Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC: November 29, 1998
Are you turned on by legends of love and war? Come to Gwalior where the fort winds across the hill and looms over the city, not as a dead artifact, but as part of its daily life. The tourists are there of course, but it is also a favourite picnic spot for the locals, and echoes the chatter of the children of the Scindia School within its precincts. The sprawling lawns among the ruins make an awesome venue for the Gwalior Sangeet Utsav.
From somewhere above us, a transistor blares a Hindi film song.
The music buff who has made her pilgrimage to the fort recognises in the discordance a distant cousin of the raag Yaman. And suddenly, the courtyard where she stands begins to resound with resplendent melodies. The sun fades to starlight, the cunningly carved lamps on the stone pillars cast their glow from all four sides. The ornate balcony draped in gold and silk reveals crowned heads absorbed in the nuances of the raag as rendered by the master musician. Behind brocade curtains, the queens sigh unseen.
For it was here at the Man Mandir Palace and the Gujari Mahal seen below, that the dhrupad tradition of Hindustani music developed its definitive form, depth and sheen. Both were built by Raja Man Singh (1486-1516), the noblest ruler of the Tomar dynasty, to whom the poet exclaims, "O King of kings! Protect the earth till the sun and the moon shine in the sky!" (Gangola-tal inscriptions 1494).
The cultural splendour of Gwalior under Man Singh invited comparison with Shiraz in Iran. The Raja was no mere warrior, but a great patron of the arts. Himself a musician and scholar, he authored the lost musical treatise "Man Kautuhal" with the seven nayaks in his court, who excelled in the practice and theory of music. A specially designed music room allowed his eight queens to take singing lessons behind latticed walls, unseen by their instructor.
Man Singh made his greatest contribution to the arts after his marriage to Mrignayani, a Gujar tribal he chanced to meet while out hunting. Captivated by watching her separate with bare hands two buffaloes, their horns locked in combat, the king won her consent to becoming his ninth queen after fulfilling two demands. He built her a separate palace, and had a canal dug to bring the water of her village Rai, for her everyday use.
Today her Gujari Mahal's open courtyard makes a sculpture gallery. A 5th century Gupta panel from nearby Pawaya depicts a dancer surrounded by musicians. An ancient panel of the birth of the Buddha attests to the flourishing of the performing arts in this region from the 2nd century B.C.
A hall under the courtyard with two-storied galleries on all sides provided the ideal space, cool and soundproof, for musical soirees. During my visit, this was closed for renovation. But one could imagine the enchanting raags of Tansen and Baiju Bawra who received their early training in the school of music established and monitored by the Tomar king and his Gujar queen. It provided 16 of the 36 singers in Akbar's court. It was in this hall and courtyard that the royal couple created the raags Bahulgujri, Mangalgujri and Gujritodi. Here Man Singh composed and sang in Brajbhasha as against the customary Sanskrit. The king built a vast rasmandal near the fort which could accommodate 4,000 people, where 200 women dancers played gopikas to his Krishna. Their anklets and the orchestra echoed from the hills and rippled across the Barai lake closeby.
Under the Tomars, the status of a man was determined by his right to sound five instruments at the start of his journey. Such a person was called "samadhigatapanchamahasabda".
Village Behet, a few miles away from Gwalior, is the birthplace of the singer who was to be hailed as Tansen, the "Emperor of Music". There are conflicting accounts of his early years. His parents Makarand and Lakshmi named the boy Trilochan (Tannu) because he was born after fervent prayers to Siva, resident of the local temple. As a cowherd, he kept predators away by imitating their roars. He knew the language of animals and trees. Swami Haridas was so impressed by his ringing voice that he took him as a pupil. Soon he became a peerless vocalist and composer of dhrupads. Akbar was happy to pay 2000 dinars to entice him to adorn the Mughal court, at a time when generals and officials were paid 20-30 dinars per month.
Another version has it that as a child, Tansen was blessed by the Muslim saint Mohammad Ghouse, who placed a drop of the paan juice from his mouth on the infant's lips. Repelled, the father abandoned the child, to be brought up by the pir.
At Behet they will tell you that their Siva temple leans to one side because the earth trembled as young Tannu practised beside the shrine!
Gwalior houses Tansen's tomb beside that of his spiritual guru Ghouse. The tamarind tree by its side is not the famed one under which Tansen practised, and eating whose sprigs guaranteed a sweet voice. (Gwalior residents recall that K. L. Saigal shared that belief, enough to come and taste those leaves). Another tree has taken its place, supposedly grown from a branch of the original, to retain its magic properties. Hundreds of sparrows flutter and chatter over it, making tawny at sunset.
