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Music is Literature, Music is Philosophy
Part I
A Conversation with Francesca Cassio on Sikh Classical Music





Last week, I attended the Sikhi(sm), Literature and Film conference at Hofstra University, New York, USA.

This conference was a huge success and explored the different aspects of Sikhi as brought on through narrative, creative, musical and visual texts. It was inspiring to see how scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds were able to share the podium of expression and even more inspiring was the discussion brought up by the audience members. Regardless of their professional backgrounds, many discussants brought up excellent issues and nuanced viewpoints relating to the barriers, the limtations and the struggle between representation and meaning.

Along with meeting so many wonderful scholars and artists, I tremendously enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Francesca Cassio, the Sardarni Harbans Kaur Chair of Musicology at Hofstra University.

When I introduced myself during the coffee break between two panels, her warm smile welcomed me with a feeling that knew no strangeness and it seemed as if we knew each other from before. We agreed to meet during lunch break and talk for sometime in her office.

When I met Francesca, she was accompanied by her friend, Manjit K J Singh, herself a singer of gurbani shabads and a student of the late Munawar Ali Khan (who was the son of the great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan). Francesca informed me later that their connection was both through the Shabad Guru and their teachers of Indian classical music (Munawar Ali Khan and
Fahimuddin Dagar) who were good friends.

The beautiful campus with lush green trees and the sculpted figures offered a calm ambiance as we walked towards Francesca's office building. Her face was lit with a passion of an artist who wants to share her art and talk fervently about it.

As we entered the hallway, I saw a picture of Sardarni Harbans Kaur at the entrance to Francesca’s office.

Francesca had been telling me about the Sikh musicology chair which was especially created by Dr. Hakam Singh’s contributions in memory of his wife, with the purpose of analyzing gurmat sangeet and the Sikh tradition and music repertoires.

When she opened the door of her office, I was struck by this overwhelming sense of curiosity, entering a musician’s santuary. To the right corner of the entrance sat three tanpuras, almost as if waiting to be strung in obedience and passion. Another display case had pakhavaj, tabla and harmoniums on the shelves.

The rug on the floor was tempting me to sit with her on the floor and to ask her to sing gurbani, but time was of essence and we sat on the chairs and got to business. I was impressed by Francesca’s office: well-organized and articulate; the wall across from us showed a visual collage of pictures of her performances and her music mentors. They showed the humility of a great musician, comfortable in all settings.

I had already read about some of the highlights of her music career and tutelage under great maestros like Padma Bhushan
Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Khan Dagar, Padma Bhushan Vidushi, Girija Devi, and Hazoori Raagi Bhai Gurcharan Singh.

Francesca is truly a global connoisseur of music: a scholar, a teacher and a performer with formal training in Western, Indian and Sikh music cultures, including gurbānī sangeet, dhrupad, Rabindra sangeet, thumrī, as well as semi-classical folk and devotional music.

Parvinder:  How do you position yourself as a non-Sikh? My framing of the term ‘non-Sikh’ is in no way reductionist, but how do you position yourself as a scholar of gurbani sangeet, as a female singer of gurbani sangeet? My reason for asking this question is, do you see challenges that face you when you visit India, when you perform in any public forum, are there any challenges ...?

Francesca: Seeing that Guru Nanak’s message is about equality, I think I have been accepted in Punjab, India and abroad as a scholar first of all, and scholars have no gender. (Laughing). And there is no difference in terms of gender or culture, whether you are a man, a woman, an Italian, French or Punjabi. Shouldn’t be that parameter to judge a scholar and her scholarly work. So first of all, I place myself as a scholar, a contemporary scholar, and somehow it is important to look at the fact that I was trained in the western tradition of musicology, anthropology, ethno-musicology, semiotics of music and the methodology of research analysis, to have probably a wider, a broader understanding of traditions such as gurbani sangeet.

At the same time, I am also trained in the Indian music tradition: classical, semi-classical. I started at Banares Hindu University, I did my Ph D there with Prof. Ritwik Sanyal who is an outstanding musicologist of contemporary Indian musicology. So I am very much familiar with both western and Indian musicology. My approach is possibly a neutral approach which combines both methodologies. I wish that my work is, will be, a bridge between cultures.

During the seminar [Sikihism in Literature and Film] we are discussing a lot about how to translate and if we can translate the terms that belong to the Sikh tradition. My concern is about music: how can I to teach the Gurbani tradition in this context, in the context of Western universities?

