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SHELF LIFE: The power of good writing

By Sumana Ramanan

01st June 2020

When I was in class seven, with a lot of time on my hands one summer, I casually browsed through my parents’ bookshelves looking for something to read. Those were the days when parents did not fill their children’s holidays with structured activities and classes, but left them to their own devices.

I was in a phase where I had outgrown children’s fiction and was not mature enough to read full-fledged novels for adults. So I rummaged through the non-fiction part of their collection. On a complete whim, of all things, I picked up a book titled Listening to Hindustani Music, by Chetan Karnani.

Karnani taught English literature at the University of Rajasthan, in Jaipur, and had written a book on Nissim Ezekiel, the Mumbai poet. The write-up on the author said he was also working on books on Nirad Chaudhuri and I.A. Richards, and that he had learnt vocal music from Pandit Mohan Lal Kathak.

I turned randomly to a page and began reading in the middle. I still have that book, published in 1974, and I remember that it was page 102. It was part of a chapter on the singer Kumar Gandharva (1924 to 1992). “Kumar has gone astray because he has tried to imbibe certain values of folk music in his classical style. Having settled in Madhya Pradesh, he has tried to give classical dimensions to the folk music of that region. But, in the process, he has ignored [the fact] that the values cherished by the two styles are different.”

I was hooked. Here was someone who had clearly listened to a lot of music, had himself learnt to sing, knew the technicalities, and then used that knowledge to write in a way that made sense to a youngster, and was not afraid to take a stand yet did not sound tendentious. Of course, at that time, I had not analysed the writing in those terms, but in retrospect, these were the clearly qualities that subliminally drew me to the book.

After finishing that chapter, I went back and read the book from beginning to end. The first quarter was devoted to general topics, and the remainder to profiles of various musicians. After every profile, Karnani suggested LPs of that musician that one could buy. As it happened, my parents had in their collection a few of those LPs, and I began listening to them.

My parents were steeped in Carnatic music: my father sang and my mother had learnt the veena for many years. But on moving to Mumbai from Chennai as a 19-year-old, my father also began going to Hindustani music concerts. He had bought Karnani’s book to educate himself.

One of the musicians Karnani profiled was the flutist Pannalal Ghosh. My parents happened to have an LP of his, although one that was not listed by the author. Still, I was so mesmerised by his music, that I, with the help of a friend’s father, tracked down a teacher and began learning to play the Hindustani flute.

I did not fully know what his antecedents were, because the friend’s father had vetted him and that was enough for me. Only much later I found out that he was the grand-student of Ghosh himself! My music teacher, Ronu Mazumdar, went on to become a prominent musician, and today is a highly sought-after performer. For a variety of reasons, I moved on to Hindustani vocal music. But to this day, I cherish my disintegrating copy of Chetan Karnani’s gem of a book, which is no longer in print, which opened up a wonderful world to me through the lucidity of its prose.

(SHELF LIFE is a weekly post from the world of books: literature, ideas, reading, writing, publishing, and anything in between.)

(Facebook: Sumana Ramanan, Instagram: sumanaspirit, Twitter: @sumana_ramanan)

(Sumana Ramanan is on the committee of the Literature Live! Mumbai International Literature Festival. She is an independent journalist who has worked in leading media organisations, such as Business World, Economic and Political Weekly, Hindustan Times, Reuters and Scroll.in.)