We skip two centuries to arrive at the court of the Scindia rulers who came from Maharashtra to establish themselves at Lashkar (Gwalior). The Marathi culture provided excellent soil for the growth of performance and scholarship in music. Just as the dhrupad was shaped by the Tomars, khyal gayaki found its systematic, sequential and reflective development of its structure and texture with Scindia patronage. Directly or indirectly, the Gwalior gharana became the source of most other gharanas. But this ascendancy of the khyal is a tale of intrigue and counter intrigue through the generations.
From left: Rambua Gulwani, Balabua Umdekar, Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Hafiz Ali Khan and his eldest son Mubarak Ali Khan.
Ghulam Rasool, a court musician of Lucknow, was greatly taken up by the khyal (literally thought), as composed by Sadarang and Adarang, descendants of Tansen. Rasool began to compose in this novel mode which was free, untrammelled and romantic, as opposed to the rigid, spiritually oriented dhrupad. He taught Shakkar Khan and Makhan Khan, so named for their sweetness and softness of expression, which brought even the bulbuls out of the bushes. Their bitter rivalry led the latter to suspect the former of using sorcery to murder Qadar Baksh, son of Makhan Khan. Thereupon, Naththan Pir Baksh of this line fled to the protection of the Gwalior ruler Daulatrao Scindia. There he trained grandsons Haddu, Hassu and Nathoo in dhrupad, and in khyal which was soon to supersede it. He also brought the excitement of tappa to Gwalior, from its innovator Shauri Mian, son of Rasool. Another version attributes the entry of tappa to Devjibua Paranjpe, who taught it to Nathoo Khan in return for lessons in the khyal.
Meanwhile, Daulatrao Scindia was so mesmerised by the taans of Bade Mohammad Khan, son of Shakkar Khan, that he invited him to reside in Gwalior. The king wanted the taan technique to be perpetuated, but the diehard ustad hoarded his wealth. The tale goes that the king hid young Hassu, Haddu and Nathoo behind his throne whenever the senior performed at court, so that they could pick up the art by osmosis.
That is how the khyal mode was created by the trio by blending Pir Baksh's virtuosity with the luminous stylistics of Bade Mohammad Khan.
When the youngsters made their durbar debut, Bade Mohammad Khan was furious to realise he had been tricked into losing sole control over his taans. He plotted a Machiavellian revenge.
At a later concert of the trio, he applauded them and asked Haddu to repeat the "kadakbijli" which had electrified the throng. This blitzkrieg phrase could not be rendered twice without fatal results. As Haddu essayed it again, his rib snapped and blood filled his mouth. Pir Baksh unwound his saafa (headgear) and stanched the blood saying,"My son, complete the taan. We die but once, it is God's will that you sacrifice yourself for music".
The Khan brothers had been venerated in their lifetime as maestros. Kings valued them above ministers and generals. Royal gifts included a house with subterranean chambers for undisturbed practice, gold and gems, horses and elephants. Today, their graves in Gawaiye ki Baag (Garden of Singers) has been turned into a rubbish dump haunted by flies and pigs.
Gwalior has nurtured other families with a musical lineage. Among them the Pandits from Chinchwad, near Pune, were Sanskrit-Vedic scholars. Vishnu Pandit was assisted by his four sons in performing kirtans. It was he who suggested to his friend Pir Baksh that the ashtapadis could be rendered as khyals. Thus, another tradition was born, still nurtured by the Pandit family, whose presentday members Lakshman Pandit and daughter Meeta have recorded such a classical rendering of Jayadeva's verses, selected by their ancestors and set to music by the Pir Baksh family. From the Pandits the Khan brothers learnt Sanskrit slokas and Marathi abhangs, to sing before and with the maharaja at puja/festival times.
The Khans accepted the four Pandit boys as disciples, singling out Shankar for attention and affection. After their death Nissar Husain Khan, son of Nathoo Khan, continued the instruction. The neglect of musicians by the Regent's Council after the death of Jayajirao Scindia made Nissar Husain Khan leave the court in 1886, to find a home with Shankar whose singing he described as shakkar (sugar).
In this reversal of the guru sishya relationship the guru became a vegetarian, wore solah or madivastra and a sacred thread, chanted slokas, spoke Marathi. His final rites were performed by Shankar Pandit as per the Islamic code. Within months the disciple followed the guru to the other world.
With Nissar Husain Khan all music ended in the Pir Baksh family. The sons of Haddu Khan died young. The elder, lauded as Chote Mohammad Khan, fell a prey to an unsavoury lifestyle. So mellifluous was Rehmat Khan that he was hailed as Bhu Gandharv, a celestial on earth. His influence was to turn a stripling from Kirana into the charismatic star Abdul Karim Khan, and to launch a new gharana named after that remote village. A presentday claimant to the Pir Baksh line ekes out a living repairing gas stoves.
