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Curious case of an inflammable melody

JITENDRA PRATAP
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First Person Over the years, raga Deepak developed an inauspicious reputation. This disciple of Ustad Alauddin Khan found out why. JITENDRA PRATAP

Ustad Alauddin Khan in a photo from “Boro Baba...”, a biography by Sahana Gupta nee Khan, part of Roli Books' Family Pride series.
Ustad Alauddin Khan in a photo from “Boro Baba...”, a biography by Sahana Gupta nee Khan, part of Roli Books' Family Pride series.

O f the thousands of ragas in Hindustani classical music, the two most talked about, particularly during the time of Emperor Akbar and Miyan Tansen, were Deepak and Megh. Whereas Deepak was associated with the creating of heat and lighting lamps, raga Megh was associated with downpour and cooling.

In time musicians began considering Deepak an inauspicious melody. They stopped teaching it, particularly within their houses. If at all they had to teach it, they would take their sons and disciples to a neighbouring forest. Once Ustad Alauddin Khan inadvertently taught his son Ali Akbar Khan the raga inside his house, and next morning Ali Akbar was found with a very high fever that lasted several days.

This writer too recalls the havoc Deepak caused him and his guru, ‘Baba' Alauddin Khan.

In January 1945 while living in Maihar, in today's Madhya Pradesh, to learn music from Baba, I met with a jeep accident. My sister the late Maharani Vijaya Raje Scindia of Gwalior sent her personal physician Dr. Mahabir Singh to Maihar to providenecessary medical aid.

Baba at that time would often become semi-conscious, for which was taking heavy doses of belladonna. I took the opportunity of Dr. Singh's visit and requested him to examine Baba. Dr. Singh suggested he should go to Gwalior for check-up and treatment. Baba expressed his disinclination to go to Gwalior.

Dr. Singh had suggested treatment at Gwalior to me too, and I told Baba if he did not go with me I would not leave Maihar. Baba reluctantly agreed, on condition that he would not be asked to perform there. I agreed, but secretly sent one of his sarods with Dr. Singh.

The Gwalior medical college hospital examined me and Baba. Baba was diagnosed with gastric ulcer. Maharani Scindia brought renowned physician Dr. Koiyar from Bombay by private aircraft. He prescribed the course of treatment and in a week's time he began to feel quite well.

Baba asked me how he could repay the kindness shown him by the Maharani and others. I told Baba of everyone's eagerness to hear his sarod recital. On my showing him the leather case with his sarod he smiled and called me a naughty boy.

In the evenings the durbar hall would be packed with members of the ruling family, their friends and guests. Prior to recitals by Baba (accompanied by me) some of the leading musicians of Gwalior like Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, Pundit Krishnarao Shanker Pundit, Raja Bhaiya Poochhwale and the eminent pakhawaj maestro Pundit Parvat Singh also performed.

Baba also performed at Gwalior's educational institutions. The city's music loving masses felt very fortunate to listen to this greatest musician of the era.

One evening, Baba told the Maharani about Gwalior's medieval period Maharani Mrignayani, the consort of Raja Maan Singh Tomar who was credited with establishing of the rich Dhrupad idiom, and sang a song composed by her in praise of her husband Raja Maan Singh Tomar that was set to raga Deepak. Its lyrics were “Raja Maan, hoon to cheri hoon teri. Raja Maan, kaahu ki hoon cheri-bal-bas hoon, cheri hoon teri”.

After a gala time at Gwalior we returned to Maihar to resume our routine of receiving music lessons from Baba and practising the rest of the day. Late Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, the eminent flutist, had come with one of his disciples to learn from Baba. Others like the late sitarist Nikhil Banerji and Baba's nephew the late sarodist Bahadur Khan were also there.

Music lessons over, we would get together and talk for some time before lunch. One morning Baba recalled his happy moments in Gwalior and I mentioned his singing Rani Mrignayani's composition in Deepak. At this Baba started singing it, but immediately stopped, touching his ears and saying “Touba-touba” for having attempted to sing it inside the house.

Approaching storm

A little later we dispersed and I left for my house in old Maihar town. I found Pannalalji waiting for me. He eagerly asked me to teach him that composition, saying the raga “pulled him”. I advised him to learn it from Baba. It seems Pannalal pleaded with Baba to teach him that song. Baba told him the raga was a trouble-causing melody. At that Pannalal asked if he could learn it from me. Baba was shocked and asked him, “Will ‘Jiten' teach you?” To which Pannalal said, “Yes Baba, he will if you would kindly permit him to do so.”

