Friday Review

The many maestros of Maihar

Ravi Shankar (left), Baba Allauddin Khan (center) and Ali Akbar Khan. Hindu Photo Archives   | Photo Credit: V_V_Krishnan

Maihar railway station, three stops from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, was shrouded in fog when I got down from the train on a wintry morning. The train left in a huff; and the few who had alighted also vanished. Looking at the lonely platform, I wondered about the long list of musical geniuses who took the train to international glory from here. Sitar maestros Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee; sarod wizard Ali Akbar Khan; Bahadur Khan and Sharan Rani, surbahar virtuoso Annapurna Devi; flautist Pannalal Ghosh and violinist V G Jog, to name just a few. Even Hariprasad Chaurasia owes his musical lineage to this tiny princely outpost.

Prajwal, in his 30s, clad in jeans and pullover, didn’t look like the type who would chaperon me through the musical saga of Maihar, but by the end of the day I was proven happily wrong.

Our first stop was for breakfast at a restaurant named Surbahar. Over parathas and sabji, I asked, “Is everything here named after music?” Prajwal said, “Not everything, but it’s difficult to think of Maihar without music. Especially, without Baba.”

Presently we walked through a yet-to-open bazaar and came to Baba Alauddin Khan Chowk. The next stop was the house where Allauddin Khan used to live with his students.

Prajwal began his story. It started in 1918, when Maharaja Brijnath Singh Jiu Deo, ruler of Maihar, brought Allauddin Khan from Rampur and ensconced him as court musician in his darbar. Technically speaking, Maihar Gharana existed before that under the patronage of previous maharajas, but Allauddin Khan made such a immense contribution that the gharana thereafter is mostly attributed to him and his lineage. Soon he became ‘Baba’ not only to his disciples, but even to the common folks of Maihar.

According to legend, when an epidemic broke out sometime in the 1920s, many children were orphaned and Baba brought them together, taught them music and created the first ever Western-styled orchestra with Indian instruments, the Maihar Band. “Baba often led the band on the violin,” said Prajwal.

As a musician, Allauddin Khan had some unique traits, which were entwined with his unusual life. He had run away from home at 8, learnt to play various instruments that were at hand and, thereafter, learned from whomsoever he could. Dhrupad from Nolu Gopal, violin from Mr. Lobo, till he landed in Rampur, where the great veena exponent Ustad Wazir Khan took the young musician under his tutelage and taught him sarod.

Wazir Khan was a descendent of Tansen’s daughter’s family, who were veena players and known as Beenkars. Thus, Maihar Gharana is often called ‘Seni Maihar Gharana’ adopting from Tansen and identified with the musical tradition of the Beenkars.

We arrived at Baba’s house. His room, unpretentious, has walls teeming with pictures. Guru Wazir Khan’s is the most imposing. But also present are Vivekananda and Saraswati, Tagore and Beethoven. A glimpse of the world the little man chose to live in. His universality, in turn, reflected on the Gharana he fashioned.

We came to the wide veranda enclosing the inner courtyard. “This is where Baba taught most of the time,” said Prajwal. I pictured Baba on a charpoy, while the Ravi Shankars and Ali Akbars squatted around him with their instruments.

How must life have been in those days? Ravi Shankar has succinctly summed it up. “Many aspiring musicians came to Maihar for taalim from Baba. Most ran away within a week. The handfuls who survived for a month got glued to Baba for the rest of their lives and became famous musicians.”

Winter in Maihar is cruel. And Baba brooked no compromise. Before sunrise he would rip blankets off the sleeping students and splash cold water on them. An effective way to get the interns out of slumber and into rigorous riyaz.

A story goes that after returning from a trip to Europe, Baba found son Ali Akbar wanting in his practice. He tied him to a tree, caned him, and left him there for the rest of the night, while he himself mounted a nearby tree to ward off wild animals.

“Did you know Baba was left-handed?” Prajwal asked, and added, “In a way, this had its effect on the Gharana.” I looked quizzical, and he explained.

Being a left-handed player, his sarod was different, much like left-handed guitars are. So, he did not show exactly how to play a normal sitar or a sarod. Many times he would sing and explain. His disciples had the width to interpret and reproduce this on their instruments. Each artist from Maihar is musically unique. Not one plays like the other. Even under the glare of Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee’s sitar recital was distinctively his own. But both loved to dwell longer on the lower octaves while elaborating a raga, a characteristic dhrupad influence of Maihar.

Prajwal explained the nuances of the Maihar Gharana while playing sections such as jod and tar-paran, and techniques such as meend, gamak, and zamzama.

“There are two other distinct features of the Maihar Gharana,” he said. It is one of the few Gharanas where generational transition is not through family members but by a guru-shishya parampara. It is also difficult to find another Gharana that has produced maestros in sitar, sarod, surbahar, flute and violin. “Add guitar and its other version, mohan-veena, to this list,” said Prajwal. “After all, both Brij Bhushan Kabra and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt are from Maihar Gharana.”

It was evening. I was walking through a mangrove, returning to the station. A sudden gust of wind, and I thought I heard the teevra-madhyam in the rustle. In Maihar, even nature plays raag Yaman in the evenings.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 11:20:41 AM |

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