The Gwalior style eschews the ati vilambit (very slow) pace, emphasises fullthroated enunciation, has a range of taans, maintains the purity of raags, ensures that pauses do not distort the melody or meaning. It avoids rare raags. A speciality is the Bade khyal sung to Tilvada taal.
In the past, people came from many states to learn from the artists of Gwalior. Some adopted disguises, others made straightforward pleas to be accepted by the gurus. Not every one was lucky as we see from the story of Bawa Dikshit, who arrived from Maharashtra as a penniless boy, with dreams of learning from the celebrated Hassu-Haddu brothers. Chased out of their house unceremoniously, the boy went and lay down before the horse drawn buggy of the Scindia minister who disbursed payments in cash and kind to the court musicians. "Better that I die under hoof and wheel than to be spurned by the guru," he said. Taking pity on him, the minister recommended his case to Haddu Khan. A later warning was necessary before the Khansaheb would start to share his secrets with the boy.
At an invitation performance before the king the boy was unlucky enough to please him greatly. The enraged Khansaheb demanded his gurudakshina. "You must never again sing before the king". Bawa Dikshit set up his own house and lived a simple life. Soon he was puzzled to find a gold coin at his doorstep every day after his morning puja which ended with him singing his heart out for the Lord. One day he caught the culprit and pulled off the shawl covering his face. It was the maharaja. "You have made me break my vow," Dikshit cried. "Not at all," answered the king. "When did I promise not to hear you?"
Another account emphasises the complexities of the guru sishya relationship. Guru Shankar Pandit refused to believe sishya Mavalankar's protestations of his innocence over the charge of having spoken ill of his guru. Whereupon Mavalankar simply placed the tanpura at Pandit's feet and walked away saying "I won't sing again". Nor did he. He played the sitar.
Krishnarao Pandit who has left his imprint on the Gwalior gharana had redoubtable gurus in father Shankar Pandit and dadaguru Nissar Husain Khan. His extraordinary regimen included pre dawn (brahma muhurat) practice in the woods to perfect swara, laya and breath control. He was taught wrestling, gymnastics, yoga and swimming to develop stamina, and a range of three octaves. A handsome man dressed in old world elegance, with pearl ear ring and embroidered turban, he had a personality to reckon with. He resigned from the court more than once, as when he was asked to teach women singers, that despite his admiration of Mango bai and Sukhiya bai whom he rated higher than Rasoolanbai and Siddheshwari Devi.
Another breach was caused by differences with Professor V. N. Bhatkhande, who requested the Pandits to allow him to record their traditional repertoire in notation. "My father was prepared to teach him in the traditional method, but not to let his priceless legacy be distorted through notation," explains Lakshman Pandit.
The Shankar Gandharva Mahavidyalaya was established in 1914 by the Pandit family, with traditional teaching methods. But royal support went to the Madhav Music College set up by Bhatkhande in 1918. Acrimony was fuelled by the Pandits' prize disciples, like Rajabhaiyya Poochwale who was "enticed" to the enemy camp and made principal. Son Balasaheb Poochwale who also served as the principal of the same institution, now a ripe 80 and much in demand as a teacher in and out of Gwalior, recalls, "There was jealousy and one upmanship. Madhavrao Scindia brought in Bhatkhande only because he realised that he could not get what he wanted for his college from Krishnarao Pandit who did not teach anyone whole-heartedly. My father got even the Pandit disciples to take the exams in the Bhatkhande College because its degree was recognised everywhere." He is quick to explain that in his father's time the college followed the guru sishya parampara, the teachers were all students of Poochwale to ensure continuity, and the principal gave individual attention to each pupil. He would tell a parent not to feed his son if he did not practise!
Balasaheb adds with a chuckle, "Of course no one can become a musician with notation alone, but it is a valid aid. It makes accessible several things hoarded by traditional musicians as private property."
A visit to the two colleges ends in disappointment. Whatever their state in the past, they are now victims of bureaucratic lassitude. Madan Pandit is visibly bogged down by administration hassles. "We trained artists like Saratchandra Arolkar, but the future is bleak." The grants are minimal, budgets stringent, and even eager students find it difficult to practise along with their academic pursuits. Sitarist Shriram, son of the eminent vocalist Balabhau Umdekar, shrugs, "Nowadays students are not interested in becoming good performers, scholars or listeners of music. To them a college degree is a passport to a job."
Later, in Shriram's home, we plunge into the ethos of a lost world. Sepia manuscripts painfully written by hand, and crumbling books of lifetime labours open up facets of melody and rhythm. We see his father's "Raag Suman Mala" which traces the similarities between the Hindustani and Carnatic systems, and introduces ragas like Saraswati, Janaranjani and Kamalamanohari to north India. Jayajirao Scindia had gifted Rs. 1,000 for its publication at a time when the price of gold was Rs. 7 a tola!
