Life of a Musician, by the Sahitya Akademi Award- winning novelist Bani Basu (and translated by English scholar jayita Sengupta), tells the story of Apala, a gifted singer of Hindustani classical music. She was born into an old, middle- class family of limited means in north Calcutta. To her family, her music meant little, as it did not fit their idea of 'respectability'. Her husband 'chose' her after hearing her sing at a public concert, yet her marital life proved loveless. Her in- laws were insensitive and exploitative. Her children grew up learning to ignore their mother's music. Shorn of freedom, love and, above all, music, Apala's life moved towards a tragic end.
Surrounding Apala's story are the interlinked lives of other practitioners of music and classical art, like Soham, Mirul, Rameshwar Thakur, Dipali and Shekharan. Their lives intersected with Apala’s in ways that profoundly affect all of them. Written in lilting prose that draws on the idioms of Hindustani classical music, Gandharvi is also musical in its form, where in the end the movement of music and the life story of Apala become one and the same. A thinly veiled depiction of the classical music scene of Calcutta in the 1960s, this modern Bengali classic is also a celebration of the indomitable spirit of music.
Bani Basu (b. 1940) is a Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author of contemporary Bengali fiction. A prolific writer, her novels have been regularly published by Desh, the premier literary journal of Bengal. Her major works include Shwet Pathorer Thala, Ekushe Paa, Maitreya Jataka, Gandhorbi, Pancham Purush and Ashtam Garva. She was awarded the Tarashankar Award for Antarghat (1991) and the Ananda Puraskar for Maitreya Jataka (1996). She is also the recipient of the Sushila Devi Birla Memorial Award and the Sahitya Setu Puraskar. She received the Sahitya Akademi Award in the year 2010. Her novel Antarghat has been published in translation by Orient BlackSwan as The Enemy Within (2002). She lives in Kolkata.
Jayita Sengupta is an academic. She has taught at various colleges in Delhi, Kolkata and the Sikkim University. She was a Senior Fulbright Teaching Fellow at Stanford University, and Fellow to other universities in the United States and Taiwan. Jayita Sengupta is the Managing and Chief Editor of Caesurae: Poetics of Cultural Translation, a multimedia interdisciplinary e-journal, associated with the non-profit organisation Caesurae Collective Society, of which she is one of the founder members.
Indian Performing Arts is greatly influenced by music. Physicists claim that there is a close relationship between mathematics and music; that both activate the same cells of the human brain by stimulating the same neurons; perhaps because the melodic and the rhythmic permutations and combinations are governed by calculated moves. Ironically, in the world of performing arts, especially in the arena of music, two-plus-two do not add up to four; not always. The intertwined sentiments coax these combinations to shoot up to five or seven or force them to drop down to the level of one or zero! All depends on the artiste's persona, mood and his/her audience's reaction.
Against this complex backdrop, the fascinating life stories of the central characters of this novel-all vocalists and dancers-are etched by Bani Basu, one of the top-ranking Bangla novelists of her generation. Well-conversant with music and its terminologies, she has very aptly tided it 'Gandhorbi' (Bengali way of pronouncing gandharvi). The Sanskrit word 'gandharva' stands for the celestial singer, and the art of the gandharvas is known as gandharvi vidya since time immemorial. In the absence of historical facts, Indian arts try to find their thousands-of-years-old roots, which are shrouded in mystery, where spirituality, science and myths go hand-in-hand. Fortunately, gandharvi vidya and gandharva sangeet (style of singing practised by the gandharvas) found its place in Bharat Muni's Natyashastra, the first documentation of Indian performing arts that dates back to approx. 200 BC.
Apparently, even before that ancient period, there were two highly developed streams of music in India. One was folk music, scattered all over the subcontinent called Bharatavarsha; the other was a strictly disciplined classical form that developed out of these folk forms. The classical form, known as gandharva sangeet, was performed in temples to invoke and appease gods with the help of doggedly practised and purified swaras. The word 'swara' consists of swa and ra; the former denotes the 'self' while the latter means 'to shine forth'. This speaks volumes about music's intrinsic spirituality and resultant scientific application through pranayam, an essential part of vocalism that affects the human psyche through the chakras, or the energy vortexes/ centres in human body.
A lot of material is already available on the Internet about ancient Indian wisdom pertaining to the chakras, their direct connection with the five elements, their constant effect on physical, emotional and mental challenges faced by human beings, along with hundreds of their remedies and, most importantly, nad-the resonant tones role in connecting the atma (microcosmic unit) with paramatma (macrocosmic universe) and the resultant samadhi (trance). Then, why have I embarked on this subject?
Obviously because the main theme of this novel has all these as the background score; like the all-encompassing swirling sound of the tanpura that distills the environment prior to a music concert and yet remains unobtrusive during it. There is this apparently gentle but grossly earthy character who represents the first chakra, associated with frustration, fear, insecurity, wavering sense of belonging; he who wishes to have a 'trophy' wife, but whose depravity gets charged after listening to her heavenly music, so much so that he keeps raping her. Then, there are these seductresses-representing the second chakra, which is connected to creativity and scheming minds. The fiery character of the third chakra is exemplified through the revolt of a young man. The fourth vortex is meant for subtle expressions of heart; of love and compassion, which are embodied in the novel by the heroine, the songstress. Her music is effective enough to cure the person representing the fifth chakra; together, with intuitive creativity, they traverse through the higher centres of the brain till a point comes when the sound ebbs give way to a much more intense silence.
The gandharvi vidya of yore was very much aware of all these. In general, such music was performed for the adrishta phal, the results of which cannot be seen at the gross level but at the sublime, spiritual lane. The drishta phal, or immediate materialistic gains, included entertainment, enticement, even cure from physical and mental challenges. One can trace such references in the great epic Mahabharata or in more recent works of Kalidasa. It is amazing how the author has intertwined all these in her simple storylines with such telling effect!
Translating such 'simple' pieces of art is never very easy. Frankly, after having translated several books on music from Hindi to Bengali and English, and from Bengali to Hindi, I strongly feel that an effective translation is much more demanding than the original work, because the translator cannot do without a pen fluent in both the languages and also needs to be well-versed with the subject matter to catch the pulse of the plot. Jayita Sengupta, with her superb command over English and Bengali and with her passion for music, has captured the delicate essence in Gandharvi: Life of a Musician, in a lucid style which deserves high commendation. I am sure that those who have read the original will also enjoy reading this beautiful poetic version by Jayita.
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