Centre For Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC)

Arts Practice
2017-2018

Grant Period: Seven months

Principal Invesitgator: Lakshmi Subramanian

This grant supports the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC) to put together a seminar and a multi-media exhibition centred around the archived collection of music and papers of Pandit Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury. Founded in 1973, the CSSSC is a premier social sciences and humanities research and training institute based in Kolkata. Lakshmi Subramanian, a senior academic, scholar and Professor of History at the CSSSC, will be the principal investigator of this project.

Pandit Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury (1901-1972) was one of Bengal’s most celebrated scholar musicians, whose life and labours embodied the complexities of classical music’s public history in the 20th century. He straddled the rich domains of zamindari musical culture and Calcutta’s vibrant music milieu. A keen student of Dhrupad, he later trained mostly in instrumental music and went on to become one of the most prolific exponents of the Senia gharana with his mastery over the Been, the Sursringar and the Senia Rabab. As a teacher and a prolific writer, he taught and wrote extensively on the history and philosophy of music.

The depth of Birendra Kishore’s life-long engagement with music practice is seen in what he left behind. The rich collection largely includes his own writings in Bangla and English for various journals and for the Sangeet Natak Akademi, unpublished works, books and contemporary periodicals in Bangla, Hindi and English, his personal notebooks consisting of compositions and notes on the taleem acquired from his gurus, ephemera such as souvenirs and brochures of music associations and a range of photographs. This entire collection was made available to the CSSSC by his daughter Rani Ray and was subsequently digitised by the Centre.

The value of this collection as the repository of writing the regional history of Hindustani classical music in Bengal is immense. Located at a crucial point in the history of transmission of music knowledge and skills, Birendra Kishore was able to learn from almost all the leading masters of Hindustani instrumental music. And these masters were willing to share with him, as with some of his zamindar neighbours, a deep musical legacy that was central to the fast disappearing world of Mughal artistic life. These teachers laid the basis for the flourishing of music in the 20th century and its global impact. The collection is also invaluable in documenting the taleem of some of the most celebrated lineages of Hindustani classical music as they interacted with existing Dhrupad traditions of Bengal. It provides a foundation for examining the depth of the Senia tradition and the very particular salience it enjoyed in Bengal.

Enabled by this grant, Lakshmi will put together an exhibition and a seminar that will be centred around and draw from this collection. It not only aims to showcase the collection but also seeks to highlight its value as a public resource to write a regional history of music, recast the national history of Hindustani classical music and encourage artists to engage with the archived musical materials.

The exhibition will primarily contain text and images along with other multi-media inputs. In addition to this, there will be reconstructed pieces of music as decoded by Sanjay Bandyopadhyay and his students. This would help reflect on the pedagogic use of the material. The exhibition will be created around ten prominent themes that include the taleem of the Senia gharana, musical networks between different sites of music, instruments and the Bengal cognoscenti, the public history of classical music in Calcutta, notations, music pedagogy and so on. Each of these themes will be developed through bi-lingual panels that will reflect the material in the archive, with supporting music, texts and explanatory notes.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a seminar and performances that will engage with the broad domain of music scholarship. This will include issues of music pedagogy, of archiving and sustaining conversations with practitioners, of the potential of engaging with archival material for further experimentation, and so on. The seminar also hopes to reflect on regional perspectives in understanding and writing music histories and create interactions between music practitioners and scholars.

Lakshmi will put together the exhibition and the seminar with the help of a small team of research assistants and exhibition designers. The exhibition and seminar is scheduled to be held in the Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre at the CSSSC in December 2017.

Still and video documentation of the exhibition, seminar and performances and papers presented at the seminar will be the deliverables from this project. About 90 % of the funds required for this project will be covered by IFA. The Centre will secure the rest of the funds from other sources.

One of our key concerns across all our programmes has been the lack of proposals from the field of music. In order to address this concern, early this year in April 2017, we organised a roundtable of experts from music seeking their suggestions. This project comes quick on the heels of these deliberations. Interestingly, as a project that concerns itself with music research and practice and is located within an archive, this exhibition and seminar, in many ways addresses the key programme areas at IFA. We hope that this project will pave the way for more such exciting one in the future in the field of music.

This grant is made possible with support from Pirojsha Godrej Foundation.