Alain Daniélou (1907-1994) – Into the world music labyrinth

27. 11. 2007 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, London] Likely as not, few of you reading this will have ever heard of Alain Daniélou. In terms of mystery and influence, Daniélou was among the 20 most influential characters from twentieth-century ethnomusicology and one of the characters who signposted the way into the world music labyrinth. He worked on such consciousness-shaping series and volumes as Anthologie de la Musique de l’Inde for Serge Moreux’ Ducretet-Thomson label, Religious Music of India for Moe Asch’s Folkways label, Folk Music of India for Columbia and the Unesco Anthology of the Orient for Karl Vötterlee’s Bärenreiter Verlag/Musicaphon. He had a hand in over 100 albums. After Daniélou’s death on 27 January 1994, Rounder Records and Auvidis have continued re-releasing the work of a man who shaped our past, present and future.

Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine in France on 4 October 1907, Alain Daniélou was – and did – many things in his life. The World of Music dedicated an issue to him on his seventieth birthday. In it, the journal’s editor, Ivan Vandor lauded him for his role in “the preservation and dissemination of the great musical traditions of the world”. He was, as Vandor wrote, an outstanding musicologist. Over his life, he was also a recordist and collector, a composer, an academic and author, a Hindologist, an eroticist and even a racing driver and canoeing champion. His circle brought him into contact with Cocteau, Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Gandhi, Nehru and Ravi Shankar.

Years ago, in a second-hand book shop, a battered, black-jacketed volume steered its way into my hands. In best Valentinian chance-fashion, it fell open at an essay called ‘India At First Sight’ at a page where the poet Louis MacNeice reminisced about a trip he had made to the Indian subcontinent in 1947. MacNeice wrote how, when he went to Benares, he had “stayed in an eighteenth-century palace built on the Ganges and owned by two Hinduised Frenchmen. Next door was a holy man who seemed to spend an hour or so every day beating dustbin lids together. My hosts had enormous charm and a profound contempt for Europe; France in particular they thought very decadent. We would lie about on cushions while one of them played the Veena and occasionally a huge pet crane would stalk from behind a screen.” The veena player was Daniélou and the other fellow, comfortably off, courtesy of a Nestlé’s condensed milk connection, was Raymond Burnier. Decorously and diplomatically, MacNeice ducked, to introduce a Little Britain anachronism, that they were homosexualists both. Like many middle- or upper class Europeans, the snobby and well-heeled Frenchmen identified instinctively with Brahmanism – with its high-caste, high-altar superiority – with the better table and a more grandiose vision of art. Strict Brahmins, it might be mentioned, would have automatically considered them casteless or Untouchable. Unlike the stuff taught in schools about religion and faith, such is the inequity of caste lineage and rebirth that Daniélou was condemned for all time never to be the Brahmin – real or figurative – that he aspired to.

Having the wherewithal to afford the new recording equipment, enabled Daniélou to record the best new players for what became the first microgroove collection of music from the Indian subcontinent. On the pioneering Anthologie de la Musique de l’Inde (1955) he presented a cast of top-notch young musicians that included the Dagar Brothers (Mohinuddin and Aminuddin Dagar), Ali Akbar Khan, Chatur Lal, Ravi Shankar and M.S. Subbulakshmi. However wary or arch-browed – at the very least – some of the musicians were about Daniélou’s pronounced queenliness and limp-wristedness, as far as I have been able to make out, the musicians all seem to have acknowledged his role in championing their music in the wider world. And in a post-orientalist way. He treated music for both Indian systems on a par with the high-flown classicism of the West.

Ironically, most people who know his name know it from his posthumously published Complete Kâma Sűtra – published in the year of his death. Apparently, Daniélou’s version reinstated the parts that Indian philistines and prudes had excised. Primarily and notably, its homosexual and lesbian content. As has often been reported, this act of – to employ the mildest form of euphemism for their politically inspired mismanagement of the historical facts – cultural ‘evasiveness’ denied and effaced the erotic sculptures of Khajaraho. In a puckish counterblow Daniélou’s translation tampered with the pronoun, turning ‘she’ into ‘he’ in order to present fellatio as, so to speak, an all-male activity.

Daniélou was not impressed with Gandhi, whom he met at Shantiniketan – Tagore’s ‘Abode of Peace’. Gandhi and his kind were rewriting history in order to claim that the white devils had brought homosexuality into the land of the heterosexually chaste. In his autobiography The Way to the LabyrinthMemories of East and West Daniélou stated how he “found Gandhi quite repulsive and did all I could to avoid him and his entourage.”

Daniélou’s musical vision never wavered, even after his return to Europe where he made Italy his home. He helped create “a vast recording program in several Asian and African countries: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Laos, Iran, Japan, Tibet, the Middle East, as well as Tunisia and Morocco” that appeared on many labels, notably Bärenreiter-Musicaphon. There is no point in paraphrasing myself. After Daniélou’s death, I wrote: “His Catherine wheel of a mind landed sparks in many quarters and the world of music would have been immeasurably poorer without his contribution to people’s knowledge.” As befits a man who could have stepped out of one of Mervyn Peakes’s illustrations for the Gormenghast trilogy – or central casting for the film – the only caveat is that I just keep learning more about how great his legacy really was. And is.

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