MIAN TANSEN created his own version of Raga Kanhra and that came to be known as Darbari, as it was rendered in the darbar (court) of Emperor Akbar. Called the emperor of ragas, as also the raga of emperors, Raga Darbari conjures up the image of rich court opulence, rather than a staid, austere music baithak. It is also the title of a satirical novel written by Shrilal Shukla in 1968, which illustrates failing values in a post-Independence, democratic India.
Kanhra, the raga, had existed earlier. Some say it was brought into the North Indian raga pantheon by Gopal Nayak, a 12th century musician in the court of the Vijaynagar king Ramdeva or Ramachandra Deva, from South India. This version of Kanhra is called Nayaki Kanhra. One wonders why would there be a need to distinguish it thus, if there were no other known Kanhras at the time. Incidentally, the Carnatic tradition does have a Raga Kanhra and a Raga Darbar, but these are different to their namesakes in the North. Traditionalists believe there are 12 Kanhras. A little known fact is that Raga Bageshwari, too, is a Kanhra, though today it is rendered as a separate raga, combining Bageshwari overtly with Kanhra.
Our attention to the raga was drawn by a festival dedicated to it in the Capital recently. Entitled Darbar, the backdrop of the stage featured an elegant 16th century ragamala painting depicting Raga Darbari. Unusually though, the raga, a late-night melody otherwise, was performed at 6 pm by sarod player Pt Biswajit Roy Chowdhury. Belonging to Mian Tansen’s musical lineage, Biswajit was able to give the required gravitas to the raga. His guru, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, belongs to the Tansen tradition, from both Tansen’s son as well as his daughter’s line. His recital was followed by a vocal concert in Raga Darbari by Pt Sanjeev Abhyankar, who etched the raga briefly before singing another Kanhra, Husseini.
Organiser Dr Ajit Pradhan, a well-known cardio surgeon with an overwhelming passion for music and Urdu poetry, says he thought of the festival when he realised that many vocalists today are not comfortable singing Darbari. “Yes, it’s a very grand, sombre raga with a very marked ‘shakl’ (visage), but that’s why I love it. During the lockdown, I had organised an online festival dedicated to the raga, but this is the first live concert.” While some in the audience were surprised to hear the same raga in quick succession, others loved hearing how the vocal rendition differed from the instrumental.
Today, khayaliya vocalists shy away from singing Darbari, but there have been some immortal renditions of the raga by vocalists of another age. Be it Ustad Amir Khan, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Salamat-Nazakat Ali Khan or Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, all have done justice to this great raga. Dhrupad exponents like the Dagar Bandhu and ‘beenkar’ Ustad Asad Ali Khan performed it frequently. Instrumentalists Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan have recorded memorable Darbaris.
Another reason behind its relative lack of visibility on a concert stage may be the fact that it is such a heavy raga and should not be rendered with fast phrases, ‘tihais’, etc. Maybe that’s why it is perceived as not being suited for a short concert, which is what most concerts these days are. Another factor is that while most concerts end by 9 or 10 pm, Darbari is traditionally performed late in the night.
Also, many feel Darbari is a raga for mature, seasoned exponents, someone who has understood the nature of the raga and is at ease rendering it with minimal embellishments. Dwelling on the Gandhar and Dhaivat without letting them sound pleading and whiny is an art, making Darbari a raga of grandeur. Not everyone has the inner strength to perform the raga well.
There are several popular songs based on the raga, too, including ‘Sarfaroshi ki tammana’ from the film ‘Shaheed’, sung by Mohammed Rafi; ‘Koi matwala aaya mere dwar’ from ‘Love in Tokyo’, sung by Lata Mangeshkar; and ‘Jhanak-jhanak tori baaje payaliya’ from ‘Mere Huzoor’, sung by Manna Dey.
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