The book is a memoir from Namita Devidayal. Belonging to a cosmopolitan family in Mumbai,  Namita narrates a parallel universe that she lives in, i.e the world of Hindustani Classical, which is vastly different from her home environment. This parallel universe is given a metaphorical name,”The Music Room”. Namita is dragged in to the world of music at a young age by her mother to improve her marriage prospects. Namita reluctantly starts taking music lessons from Dhondutai Kulkarni, a musician from Jaipur gharana. This book’s central character is Dhondutai(Yes, the name sounds little odd. Infact the book somewhere mentions that Dhondutai was the only surviving child of a family from Kolhapur and the elders in the family decided to name the child , Dhondu, literally meaning “Stone” in order to cast off evil spirits.)

Namita slowly realizes that her teacher Dhondutai is also living in a parallel universe, very different from the neighbourhood, Kennedy Bridge, which is a shabby locality in Bombay. Dhondutai’s life revolves around music and gods. She remains unmarried throughout her life and is totally devoted to music. Somewhere in the book she also gives a reason for deciding not to marry, “You cannot have two master ; It has to be music or man; Both demand too much from one.” She sees a very close connection between the music and spirituality, weaves her music around gods. Her attitude towards music also makes Namita extremely curious about the world of music. Dhondutai gradually teaches Namita all aspects of music, be it the philosophical, historical, notational, style element etc.

Dhondutai believed that “Once, you forget yourself and the world around you, once you dismiss all the rewards and recognition you could be getting for your art, and sing only as a form of meditation, your music will break free. You also begin to know things that other people don’t know. Truths reveal themselves to you. It comes from living in solitude and meditating only on music.” Her belief made a lot of impact on young Namita.

Dhondutai’s technique of teaching swara and raga was very different from the usual teachers which Namita had learnt earlier from. According to Dhondutai, “ To understand and perform the raga in its true sense requires a life-long meditation on the notes – and on yourself. Merely mastering notes is not enough. You have to reflect on the human condition, on life itself. Every time I sing a raga, it unfolds and expands, revealing new insights and pathways. That’s why they say that a musician really becomes a musician at the end of his life. It is only once you use the notes to tell a greater story that you are floating in a bottomless ocean.” Dhondutai started teaching Namita two integral aspects of Jaipur Gharana , “how to throw voice ?” and “breath control ?”.

Through a series of anecdotes, the book captures the guru-shishya tradition that is essential to Indian classical music. One can’t learn music from books. There has to be a teacher who guides you based on how you sing / play an instrument. I can relate this to Sitar as in you can play the note dha in let’s say Rag Yaman , either on the fret , or you can use a meend , i.e you pull the string at pa to produce dha or you can put an extra effort to pull the string from ma to produce a dha. So, there are tons of ways to make an instrument say dha. But only in the presence of a guru, will you know what to play in what context. Sometimes a flat note sounds better and sometimes mainly in aalaap , meend is the preferred technique. While playing a taan, either of the techniques could be used. So, one needs a guru to actually make you perceive the difference. I think the book says it better

Teaching is an important process as performing, for this is what takes this music in to posterity. The books cannot tell you which raga to start with and how to keep time, why a particular taan is not sounding quite right. There are secrets only a guru can give you selectively, gradually and when the student is ready to receive them

Interwoven in the conversations between Dhondutai and Namita, the book brings out historical aspects of music. It traces three important personalities of Hindustani Music, from whom Dhondutai learnt music from, Ustad Alladiya Khan, Bhurji Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar. 

 Dhondutai  Kulkarni

Ustad Alladiya Khan

Bhurji Khan

Kesarbai Kerkar

Besides tracing the lives of Alladiya Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar, Dhondutai narrates her own learning process, like the instance when Alladiya Khan asks Dhondutai to sing with out Harmonium.

Human nature is such that it always seeks easy options.The Harmonium makes singing easy because you don’t have to work on making independent connections with the notes. By playing it when you sing you will never hit the right note with exactitude because you will have this backup.

The setting of the story is in Mumbai and there are snapshots of various facets of Mumbai life that are captured throughout the book. Life in a local train, the bonds that are formed between passengers/strangers during train rides, the travails of getting in to a local train, the strong Hindutva culture one sees around , cultural clubs etc are peppered throughout the book and make it interesting read.

There is a paragraph in the book that I particularly liked where Namita describes her feeling of going to her music class at Borivali.

Whenever I went back to Dhondutai, I felt I was entering a space that was timeless. Nothing changed. The same black-and-white television set layered with dust; the plastic milk bottle with a spray of fake flowers that I had gotten her years ago; the pictures on the wall of Kesarbai, her parents, Ganesha and Khansahibs; ad her other everlasting companions, the tanpuras. In deference to modern life, she had acquired a refrigerator at some point but even that remained mostly bare.

It was utterly reassuring-like going back to your childhood room many years later, and finding your teddy bear perched exactly where you left it, with its left eye still hanging loose. For me, Dhondutai was like that stuffed toy, unconditionally affectionate and always around. I went back to her and was at peace. We would tune the tanpura and pick up where we had left off

Makes me feel that , may be,  we all need to have our own version of “ The Music Room”, in order to bring semblance and serenity in our ever uncertain lives.