Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Sitar: from nowhere to everywhere in 300 years

The post-independence era is now acknowledged as the Golden Age of instrumental music in the Hindustani tradition. A large part of the credit for this goes to the Sitar and to sitarists. The instrument entered the mainstream as an heir to the medieval Rudra Veena to later become its rival, and finally, its survivor. Its journey to the pinnacle of Hindustani instrumental music has taken about 300 years.

The Sitar is a long-necked fretted lute of the plucked variety. Instruments of this variety have been observed in Mesopotamian figurines as early as 2000 BC. Later manifestations of this variety are the Greek Pandoora, and the Arabian Tambour. This family of instruments is believed to have come to India from Central Asia.

The emergence of the Sitar has long been attributed to the 13th century. Latest researches however establish the instrument as a recent development. The first reference to the Sitar [1739] names a   Khusro Khan, who was an expert Sitar player, and, most likely, a brother of the legendary musician, Niamat Khan [Sadarang] in the court of Emperor Mohammad Shah “Rangile” [1719-1748]. Apparently, this Khusro Khan spent some years in Kashmir, acquainted himself with the Kashmiri Sehtar, and brought it to Delhi.

Until its arrival at the Delhi Court in the early 18th century, the Sitar was an unrefined melodic instrument, evidently used in orchestration supporting singing and dance performances.  Its use may have been restricted to a strumming role akin to that of a banjo. Though this continued into the 19th century, the Sitar had, by then, also emerged as solo instrument capable of executing well-defined melodic passages.

By the late 19th century, the sitar had become a phenomenon, attracting a large number of professional and amateur musicians in various part of the country, and acquiring a place in the Courts of princes. The instrument had assumed most of the physical features and tuning systems of the modern sitar, though not its present day acoustic sophistication or melodic capability. It had developed an idiom of its own, inspired initially by the Rudra Veena, but responding constantly to changing aesthetic values.

These developments were obviously accompanied by changes in the design and construction of the instrument – a process that has continued in later years as musicians have wanted the instrument to deliver music of progressively greater sophistication, and to offer a wider variety of stylistic options.

Stylistic lineages of Sitar music

The notion of a gharana is not as well defined in Sitar music as it is, say, in Khayal vocalism. However, distinctive stylistic lineages – called “Baj” – identified in 1990 at the ITC-SRA Seminar on the Sitar are a good indicator of the various claims to stylistic  distinctiveness.

(a) The Maihar gharana [also referred to by some as “Maihar Senia” gharana]. The nomenclature refers to Maihar, the town in Madhya Pradesh, which its founder, Ustad Allauddin Khan, had made his home. The “Senia” suffix refers to the tutelage of the founder with Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur, who was a descendant of the legendary Mian Tansen at the court of Emperor Akbar. The foremost sitarist of this lineage is Pandit Ravi Shankar.

(b) The Etawah gharana [also referred to as the Imdad Khani gharana]. The nomenclature is traced to the town of Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, which was the original home of Ustad Imdad Khan, the originator of the sitar and surbahar style of the lineage. At the turn of the 20th century, the foremost exponent of the gharana’s style was Ustad Vilayat Khan.

(c) The Jaipur Beenkar/ Sitar gharana. The nomenclature refers to a lineage of Rudra Veena players from Jaipur, who evolved and propagated a Rudra Veena-biased style of sitar playing. The last significant performer in this tradition was Bimal Mukherjee [1930-1996].

(d) The Bishnupur gharana. This nomenclature refers to the town of Bishnupur in Bengal, which emerged as a major centre of music in the latter half of the 19th century. At the turn of the 20th century, the most distinguished exponent of this lineage is Pandit Manilal Nag.

(e) The Indore gharana. The nomenclature refers to a group of Rudra Veena players, sitarists, and vocalists who had settled in the erstwhile principalities of Indore, Dewas, Jawra, and Jabalpore in Madhya Pradesh. At the turn of the 20th century, the most significant sitarist of this tradition is Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan.


(f) The Senia gharana: The nomenclature refers to the descendants of the legendary Mian Tansen, who call themselves “Senia-s”. Of the various Senia streams of sitar music, the only one active at the turn of the century was the one hailing from Benares. The last significant performer of this style was Ustad Mushtaque Ali Khan. His important contemporary disciples are Debabrata Choudhary and Netai Bose.

(g) The Lucknow gharana: The gharana, also called the Lucknow- Shahjehanpur gharana, is essentially a lineage of Sarod players. But, it has also produced distinguished Sitar players such as Ilyas Khan [1924-1989], Waliullah Khan [1890-1951] and Yusuf Ali Khan [1877-1962]. By the end of the 20th century, the gharana reported no significant musicianship.

Sitar styles today

Amongst the major instruments, the Sitar has been singularly fortunate in producing two giants in the same generation – Ustad Vilayat Khan [Etawah] and Pandit Ravi Shankar [Maihar] -- who created entirely distinctive musical worlds around themselves. Though seven Gharana-s of Sitar music were identified as recently as 1990, several of them are already devoid of a significant presence on the concert platform.

