The recent sitar recital by the U.K.-based Mahmud Mirza was nourishment for the soul

It’s a rare sight in Delhi to see well known musicians flocking to listen to somebody who is not a star with a big media presence. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to see famous musicians such as Debu Chaudhury, Shanno Khurana, Krishna Bisht, Iqbal Ahmad, Saeed Zafar Khan and many others at a concert organised by Delhi Sangeet Sabha at Triveni Kala Sangam auditorium. The artiste of the evening was sitar maestro Mahmud Mirza, who has been living in Britain for the past four decades and visits India every year to give a few concerts for the cognoscenti.

Born in 1935, Mahmud Mirza started to learn the art of sitar playing at the age of six from his maternal uncle Ustad Haider Husain Khan, a famous representative of the Jaipur-Senia gharana. After his untimely demise, young Mirza was accepted as a disciple by well-known musicologist Pandit Jivanlal Mattoo, one of the few direct disciples of the legendary vocalist Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan. Even in his childhood, Mirza was considered a prodigy and was taken on the staff of All India Radio at the age of 14, thus earning the distinction of being the youngest staff artiste in the broadcasting house’s history. When AIR began its National Programme of Music in 1954, he topped the competition held for junior instrumentalists. He spent a few years in Bombay and played sitar sequences in songs like “Chhod do aanchal zamana kya kahega” (“Paying Guest”) and “Teri pyari-pyari soorat ko, kisi ki nazar na lage” (“Sasural”). In the late 1960s, he moved to Britain and settled there.

Mahmud Mirza’s art is a confluence of three streams — the traditional Jaipur-Senia style of playing sitar as taught to him by Haider Husain Khan, the musical approach of the Kirana gharana of vocal music as instilled in him by Jivanlal Mattoo, and his own creative urges and approach to music. Little wonder that all the three streams have merged to create a powerful, majestic river of thirst-quenching music. At a time when most sitar players are heavily influenced by the style of either Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan, Mahmud Mirza stands out on account of his unique way of creating mijrab bols and weaving an intricate jhala that does not dazzle so much with speed as with its beautiful patterns and variations. His music is not mindboggling. It’s soul-nourishing.

The evening began with a short introduction by Nain Bharati, a founder member of the Delhi Sangeet Sabha and the author of a well-researched book on the Delhi gharana. When she announced that Mahmud Mirza would play Shuddha Baradi, the audience was palpably in awe because this aprachalit (uncommon) raga is not even sung by vocalists these days. Shuddha Baradi comes in two versions belonging to the Marwa thaat and the Poorvi thaat. Mirza chose the Marwa thaat version that employs Shuddha Dhaivat and is a sampoorna raga.

He played an aesthetically conceived alap-jod that had a languorous gait, with melodic activity appropriately hovering around Shadaj and Pancham. He seamlessly followed it up with two Teen tala gats in Shivaranjani. It’s a challenge to any instrumentalist to effortlessly shift from Shuddha Baradi to Shivaranjani because the former uses Shuddha Gandhar while the latter prefers its Komal version. Both the gats were beautifully played, as was the lilting dhun in Gara with which he concluded his recital.

Although his sitar was giving him some trouble because of heavy air conditioning, he did manage to overcome this and impressed the listeners with his dexterity, creative imagination and chaste musical approach. Mithilesh Kumar Jha accompanied him on tabla and played with commendable reserve, restraint and understanding.