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Mellifluous vioce: Prabha Atre.
Mellifluous vioce: Prabha Atre.

DEEPA GANESH

Hindustani vocalist Prabha Atre has no final answers: about herself or her music.

Born into a family that had no connection with music, Prabha stumbled into what became her passion.

“Talents are best nurtured in solitude, but character is best formed in the stormy billows of the world.”Johann Wolfang von Goethe

Creative processes are turbulent and marked by tribulations. The journey of a resolute artist is a lonely one. Prabha Atre, one of the finest musicians of the Kirana gharana, reflects a deep connection with the thing she loves most: music. Even as you engage in a conversation with the 75-year-old vocalist, you discern that her answers come from a constant ploughing for fresh perspectives, new idioms. If there’s anything linear and straightforward, it’s only the details from her life; the rest, including her music, remains in a perpetual state of evolution. Prabha Atre has no final answers: about herself or her music.

Evidently this winner of Padmashree, Padmabhushan and Kalidas Samman awards has a guarded, a pre-occupied inner world, whose motion is parallel to the formal graces of the external world. This exemplary musician, who is also bestowed with fine literary sensibilities, speaks of Jainendra Kumar’s poem, “Kutir Ka Pushp”, in her autobiographical work, Song of my Life. Citing the poem, she says: “I have a relationship with that flower.”

Tryst with music

Born into a family that had no connection with music, Prabha stumbled into what became her passion. A doctor advised music as therapy for her mother’s constant illness. Prabha’s mother began music lessons, which stopped after a while, but Prabha’s tryst with music continued. She learnt from Suresh Babu Mane, her mentor and guru. After his sudden death, Prabha continued training with his sister, the inimitable Hirabai Badodekar.

Whether it was her guru’s progressive mind, or her father who insisted on an academic background, or her own keen understanding, Prabha opened herself to a whole lot of musical experiences. She loved the passionate Roshan Ara and Noor Jahan, lost herself to Begum Akhtar’s intensity just as she worshipped the poignant Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and the solemnly evocative Ustad Aamir Khan. Her job at the All India Radio helped nurture this interest in various kinds of music.

She recites a couplet (“When the eyes were not open, even the sea seemed to be a drop; but as the eyes opened, even a drop looked like a sea”) to tell one of the enormous exposure that AIR gave her.

But, for the sensitive Prabha, music was not a means but an end and bureaucratic hurdles and professional jealousies drove her to resign. She was so disturbed that she never again sang for AIR, an act of courage at a time when it was the biggest medium for a musician.

Teacher and researcher

Her decision worked to the benefit of hundreds of students. Prabha took to teaching, performance and research. “I give myself completely to my students. After having journeyed together with them, I feel terribly let down, particularly by women, when they make predictable choices and forget music.”

Like her music, there are no jarring notes in Prabha’s speech; it’s tempered and understated. She’s as sincere to the spoken word as she is to her music. Her mellifluous voice, as young as it was decades ago, is in a constant exploration.. Each time, the search is like the road not taken, not just throwing for her new, complex choices but making it an equally demanding experience for the listener.

As one listens to “Ranaji mein bairagan hoongi; Hari sang naatha jodoongi”, it strikes you: the spirit of the lyrics is Prabha Atre’s moral fibre too: men and matters in a constant state of motion.


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