The future of stylistic diversity seems in question. The strength of homogenising forces is already evident in the fact that the Vilayat Khan style is proliferating much faster amongst professional sitarists than the Ravi Shankar style. The cultural environment, too, is not particularly conducive to the flowering of sharply differentiated styles.

Musical attitudes and stylistic tendencies are no longer acquired either exclusively, or even predominantly, through the traditional system of personalised apprenticeship and aesthetic indoctrination. Low cost access to recorded music has demolished all barriers to the acquisition of musical skills and practices. A market of sub-continental, and even global, dimensions appears to reward music conforming to the dominant models. As a result, Sitar music of the foreseeable future could be stylistically less – rather than more – diverse than Sitar music of the present.

© Deepak S. Raja 
For a comprehensive discussion on the Sitar and eight other major instruments, refer to the author’s book: Hindustani Music Today DK Printworld Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. 2011.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bihagda and Khokar: What's the difference?

Bihagda is a rare raga of the Bihag family. It is a raga of considerable antiquity, described in several mediaeval texts, and bears a close resemblance to raga Behag/ Byag of the Carnatic (South Indian) tradition. Bihagda is known to have been performed, in recent years, only by vocalists of the Jaipur-Atrauli and Agra gharanas. It is, however, identified more closely with the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, with its commonly recognized form corresponding to the raga as performed by Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists.

Multiplicity of nomenclature is unusual in rare ragas. Diversity of treatment under the same name is more frequently encountered. Bihagda seems to be an exception to this general pattern. It has come to be known by another name – Khokar or Khokhar. Currently, and in the present context, both names refer to melodic entities performed by Jaipur-Atruali vocalists.

In popular misconception, Bihagda has come to be identified with the bandish “Pyari pag haule”, while Khokar is identified with a different bandish “Aaj ananda mukhachandra”. This distinction remains unsupported either by logic or by evidence. A melodic analysis of Jaipur-Atrauli’s so-called Khokar confirms its identity with Bihagda. There exists a recording of Kesarbai’s with the so-called Khokar bandish (Aaj anada mukhachandra), which she announces as Bihagda. Dhondutai Kulkarni, who has studied with five Jaipur-Atrauli maestros, confirms that both the bandishes cited above have been taught to her in Bihagda.

The available documentation of  Khokar/ Khokhar (Subbaro, B. Raga Nidhi, Vol. III, 4th impression, 1996, Music Academy, Madras), probably from a different gharana, bears no resemblance whatsoever to either Bihagda or the so-called Khokar performed by Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists. The Khokar nomenclature for a Bihagda clone in the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana is, therefore, mysterious, and pregnant with avoidable confusion.

Subbarao (Ibid.1996), describes two types of Bihagda.

Type 1: S G M P N D S/ N D P M G R S
Type 2: S G M P N D S/ S N P – G M P D n D P  -- M P G – RS 

Type 1 listed by Subbarao, was recorded by Mallikarjun Mansur (EMI/HMV:STC:851004), and has been performed by Alka Dev, a disciple of Madhusudan Kanetkar of Jaipur-Atrali gharana (Concert in Ahmedabad, December 3, 1994, unpublished). This variant poses a sharper problem of differentiation of Bihagda from Bihag. This may be the reason why this version is even rarer than the common twin-Ni version (Type 2 above).

Type 2 listed above, which deploys komal (flat) Ni in the descent, is the most commonly encountered raga form. The pakad (identifying phrasing) of this variant is: GM/ PDnDP/ GMG or PMPG. Authorities have identified Ma and Sa as the vadi-samvadi (dominant and sub-dominant) swaras of the raga, though only hesitantly and on the grounds of differentiation between Bihag and Bihagda. In practice, however, Bihagda appears to revolve around the same Ga-Ni axis, as Bihag does, too.

Bhatkhande (Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra, Vol. I, 5th Edition, 1991, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras) mentions a third variety of Bihagda which permits Re and Dh in the ascent, the former being used only in the higher octave, and the latter being used only in the middle octave. This variant has not been heard in recent times.

With reference to Bihag, Bihagda has some noteworthy features. Bihagda always uses Re subliminally in the descent as in Bihag. But, Dh, which is always subliminal in Bihag, is used subliminally as well as explicitly in Bihagda. Tivra Ma, used in the contemporary Bihag, is not used formally in Bihagda, although a touch of the swara has been observed in some recordings. When encountered, it is used in a racy movement, and never in the signatory Bihag fashion (P-M^-G-M-G).

Being a rare raga, Bihagda’s survival depends largely on the appeal and success of a handful of bandish-es. The defining paradigm of Bihagda, and its crucial discrimination from Bihag, is possible by a survey of recent recordings. For the analysis of the chalan (skeletal phraseology) of the raga as detailed below, I have relied only on available recordings featuring the common twin-Ni version, as performed by Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists.

