Every raga of the Hindustani classical music pantheon has swaras or notes that give it its unique stamp. But “the essence of Indian music" lies in the in-between notes called shrutis, a part of the “reality which lies beyond perception", says Namita Devidayal in her first book, The Music Room.

The Music Room: Random House, 320 pages, Rs350

The book is a well-crafted, first-person account of the author’s 25-year-long tutelage in Hindustani vocal classical music under Dhondutai Kulkarni, one of the finest exponents of the Jaipur gharana, and the only student of the legendary singer Kesarbai Kerkar, a temperamental diva whose voice and tantrums kept her audiences enthralled.

It was Devidayal’s mother who encouraged her to start music lessons at the age of 10. At her very first lesson, her guru made her sing just a single note, sa; for the next two years, all she did was practise one raga, Bhoop. Under the banyan tree of the guru-shishya tradition, it takes time to put down roots. Learning music is a process of painstaking repetition, refining and then the reaping of notes—it cannot come to fruition through short cuts. It is, as Devidayal points out, “a lifetime of learning and not just of music".

It’s also an act of courage and risk-taking: even if you do get to be a good artiste, you can’t necessarily make a living out of it. The book illustrates how a great artiste like Dhondutai lived out her life in one room in a neighbourhood where pimps and brothels flourished, sharing the space with her her elderly, bedridden mother. This room, with its peeling paint and portraits of the founding family of the Jaipur gharana, became a temple where the young student imbibed her music from her teacher, whose “life was a constant struggle between mundane chores and her unworldly art".

Framed: Kesarbai, a forgotten talent

Breathing life into this simple storyline are some wonderful insights into the structure and history of Hindustani classical music, which enrich a lay person’s appreciation. The context is created through spicy vignettes about the Jaipur gharana and its maestro-founder, Alladiya Khan, and an examination of the relationship between Dhondutai and her own teacher, Kesarbai Kerkar. While Dhondutai is intensely spiritual in her approach to her art, her teacher was the opposite: “a woman whose temper had once prompted a wealthy businessman to crawl under the creaky wooden stage and sit in hiding for two hours so that he could listen to her music..."

The book poses some interesting questions: Why was Kesarbai “so mean-spirited, yet so gifted? So narcissistic and self-destructive?" Does achieving that high level in music demand “an element of mania?" In an empathetic manner, the author carefully dissects Kesarbai’s life and the reader gets a glimpse of what it must have been like to be a devadasi in the early 20th century, to be reviled as an “indecent" woman even while being feted for her art.

Over time, comes the terrible realization that even extraordinary talent cannot obliterate the barriers of low social status. Fifty years later, Kesarbai’s granddaughter, a doctor by profession, is still considered an unworthy match as a bride because she came from a lineage of bais.

In this panorama of classical music in pre-Independence India, a time of royal patronage and gharana intrigues over compositions “zealously guarded like copyrighted software",what makes learning this art worthwhile? Was it better to be a show-stopper like Kesarbai, whose music was as sublime as her ways were crass? Or an artiste like Dhondutai, who didn’t earn the fame she deserved, but became a mentor so rich in values that“You could not bribe Dhondutai with anything other than the promise to sing well." Dilemmas like these and their resolutions drive the plot and make it absorbing.

And then, there is Devidayal’s own life. While her teacher pleads with “my little Kesar", to focus only on a single raga at a time, life constantly interrupts riyaz with multiple realities: a Princeton education, marriage and motherhood. A moment of poignant self-awareness illumines the close of the book, as Devidayal admits candidly that the goddess Dhondutai sings of, would surely “hear my half-faith in my half-notes".

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