Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande

The influence of Western education in nineteenth century India motivated the Indian intellectual elite to incorporate ideas from this system into other areas of their social and political life. The growing national consciousness in the face of British colonial rule and the need to establish India’s ‘glorious’ past to the Indians and British, led sections of the intellectual elite to search for symbols of national cultural identity.

Indian art music proved to be one such symbol and steps were taken to transform the traditional method of training and performance in order to place the art form on par with other subjects of academic learning. This was at a time when training in music was imparted by the oral guru-shishya or master-disciple tradition, primarily to those belonging to families of hereditary musicians and women performers. This form of training placed heavy demands on the dedication and receptivity of the shishya. Performance was also a prerogative of hereditary performers.

The new perspective that took seed in the intellectual elite resulted in the formation of music clubs, which were set up to disseminate traditional knowledge to those outside hereditary musician and songstress families and to encourage amateurs to take to musical performance. The first few music clubs met with opposition from some quarters for a variety of reasons, but they soon became an integral part of the musical life of urban India.

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) found himself in this environment and his initial love for music transformed into a single-minded mission to build an institutionalized and codified system of education for Hindustani music in the early part of the twentieth century.

Born in Mumbai, Bhatkhande played flute as a young boy, but got further drawn into the subtleties of Hindustani music. He learnt sitar from Vallabhdas Gopalgiri and Buwa Damulji. He then became a member of the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali, perhaps the first formal music club to have been established in Mumbai. Here, Bhatkhande learnt hundreds of traditional compositions from Raojibuwa Belbaugkar, Ali Hussein and Vilayat Hussein, all of whom were employed as teachers by the Mandali. Bhatkhande was also exposed to variety of musical styles, as he heard several vocalists and instrumentalists who visited Mumbai from other parts of India.

Bhatkhande concomitantly pursued his academic education and became a lawyer. But his insatiable desire to pursue the learning of music and to work towards establishing a standardized system of music education, much along the lines of university education that he had experienced so closely, led him to study several books on Indian and European music. He made trips to various parts of the country, held discussions and exchanged ideas with other scholars and procured old treatises. He realised the disjunct between extant musical practice and the description provided in old treatises, was consequently motivated to codify information concerning prevalent musical practice and disseminate this on a mass scale in a classroom situation.

In order to achieve this goal, he began adding more traditional knowledge to the large number of compositions that he had already acquired from the teachers at the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali between 1884 and 1890. Between 1900 and 1907, he learnt several compositions of the Manrang gharana from the brothers Ashiq Ali and Ahmed Ali of Jaipur, and later, from their father Muhammad Ali Khan. He also acquired compositions from Ganpatibuwa Bhilwadikar.

Bhatkhande devised a notation system to help document the material that he was acquiring. Experiments in creating systems of notation for Indian music had been carried out earlier in Kolkata and Baroda, but Bhatkhande’s contribution had far-reaching consequences. He began lecturing at the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali and his notation system was put to use in the Mandali classes. In 1909, the Mandali published Swar Malika authored by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, which was a collection of rudimentary melodic structures using the system of notation devised by him. Later, the Mandali also undertook to publish the Gujarati translation of Bhatkhande’s Hindustani Sangit Paddhati.

He was keen to procure and republish old treatises on Indian music. Thus, in 1911, with the help of his disciples Vadilal Shivram and Ratansi Leeladhar, he translated and published in Gujarati the old texts Sangeet Ratnakar and Sangeet Darpan.

After 1916, Bhatkhande started a music class called the Shri Sharada Sangit Mandal in the premises of Good Life League, a Parsi organisation situated at Nanabhai Lane, Flora Fountain. His disciple, Vadilal Shivram, assisted him in the teaching.

In order to achieve his goal of mass-education in music, Bhatkhande laid down a syllabus and prepared a graded system of teaching music theory and practice. His method was executed in music schools situated at Gwalior and Baroda. His system was also implemented at the Morris College of Music, which he had founded in 1926 at Lucknow. Keen to introduce music as part of the academic curriculum at the school and university levels, his efforts bore fruit and music was introduced at the primary level in Mumbai municipal schools.

The pan-Indian consciousness that was felt in many spheres of Indian life during this period also resonated in the world of Hindustani music. Bhatkhande organised All India Music Conferences in Baroda, Delhi, Banaras and Lucknow, between the years 1916 and 1925, with financial support from princely patrons and other affluent individuals. The attempt at these and similar conferences was to bridge the gap between theory and practice, and to bring together performers and scholars from various parts of the country to freely interact and discuss issues related to Hindustani music. However, one of the undercurrents was to establish Hindustani music on par with Western music and other areas of learning.

Among the works authored by Bhatkhande are Sanskrit works like Shrimallakshyasangeetam, the four part Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati, the six part Kramik Pustak Malika and several books and articles in English. He also composed lakshan geets or compositions which encapsulated information regarding the characteristic features of different raags.




Bhatkhande Smriti Granth, Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya, Khairagarh, M.P., 1966.


Biographical note prepared by Aneesh Pradhan


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