N S G/ G M/ G M G P/ G M P D n D P or G M n D P/ G M P N S’ or G M P S’/ N S’ N DP/ P D N P D M P G/ G M n D P/ P M P G/ G RS

The recordings are: Kesarbai Kerkar (Pyari pag haule), Kesarbai Kerkar (Aaj ananda mukhachandra), both unpublished, Mallikarjun Mansur (HMV/EMI: STCS: 850730), and Dhondutai Kulkarni’s recording (India Archive Music, NY).

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York
The finest recordings of Raga Bihagda have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hirabai Barodekar: The voice that could cure a sick man

Hirabai Barodekar (1905-1989) was amongst the most distinguished and popular Hindustani vocalists of the 20th century, and almost certainly the most melodious female voice heard in recent times. She was the eldest daughter of the Kairana gharana founder, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan, but trained primarily by her father’s associate and Kairana co-founder, Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan. She exploded upon the scene while the giants of the pre-independence era still ruled the concert platform, and remained amongst the most respected vocalists thereafter, sharing the stage with the likes of Ameer Khan, Bade Gulam Ali Khan, and Kesarbai Kerkar.

In a busy career spanning over 45 years, Hirabai captured the hearts of millions with her renditions of Khayal, Thumree, Natya Sangeet, Bhava Geet, and Bhajans on the concert platform, in the regional theatre, through radio broadcasts, and through commercial recordings. Even after her voluntary retirement in 1973, she accepted the position of a Resident Guru at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, which she served until 1976. 

Accessibility was the cornerstone of her music. She arrived on the scene at a time when classical music was just emerging from the era of aristocratic patronage, during which it had lost its touch with the mainstream culture. By the time of her arrival, the missionary work of Vishnu Digambar had begun to make knowledge of music widely accessible to all segments of society, and the radio and the gramophone had begun to deliver classical music into people’s homes. Her music was a product of the cultural revolution that was taking place in her times. She delivered the highest quality of classical music in accessible packages, and helped it gain a place in the mainstream culture. Hirabai’s career, however, represents a cultural revolution in several other respects. 

Hirabai entered the regional theatre as a singer-actor at a time when there had been no plays with a mixed caste of men and women for 90 years (1843-1929). Audiences were entirely male, and men performed female roles and also sang in female voices. With her entry, women started performing on stage, and female audiences started growing. The quiet revolution she wrought was similar in the classical music segment. 

Until she arrived on the scene, professional female singers (or dancers), who performed in public, carried a stigma of a low-brow culture. Their art was ostensibly designed only for male titillation, and they got paid in proportion to their feminine charms perhaps more than their artistic accomplishments. In 1925, Hirabai became the first female vocalist ever to present a ticketed concert in an auditorium, with audiences paying for her art, and men and women from genteel society feeling free to participate in the cultural process.

In both the contexts of direct interface with audiences, Hirabai made female musicianship respectable with her art, and impeccable conduct. On the concert platform, she was always conservatively dressed, and moderately adorned with jewelry. She conducted herself with dignity and without the feigned modesty commonly encountered in the musical culture of the era. Her public persona, her music, and her personality were in perfect congruence with each other. Her music exuded peace and warmth, as much as her relationships did. If her music was an elixir of tranquility, it was so because, as a person, she was totally above greed and competitive anxiety. She performed her music, and conducted her life in the same manner -- with quiet confidence devoid of arrogance or intimidatory intent. 

Despite the accessibility of her music, Hirabai represented formidable musicianship. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Hirabai’s junior amongst Kairana vocalists, said: “She is an outstanding exponent of  Kairana vocalism. Especially, her command over swara, laya, and tala. Her music is a fitting reply to those who allege that Kairana vocalism has only swara and no laya or tala. Gifted with a voice without any blemishes, once she begins singing, she enchants with every vocal expression at her command.” Ramkrishna Buwa Vaze, her teacher for a while, said: “Hirabai’s music can make a sick man feel healthy”. 

In recognition of her contribution to music and the stature she had earned, Hirabai was honored by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1965, and awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 1970. 

Childhood and grooming

Hirabai Barodekar was the second of the five surviving children of Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan, and his disciple, Tarabai Mane, who took on the Muslim name of Tahira Bibi upon her marriage to him. Hirabai (named Champakali at birth), along with her elder brother, Suresh Babu (named Abdul Rehman at birth), were initiated into music in early childhood. By the time Suresh Babu was 7 and Hirabai was barely 4, the proud father, Abdul Karim Khan began showing off their prodigious talent by making them perform short duet items at his own concerts in different parts of the country. 

