Bombay raga

Print edition : April 17, 2015

Kumar Gandharva's genius was honed at Professor B.R. Deodhar's School of Indian Music. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Kesarbai Kerkar. She was one of the outstanding female singers of her era. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The book traces the history of Hindustani music and its evolution in the port city of Bombay when it was under British rule.

IN his preface to Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay, Aneesh Pradhan writes: “I was privileged to receive instruction in the traditional guru-shishya parampara after a short period of institutionalised training in the forty-odd years that I spent studying North Indian art or classical music, more popularly known as Hindustani music. In a professional performance career spanning almost twenty-five years, not a long span by any stretch of imagination when one considers ‘time’ in the context of Indian tradition, I was fortunate to have a personal experience of what it means to be a student, performer and teacher of Hindustani music in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”

It is true that Pradhan’s training and subsequent career as a professional tabla player—he is a pupil of the brilliant iconoclast Nikhil Ghosh—has given him an insight into the intricacies of Hindustani music, that is, of talas, or rhythm cycles, and ragas, or melodic structures, in which forms such as dhrupad, dhamar, khayal and tarana are sung, and to which light classical forms like thumri, dadra, ghazal, etc. are also tied. The same laws governing ragas and talas apply to instrumental music. The author, however, is interested in the history of Hindustani music and how it evolved in the port city of Bombay when it was under British rule.

By the late 19th century into the early 20th century, as political awareness grew hand in hand with exposure to, ironically, Western education, a need was felt amongst Maharashtrian intellectuals to examine the roots of Hindustani music and the cultural mores that made it possible. It was felt that gharanedar, or traditional musicians, be they kalavants or Mirasis, overwhelmingly Muslim, were holding a monopoly over an art form that belonged to “everybody”, read the educated middle classes and the wealthy. This had been possible so far because on the one hand the kalavants, supposedly of Brahminical origin, having learnt the secrets of the art of dhrupad and, its ally, dhamar, from medieval savants, were unwilling to share the knowledge with others, and on the other, lower-caste, lower-class professional musicians like the Mirasis, who through sheer hard work and talent and a measure of cunning had made inroads into an esoteric branch of music, were reluctant to part with their capital for reasons of sheer survival. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a Brahmin and a fine khayal singer of the Gwalior gharana, and Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, a lawyer and a theoretician of Hindustani music, decided to “demystify” and systematise a music—which they must have seen as a “cultural inheritance”—that ought to be made available to the educated public.

Emergence of “kaansens”

Paluskar is seen today as the prime mover behind the creation of an institution like the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, and Bhatkhande as the author of several volumes of bandishes, or compositions, in very many ragas. Their contribution may probably have helped up-and-coming musicians to find jobs as music teachers in various schools and colleges throughout northern and western India. The Gandharva Mahavidyalaya certainly created thousands of “kaansens”, or discerning listeners, over the past hundred years, if not professional musicians of a really high calibre.

Paluskar’s efforts at spreading the message of Hindustani music became the raison d’etre of his existence. “Paluskar travelled for performances, met influential individuals and gained wide-ranging experience in Aundh, Satara, Baroda, Kathiawad, Gwalior, Aligad, Mathura, Delhi, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Kashmir, Bharatpur, Bikaner, Jodhpur, and in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Okara in present-day Pakistan. He equipped himself with language and oratory skills that he put to use in his educational activities. In Mathura, he studied the grammar and rules of Hindustani music from ancient Sanskrit treatises, but he was convinced that this information was not in consonance with contemporary musical practice, and therefore, did not merit examination. He devised a system of music notation in 1900, inspired by the Western staff notation that he had studied from James, a bandmaster in Jodhpur” (page 87).

Several things, in retrospect, happened within two decades of each other: the advent of Gramaphone recordings and the coming of the public address system. The first made music, in this case Hindustani classical music, available to a fairly large public, albeit, a financially sound one, able to buy a Gramaphone that played shellac records at 78 rpm (revolutions per minute); the second changed the nature of patronage. The music conference, as part of a search for national identity, was able to reach out to a large audience of, say, a thousand or more comprising the middle and upper middle class of aspiring or actual “kaansens”. This was the first time in the history of Hindustani music when such a large number of listeners had the privilege of listening to great musicians—singers and instrumentalists—and appreciating their art. The large public music concerts also paved the way for women singers, most of whom were tawaifs and bais, Muslim and Hindu, who were singing courtesans, often trained by kalavants, and whose patrons until then exclusively were maharajas, zamindars and rich merchants. These gifted women now found through recordings and music conferences a new source of income. Radio broadcasts from the early 1930s enhanced their reach.

Schools and sabhas

Various institutions came up in Bombay to educate and train women and men in Hindustani music, and music sabhas were formed to promote knowledge and connoisseurship amongst listeners. Such sabhas often had very fine practising musicians helping to organise concerts. Among the well-known teaching institutions were Professor B.R. Deodhar’s School of Indian Music. Middle-class parents felt secure in sending their daughters to Deodhar. They could learn, apart from vocal music, various Indian instruments such as the sitar, the dilruba and the harmonium (a hybrid derived from the pedal-organ used in small churches in India for the Sunday Mass). Boys could also learn to play the tabla. Three photographs in the book show students posing with these instruments. Deodhar’s instruction did confirm the genius in a precocious child, Sitaramiayya Komkali, known on the concert stage as Kumar Gandharva, whose difficult but ultimately rewarding life, both personal and musical, inspired younger, struggling musicians.

