A debut biography of a key figure in the Indian classical-music renaissance.
Indian classical music is still something of a mystery to Western ears. Roy aims to remedy that with this look at a legendary practitioner of the genre. Allauddin Khan, she writes, was not only an “outstanding genius in music” but also a “unique personality in the entire realm of the arts.” From very modest beginnings in rural India, he mastered all the classical Indian instruments and became the teacher of perhaps India’s most famous musician, Ravi Shankar. “For him, each note of a ‘Raga’ [one of the melodic modes of Indian classical music] was a living entity,” Roy writes. “It seemed that when he played each of the notes, it crystallized into its own sublime form.” In a tone of utmost reverence, the author tracks Allauddin’s single-minded pursuit of musical distinction. At 8 years old, he ran away from home to perform with a musical troupe and, at 15, he deserted his new wife after an arranged marriage, taking her valuable ornaments with him as he pursued his musical dream. His dogged persistence finally paid off when a great musical guru, Wazir Khan, took him as a pupil. “He adored music with the fervor of a selfless lover,” Roy writes. The author certainly conveys the rigors of Indian musicianship—performances commonly last four to five hours—and makes a strong case for Allauddin as a key contributor to India’s “musical renaissance.” But the book is unlikely to be of interest to casual readers, largely because Roy doesn’t present Allauddin as anything more than a one-dimensional figure, nor does she place him in the context of his times. For example, Allauddin had a hot temper, but Roy glosses over it, writing that his anger was “child-like. It did not harm anyone.” Although Allauddin lived during India’s struggle for independence from Britain, the reader learns only that he was a “patriot” who “never ceased to look forward to a bright future of prosperity and glory for the motherland and her countless sons and daughters.” In this book, Allauddin’s art exists in a vacuum.
A hagiographic bio, of interest mainly to musicologists.