I am not talking generally in the western context, I think in the western institutions, like universities, where you have to refer to a certain logic of teaching, academic teaching. How in one hour and twenty-five minutes, I can better convey this understanding of Gurbani tradition ? How can I frame this teaching which is not based on the western academic system, but a very different system of transmission of the guru-shishya. How can I reframe that teaching within the western academic context.? That is a big issue, a big point.

My advantage is also that I have been a professor of Indian music and ethno-musicology in the western universities and conservotories. So in about 10-12 years of teaching, I developed a methodology to teach non-western music with particular reference to the tradition of Gurbani to western students or to Sikh and Indian students who live in the western context.

Regardless of the aspects of faith and gender, our approach is an academic approach and we are trying to develop a methodology for researching and analyzing the Gurbani tradition. As a scholar, my research is focused on locating Gurbani tradition within the context of the suncontinent's music history. And especially my research is focused on Gurbani tradition as a distinguished genre, so I am also analyzing the relation of Gurbani with khayal, with dhrupad, with other medieval traditions contemporary to Guru Nanak’s times.

So when you say medieval, it is a better term. And in this regard, focusing on Gurbani as a distinguished genre, we should find out which are those specific features which are … which we may find only in Gurbani. So how Gurbani is distinguished from khayaal, how Gurbani is distinguished from dhrupad? There must be difference in terms also of musical rendition, not only in terms of text. It is not only Guru-Bani but how the Gurbani is rendered musically: is it khayaal, dhrupad or qawaali?

Nowadays, there is huge influence of ghazal, and I will discuss this matter in my paper also. Of course, the folk tradition also which is so important in the Sikh tradition. The contribution of folk music, lok geet, in gurbani is a very, very complex situation, like using filmi gaana [film songs], pop music, etc.

So the actual tradition has changed. And my research is to revive the authentic tradition. But first we must learn which are the features of this authentic tradition, possibly referring to music language, the instruments, and so on.

Parvinder:  You mentioned different connections that you make in your research, connections between gurbani and other musical traditions. You just made a minor reference to popular culture, right? Now, you see yourself as a scholar, as a performer. What do you think about the work of other performers … in India, Australia, etc. ... other performers who are also trying to grasp the tradition of gurbani and then translate it in their own ways. For example, Bhai Dya Singh in Australia. Or Bhai Baldeep Singh in New Delhi. Bhai Baldeep Singh is trying to revive the classical sense of the way the Gurus prescribed Gurbani.

Francesca:  As I already said, my research is about discovering whether Gurbani tradition is an autonomous tradition, an independent tradition from the other genres. In my case, my goal is to locate Gurbani tradition in the wider picture of Indian music history. In this regard, the research that Bhai Baldeep Singh has been doing for about 25 years is I think very important, seminal somehow in reviving the original, authentic medieval tradition. When I think about Bhai Baldeep Singh’s work, we can compare it to the work that has been done in early westrern traditions.

My colleagues here in the music department know that when you refer to the early music tradtion in the western context, we think about the authentic way of playing, for instance, medieval music, renaissance music, according to categories of those days, instruments of those days. Why, today, is the harmonium used so extensively? The harmonium is a French instrument invented in the 17th century, brought to India in the 19th century by the missionaries to convert Indians to the Catholic tradition. So why is there this huge use of the harmonium?

The harmonium cannot fit historically into the era of the Sikh gurus. The harmonium at the time of Guru Gobind Singh was not in India. It is impossible that the Gurus played music on the harmonium. So what kind of music do we play on harmonium? We are trying to debate this important aspect about the authenticity of Gurbani tradition.

In his regard, I think, a personality like Bhai Baldeep Singh has done a lot in terms of field-work, ethnographic field-work, and he had a chance to document the great masters of the past who are no more, and in this sense his work is really important. And also his understanding of the grammar of Gurbani music tradition.

Parvinder:  Do you perform with harmoniums?

:  No, never. I have harmoniums but they are both broken! (Laughing). You see, in my classes, I train my students by providing them an understanding and practical training based on vocal, accompanied by tanpuras: male, female tanpuras, small and big, and we do use pakhavaj ... these were the instruments that were prevalent during the Gurus’ times. So we are trying to provide students with an understanding of the sound, the traditional sound of the music tradition from the time of the Guru Sahibs.



October 28, 2012


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Part I
A Conversation with Francesca Cassio on Sikh Classical Music"

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