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  • Pandits in the Movies:Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema
  • Greg Booth (bio)


Toward the end of V. Shantaram's 1955 classic and phenomenally popular Hindi film, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, the film's hero, Ghirdar, competes for artistic supremacy in kathak dance against another dancer, Ram Prasad. The competition (muqabala) proceeds in a series of virtuosic and overtly confrontational displays of dance prowess. The competing dancers employ all manner of rhythmic intricacy, speed, technique, dramatic gesture, loudness, and sheer self-assertiveness. Ghirdar's final triumph is ensured when he and his opponent engage in a series of simultaneous rhythmic turns, or chakkars, which are a standard feature of kathak performance practice. While Ghirdar maintains an elegant balance and poise during this performance, Ram Prasad becomes increasingly dizzy and disoriented, finally reeling from the stage in defeat.

Viewing this and other dance scenes in this film, it is easy to agree with Fredric Jameson (1992:10), who suggests that in a capitalist system, "the quality of various forms of human activity . . . has effectively been bracketed or suspended by the market system, leaving all these activities to be ruthlessly reorganized in efficiency terms, as sheer means or instrumentality." Although Gopi Krishna, the star of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, was a highly respected classical kathak dancer of exceptional artistry, his prowess as a dancer throughout the film is expressed in terms of quantitative extremes: his rhythmic compositions are longer and more complex, he dances faster, he leaps higher, he completes more turns, and so on. Thus comprised, and in terms of the film's narrative, Krishna's quantifiable virtuosity is the instrument by which his character overcomes all obstacles, thus ensuring both his artistic and romantic success.

This research presents a study of representation, specifically, the representation of classical music (and dance) virtuosity in the Hindi cinema. The films [End Page 60] I will examine cover a fairly narrow range of Hindi film history, from 1943 to 1962. All but one are products of an independent India; most were made by independent producers outside of Mumbai's studio system, which was enjoying its last profitable years even in 1943 when Ranjit Movie tone released Tansen. All are located firmly within the aesthetic and structures of India's conventional cinema, in which a host of narrative conventions-adopted and adapted from sources ranging from pre-mass media music drama to Hollywood hits-dominated all aspects of film content.

As a study of images, this work does not speak to the reality, however defined or understood, of social relations in the world of twentieth- (or twenty-first) century Hindustani classical music. I emphasize this point, since good social relations are routinely expressed and demonstrated by classical musicians themselves. This study is not concerned with the behaviors or expressed opinions of actual classical musicians in India, but with the images of historical and fictional musicians and the narrative situations in which they are placed by the Hindi cinema. When one examines them carefully, these images and narrative dilemmas carry some troubling baggage. As a conclusion to this list of caveats, I note finally that relatively few Hindi films (or Hollywood films for that matter) focus on or highlight classical music or musicians; what is more, I have undoubtedly missed some of those that do. I mention this at the outset to make clear that I am dealing with a very small sample. In addition to Jhanak Jhanak . . . , I will also examine images found in Tansen (1943), Baiju Bawra (1952), Kohinoor (1960), Basant Bahar (1956), and Sangeet Samrat Tansen (1962). In studies of mass culture, especially a mass-culture industry with the enormous output of the Hindi cinema, small samples can produce tentative conclusions at the very best.

Within my small sample, however, I perceive three thematic threads that may be examined. First, the instrumentality of quantifiable virtuosity, with regard to classical music, is a consistent theme in the Hindi cinema. My second thread is made up of the ways in which classical musicians are sometimes portrayed as clowns or otherwise comic characters in Hindi films. The cinema often displays a disdain for certain extreme aspects of...