Between 1200 – 1900, various aspects of socio-cutural life in India were on a progressive decline. One manifestation of this decline was the fall in standards of music in northern India. From being the vehicle for realizing divinity, hindustani classical music (hindustani being the classical music of northern India with the carnatic music being its southern counterpart) had deteriorated to being associated with prostitutes (the term naachne gaane vali in the Hindi language!). The survival of classical music was at the highest levels of threat. By the 1900s, people had completely forgotten that music can be used as a tool to realize the divine nature of the universe. Instead, they not only looked down upon musicians, but also prevented their community from listening to it. Additionally, scholars who learned music despite the prevalent societal apathy towards music, exhibited a deep sense of rivalry towards other contemporary schools of music. They tended to protect their songs and compositions within the four walls of their respective schools (gharanas). The lack of interaction between scholars further degenerated the standards of the art, because every gharana followed a different way of rendering the same raga (tune). These various classification schemes often tended to contradict one another, futher encouraging musicians of a gharana to keep their compositions secret, in order to avoid argument or challenge from a competing gharana. It was a vicious cycle that could potentially extinguish music completely from the society, destroying all the audience it had in the past.From this nadir point of near-extinction, only a very great man with exceptional levels of genius, could have revived the lost art and facilitated its acceptance by the society. The man who single-handedly brought about the revival of hindustani classical music in the early 1900s, and enabled people to look at music again as a path to spirituality, was Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, who lived between 1860 and 1936. Bhatkhande was born in a Brahmin family in Maharasthra. He was very interested in music since a very early age, but because of societal pressures, he became a lawyer at the High court in Karachi. Simultaneously, he started reading the ancient Sanskrit texts – Natya shastra (the treatise on performing arts, theatre and dance) and Sangeeta Ratnakara (the most definitive reference text for both Carnatic and Hindustani music). These texts were complicated and hardly readable by a lay man and hence a lay man could never appreciate the inherent structure in music unless he mastered the books. After the death of his wife and daughter, Bhatkhande realized that the purpose of his life was not to be a lawyer. He devoted the rest of his life to systematizing the different prevailing forms of hindustani classical music by building a solid theoretical framework from which ragas can be designed and sung.
He started this monumental project by first identifying all the famous gharanas in the country and making a comprehensive list of all musicians in these gharanas. He approached them one by one and explained the objective of his project – to systematize hindustani music by developing a theoretical framework so that the lay public can understand and appreciate music that is now only hidden within the walls of the various gharanas. The ustads (masters) in the gharanas were highly suspicious of Bhatkhande’s objectives. But Bhatkhande was persistent. He promised that in exchange for his learning at a gharana, he would share all the songs and compositions he had learned from the other gharanas also. He insisted that his aim was not to make money out of the ustads’ compositions by selling them, but to bring together all known compositions in hindustani music on a common systematic platform and to publish them in a unified manner, so that the common people are also capable of understanding music and appreciating its coherent structure. Some ustads bluntly refused to teach Bhatkhande, but other ustads were magnanimous. Bhatkhande spent several months in places like Baroda, Rampur and Gwalior where he was able to collect several lost compositions of the legendary Tansen. During his stay at the Manarang Gharana at Jaipur, the Ustads Mohammad Ali Khan, Asgar Ali Khan and Ahmed Ali Khan taught him more than 300 precious compositions. This added to his collections. By his infinite patience, persuasive ways, and utter sincerity of purpose, Bhatkhande was gradually able to break down the opposition and suspicion of some of the great ustads of the day. Those who disregarded him and scorned him for “looting the treasures of the ustads” were taken in by Bhatkhande’s moral integrity and became his close associates, teachers and friends. Throughout his travels, Bhatkhande took extensive notes -running to more than 8000 pages – in his diary.
After nearly fifteen years of conducting study-cum-research tours, Bhatkhande finally collected all his notes and began publishing them one by one. He collected the various renditions of different ragas, and systematized them so that incorrect renditions were not adopted. Bhatkhande formulated a classification scheme for various ragas called the thaat system which was based on the melakarta scheme used in Carnatic music. He published his first book Swara Mallika, standardizing all the ragas in hindustani music. In 1909 he published the Shri Mallakshaya Sangeetam and then he published Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati in four volumes. Even today, these volumes are the sole standard treatises on Hindustani music. He published under the pseudonyms Vishnu Sharma or Chaturapandita. He also published several books on ancient manuscripts he discovered from libraries in different parts of the country during his extended study tours.
Although Bhatkhande shunned fame, fame sought him from all across the country. The rulers of aroda, Gwalior, Rampur, Dharampur, Akbarpur etc were his staunch supporters and admirers and they sent students from their states to learn music from Bhatkhande. Thus slowly, hindustani classical music had begun its path to revival. Bhatkhande inspired and guided many students to open music colleges across the country in places like Baroda, Gwalior, Lucknow, Bombay, Nagpur and so on. All these schools started following Bhatkhande’s system of teaching music and hence a uniform platform was established. Bhatkhande went one step further. He realized that the warring musicians would accept his solutions more openly if they were couched in the ancient Sanksrit language and if the verses bore a close resemblance to ancient treatises on the same topic. So he published all his principal works in Sanskrit . Bhatkhande was a staunchly nationalistic man, and maintained deep affinity with various Indian languages as we can see that all his publications were in Sanskrit, Marathi as well as Hindi.
Pandit Bhatkhande single-handedly designed the scientific laws of music, and hindustani music in India today owes a great debt of gratitude towards him. As long as hindustani music survives and thrives in this world, the yeoman service rendered by Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande at its altar shall be remembered with gratitude and respect by music connoisseurs.