Hirabai’s early life in music was full of turmoil. According to some accounts,  her father wanted to reorient his pubescent  daughters towards a "respectable" life as householders rather than continue training in music. Hirabai circumvented this restriction by overhearing the training being given to his male disciples, especially her brother, Suresh Babu. Thereafter, while Hirabai was in her early teens, she had to face the consequences of parental discord. Her mother, Tarabai quit the Ustad's home, with their five children in tow, to start a new life in Bombay. To make a complete break from the past, she scrapped the family’s Muslim names, and adopted her maiden surname (Mane) for her sons, and Barodekar, the generalised description of the Maharashtrian community in Baroda, as the surname for the daughters. 

It was an era of growing demand for music education, and music schools were coming up all over Maharashtra. In order to support the family, Tarabai opened a music school, where she and her eldest son, the 17-year old Suresh Babu were the main teachers. They also taught Hirabai. In addition, Hirabai was tutored, for short periods, by Mohammad Khan of the Agra gharana, and Ramkrishna Buwa Vaze, the Gwalior-trained original. But, Tarabai had to worry about giving her children the quality of training worthy of Abdul Kareem Khan’s lineage. The solution emerged through her friendly neighbors, Zohrabai and her daughter Munnibai, who were disciples of Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan, a kinsman and close associate of Abdul Kareem Khan. Zohrabai persuaded Abdul Waheed Khan to teach Suresh Babu and Hirabai.  

Abdul Waheed Khan, though an affectionate father-figure to the promising teen-agers, was a tough taskmaster. His training was grueling, with each raga being taught for six months, with no concessions for boredom. Hirabai was a quick learner, and a hard-working disciple. The mentor himself acknowledged that Hirabai could master in a year what others would take four years to grasp. 
In 1922, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the renaissance man of Hindustani music, invited Hirabai and Suresh Babu to perform at the annual day of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. The 17-year old Hirabai excelled and her performance and sent ripples of excitement through the music community at the arrival of a great new voice. Her mentor, Abdul Waheed Khan, took it badly as she had performed without his permission. Soon thereafter, Hirabai and Suresh Babu were invited to play roles as singer-actors in musical theatrical productions. Abdul Waheed Khan saw this direction as unbecoming of a high-brow lineage of musicians, and terminated the training of Hirabai and Suresh Babu. This was the year 1922, just about four years after they had commenced training with the Ustad.

In the profession

Starting from 1923, Hirabai began a hectic concert schedule, traveling widely with Suresh Babu as companion and Harmonium accompanist. In the same year, she launched her career as a recording artist which was to deliver almost 200 recordings to a hungry public over the next 45 years with the three major recording labels – HMV, Odeon, and Columbia. She continued to work sporadically in the regional theatre, while she traveled the lengths and breadth of the country charming audiences. 

In 1924, Ustad Alladiya Khan of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana organized a major musical event in Bombay, and invited Hirabai and Suresh Babu to perform. Once again, the two gave brilliant performances, obliging Alladiya Khan to pay handsome compliments to their talent and grooming. In 1937, Kesarbai Kerkar, the Empress of the concert platform, recommended Hirabai for invitation to the prestigious All India Music Conference in Calcutta, and took pride in introducing a new star. These endorsements added immensely to her reputation, and her concert career maintained its upward graph. 

Lured by the buoyancy of the Marathi regional theatre, and her children’s talent for musical productions, Tarabai launched a drama company in 1929 as an adjunct to the music school she ran, so that all her children could be gainfully employed. Hirabai and Sureshbabu were assigned stellar roles. In this venture, Tarabai had the solid support of some of the finest musicians amongst theatre personalities of the times – Govindrao Tembe, Bal Gandharva, Master Krishnarao, Sawai Gandharva, and Vinayakrao Pathwardhan. The company produced three plays – Sanshay Kallol, Sangeet Saubhadra, and Sadhvi Mirabai. The plays featured superlative music, and were tremendously successful. But, the venture itself wall ill-fated.

Audiences started thinning as the era of talkies dawned. In 1933, the company downed shutters, with the family deeply in debt. Lawyers advised the declaration of insolvency and reneging on the debts. Hirabai refused, and took on the entire burden of debts pledging her professional earnings towards redemption. She swore thereafter never to work in the theatre. 

That resolution was not easy to maintain. In 1944, ten years after she decided to quit theatre, her close friends and associates, Bal Gandharva and Master Krishnarao, persuaded her to revive her old play, Sangeet Saubhadra. The play was a thundering success, often starting at 10 pm and ending at dawn, with each song having to be sung several times on public demand. Thereafter, she accepted roles in Marathi films, and acted in three of them – Swarna Mandir, Pratibha, and Sant Janabai. Only the last one did well. After the failure of her films, she said goodbye, once and for all, to theatre and films. 

In the mean while, in 1929, barely two years after the launch of the Indian Broadcasting Corporation (later, All India Radio), she began broadcasting her music. Through the “chain-booking” system of the broadcasting company, she performed on all stations in the country, from Kashmir to Calicut. Radio executives have lost count of her broadcasts over her 45-year broadcasting career; but do recall that her acceptance rate for radio bookings was close to 100%. In 1977, at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of All India Radio, Hirabai was honored by the Prime Minister of India as a stalwart broadcaster. 