In the evening, as usual, I went to Baba's place with my sitar. It was summertime and the mats were spread in the large courtyard of Baba's house. Normally he would send away anyone else saying “Baba Jiten” had come to learn, but on that evening he told me to go inside and wait as he was teaching his grandson Ashish Khan, eldest son of Ali Akbar. I could make out that Baba was agitated. As I started walking, he said, “It is alright, you better come now.” I sat down and started repeating lessons in raga Puriya.

After some time Baba sarcastically said, “Now you are a great musician and have become capable of teaching raga Deepak”! I looked at Pannalal and told him he had played mischief. Baba scolded me for accusing Pannalal. I told Baba since he was in a disturbed mood I better not trouble him to teach me this evening. At that Baba sardonically said, “Yes I am no good at teaching. You better go back to your former teacher Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan to learn in a better way. At that Pannalal in a melodramatic manner said, “Baba, because of me please do not let Jitenda's future be ruined.” I told Pannalal I had not come to Baba to ‘make a future' but because of our love and affection for each other. Baba then asked me to start playing raga Puriya. I felt inspired and executed some intricate phrasings. Baba made me expand these with his vocal guidance and I got more inspired. Baba then suddenly started crying in a manner that was more of howling and sounded very frightful.

He said, “I had to lead a dog's life to learn all these and then passed them on to you. But you are squandering all these by giving away to all those who do not deserve it.”

At this I got up and banged my sitar on the floor, saying, “If my learning makes my Baba cry I do not wish to play anymore on my sitar.” I ran and locking myself in my house, went to the roof, tears streaming. I saw a figure dressed in a lungi and a half-sleeve vest with a lantern in one hand and a walking stick in the other approaching my house. I was shocked to find it was none other than Baba. Finding my house locked from outside, he turned back. Next morning I saw three tongas coming to Baba's house and going back to the railway station with all those who were staying with Baba.

Later in the day the local postmaster Mr. Pillay told me Baba had related to him all that took place on the previous evening and blamed the visitors for it. (Baba always confided in him.) I felt sad his disciples were sent away. Giving free music lessons was Baba's main interest in life. A couple of days later I went back to Gwalior.

The flame is doused

In 1948 the annual All India Women's Conference was to be held in Gwalior. I was chairperson for the Entertainment Committee. I was asked to invite local and out-station musicians, particularly Baba and his famous Maihar Band.

I asked my wife Monica who was in constant correspondence with Baba on my behalf. Baba sent a telegram to my wife confirming his coming to Gwalior with the Maihar Band. The telegram was followed by a lengthy letter to Monica with sentiments like, “I shall till my last breath obey Maharani Sahiba's orders because she has given me an extension of life by her kindness and generosity for which I am grateful to Baba Jiten because it was only he who introduced me to her. What a stubborn fellow he is. He has not bothered to write a line to me. A father does not bow down before his son and it is the son who has to bow down before the father. Why is he not coming for his music lessons? I have not stopped teaching him….”

Baba came to Gwalior a few days later and asked me to go with him to the nearby forest to learn raga Deepak, to which I strongly objected but he would not listen. So I went. After teaching it Baba asked me if I noticed anything outstanding in it. I said nothing, since I had made up my mind to have nothing to do with such an inauspicious melody.

I do hope no one now will talk to me about this raga. All I can suggest is to listen to late K.L. Saigal's “Diyaa jalaao” in the film “Tansen”.

LEGEND of DEEPAK One afternoon, legend has it, Emperor Akbar asked Tansen to render Deepak to light the palace lamps. Tansen commenced meditating on raga Deepak, but before doing so he asked his daughter Saraswati to meditate on Megh so that there would be a heavy downpour of rain to cool his body which would have become overheated

‘DIYA JALAAO' The music director of the film “Tansen”, late Khemchand Prakash, was a music scholar. He set the song “Diya jalaao” with the genuine fervour of Deepak raga. The composition had much resemblance with Ustad Alauddin Khan's version of the raga and the song by Raja Maan Singh Tomar's Gurjar consort, Rani Mrignayani.


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