Maharaj, one of the consummate kathak performers of our time; below, in a rare seated performance, Maharaj depicts the sensuous world of a young woman as monsoon season approaches.
BONUS: The finale of a performance that includes some of Maharaj’s star students.
“When Rajarathnam was sober, he was fine and took direction well with interest. But when he was lit, he could not be controlled and proved a nuisance and a pest on the set. Of course, when he became sober, he would apologize for his unruly conduct. People treated him like some kind of god because he was a big gun…I also found that he was very fond of women! But then who is not?”
The role required Rajarathnam Pillai to sing, which he did beautifully—but unfortunately his many fans only wanted to hear him play the nāgasvaram, and the film failed at the box office. No prints remain; only a handful of stills and recordings attest to Rajarathnam’s single appearance as a film star.
This according to “Foray into films” by Randor Guy (Sruti CLXXI [December 1998] pp. 39–42).
Today is Rajarathnam Pillai’s 120th birthday! Above and below, rare artefacts of the film.
BONUS: Rajarathnam Pillai plays the nāgasvaram!
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T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharatanāṭyam.
Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.
This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).
Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.
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