Spotlight | Music

An alaap in Chandigarh: How one man’s passion and patronage sustain a music festival

Kishori Amonkar in concert.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It was 2018, the days heavy with the promise of rain. I was at work when I received an e-mail from someone who introduced himself as Navjeevan Khosla. It was a charming mail, inviting me to attend the Chandigarh Sangeet Sammelan, an annual affair staged every October in Le Corbusier’s city.

The man had taken my email address from professor of music Gurinder Singh, a student of Kishori Amonkar, who had once written a moving tribute to her guru for this newspaper. “Gurinder is an excellent singer,” wrote Khosla, “and I strongly suggest that you take a flight and be here to listen to her.” The man was in his 90s, it was an endearing missive, but I didn’t really take it seriously. Chandigarh is too far away from Chennai to visit on a whim.

Then, last year, in August, my phone rang. On the other end was Khosla saab. This time he had decided to call — “early enough so that you will have time to make travel plans”. The nonagenarian’s enthusiasm and warmth were touching and also intriguing. I found myself booking a ticket to Chandigarh, somewhat to my family’s bemusement.

But my instinct hadn’t let me down. What I found was not just a gracious man and a music festival, but something larger. Something that stuck in my head and slowly dawned into a clearer understanding of that elusive creature we call ‘patronage of the arts’.

In Chandigarh, Khosla had organised my stay in his home, an old-style bungalow surrounded by an ebullient garden whose fruits and vegetables unfailingly found their way to the dining table. Staying with us were three others — the lovely Gurinder; Hari Sahasrabuddhe, the late classical singer Veena Sahasrabuddhe’s husband; and music critic Manjari Sinha. We were all there for the 42nd edition of the Chandigarh Sangeet Sammelan, organised by the Indian National Theatre, an organisation founded in 1968 by a bunch of the city’s culturati and inaugurated by Prithviraj Kapoor.

Festival of passion

In 1978, urged by Khosla, the INT launched the annual Sangeet Sammelan. And in the 42 years since, driven almost entirely by one man’s passion, the best of Hindustani music’s singers and instrumentalists have regularly wound their way to this city to regale a small but ardent circle of listeners.

“Dhondutai Kulkarni, Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Gangubai Hangal, Kishori Amonkar, Kumar Gandharva…” Sitting in the morning room with the sunlight pouring in through the French windows, Khosla reeled off the names of the stalwarts the Sammelan had hosted over the years.

The former IAS officer was still at the centre of it all but had roped in Vinita Gupta, singer and teacher, to take over much of the responsibility. He remains chief curator and critic — a role he plays with formidable skill — keeping his nervous coterie on its toes.

That week, for instance, he raged and stormed during the performances of Raghunandan Panshikar and Ravindra Parchure, both of whose talent is undoubted but whose concerts were marred by an over-long rendition in one case and tussles with shruti in the other. Khosla saab left the venue early, walking stick in one hand, faithful retainer on the other. But his frail health conducted itself with honour during the largely unknown but supremely gifted Shalmali Joshi’s concert, as her confident voice poured forth notes of pellucid beauty.

“The big singers charge too much these days,” he told me. “And when they come here, they don’t take the audience and the city seriously. These days, I look for the small and upcoming names, artists who care only for the music and are hungry to perform.” From the first, the Sammelan has worked on meagre budgets. “In those days,” said Khosla, “nobody spoke much about money; they came for the love of music, accepting whatever we offered.”

Illustration: Kannan Sundar

Illustration: Kannan Sundar  

Courtly tradition

On the walls are imposing pictures of turbaned men; Khosla’s great-grandfather was a dewan in the court of Patiala’s Maharaja Mahendra Singh. His grandfather was a Cambridge-educated barrister and judge. Khosla’s love for music seems to have come from his father, Niranjan Prashad, who was close to the legendary Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, helping him with funds when he set up the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in 1901, a music school that was open to all and among the first to run on public donations rather than royal funding. Paluskar was then one of the first singers to scandalously give paid public concerts.

At one time, encouraging the arts was proof of a ruler’s discernment and refinement. Kings surrounded themselves with poets, singers and dancers, gifting them land and wealth. Rich families followed suit. Recitals were held in royal courts or private homes. Temples adopted performers, their music and dance considered offerings as much as incense or blooms. With democracy and the abolishing of royal families and the zamindari, the wealth that supported such cultural effulgence was lost. The baithak, where the cognoscenti would congregate at private homes, was supplanted by auditoriums and a paying public.

While this democratisation of classical music was welcome, it also meant that committed patrons were replaced with intermittent corporate sponsors. The burden of long-term support for the arts thus fell upon the government, a duty it took upon itself enthusiastically in the early years (setting up various awards and Akademis) but soon let crumble under bureaucratic indifference and corruption. Until today, when we have reached a point where the very idea of state support for the arts is regarded with resentment and ‘culture’ is equated with religion, propaganda and diplomacy.

Crumbling edifice

The pieces of this crumbling artistic edifice have been left then for trusts and individuals to pick up. People like Ashok Vajpeyi in Delhi, another former IAS officer, whose Raza Foundation does more for the arts than the entire government. Or the late K.V. Subbanna, whose Ninasam trust in Heggodu, Karnataka, has sustained a cultural movement over five decades. Gira Sarabhai’s extraordinary Sarabhai Foundation in Ahmedabad, the late Ebrahim Alkazi’s Foundation for the Arts, O.P. Jain’s Sanskriti Foundation, the late Vijaynath Shenoy’s Hasta Shilpa Heritage Museum, the late Komal Kothari’s Rupayan Sansthan, Laila Tyabji’s Dastkar...

...And people like Khosla whose remarkable effort to preserve and promote classical music in his hometown is backed only by passion, some personal wealth and public donations. Khosla’s note in the invitation card that year was characteristically acerbic: “But we cannot survive on fresh air, tea and kind words alone. So kindly bring your cheque books along.”

As around us the pandemic wreaks havoc on the livelihoods of innumerable musicians, the absence of structured state support is felt sharply. The government and its ‘cultural’ arms are again missing in action. As I see concerned individuals step into the fray once more, I think of Khosla saab, who has just turned 98. Across India’s bylanes and back streets, but for a handful of such committed individuals, the pulse of classical music might not have kept throbbing under the great ambient hum of mass entertainment.

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 5:08:43 PM |

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