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Let the music play on


The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India 3 volumes 1472 pages, Rs 9950

I remember talking to musician Nayan Ghosh many years ago about an extraordinary though exhausting project that he had inherited from his father, the late Pandit Nikhil Ghosh. It was an unfinished encyclopaedia of Indian music. I then never heard much about it for 10 years and assumed that the idea had faded away. After all, to compile information on such a vast subject which is based on oral and anecdotal history, or on the biases and whims of different musicians, must have been daunting. Apart from that, resources were constantly an issue. But the indefatigable Ghosh and his team at Sangit Mahabharati have seen the project through and now, music lovers can dip into a comprehensive three-volume Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India.

With entries from 100 acclaimed musicologists, scholars and researchers, the book offers something to the serious student looking to, say, confirm the notes of a particular raga, as well as to the curious amateur who wants a quick insight into the origins of Dhrupad. The three volumes cover Vedic, classical, semiclassical, and light forms of Indian music. They span all regions, from Kashmir to Kerala, and Assam to Gujarat, and the entire south Asian subcontinent covering esoteric regional instruments or musical forms. But there is one glaring omission - Hindi film music which, one assumes, would qualify prominently under 'music of India'. Perhaps that would merit an encyclopaedia of its own, being so rich in content.

One of the treats is the large number of illustrations and photographs of artistes sourced from private collections and family albums, as well as line drawings specially commissioned for the encyclopaedia. Open to any page, and you will get a sliver of the amazing world of music, in which notes and instruments and history have melded to form a mosaic of art and learning. We read, for example, about Bundu Khan, the famous sarangi player who moved to Karachi after Partition - and learn not just of his birth, death, musical style and favoured ragas, but also that once when he was travelling with Nikhil Ghosh, they had to wait for a bus which was going to be very late. Bundu Khan then instinctively spread a sheet of cloth on the pavement, took out his sarangi, and began to play, saying, "Instead of doing nothing, let me do my riyaz. " Or, we learn more about Sangeet Makaranda, a remarkably sophisticated Sanskrit work on dance and music, supposedly written by Narada, in a period before the 13th century. In this, ragas are grouped according to time of day and gender (including a neuter gender).

OUP's musical encyclopaedia is likely to disappoint scholars who are looking for something beyond facts, for it doesn't offer much interpretation. "A good encyclopaedia has to go beyond being a reference book, beyond the realm of the factual, " suggests eminent musicologist Ashok Ranade. "It should be able to interpret something, to know where we were, where we are today, and where we are moving to. " That, it does not do. But for now, it is definitely a first of its kind and well worth the wait.

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