Hindustani Music and Aesthetics Today

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Item Code: IHJ073
Publisher: Sangeet Natak Akademi
Author: Sushil Kumar Saxena
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 817871079X
Pages: 471
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 5.8 inch
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Book Description
From the Jacket

This book has no precedent. It is a pioneering attempt to look at Hindustani music in the way of contemporary aesthetics. The ways we talk about, experience, or evaluate music, as also its composition and overt performance- all have been given due attention in this work. In other words, reflection on music here proceeds along the three major ways in which aesthetics is being done (in the West) today- that is, not only the linguistic- analytic and phenomenological approaches, but the one that looks at art as a kind of world-making. Correspondingly, the content of this book can be put under three different heads: (a) an attempt to determine the full aesthetic significance, as against the traditionally specified (verbal) meanings of the key words that are used in respect of the elements and different genres of our music; (b) discussion of concepts like aesthetic attitude, experience, and point of view as they relate to Hindustani music; and (c) analysis of the devices through which the structure and actual singing of a dhruvapad, dhamar, khyal, or tarana is (or can be) invested with some extra appeal- all duly buttressed with notational analysis of some actual compositions.

Care has also been taken to discuss such problems as: (a) Is musical time different from, or identical with, time as we experience it in daily life; (b) How can we distinguish the form from the content of a work in the region of an occurrent art like music or rhythm; (c) Can rhythm be regarded as an autonomous art; and (b) How can our music be said to be spiritual?

By and large, this book may well be expected to encourage readers to think about our music along some quite untrodden lines. The author, Dr Sushil Kumar Saxena (b. 1921), has been writing on Hindustani music regularly for almost half a century, and all along in the way of contemporary aesthetics. Well before he retired as a Professor of philosophy from Delhi University (1986), he distinguished himself by producing his first book, Studies in the Metaphysics of Bradley (1967) which was published by George Allen and Unwin (London) and Humanities Press (New York) in their prestigious Muirhead Library series of philosophical works.

Since then, however, what has made him better known is his prolific scholarly contribution to our performing arts, namely, his two books, The Winged Form: Aesthetical Essays on Hindustani Rhythm (1979) and Swinging Syllables: Aesthetics of Kathak Dance (1991), both brought out by Sanger Natak Akademi, besides his numerous essays contributed to the Akademi’s journal Sangeet Natak. Another book which has won him a measure of international acclaim is Art and Philosophy: Seven Aestheticians (Indian council of Philosophical research, 1994) By way of both exposition and critique, this work covers a galaxy of aestheticians, from Croce to L.A. Reid. In respect of traversing cross-cultural boundaries, however, Saxena’s most significant work is Hindustani Sanger and A philosopher of Art (D.K.Printworld, 2001). It seeks to determine the relevance of Susanne K.Langer’s aesthetics to Hindustani music, rhythm, and Kathak dance.

Professor Saxena received the fellowship of Sanger Natak Akademi and the Padma Bhushan in 2008. His next work, Avenues to Beauty, will be published by Sangeet Natak Akademi.


Music is not merely a matter of reyaz, composition or rasasvadana (aesthetic relish). Nor is our concern with this art confined to recitals. We, in India, have always regarded it as a vidya too, that is, as something which deserves serious study, and calls for a clear understanding not only of its basic concepts, but of the many formal qualities and devices that determine its beauty. What is more, though our practice of it today has clearly moved away from the age-old view of it as a means to spiritual liberation, our attitude to it is still often seen to be tinged with a measure of reverence. Even today there is a measure of sanctity about the way one is ceremonially enrolled as the ganda-band shagird (or formally accepted pupil) or a maestro. So it is only proper that, as a rule, our educational institutions take care to teach the theory of music too, along with provision for practical training in how to sing or play. What is more, where our higher centers of learning run a separate department or faculty of music, the prescribed courses of study include a paper also on aesthetics which is fast gaining ground in the teaching of philosophy today.

So ar, however, no such book is available as could be fairly regarded as a study of Hindustani music in the way of contemporary (Western) aesthetical thinking which is impressively philosophical, that is, analytic and detailed. It is precisely this lacuna that this book seeks to fill- in part, to be sure- yet (I hope) fairly and sensibly.

I hasten to add here that whereas the relevance of our theory of rasa (in its totality) to present-day classical music is debatable, the main approaches of philosophical aesthetics today- that is, the linguistic-analytic and phenomenological ones- can be easily applied to the study of our music, with definite intellectual gain. It is indeed this faith which determines my thinking in this book all along. Aesthetics, today, is dominantly philosophical. In respect of music too, it discusses the basic questions of philosophy. What is the meaning of the language that we use in our talk about this art? What is the true character of our experience of creating and listening to music? And what are the legitimate criteria for determining the value not only of music as an art taken generally, but of individual music recitals? Questions of meaning, truth and value, as we know, are commonly accepted concerns of philosophy; and it is exactly these questions which dominate discussion in the present work. Therefore, it may well be regarded as an essay in the philosophical aesthetics of music.

