Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan: 1857, a musician and a prince : The Tribune India

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Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan: 1857, a musician and a prince

Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan: 1857, a musician and a prince

Prince Bikrama Singh



Shailaja Khanna

A recent sarod concert, presented by Pt Basant Kabra as a tribute to Lalita Khanna, the late musicologist, in Delhi, reminded one of an interesting link that the Senia gharana and a prince from Kapurthala share with the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan. Known in the past as Harballabh Mela, the music gathering in Jalandhar is the oldest consecutively held classical music festival in North India. This year, its 148th edition will be held from December 25 to 31, the first four days being dedicated to music competitions.

The Lalita Khanna samman would be bestowed upon Ustad Nishat Khan this year.

Its origins are interesting. The festival is held in the Devi Talab temple complex. A century ago, the area was outside Jalandhar, but today, it is very much a part of the city. Earlier, all that existed was an old mandir near a tiny ‘talaab’ (pond). A fakir, Baba Harballabh, lived there; he was passionate about classical music and would sing hymns. How a music festival in his name came into being is linked with the Mutiny of 1857.

Recalling how a Kapurthala prince saved a musician from prison, which led to the institution of Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan

After the Mutiny, the court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was disbanded by the British. One of his seniormost court musicians was veena player Mir Nasir Ahmed, a descendant of Mian Tansen from his daughter Saraswati’s line. He was the grandson of Mian Himmat Singh, grandson of the great Sadarang. Imprisoned by the British and fearing death, he managed to reach out to a royal patron, Kunwar Bikrama Singh of Kapurthala.

The younger son of Maharaja Nihal Singh, Bikrama Singh loved classical music, and had a fine, highly tuneful voice. He rode to Delhi himself to get the Senia gharana musician released, and brought him back to his Kapurthala haveli called the Elysee Kothi (today, it houses MGN Public School). He started learning rudra veena from the Ustad and as the Ustad had no children, he became his ganda bandhan shishya (a musical tradition where the guru and the shishya accept each other formally by tying a thread, implying a lifelong commitment). In the old Senia tradition, only one main disciple tied the ganda; so, this honour was usually never conferred on an outsider. Bikrama Singh, due to his rare musical talent, was an exception.

After the death of Maharaja Nihal Singh in 1870, Bikrama Singh left Kapurthala and built himself a home in Jalandhar called Bikrama Hall. Back then, mehfils presided over by Ustad Mir Nasir Ahmed became popular and appreciation of classical music spread. Baba Harballabh would attend too.

After Baba Harballabh’s death, when his disciples expressed the desire to honour his memory through music, the Prince donated land in the Devi Talab area. Ustad Mir Nasir Ahmed ensured that eminent musicians attended their music festival annually, and Harballabh Mela soon became the biggest and most sought-after music event in North India. Till the 1950s, it was the premier music festival and an invitation here was considered a huge honour, even though no fee was paid to the performers. In the old days, there would be stories of musicians becoming successful after offering their musical ‘haazri’ at Harivallabh. Pt Ravi Shankar’s luck, too, is said to have changed after his concert at Harivallabh!

Interestingly, Lalita Khanna, also a fine musician, was the great-granddaughter of Bikrama Singh. She counted amongst her good friends musicians as varied as Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pt Radhika Mohan Maitra and Vidushi Sumati Mutatkar. A ‘samman’ in her memory is given annually at Harivallabh; this year, it will be bestowed upon sitarist Ustad Nishat Khan on December 29. Lalita Khanna was my mother and guru.

#Kapurthala


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