The Music Room sings an Indian love song

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      The Music Room: A Memoir

      By Namita Devidayal. Thomas Dunne, $27.95, 320 pp, hardcover

      Like many memoirs, Namita Devidayal’s The Music Room is at heart a love story—or, more properly, two love stories that tangle and twine across the span of a century. But in this carefully observed study of a changing India, one of the chief protagonists isn’t human, or even animate—although that, I suppose, is a matter of definition.

      The core narrative here is the author’s relationship with her singing instructor, and unlike many student-teacher bonds this one is almost entirely benign. Dhondutai Kulkarni, a masterful if underrecognized vocalist, is also a gentle and sympathetic pedagogue, and over the course of two decades she becomes almost a second mother to Devidayal, a Mumbai-based musician and journalist. And as the two women grow closer, the younger grows to fully appreciate her mentor’s one great love: music.

      As is the case in most truly passionate romances, Kulkarni’s ecstasy comes mixed with struggle. She has the support of her music-loving father, but she’s bent on pursuing a career that was long the province of courtesans and temple prostitutes, and to succeed she has to jump the social barriers that divide her Brahmin family from her Muslim teacher, Alladiya Khan. Later, when she apprentices under the famed Kesarbai Kerkar, Kulkarni has to endure the whims of an eccentric legend and born diva. All the time India is in transformation, from feudal state to industrial superpower, and from a traditional society to one as modern as our own.

      Anyone interested in South Asian history will appreciate this book, which outlines a familiar story within an utterly fresh context. But its true audience, in North America at least, will be those who long to understand the gorgeous complexities of Indian classical music. By setting what she’s learned from her guru inside a social rather than a musicological matrix, Devidayal has given us an insightful alternative to the usual dull textbooks—and one that sings with love.