Gwalior was the home of the sarod, introduced in India by the Bangash family which had come from Afghanistan to settle there. Four generations strove to increase its range, resonance and sophistication. Theirs is the Senia gharana, with gurus from the descendants of Tansen. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the best known Gwalior musician today, is a scion of this clan. His father Hafiz Ali Khan, esteemed court musician to the Scindias, had the flamboyance of a Renaissance prince. His sweetness of expression on the difficult instrument was unrivalled. The son has no nostalgia for the past. "Kings may have been connoisseurs but it is unhealthy for an artist to concentrate all his energies on pleasing one man who had the power of life and death over him." He remembers the intrigues which bred envy and competitiveness.
Is he referring to the attempts to discredit Ustad Allauddin Khan by the votaries of Hafiz Ali Khan, we ask. The former's versatility and virtuosity could not satisfy those who preferred the mellifluousness of the latter. "In the darbar, someone wanted Allauddin Khan to take over. And one evening my father was summoned to play alternately with Allauddin Khan. The maharaja went too far when he asked them to play together. My father lost his temper. "I respect him but he is a violinist and a disciple of my own family," he said. After that Allauddin Khan left Gwalior.
On another occasion, this self respect made Hafiz Ali Khan stop another artist's recital midway, and admonish the organisers for seating the musicians among the audience on the floor, while government officials were given chairs. The concert could resume only after chairs had been fetched for the artists. Similarly, commissioned to teach the princess, he could tell her after a few lessons, "You don't have time to practise, better that you discontinue music." The maharaja was upset, but appreciated the ustad's honesty.
Strength of character was a family trait. Once when a sarangi player arrived in Gwalior to throw a challenge at the court musicians, grandfather Nanne Khan decided to take him on. Extracting a promise from the boaster to do exactly what he did, he had the right hands of both tied from behind. While Nanne Khan could still play something with his left hand, the sarangia could do nothing. That was the end of his arrogance.
Young Amjad knew the court well. He often accompanied his father there wearing the special costume de riguer for the occasion. He recalls playing for guests like Marshal Tito and Rajendra Prasad. "There's nothing in Gwalior now, not even good listeners. A brash political culture has taken over." He has turned his ancestral home into a museum, the "Sarod Ghar," its well maintained neatness an incongruity amidst the shoddy surroundings. It houses the musical instruments on which seasoned artists, including members of his family, had practised and played. Photographs of Indian musicians hang on the walls.
The Pandits too had known royal favours and disfavours. But Lakshman Pandit recalls how Jiwajirao Scindia was quick to reinstate his father as court musician as soon as he came to power in 1936. He showed the utmost respect to the senior artist. "Why take the trouble to visit me? Send me word and it shall be done," he would say, to which Krishnarao Pandit's answer would be, "To see you is to feel satisfied." Much later, the Rajmata was to reveal to Lakshman Pandit that before every visit from his father, the maharaja would have the room aired, and incense burnt, to hide all traces of cigarettes. At the annual Gwalior fair, if the chainsmoking ruler came across the Pandit, he would stub his cigarette hurriedly on his silk coat.
Balasaheb's story illustrates the relationship of mutual esteem between the Scindia kings and artists. Once a singer tried to win the unresponsive king's interest by abandoning his raags midway and trying out new ones to charm him. At one point the raja stopped the recital and asked, "Is this the way your ancestors sang?" Whereupon the singer shot back, "Is this the way your ancestors listened?"
Gwalior today? The filth and stench at Haddu - Hassu Khan's tomb point to changed values. "In the past there were well attended recitals every day in somebody's house or the other. Now you get a crowd only for a star musician," laments Lakshman Pandit. "Few come to hear local artists," admits Madan Pandit. "Not a single good auditorium in the town," says Amjad Ali Khan. "The Tansen Festival is neither special nor inspiring, Nothing like the bhakti atmosphere at the Tyagaraja festival in Tiruvaiyaru." Gone are the days when a B. V. Keskar could insist that Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Girija Devi come and give their haziri (offering) at Tansen's tomb - no payment, only transport costs. The erstwhile royals have lost interest in their tradition. Madhavrao Scindia M.P, says he has no time to share memories of music in the Scindia court, anyway he never cared for music. To Vasundhara Raje, Union Minister, the music of Gwalior is a faint, pleasant scent of childhood, the stuff of faded dreams.
Any musicians of stature in the town? Balasaheb shakes his head dolefully, "Ab koyi nahin hai n(one left now)."
As I leave, an old-timer tells me, "A great artist died a month ago - Mubarak Ali Khan, the elder son of Hafiz Ali Khan, who remained unknown while brother Amjad became a world celebrity. Why? because that was his fate..."
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