Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Alladiya Khan-Kesarbai legacy: in sepia tones

An extract from:
The Music Room
By Namita Devidayal

About the book: When Namita is ten, her mother takes her to Kennedy Bridge, a seamy neighbourhood in Mumbai. There, in a cramped one room flat, lives Dhondutai with her bedridden mother and their widowed landlady. Little does Namita know that - despite her squalid surroundings - Dhondutai has inherited riches of a different sort. For, she is the only student of one of the legendary Jaipur gharana vocalist, Kesarbai Kerkar.

Dhondutai is the keeper of all the gharana’s secrets and of their rarest compositions. And yet, after a lifetime of training with the best teachers, Dhondutai found fame and recognition miserly towards her. Namita begins to learn singing from Dhondutai, at first reluctantly and then, as the years pass, with growing passion. Dhondutai sees in her a second Kesar, but does Namita have the dedication to give herself up completely to the discipline, like her teacher?

The Music Room is the story of Namita and her teacher, of the charismatic Alladiya Khan who was unable to pass on all his skill and knowledge to his sons, and of the foul-mouthed and bewitching Kesarbai. At its heart is Dhondutai, a character half tragic, half victorious; diffident yet full of single-minded determination. The Music Room is beautifully written, full of anecdotes, gossip and legend.

Namita Devidayal was born in 1968. She graduated from Princeton University and is a journalist with The Times of India. She lives in Mumbai. This is her first book.

The Vikramaditya Music Conference (1944)

The musical event of the century

It was the musical event of the century. There had been nothing like that before and there hasn’t been anything as grand since. For seven days, the air reverberated with music. Afternoon concerts merged into evening sessions, and late night ragas heralded the dawn, while the sun’s first rays would start filtering in through the glass windows along the hall. People reportedly fell sick from sleep deprivation in their eagerness to grab as many performances as they could. The week-long festival took place at the monumental Cowasji Jehangir hall—which has since been resurrected as a modern art gallery.

A vast private home next to Bombay’s opera house—a fifteen minute carriage-ride away from the venue—was converted into a day-and-night mess where food was cooked in gigantic vessels and served all through the day and night for the artistes and their ensembles. Some preferred eating before they performed, some after the show. There was no sense of time as they drifted from performance to rehearsal to performance. A humungous cauldron of steaming tea was perpetually on the fire.

It was at this festival that unknown musicians became overnight stars. A young man from Punjab with a gourdlike stomach and black twirling moustache stole the show with his brilliant renditions of khayal and thumri, and Ghulam Ali Khan became Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, though some suggest that the preface of Bade or ‘big’ may have had more to do with his physical size rather than his musical stature. A young sitar player from Calcutta, Vilayat Khan, shot to fame and went on to become one of the all-time great musicians of the century. A startlingly unassuming tabla player took the audiences by surprise with his virtuosity. He was Ahmadjan Thirakwa. But it was the vocalists who were applauded the most.

The conference was like a snapshot of all that had happened in the music world in the last fifty years. Great artistes performed and then, the following day, put aside their egos and accompanied their gurus on stage. Backstage, the harmony was countered by personality clashes and ego battles. The best known fight was the one that took place between Faiyaz Khan and Omkarnath Thakur, both famous singers, who argued over who would sing last, for the chronology of performances was a reflection of seniority and stature. The best always sang last.The decision of who went before whom had led to legendary quarrels which sometimes lingered on for generations, and was carried on by the artistes’ students.

One musician had left his position as court singer out of fear that the whimsical ruler would make him sing before a lesser musician. In this particular case, Omkarnath finally won—and established his position as arguably one of the finest singers of his generation.

An intriguing couple sat in the front row through most of the performances: an old man with white whiskers, and a pretty girl in her late teens. She wore a traditional nine-yard sari and a blouse with short puffed sleeves. Every one knew who he was—the great Alladiya Khan, but they could not place the girl who sat next to him, attentively listening to the music, her hands neatly folded on her lap. When anyone asked him who she was, he would laugh and say,‘My granddaughter!’ But they knew she couldn’t be. She wore a bindi—the mark of a Hindu. Some would then whisper among themselves, ‘She must be Manji Khan’s daughter. He’s so modern, he is the only one who will let his girl come out in public.’ And if Dhondutai and the big Khansahib heard this, they would just smile at each other.

Dhondutai later told me how Alladiya Khan was able to sneak her into the best seats in the house, which were a thousand rupees each, a princely sum in those days. These front rows of red velvet-lined sofas were reserved for wealthy connoisseurs and maharajas. Many of them bought the tickets because it was the thing to do, but didn’t show up.

Alladiya Khan could get Dhondutai to sit next to him because there were inevitably empty seats all around. ‘Because of his age, he couldn’t sit for long stretches. He would make me sit there, go away, and then come back, and I would report every thing that went on,’ she said. She dutifully sat there, concert after concert. She described who sang and what ragas they sang. There was one musician who was so restless as a stage artiste, that he started his performance on one end of the stage and by the end of it, had shifted to the other end, she recalled with a laugh.

‘There was a singer, Karamat Khan, who was supposedly one hundred and twenty-two years old. I asked the big Khansahib whether he was really more than a hundred years old, and he said, “Yes beta. I don’t know his precise age, but I do know he’s much older than me.’’’ ‘There were very few people Alladiya Khan wanted to spend time with, so he would chat with me a lot. Of course, it was always only about music. He would tell me of the days he tried to become a teacher of Pharsi (Persian) to earn a living right after his father, a reputed singer, died. That was before he joined the family ‘business.’ After that, he started training seriously under his uncle who would tell him, there should be no relationship between an artiste and a clock and taught him from midnight onward. Until you can translate what your mind wants into your voice, you shouldn’t get up from your practice…’

Dhondutai’s voice trembled slightly as she remembered her days as a pretty young thing who had the blessings of the greats. I couldn’t help the thoughts that passed through me. She had it all—the training, the exposure, the life-long commitment. What had gone wrong? Why hadn’t they recognized her as the real heiress of this music? It didn’t make sense, and these questions troubled me for years.

The last to perform at the Vikramaditya Conference, in deference to his stature, was Alladiya Khan. ‘When he started singing, his voice was slightly shaky, and I remember my heart sinking slightly out of concern that he would falter,’ said Dhondutai. He was over ninety years old. Would he be able to sustain an entire concert? A few seconds later, without blinking, he shot off a taan like a lightening bolt. You could almost sense the wave of electricity go through the audience. That was the last time Alladiya Khan sang in public.

© Namita Devidayal
Reproduced from: The Music Room, with the kind permission of the publishers, Random House India.

Book published: September 21, 2007. Pages: 320. Cover price: Rs. 395.00

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