Let me now spell out simply what this book seeks to do or deal with:

a. Clarifying the meaning of words that distinguish our talk about our music, words like svara, raga, laya, tala, sama, layakari, alapa, dhruvapada, khyal, bandish and sangati- and this, all along, in the context of the actual practice of music today, yet without ignoring our traditional thinking on the subject.
b. Form, content and expressiveness- all as related to Hindustani music.
c. Analyzing our experience of listening to music, instead of merely calling it aesthetic experience.
d. Aesthetic attitude/viewpoint, and our music.
e. Functions and criteria of music criticism.

Further, in so far as comprehensiveness and not mere acuity of concern has been quite a feature of philosophy traditionally, I have devoted, in this book, separate chapters to such questions of wider significance as the following: music and silence, our music and the spiritual, and the relation of music to human life and experience as a whole. An attempt has also been made, it rather feebly, to make sense of our ancient view that music is (in principle) a means to spiritual realization.

Be it noted that as I say all this, I all this, I speak on the basis of my actual experience of listening to a good deal of superlative music; and it is this unremitting care for music as it really appears to contemplation that enables me to do some corrective thinking in respect of the way we freely talk about some basic concepts of our music. Take the case of Sama, for instance. It is common to speak of it simply as the first beat of the cycle. But, in actual music, do we not repeatedly come back to the beat where the rhythm begins, and so complete a round or avartan, whereupon the beat in question becomes a kind of centre of a cycle? But here, again, it would be wrong to think of it abstractly, or on the image of a geometrical centre. This (geometrical) centre is inert. Sama, on the other hand, is the focus of a flow. What is more, it is an aesthetic centre. Generally, it lends a look of wholeness to the sthayi, making it appear duly formed; and where- as in some skillfully designed sthayis- it climaxes such a flowing segment of sthayi as seems to be heading for it, the sama makes the sthayi appear to bloom, and itself comes to look like the line’s very destiny, and no mere terminus. I regard it as a special ‘occurrence’ within what has been generally spoken of (by aestheticians) as music’s occurrent form. This explains why, in the book, I have given quite some attention to amad, that is, a noticeable oriented pa passage towards the Sama. And if a fair part of the book is devoted to rhythm, it is simply because, is spite of its admitted role in eliciting audience applause for our leading instrumentalists, the only attempt in English so far to make it an object of serious aesthetical thinking is my little book on the subject, The Winged Form: Aesthetical Essays on Hindustani Rhythm, published by Sangeet Natak Akademi more than twenty-five years back.

Yet, though in the present book I resort freely to close and detailed thinking, it is not a work on philosophy as such. Nor does it deal with music in the way in which its theory is commonly regarded today. Its purpose is simply to show how we can do significant aesthetical thinking in the contemporary way, and thereby gain in our basic understanding and actual practice of music. Incidentally, at places I have also tried to show, where I fairly could, how some details and emphases of Western aesthetic thinking today become not only quite clear, but at places even suspect in the light of Hindustani music. Here, if I keep referring to Susanne K. Langer freely, the reason is not merely that she is one of the more important ‘systematic’ aestheticians- systematic in the sense of attempting to provide a duly unified theory of all the major arts- whose works I have had the privilege of reading closely, but because perhaps she alone has sought to make her reflections on music the very basis of her integrative theory.

So I cannot help hoping that this book, which issues from almost half a century of listening to and reflecting on music, both devotedly, will serve as a dependable text-book for those who are themselves interested in, or are somehow required to study, our music aesthetically.

Finally, a word about the compositions which have been notated and discussed in this book, by way of illustrating some points of theory. I have included those bandishes (or sthayis) alone which can be presented without infringing any artist’s copyright on music already recorded. At the same time, I must also own up to what I have left out. Limitations of my own interest and ability, as also of the time allowed for completing this project, have compelled me to skip references to our instrumental music almost totally. On the other hand, in so far as I have tried to reflect- at fair length- on the basic concepts and excellences of our music, the whole of it may be said to have been covered, it but generally.

My first book on a key segment of our sangeet was, The Winged Form: Aesthetical Essays on Hindustani Rhythm (1979); and the second one was Swinging Syllables: Aesthetics of Kathak Dance (1991). Both have been published by Sangeet Natak Akademi. It has also financed, it in part, the publication of my third book on sangeet: Hindustani Sangeet and A Philosopher of art (2001). The present book too has been written with the help of a (senior) National Fellowship awarded by the Akademi. So I have reason to feel deeply indebted to it; and my gratitude intensifies when I think of the award (2004) given to me by the same institution for my overall scholarly contribution to our music and dance. Yet, as I come to the close of this preface, the overtopping attitude is one of reverent bowing to the memory of all those musicians who are no longer alive and whose informal talk and stage performances have opened my eyes to the riches of this glorious art of melody and rhythm.


Preface 13
1. Paving the Way 19
2. Towards Basic concepts: Svara and Raga 67
3. Transfiguring the Temporal: Laya and Tala 106
4. Shaping the basics: Form, content, and Evocativeness 217
5. Hindustani music and some idioms of Aesthetic concern 344
6. Music and silence 406
7. The spiritual and Hindustani Music420
8. We and Our music: An overview 447
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