‘Classical music has to change’

SHADES OF RADIANCE Dr. Prabha Atre in performance

SHADES OF RADIANCE Dr. Prabha Atre in performance

Dr Prabha Atre, the senior most representative of the Kirana gharana, has a concert singing career of over 50 years. Recipient of several awards including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, her brilliance is unusual as her erudition in music is as important a facet of her personality as her singing. She has written several books on music, out of which “Swaramayee”, and “Suswaraalee” are compilation of articles on music while “Swaraanginee” and “Swaranjanee” are compilations of her compositions. “Enlightening the listener” and “Along the Path of Music” capture her thoughts on Indian musical tradition in English. She has also written a book of poems. In addition, she has written a doctoral thesis on sargam.

She speaks in the careful measured way of an academician yet the enormous charm of a popular concert artist shines through.


It is said you learnt from Sureshbabu Mane (son of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan) foronly 6-7 years yet that learning has seen you through a lifetime.

It was a very intensive training, which gave me a good grounding from which I could walk myself without the help of others. I have been able to incorporate the training I received totally in my singing. I also learnt from his sister Hirabai Barodekar ji after his death, for two years, to avail of a government scholarship.

But today your gayaki does not reflect only Kirana gayaki...

The tonal quality of my voice guided me to make changes in my music. Variety in music is important too – singing only “aaa” can get boring, so I bring in other elements. Expression is very important in music.

Whatever good I find, I take it and make it my music. This happens automatically, without my even being conscious of it. Listening to me, you will not think that I am singing Agra or Jaipur gayaki; definitely I sing the music of my Kirana gharana but the exposure I have had obviously has changed my music. It should be like this – singing rigidly within one gharana today is not possible with so much exposure. I also like Carnatic music a lot and have been influenced by it.

I am very grateful to God for where I am here today as no one in my family even heard music!

Prabha Atre

Prabha Atre

You are hugely creative. Tell us more about thisaspect of your music

Today, I tend to sing mainly my own compositions. I try to bring out the essence of the raga in my composition. For example, raga Sham Kalyan – many people tend to ignore the Kalyan aspect , but I stress that it’s an integral part of the raga. Raga Madhur kauns which I created, has use of both “ga’s”; the komal ga only in avroha, but it’s a very catchy raga and reaches the audience very easily.

Classical music has to change, it should not be stagnant. Unless you change, it will die. Because it’s classical, it doesn’t mean you cannot change things in it. There have been changes throughout history. Audiences have changed, expectations have changed, and presentations have to change too. Of course, one must keep the basic identity intact. To listen to classical music, the audience has to have some exposure, some experience or they cannot appreciate it.

Your views on the time theory in North Indian classical music are controversial. Please elaborate:

The time or rasa theory in ragas – I am not sure it applies to everyone. If you don’t know the theory, do you still feel sad if a raga is supposed to make you sad? It’s not necessary! Or take the time theory, not everyone feels a morning raga should only be sung in the morning. Everybody should feel the same but it’s not like that. So what I say is – there is good music and bad music. That’s it!

What would you say is the most important thing in learning music today?

The most important thing a student of music has to have is patience. Don’t start in this line with expectations of starting a career fast and sitting on a stage. You don’t get anything immediately. Don’t be performance oriented. You have to devote a whole lifetime, 24 hours a day, have true ‘sadhana’ (discipline). There is never any end to learning. One to one training is very important; you can’t have teaching in a class. You have to be taught to be very conscious of what you are learning – you can’t copy blindly. Analysis of what you are learning is important.

Prabha Atre

Prabha Atre

Tell us about your academic side

I am a science and law graduate, and then I did my Ph.D in music, on sargam (enunciating the name of each note). It remains the only work done on sargam, and it took me three years to complete.

Please elaborate on your work on sargam

As against words, sargam has many advantages. Firstly, sargam consists of single syllables and secondly, it has no literary meaning. Hence, the question of distortion of the word’s structure or neglect of literary meaning does not arise. This makes it eminently suitable for exploring complex rhythmic and melodic patterns and for conveying any emotional or aesthetic feeling desired.