The interviews with various practitioners and listeners/participants in the running of music circles give the book its real flavour and add to its substance. Batuk Diwanji (1918-2014), described as a “senior music critic, author, connoisseur, and a collector of compositions and recordings, began his musical journey as an avid concertgoer and student of music. He went on to forge close ties with many eminent musicians some of whom were his seniors and others who were his contemporaries” (page 234).

Diwanji remembered: “In 1935, I started learning from Ramkrishna Joshi, a disciple of V.D. Paluskar, who conducted a class in Khetwadi under the auspices of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. I was then in the first year of my college education.... The fees were Rs.20-25 per month. I gave up learning in this class after three to four months, as I did not like the style. During that period, Narayanrao Vyas, Wamanrao Pandhye and B.R. Deodhar also conducted their own classes” (page 234).

Diwanji goes on: “Between 1935 and 1942, I did not learn but I was attending concerts of Vilayat Hussain [Khan], Faiyyaz Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar regularly.” He did learn for a short while from the maestro Sharadchandra Arolkar, who taught him “some thumris and five or six tappas from Arolkar. I also learnt khayal compositions in some raags but did not learn the manner of elaborating them. I stopped learning thereafter.” He was advised by his friend Narendra Shukla, a student of the Agra gharana stalwarts Ustads Faiyyaz Khan and Vilayat Hussain Khan, that he should first learn from Muley, a student of Vilayat Hussain Khan, before approaching the master. Diwanji complied but was disappointed. “Although Muley was a student of Vilayat Hussain Khan, he sang in a typically Maharashtrian style. He had not picked up the real style. His voice was also not very good and after some time I got fed up....” He learnt from Muley “paying a fee of Rs.25 per month and 10 Rupees to the tabla player. Diwanji finally got Vilayat Hussain Khan to agree to teach him twice a week for 40 Rupees a month instead of his usual fee of 50 Rupees.” He was not well off but helped musicians in need. “I was not very well off during this time. I joined the police department only after doing four or five jobs” (pages 235-236).

The modes of teaching were also changing fast. Ustads now taught with concentration for an hour either at their own residence or that of their pupils’. Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan, travelling by electric tramcar, was invariably punctual in giving singing lessons. There were also other kinds of teaching methods employed. Sharad R. Mehta, a retired principal in a college in Nadiad, Gujarat, said this in an interview about teaching. “Taaleem was of two types—(a) the same cheeza [composition] in the same raag was taught in four or five taals; (b) the same cheeza in the same taal was taught in another raag. This type of taaleem was carried out in all gharanas. Anjanibai Malpekar told me that the guru Nazir Khan of Bhendi Bazaar taught her a Bhairavi thumri in sixteen taals. This type of taleem carried out earlier was to make the student feel comfortable in any raag or taal” (page 226).

Women singers

At a time when the great Ustad Faiyyaz Khan commanded a fee of Rs.500 for a concert, Kesarbai Kerkar was demanding a thousand and getting it! She would charge Rs.1,500 for out-of-town concerts. “Menakabai Shirodkar was paid Rs.5,000 to 10,000 per private programme” (Purushottam Walawalkar, much sought-after harmonium player, page 286). The same man remembered, “In 1946, I heard Kesarbai Kerkar at the Mahila Vidyalaya Hall, in a concert organised by the Belgaum Arts Circle. Narayan Nath Gurtu [Shobha Gurtu’s father-in-law] was the president of the circle and Krishnarao Harihar looked after the administration.... She was accompanied by Maseet Khan (sarangi) and Shirodkar (tabla). She sang Behagda and had not yet gone into the antara when a little disturbance started at the venue. The disturbance was because Shivrambuwa Vaze entered the hall and sat right in front of the stage.” Kesarbai requested him to sing, but he did not. The next day, however, he did. “Vazebuwa sang Shree for ten to fifteen minutes with Narayan Chikode (disciple of Mehboob Khan) on tabla and me on harmonium. After fifteen minutes, Kesarbai told Shivrambuwa to stop as she felt she could not hear such profound music without the feeling of giving up music herself. She offered some money to Shivrambuwa, but he did not accept it” (pages 287-288). Why was the monetary tribute refused? Was it because Shivrambuwa was a Pandit and Kesarbai, for all her talent, a professional singer with a rich businessman (Seth) for a protector?

The great women singers were all professionals, amongst them the tawaifs and the bais, who not only hosted visiting Ustads, but many a time looked after them when they were in dire straits financially, a fact not stated in the book. Ustad Amir Khan was taken care of by Jagmohini bai until he became a master. It is important to make a distinction here; those women who became khayal singers had single protectors and did not do “time”, meaning sing for clients at a fixed place for a certain number of hours, say from, 7 to 10 p.m. Like tawaifs and bais did, the women khayal singers did not do public performances like the mujra (except rarely) with a somewhat eclectic but well-heeled clientele, but they sang in mehfils, intimate soirees hosted by wealthy patrons for themselves and their music-loving friends. These happenings are now a part of history.

Aneesh Pradhan’s immensely readable and informative book has come at a critical time in Hindustani music. He writes in his preface: “I have been witness to radical transformations that took place in performance, pedagogy, and patronage, in an age when music is not just mechanically reproduced and amplified, but is also digitised and engineered often to a point beyond recognition.”

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