The stature, respect and affection Hirabai enjoyed amongst audiences and musicians alike was enviable. In 1946, the ultra-conservative Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan of Jallandhar, broke its 50-year convention of inviting only male musicians, and invited Hirabai to perform. At another prestigious music festival in Calcutta, KL Sehgal, the legendary singer-actor, interrupted her performance and walked up to the stage to present to her as many as 12 gold sovereigns gifted by members of the present audience in gratitude for her music. In 1947, when India gained independence, Hirabai was invited to broadcast the national song “Vande Mataram” at midnight of August 14-15. 

For the better part of 45 years, until she put aside her Tanpura in 1973, Hirabai Barodekar was everywhere – on the concert platform, on gramophone records, on the radio, and in the regional theatre. Hers was one of the busiest careers amongst the musicians of her era. She lived with her travel kit ready at all times to respond to an invitation to perform anywhere in the country. She traveled willingly at short notice, by whatever means of travel was available, irrespective of discomfort, and remained indifferent to the level of hospitality she received from her hosts. Economics was, no doubt, the driving force. She was the bread-winner for a family of 25 dependents, including those of her siblings – especially after her brother, Suresh Babu died in 1952. She earned well, lived simply, redeemed the debts of her mother’s theatre company, remained a gracious hostess throughout her life, and had enough to retire in modest comfort. 


Hirabai Barodekar’s repertoire covered five genres of music – Khayal, Thumree, Natya Sangeet, Bhava Geet and Bhajans. On rare occasions she also sang Ghazals. She was an unquestioned master of the Khayal and Natya Sangeet, though some of her Bhava Geet and Bhajans also became very popular. Almost two-thirds of her commercial recordings belong to the Khayal and Natya Sangeet genres. Her Thumree repertoire, too, had its admirers. Connoisseurs of her times, however, felt that, she did not have the temperament to do full justice to the seductive character of the genre. Her discerning contemporaries also believed that her involvement with the theatre did a lot of good to her competence as a classical vocalist. The acoustics of play houses in her times (devoid of amplification) trained her to throw her voice with a controlled consistency of timbre and volume – a great asset in the context of concert hall electronics. The demands of theatre music perhaps also helped her avoid the “more educative than entertaining” tag of her Guru, Abdul Wahid Khan.  

Hirabai was aware that her formal training had been too short to justify her pedigree, and remained passionate about learning as much as she could from any obliging source. She routinely invited great musicians to perform at her residence, and learnt from them anything that caught her fancy. She had a close association with the scholar-musician, Vasantrao Deshpande, from whom she received guidance in classical  music as well as Natya Sangeet. Through one of the wealthy patrons of that era, she became friends with the celebrated Thumree singer, Gohar Jan, and learnt several Purab style Thumrees and Ghazals from her. The legendary Natya Sangeet singer, Bal Gandharva, was her friend and colleague in the theatre. From him, she learnt many of the songs from his plays, and performed them widely in her own style. 

Her classical repertoire was limited to the common and mature ragas preferred by Kairana gharana vocalists – ragas like Yaman, Bhoop, Shuddha Kalyan, Marwa, Malkauns, Multani, Basant, Miya Malhar, Todi and Bhairavi. When audiences requested her to sing a raga she did not know, she honestly admitted that she did not know it. It never bothered her that she did not have the esoteric repertoire that many vocalists of her era flaunted as hallmarks of musicianship. Under the most challenging conditions, she could melt the hearts of her audiences with what she knew. 

Hirabai was a brilliant concert planner. She had an intuitive grasp of what repertoire would work with specific audiences. Unless placed under time constraints, she could hold audiences enthralled from 10 pm to 4 am, a common requirement of musicianship in her times. She could handle the occasional unpleasant surprises of the concert situation with great composure. At one festival in Calcutta, Hirabai’s cousin Roshanara Begum, scheduled to perform ahead of her, was in a nasty mood. Roshanara decided to wind up her own concert with Bhairavi, conventionally the last raga of an evening. Concert hosts were embarrassed by this affront to Hirabai’s stature by Roshanara. Hirabai was unperturbed. She went up to the stage, tuned her Tanpuras, and started raga Maru Bihag exactly as she had planned, and had the audience eating out of her hands in a few minutes. 

Like Kesarbai amongst her seniors, Hirabai maintained a stable relationship with her accompanists. Her ensemble always consisted of Baburao Kumthekar on the Sarangi, Shamsuddin Khan on the Tabla and Rajabhau Koske on the Harmonium. The stability of these relationships contributed immensely to the rapport between the musicians, and to the harmonious and effortless delivery of music.  