In spite of the manifold nature of sargam singing, its usage was strongly objected to by some senior musicians, academicians and critics, especially in Maharashtra. Their objections were – sargam singing shows the skeleton of the musical phrases, note-syllables are not sung at theirs pitch value, and it has been introduced just for novelty’s sake.

The oldest recordings of sargam singing in a performance are to be found in the recordings of Kirana maestro Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. It is not clear why other senior artists of that time did not pay any attention to sargam singing. Did they consciously avoid it or was sargam singing banned in concert presentation? In those days, even while teaching a new student, the tendency was not to use sargam. In some cases students would not know the sargam at all. One reason for this could be that gurus did not want their students to pick up anything immediately or remember anything later. They did not want hard earned knowledge to go easily to anyone — teaching sargam means throwing light on the note movements and creating awareness of the musical activity.

In a later period, Ustad Amaan Ali Khan of Bhendi-Bazar gharana gave prominence to sargam singing in his gayaki. The two maestros who studied sargam singing in depth and consciously included it in their presentations were Ustad Amir Khan and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. I have been influenced by them a lot.

After decades in the music world, what do you feel is needed to take classical music forward?

There is no conscious planning on how to take our music forward, efforts by the government are done sporadically.

I also feel sad that the media does not cover classical concerts – it’s only about film shows. I find The Hindu is now the only English paper that regularly writes on classical music. No private TV channel has regular programmes. DD Bharati is there, but there should be more.

In the mehfil of life...

Dr. Prabha Atre on her fastidious nature and her favourite colour

From childhood, I was disciplined, responsible, introvert, critical and crazy about beauty of any kind. Whenever I saw, heard of or read about anything nice, I felt that I should master it. One imbibes all good influences at a young age and leads the rest of one’s life on the strength of this accumulated treasure. Fortunately, I have received all this in my childhood — love, guidance, encouragement, blessings of my parents, elders and guru s. I have received so much of this wealth that it will last for my lifetime. It is on the strength of this wealth that I am standing erect on my own feet.

It was not that I had decided not to marry, but I also did not feel a special urge that I have to get married. My fastidious nature came in the way. I have a family and a household just like others, except that I do not have a husband. I had to shoulder the responsibility of my parents; Usha’s daughter has grown up just like my daughter.

Is it that I have no ambition or I am too much of an idealist? I do not know for sure. This, however, is true that I am not willing to make a compromise with my principles. It is in my nature to study in depth and in detail and execute perfectly whenever I get involved in any project.

I have been abroad many times, but I have neither tasted alcohol nor had non-vegetarian food. Not that there is anything bad about it, but my Brahmin upbringing has penetrated so deep that it is just not possible to bring about a change at this stage.

I am extremely fond of the colour white. I am particular about wearing white for my programmes. One walks ahead in life all alone, one experiences moments of success and failure with equanimity, one is neither inebriated by happiness nor is enfeebled by sorrow, one is mentally detached, one starts seeing the other shore and one is inwardly astounded that one has reached up to the point all alone when one suddenly turns around and glances behind to see a crowd of well-wishers bidding good bye with tearful eyes and before one realises what is happening, the soul merges into the divine and that exhilarating moment may prove to be the last moment of the mehfil of life. This is what I have ever been wishing for.

(Sourced from Prabha Atre’s “The Song of My Life”)

Time line

Born in Pune in 1932, Prabha Atre started learning music from 1943 onwards, from 1947 from Pt Sureshbabu Mane. She did her Bachelors degree in Science from Fergusson College in 1952 and then did a Masters in Law in 1956. In 1974, she did her PhD from Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal. She was awarded Padmashri in 1990. In 1991, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Padma Bhushan in 2002, Kalidas Samman in 2004 and in 2011 Tagore Akademi Fellow’ (from Sangeet Natak Akademi — to commemorate 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, a one-time award given to a few personalities of eminence for their contribution (equivalent to the ‘Fellow’ of the Akademi).

In honour of her contribution to Indian music, Hridayesh Arts, Mumbai has been organising an annual music festival Gaan Prabha’since 1993 and Basari Foundation, Pune has started Swar Prabha Sangeet Samaroh from 2015.

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Printable version | May 15, 2022 1:19:10 am |