119 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Sunday, May 2, 1999
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Music in the time of the female guru
By Subhra Mazumdar

THE sight of a disciple singing along side a female guru no longer raises any eyebrows. It is all too easily forgotten that in the classical tradition, these prima donnas are pioneers. They belong to a minority which has chosen to take under its wing disciples who will continue the female line in the classical music traditions.

Till not so long ago, the musical gharana tradition was exclusive to the extended male family of the male musician. Only sons, brothers, uncles and nephews were considered worthwhile recipients of this knowledge. The womenfolk in these households were confined to domesticity.

Women singers, who were heard at private baithaks, were not a part of this lineage. They were regarded as entertainers with a "questionable" heritage. Taking such a woman as a shishya or disciple, was a sacrilege for the patriarch. It was enough if the guided and trained by the sarangi accompanist of the ustad, whose sense of swar (note) and tala (beat) were adequate such a role. Female singers, by and large, conceded to this arrangement.

But talent cannot be hidden by mediocrity. The foremost among these women performers began to excel in the genre of light classical music, by their rendition of the thumri, kajri, dadra, tappa and seasonal melodies, with sophisticated stylisation.

But some male bastions still remained unconquered, such as the dhrupad and dhammar forms, over which the male guru and his family, held absolutely sway. But not for long.

By the fag-end of the 19th century, as the woman peformer began hankering after greater musical knowledge, and as the ustad’s hitherto unnoticed sarangi accompanist started getting mentioned in music circles as the ustad who had taken a talented female disciple under his wings, a handful of the patriarchs relented.

The late Allahdiya Khan accepted Mogubai Kurdkar within the gharana. The urban headquarter of the Bhindi Bazaar gharana in metro Mumbai’s Bhindi Bazaar, facilitated Anjani Bai’s true calling. And in Benares, the ustad, on spotting the eagerness of the orphan child prodigy, Siddheswari Bai, who lived as an underling in the home of her aunt, took her under his wing.

Before long, the talented daughters of this first generation of trained performers were put to rigorous training. In the beginning it was their others who gave instructions and then the guru was requested to take charge. While they were still learning, and their mothers were in the prime of their performing careers, they often accompanied their mothers on the public platform.

It was an era when the performance culture of the land was poised for a change. The days of the individual royal patron, the nawab, the rich banker or jeweller, had dwindled. On the other hand, the middle class, having realised the pleasure to be deprived from the pursuit of the finer arts, had begun to hanker after it. Hence the appearance of the musical sabha, sangeet sammelans and collective gathering.

Alongside the women maestros who invariably graced the occasion, came the talented daughters. Often, these debutante daughters were brought to the fore, and they immediately became the darling of the crowds.

It was the chance absence of the stated artist, that started Begam Akhtar on the road to fame, at a benefit concert organised in Bettiah, Bihar, to raise funds for quake victims in the ‘30s. Earlier, Gauhar Jan’s mother, an expatriate Armenian, shifted to the patron-rich musical capital of Calcutta, to give her progeny the right atmosphere for growth.

Many female performers benefited due to the coming of the Gramophone Company of India, better known as HMV. Gauhar Jan cut her first gramophone record with them in 1902, through the ‘30s and ‘40, musicians like Roshanara Begum, Rasoolan Bai, Angoor Bala and Mallaka Pukhraj, among others, became household names.

Soon a talent scouting process was set in motion. Neglected women performers like Badi Moti Bai, were unearthed from remote mofussil towns. The arrival of the proscenium theatre had brought recognition to a handful of singing stars, like Hira Bai Barodekar of Marathi stage and Kanan Devi of Bengali theatre.

Still, the patriarch gurus showed reluctance to take these shishyas under their wings. It was the coming of the educated university graduate musicians who changed the male world of the classical music.

The late Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Agra Gharana nurtured Dipali Nag. Baba Allaudin Khan, the famed founder of the Maihar Gharana, showered equal attention on his resident shishyas (disciples), Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Sharan Rani Backliwal — now Pandita Sharan Rani, genius of the sarod, who was recently felicitated on her seventieth birthday by various luminaries of the world of music.

Even Begam Akhtar struck the death-knell on the scion-linked gharana tradition by taking Shanti Hiranand and Anjali Banerjee as her disciples. Hira Bai Barodekar became the guru of Prabha Atre and Kishori Amonkar discovered a kindred musical spirit in her young disciples, Gurinder Harnam Kaur.

With this change in the composition of the guru-shishya tradition, an undercurrent of academicism has infiltrated the world of classical learning. The latter day women performers have wielded the pen as proficiently as they have plucked the tanpura strings.

Shanno Khurana, an exponent of the Rampur Gharana, has done yeoman service by compiling the ancient Bandish compositions of Rajasthan. Chayya Chatterjee, under the guidance of the late Pandit Nikhal Ghosh, has explored the classical music tradition in Bengal. Dr Sumati Mukatsar has tirelessly explored the many forms of the ragas.

Unlike the male guru, it is difficult for a woman to take in resident disciples (male or female), and without constant touch, instruction dwindled into routine classroom exercise. There are other problems the sarod, Sharan Rani says, cannot be played during pregnancy.

Added to all this is the problem of approaching organisers for performance outlets. Private bodies, especially, do not give outstation women performers — part from the top drawer ones — an opportunity to perform. Hence the tendency to teach music, instead of performing, among many women musicians. Women’s Feature Service Back

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