The most significant facet of Hirabai’s musicianship was her voice. In recent times, no other voice has inspired as much poetry and poetic prose as did Hirabai’s. Leading litterateurs of her times compared it to the soothing glow of the sky on a full-moon night. Hers was a voice soaked in honey, and yet crisp enough to enable the crystal clear execution of her musical ideas through two octaves. In the pitch-precision and intonation department, she was arguably the only female vocalist of the century who could hold a candle to the legendary perfection of her father, Abdul Kareem Khan. In addition to nature’s gift, her voice was a product of assiduous cultivation. No matter how late in the night she had retired, she never missed her pre-sunrise exercises for keeping the voice in fine fettle. She routinely practiced for four to five hours a day, irrespective of where she was. 

Despite the diversity of her repertoire in terms of genres, her music in each genre was faithful to its esthetics. Her Khayals retained their formal aloofness, and were never in danger of becoming Thumrees. Nor did they ever drift towards the more entertaining stylistics of Natya Sangeet. Despite the variety of influences on her style, Hirabai’s Khayals were her own, and yet bore the unmistakable stamp of melody-dominant Kairana vocalism. Hers was disciplined music, but without the academism of Abdul Waheed Khan. Hers was intelligent music, without ever becoming a display of either cleverness or scholarship. Her intellect was deployed, instead, towards refining the aesthetic sensibility that guided her music. Her music thus acquired a universal appeal, appreciated by the laity as well as connoisseurs. 

Even her admirers admitted that her music lacked daring experimentalism and the element of surprise evident in the vocalism of, say, Kesarbai Kerkar. Hirabai’s music was a reflection of her personality, which was essentially conservative, mellow, warm and affectionate. Her father’s music was steeped in Karuna Rasa (the sentiment of pathos). Her Guru, Abdul Waheed Khan’s music was very cerebral. Hirabai’s musical personality belonged to the territory of Shanta Rasa (the sentiment of peace and tranquility) and Vatsalya Rasa (the maternal sentiment). 

The architecture of her Khayal presentations was flawless, corresponding to the two-tier Kairana structure with an alap followed by tan-s. Her alap was amongst most celebrated alaps of her era. She constructed it like an exquisite string of pearls, carefully evaluating every phrase for its beauty, and stringing it meticulously to create a well-knit melodic experience. The most widely admired facet of her alap was her ascent to the upper-Sa in the antara. The ascent was so astutely constructed that, the reposeful arrival at the upper-Sa became an ecstatic experience. Amongst her seniors of the era, Kesarbai’s antara-s were equally valued. But, there was a difference. Kesarbai made the audiences’ jaws drop in marvel. Hirabai’s anatara-s, instead, penetrated their consciousness, and sent them into a trance. Hirabai’s virtuosity in the tan-s department was no inferior to that of her major contemporaries. But, unlike them, she constructed and rendered them with simplicity and warmth that were innate to her personality, rather than to intimidate.  

Despite her classicism, and the passage of time, Hirabai's music shows no signs of aesthetic obsolescence and retains its appeal to this day. One of the tragedies for later generations of music lovers is that very little of her music has been published on concert-length media, and very few of her concert recordings are in circulation amongst archivists. The most inexplicable aspect of this reality is that All India Radio, the holder of the largest Hirabai archive spread over her entire performing career, has ignored her in its programme for the commercial release of their musical assets. 

 (c) Deepak S. Raja 2011

Discography. (78 RPM)
Courtesy: Shri Suresh Chandvankar
Society of Record Collectors of India
Please visit:

Other published recordings:
ECLP 2275  Raga Multani, Raga Yaman 1962
PMLP 3018  Facets of Kirana Gharana  1988

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Zia Fareeduddin Dagar -- “The university system has done damage to the artistic traditions”

Ustad Zia Fareeduddin Dagar spoke to Deepak Raja about the Dhrupad Kendra, Bhopal, on October 6, 1998

 By 1980, I had virtually settled down in Austria. I was running Dhrupad classes in Austria and France. Once, during a visit to India, one of my disciples, the filmmaker, Mani Kaul came to me and pleaded with me to provide the background score for a film he was making on Madhya Pradesh. I was reluctant initially, but I could not refuse Mani Kaul. So, I got involved.

During the making of the film, we spent over two months in Madhya Pradesh, a lot of time in Bhopal In those days, Shri Arjun Singh was the Chief Minister of MP. Cultural development was one of his passions. It is because of him that the magnificent Bharat Bhavan cultural center developed in Bhopal. At that time, the Secretary to the Department of Culture in MP was Shri Ashok Vajpayee, who later went to Delhi as Jt. Secretary, Department of Culture in the Central Government. I spent a lot of time with Vajpayeeji during those days, and we developed a great deal of respect for each other. Thereafter, I returned to Paris to resume my teaching there.

A few months later, I got an offer from Shri Vajpayee to start a government-supported Dhrupad School in Bhopal. By that time, I had become sufficiently cynical about the value of government patronage to the kind of work a serious musician wishes to do. I brushed the proposal aside as just one more of those well-meaning ideas.

