SIX decades have passed since Parveen Sultana sang Raga Yaman to brief her prospective guru, who was testing the potential of the 10-year-old girl keen to learn Hindustani classical. Even today, at 73, the acclaimed musician cannot but remember the benign Chinmoy Lahiri before whom she rendered the night raga as a sample of her artistry. So impressed was Panditji with the child’s vocals, he told Parveen’s father Ikramul Majid: “You have already equipped her well; I need to do just the framing.”
With this, life lit up in Calcutta for the prodigy belonging to the country’s Northeast. Constant intake of ragas ensured Parveen felt least alien in the cosmopolitan city, a far cry from the quiet wetlands of Nagaon in Assam. Into her late teens, the disciple met with a crisis: Lahiri got increasingly unwell. Serendipity worked. Arthritic ‘Kaku’, suffering from high diabetes and blood pressure, chose to entrust his pupil with a promising fellow Bengali. Parveen, initially resistant to the idea, got a new surge in her career. Dilshad Khan, nine years older, went on to become her life partner. The wedlock meant Parveen, too, became a resident of Bombay. It fostered 50 years of student-teacher relation with a celebrated give-and-take spirit on stage.
Dilshad began training Parveen in 1973, within weeks of seeing each other. In the monsoon of 1975, they married. The bond pioneered husband-wife jugalbandis, fetching them global fame. Octogenarian Dilshad has been a Kirana gharana master of the khayal tradition. Lahiri (1920-84), who also composed bandishes in self-devised ragas, sang in a sonorous mix of schools: Gwalior, Agra and Jaipur, Kirana and Patiala. Among them, the Punjab-origin style with an antiquity of 150 years has earned a fresh flavour through Parveen. Scholars acknowledge her as a Patiala exponent despite her eclecticism. Curious tales resonate behind this unique feat.
For all her Assamese nativity, Parveen’s ancestry traces to Central Asia and further west of the continent. Her grandfather Mohammed Najeef Khan was a Pathan from Afghanistan. The family migrated to the Brahmaputra-fed fertile lands of British India, seeking to boost their business in ivory and timber. Khan, in his free hours, played the rabab and flute. Such aesthetics found a stronger practitioner in the family, with his son Majid singing khayal. Parveen’s mother Marufa Begum was of Iranian descent. From her, she picked up mystic Sufiana kalam songs as a toddler.
So how and where did Majid learn classical? Actually, he hadn’t been trained formally. Yet, those 12-odd Calcutta years, starting as a college student, enabled the youngster to internalise the wizardry of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Majid got access to the Patiala icon (1902-68) through city-mate AT Kanan, a Hindustani vocalist from Arcot in down-country Tamil Nadu.
Around that time in Kolkata was born Dilshad — originally Arabinda Dasgupta. The boy, younger brother of the illustrious sarodiya Buddhadev Dasguputa (1933-2018), dabbled in the tabla initially. Soon, swayed by the magic of Ghulam Ali Khan, he switched to vocals. After college studies, the youngster reached Bombay. There, his chief mentor was Faiyaz Ahmed Khan of Kirana, a gharana that had gained prominence far beyond its roots in western Uttar Pradesh by the early 20th century.
As for Majid, his skills owe also to Gul Mohammed Khan, a Darbhanga dhrupad maven, who delivered Dhaka Radio’s debut concert in 1939. Nine years later, Majid became the first to sing at the nascent Guwahati AIR.
The Parveen-Dilshad couple believes their music cannot confine to a gharana even as the wife is widely acknowledged to represent Patiala and the husband Kirana. Whatever, the two schools strike a core commonality: open throat. “The akaar is totally unlocked in both styles… even when you scale top registers and the voice becomes shrill,” points out Dilshad, 82. Parveen says the rapid taan passages are flashier in Patiala, though “we avoid falsetto at any point”.
Plus, Parveen has an admiration for melody queen Lata Mangeshkar and her modulations typical of Hindi film songs. This has soothed Parveen’s duets with her husband. That streak, again coincidentally, began from her grandfather’s motherland. The famed Jashn Festival at Kabul in 1975 brought the couple’s jugalbandi together on stage, making it a trend. Today, their duets have crossed 700; more than half of them abroad.
Parveen’s renditions bear flamboyance that wouldn’t lighten the sobriety of khayal. Equally, the appearance is colourful. She is all smiles and seldom displays signs of perceived meditation even while cupping her palm backward for the tanpura drones. “I just can’t sing with closed eyes. We must see the audience and judge their feedback. Our mission is to popularise classical music. I’m fundamentally a performer. I first hear my upcoming phrases and then intone them,” she avers.
Comparatively, academic acumen steers Dilshad’s music, though he too revels in improvisations. “Only the guru knows the weak points of his protégé,” the Ustad says with an amused smirk. “Among those I have moulded, none comes anywhere close to Parveen in eminence.” Trailing off further, he says a presentation of Rageshri by Parveen when she was 22 was what led him to take notice of her talent. Inversely, young Dilshad’s Marwa captured the future wife’s imagination. To the pair, strict adherence to a gharana doesn’t go well with the times. “Hindustani music is like a garden. You needn’t stick to one flower. Aim for a bouquet. And add your signature shade to the flowers,” says Parveen. Suggests Dilshad: “That’s our gharana.”
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