It would be truly fascinating for Punjabis to learn that a classical music tradition of the state is upheld solely in West Bengal. It is almost as though a dialect of the Punjabi language is spoken by Bengalis alone! Indeed, the tabla is endowed with its own unique language which has given birth to various ‘baaj’ or styles, each blessed with its own flavour and vocabulary. Each of them can be called tabla’s different dialects.
The Punjab baaj is essentially pakhawaj-oriented. With evolution, it got infused into tabla to form a style which gradually emerged as a synthesis of both influences. Over time, various silsilas (branches or continuums) developed within its fold, influenced by maestros.
Although most of Punjab’s great masters lived and died in Pakistan, the silsila of the legendary Ustad Firoz Khan still thrives in India. However, since the mysterious figure, died a bachelor and left behind no khalifa, the Bengali tabla stalwarts of Kolkata remain his only torchbearers.
While little is known about him, present-day tabla composers in Punjab dismiss the Ustad and his contribution to the baaj perhaps due to his supposed hedonism.
Prominent Bengali musician Pt Anath Nath Bose discovered Ustad Firoz Khan at the royal court of Raigadh and introduced him to the Kolkata music scene. Pt Anath Nath’s son, tabla maestro Pt Gobindo Bose, shares, “It was in Kolkata at Firoz Khan saheb’s debut mehfil that my guru, the towering Pt Gyan Prakash Ghosh (better known as Gyan babu), was mesmerised by this charismatic Punjabi ustad’s unusual style and became his disciple.”
Gyan babu was an institution in himself. He trained under tabla greats Ustad Azeem Baksh and Ustad Maseet Khan of the Farrukhabad tradition, as also Firoz Khan. His contribution to raga music was equally great; his compositions are known for their cerebral poetic structures, colourful brilliance and spontaneous passages.
While several of them resemble other traditions, his hallmark Punjab-style compositions have elevated and evolved the Lahore-born Ustad Firoz Khan’s unique thought process. Although the Punjab baaj is known as ‘bikat’ (forbidding), as it is difficult to play and the repertoire contains strong, loud and bold syllables, Gyan babu gave it refined sophistication.
Renowned tabla veteran and Gyan babu’s eminent disciple Pt Anindo Chatterjee says: “Guruji was a giant of a composer. The uniqueness of his compositions lies in the influences they bore of all his predecessors, including Firoz Khan saheb. It was the fruit of his diligent discipleship under him. He amalgamated traditional bols and layakaari (rhythmic math), paired with his own distinct individuality.”
Bengal’s Punjab-flavoured tabla repertoire continues to stun international audiences with its exciting percussiveness. “Firoz Khan saheb’s compositions are endowed with classicism as well as ‘commercial value’. In other words, even uninitiated listeners are blown away by their sheer power, astounding structures, pauses and exciting tihai (ending phrase) patterns,” says Anubrata, Pt Chatterjee’s son and noted young tabla exponent who happens to be Gyan babu’s last ganda-bandh (official) disciple.
He says: “Although the venerated Pt Gyan Prakash Ghosh bore the influences of several great ustads, the light of Firoz Khan saheb’s genuis shines dazzlingly in several of his compositions. Gyan babu thus, passionately, preserved that unusual brilliance, passing it on to generations after him.”
Kolkata’s percussive Punjab legacy also spread its wings outside the musically rich city. The magic of this silsila was introduced to Maharashtra and Mumbai’s thriving classical music scene for the first time by Gyan babu’s seniormost disciple, Pt Nikhil Ghosh. In his youth, he moved to Bombay from Bengal and later established the world-renowned classical conservatoire Sangit Mahabharati.
Ironically, tabla’s Firoz Khani silsila, spearheaded by Gyan babu and his gharana, is today synonymous not with the streets of Lahore and Amritsar, but rather with the old bazaars and monuments of Kolkata. His illustrious inheritors, disciples like Pt Anindo Chatterjee and grand disciple, tabla and sitar maestro Pt Nayan Ghosh, have contributed immensely to this repertoire with their own outstanding compositions in the style.
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