By co-incidence, I was visiting the Cannes Film Festival, and there I happened to meet up with Ashok Vajpayee and Mani Kaul, and some other leading figures in the field of art. During the days we spent together, Ashok Vajpayee prevailed upon me to accept the invitation to move back to India and set up the Dhrupad Kendra in Bhopal. Immediately upon his return to India, Vajpayee announced the formation of the Dhrupad Kendra.

We formed a committee to supervise the activities of the Kendra. It had Dr. Premlata Sharma, Pandit Kumar Gandharva, Mani Kaul, my elder brother (the Late Ustad Zia Moiuddin Dagar) and others.

We decided on a training period of four years. Some committee members were skeptical. They thought it was too short. I told them that it was my responsibility to produce first-class performing musicians, and I knew what I was doing. The results are there for everyone to see. In post-independence India, no other institution, with government or corporate funding, has been able to produce comparable results under a Gurukul type institution.

We had a heated debate over the stipend for the disciples. I argued that we are not giving fellowships to mature musicians. We are giving pocket money to students. I insisted that, during their training, we do not pay amounts which permit them to seek distractions. We got the first batch for a stipend of Rs. 350 per month in 1981. Recently, it has been enhanced to Rs. 700, which is reasonable considering the inflationary pressures. Higher stipends could have been obtained from the Academy’s budget; but we might have failed in our mission. I think our tight-fisted policy on stipends has made a major contribution to the success of the institution.

Our selection of students is also unorthodox. We do not limit our selection to people who have a good grounding in music. We have our share of such students, of course. But, we have also accepted students who could not tunefully deliver a film-song on the day of the interview. After a year of training, such students are not doing very much worse than those who came with degrees in music. We are looking for dedication more than anything else, and that spark of creativity. Shaping the raw material is my task, and I know how to do it.

There is also another angle to this. Students, who come to us after maturing in the training of other gharanas, find it difficult to re-orient themselves to our style. Therefore, we try to ensure that the background of our students does not interfere with the process of shaping them into competent Dhrupad musicians.

My students reside in their hostelry, and report for taleem at 4.30 in the morning every day of the year. They go back around 11.00 at night, and return the next morning, again at 4.30. We started the institution with five students in each batch of 4-years duration. Recently, the number of students has been increased to eight, four from families domiciled in Madhya Pradesh, and four from outside the state. We are now into the fifth batch.

We do not have any rigid rules about age at the time of admission. Most students come to us around the age of eighteen. We accept students even upto the age of twenty-eight or thirty, if we feel that they will be able to absorb the taleem.

In a significant departure from the past pattern, we have recently accepted Ph.D. graduates from Benares Hindu University. In this case, the consideration was that, at BHU, they have been trained by Prof. Ritwik Sanyal, one of my disciples. Therefore, the gharana orientation is not a major issue. These students are seeking further training because their earlier education has been governed by the academic prescriptions of the university environment. The performing art belongs to a different world altogether.

The majority of our students are boys. We also accept girls. We have produced some very fine singers amongst ladies. However, the Indian social environment does not normally permit ladies from cultured families to pursue a career in music after marriage. Therefore, considering our mission, this is one part of our success, which is mixed with regret.

My institution has a big name: Dhrupad Kendra, under the Ustad Allauddin Khan Music Academy. But, it is not an institution in the conventional sense. By way of staff, there is me, a sweeper, and a gardener. And, then there are students. That is all. The administrative work is handled by the Music Academy. Establishment expenses, and stipends for students are paid out directly from the Academy. I think we have achieved something because we are not run either like a university, or a government institution or a music academy.

I firmly believe that the university system has done damage to the artistic traditions – not only in music, but also in the other fine and performing arts. Take for instance, painting. Our universities have turned out a lot of very good painters in the oil paint medium. But, they are all functioning without roots in an artistic tradition, because India has no oil-painting tradition. Therefore, I say that, in the university system, you may promote technique, but not tradition. Tradition requires a firm grounding in the past. University education in the fine arts cannot fulfil this requirement.

I am not arguing that government funding for the arts is worthless. Nevertheless, I will argue that if it forces art education to divorce itself from the living tradition, it is achieving nothing worthwhile. In fact, on a national scale, the investment that is being made in art education is producing nothing by way of perpetuating the living traditions. In stark contrast to the university system, the Dhrupad Kendra has proved that it is possible to make government support productive, when it works within the traditional system of art education. I am sure even the Dhrupad Kendra model can be refined and improved. But, the basics must remain rooted in the living tradition.

If this Dhrupad Kendra idea had not taken shape, I and my elder brother, Ustad Zia Moiuddin Dagar, would have continued to train students anyway. So, our work as trainers was not made totally dependent on government funding. Because of government support, I started doing in Bhopal what I would have otherwise been doing in Bombay or Paris or Vienna. And, partly because of government scholarships, we attracted some very promising students. However, I am not sure that equally promising students might not have gravitated towards our training, even without the meager stipends government is paying them. .

