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Diving into the roots of our notes

(From left) The jacket of the book written by Kumar Prasad Mukherji, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Sheila Dhar’s book and Sheila Dhar.— Photos: Special arrangement  

Indian music is based on oral tradition. Many attempts have been made with varying degrees of success to evolve systems of notation for it but it still remains an art that is best learnt at the feet of the guru. Therefore, it is not surprising that its past and present histories are full of anecdotes and stories that are not only interesting and entertaining but also enlightening. However, our musicians don’t generally write and it is a pleasant surprise to find two utterly addictive books written by two practising musicians. Sadly, both of them are no more.

Kumar Prasad Mukherji, who retired in 1984 from government service as Commercial Director of Coal India Limited, was the son of the legendary D.P. Mukherji, who is considered the father of Indian sociology. Trained as an economist and a sociologist, he was held in awe because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, art and music. Kumar inherited these traits from him and trained as a Hindustani classical vocalist with the legendary Ustad Mushtaq Husain Khan of Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. He came under the spell of the gayaki of the one and only Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Agra gharana as he received training from his brother-in-law Ustad Ata Husain Khan and nephew Latafat Husain Khan.

After Kumar Prasad’s retirement, he wrote a book in Bengali of his reminiscences, anecdotes and stories of musicians. Titled Kudrat Rang-Birangi ( The multi-coloured Nature ), it was translated into Hindi by Deepali Nag, a well-known disciple of Ustad Faiyaz Khan, and published by Rajkamal Prakashan.

The title of the book comes from a story Kumar Prasad Mukherji tells us about Kirana gharana founder Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, whose birthplace Kairana, was recently in the news for the wrong reasons. Abdul Karim Khan was inclined towards spirituality and had met the Sai Baba of Shirdi. In Nagpur, he met a saint known as Tajuddin Baba, who made him sing two bhajans repeatedly. They were ‘Hari Ka Bhed Na Payo’ and ‘Kudrat Rang-Birangi Tori’. The book got its title from the second bhajan.

D.P. Mukherji had told his son about a house concert by Ustad Faiyaz Khan at the residence of Rabindranath Tagore in Jorasanko. The great ustad was singing for the great poet for the first time and he gave a masterly rendering of Ramkali, singing an elaborate alap in the dhrupad style followed by a khayal. As the concert progressed, Tagore looked more and more engrossed and his face flushed. He offered 21 gold mohurs to the ustad, saying, “This man has taken away fifty years of my life,” meaning that Faiyaz Khan’s singing had transformed whatever understanding of music he had evolved over the past fifty years.

Like Kumar Prasad, Sheila Dhar too was not a professional musician although she trained with the likes of Pran Nath, a prominent disciple of the Kirana gharana co-founder Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, and two other well-known vocalists of the same gharana: Ustad Niyaz Ahmed Khan and Ustad Faiyaz Ahmed Khan. In her book Raga N’ Josh published by Permanent Black, she talks of her own experiences and observations and does not offer folklore of the music world. Dhar belonged to a prominent Kayastha Mathur family of Delhi and her father Shivraj Bahadur was a great connoisseur of music. Top musicians regularly visited their house and performed. Shivraj Bahadur was a disciple of sarangi player Bundu Khan, perhaps the greatest master of the instrument in the 20th century, who was as much known for his simplicity as for his music.

Much against his wishes, Ustad Bundu Khan, the quintessential Delhiwallah, had to leave for Pakistan. Three months after his departure, he sent a letter to Shivraj Bahadur that had only two sentences. The first one thanked him for all that he had done for him, and the second said that he was sending some important taans of Malkauns. “My father,” Dhar tells us, “was so touched that he wept. He said he would never need to use the Malkauns taans in his life, but Ustad Bundu Khan’s intention was to offer him what he considered most precious…He never tired of saying that this was the most graceful gesture he had ever come across.”

As a counterfoil, one must mention Kesar Bai Kerkar, one of the great luminaries of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, who could insult fellow musicians at the drop of a hat. Dhar tells us about an encounter between the great thumri-dadra singer Rasoolan Bai and Kesar Bai at the annual festival of the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi. Rasoolan Bai had cultivated the habit of covering her left ear with the little finger of her left hand. The moment she saw Kesarbai, she stood up and folded her hands in greeting. However, this did not prevent Kesar Bai from baring her claws. She haughtily asked what Rasoolan was doing at a conference where serious music was supposed to be performed. Rasoolan sheepishly said how she could dare perform in her presence. And Kesar Bai responded: “Why not? Why not? Why should you not sing? Who can stop you? Unless, of course, your little finger has got too tired of working and needs rest!”

Raga’n Josh, Permanent Black is priced at Rs. 295.

Kudrat Rang-Birangi, Rajkamal Prakashan is priced at Rs. 495

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 3:08:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/Diving-into-the-roots-of-our-notes/article14404802.ece

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