In the ultimate analysis, what you need most is an Ustad wanting to teach, and disciples keen to learn. These are the factors which enable a performing art tradition to perpetuate itself.

In a government-supported system, there is a permanent danger of political and bureaucratic processes interfering with the momentum of the efforts. So far, the Dhrupad Kendra has been able to protect itself from this danger. I must, however, confess that I have had my share of frustrations, and have even come close to resigning. I have stayed because I could demand the freedom to do my work, and fulfil my obligations.

As long as the present equation between the Dhrupad Kendra and the government remains, the work we have started will continue. When I am no longer on the scene, I am sure that one of my own students will take over the Guru’s position. After all, that is the way the Parampara has always worked.

I know that Dhrupad musicians will, henceforth, find it more difficult to sacrifice full-time performing careers for a Guru’s position. There is also a non-commercial aspect to a Guru’s self-denial. All the hours that he spends in teaching, are denying to him the satisfaction of his own musical needs – of singing for his own pleasure, and working on his own development as a musician. For an accomplished musician, these are not small sacrifices. Yet, I nurture the fond hope that one of my better students will be willing to give at least half as much of himself to this Gurukul as I have done for over 16 years.

Reproduced, with the publisher’s consent, from “Perspectives on Dhrupad”, edited by Deepak Raja, and Suvarnalata Rao, published by the Indian Musicological Society, Baroda/ Bombay. 1999

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Patadeepak: Can it be called a raga?

Patadeepak is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. On the only recording available, Sharafat Hussain Khan of Agra gharana introduces it as an “old” raga. However, it remains undocumented by any recent authority, starting from Bhatkhande in the first quarter of the 20th century, upto Manikbuwa Thakurdas in the 1990’s. I have checked with some of the biggest archivists, and find that no other recordings of the raga – published or otherwise -- are known to exist. Circumstantially, however, it would appear that two of Sharafat’s seniors from the lineage, Vilayat Hussain Khan and Jagannath Buwa Purohit, may have performed the bandish recorded by Sharafat, even if only rarely. The raga has not been heard in recent years from any musician of the Agra lineage.

Swara material: S R G M P D n N 
Ascent: S G M P/ G M D N S’ Descent: S n D P/ M P G/ S R S

The skeletal phraseology (chalan) of the raga is documented on the basis of the Sharafat recording, the only one available.

S N. D. N. S
N S M G or P. N. S G
M D n S’ N S’ or M P N S’ or G M D N S
S’ P or S’ D n P

For connoisseurs of Hindustani music, this raga represents an intriguing blend of familiarity and novelty. In its phrasing strategy, the raga appears to tread a precarious line between members of the Bihag and Bilawal families. According to Purnima Sen, Sharafat’s disciple, Patadeepak is a combination of five ragas, with Deepak of the Bilawal scale being the main component. The other elements, according to her, include Hameer, Bangaal (also a rare raga), Savani, and Chhaya (rarely performed in its pure form).

The major parameters of raga grammar are difficult to pin down on available evidence. However, the phrase string P-M-P-G/ S R S would appear to constitute the raga’s melodic signature. The identification of the vadi (primary dominant) would favour Ga, with the samvadi (secondary dominant) remaining indeterminate. The centre of gravity of the raga is in the purvanga, with considerable importance to melodic action in the madhyanga (mid-octave region).
 In the Sharafat recording I studied, the Madhya laya Ektal bandish is the hero of the Patadeepak rendition.

The lyrics express a fundamental idea in Indian culture – the sanctity of a disciple’s relationship with his Guru – and does so in simple and transparently sincere verse. It also incorporates the poetic signatures of three Agra stalwarts -- Prem Piya (Faiyyaz Khan), Pran Piya (Vilayat Hussain) and Gunidas (Jagannath Buwa Purohit)-- and has a melodic-rhythmic structure entirely devoid of cleverness, though not without grace. This combination of features could have been designed to keep the raga in circulation, at least amongst the followers of the Agra lineage. Sharafat’s rendering of it, with a reverential spoken introduction to this bandish, validates this intention of the composer.

The entire rendition revolves around the melodic contours of the bandish, in most cases also following the sequencing of phrases. To this extent, this would seem to be a classic example of traditional Agra vocalism, which uses the bandish as the primary vehicle of raga presentation. The issue is, however, slightly more complex than this. Ragas acquire their "raga-ness" as a result of a progressive exploration of melodic potential through wide circulation, and over several generations. Until this process has attained reasonable maturity, the "raga" cannot provide an abstract  framework for regulating the improvisatory process.

This would appear to be the case with Patadeepak. Despite its claimed antiquity, it conveys the impression of being not much more than a song. Because of this, the safest route to presenting it is to remain within the boundaries defined by the bandish. Sharafat recognises this reality, and introduces his rendition as that of a bandish (and not a raga), making only a casual reference to the raga being “old”, without even naming it. Considering the obscurity of the raga, he may have assumed that the name would not have meant anything even to the connoisseurs in his audience.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd., New York.