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Finding her own voice


Vidushi Shanno Khurana on taking the Rampur gharana forward and her fascination for out-of-vogue raags...

Shanno Khurana decided to do her bit for music, by organising an all-womAn tala vadya Kutcheri and an all-womAn festival of aprachalit raags


PRAYERFUL MUSIC: Shanno Khurana.

The child stands outside the room, entranced by the music her brother is learning from Raghunathrao Musalgaonkar, a disciple of Gwalior’s Rajabhaiya Poochwale. Her Punjabi family of engineers, doctors and architects will not allow a girl to learn an art they associate with quite another class of women. But the indulgent father relents when he sees little Shanno listening passionately to Narayanrao Patwardhan, Roshanara Begum and Hirabai Badodekar on the radio. Especially as he finds in Musalgaonkar a gentleman who never raises his eyes to look at his 12-year-old girl student!

Vidushi Shanno Khurana, in Chennai to perform at Prakriti Foundation’s Gharana Festival, laughs as she recalls those early years. Her recital revealed an impeccable grounding in old school classicism as she detailed a no-holds-barred Adaana. Her penchant for lakshana (theory) came into focus with a trivet (a form derived from the ancient prabandha with pakhawaj bols) and a demanding raga-tala-malika.

Family support

Shifting to Lahore at age 18 after marriage to a dentist in the Air Force, Khurana continued to sing on the radio, “though I didn’t know I was a novice. When people praised me, I was satisfied!” Partition brought the family to Delhi where the husband set up his private practice. The house was packed with refugees. Her two children and bedridden mother-in-law needed constant care. The supportive husband warned his wife, “If you don’t find time to practice, you will lose it all.” Khurana recalls gratefully, “The radio came to the rescue of women like me, and kept us in touch with performance.” Veteran tabla artist Pandit Chaturlal came home to accompany her in practice. But how to go beyond merely preserving what she knew?

A new patient coming for dental treatment to Dr Khurana — Thakur Jaidev Singh, musicologist and chief producer, AIR, Delhi, showed the way. “He gave me tips on what to sing as I went on a cultural tour to Turkey, Iran , Greece and even to the Gaza strip where I sang on a truck converted into a stage!”

Then he insisted that Shanno join the Khairagarh University, Madhya Pradesh, where the eminent S.P. Ratanjankar was Vice Chancellor. She travelled back and forth for three years, juggling home and college demands. “I wanted to be a good wife and mother first.”

Welcoming her like a daughter and even sending her home cooked food, Pandit Ratanjankar opened her mind to new horizons. After that, Thakur Jaidev Singh requested the Rampur-Sahaswan giant Mushtaq Husain Khan, teaching at the Bharatiya Kalakendra, to take his daughter in hand. Few equalled Khansaheb’s mastery over dhrupad, dhamaar, khayal, tappa, tarana and thumri, Khurana recalls. Imagine his feelings when asked to teach a woman, that too from a non-musical Punjabi family! All the ustad did for eight months was to ask for tea and snacks, leaving the disciple to cry in frustration. One day, something she sang in Nayaki Kanada moistened his eyes. “Beta ab jo heere jawaharaat chaho utha lo.” (Take whatever gems you want), he said and agreed to the gandabandh ceremony, convinced that she would take his Rampur gharana forward.

Teaching methods

The ustad had his own methods of teaching, starting with counting countless taans on a string of beads! Bandishes are vital to the Rampur gharana, and had to be sung also in akaar. Alaapchari and taans followed the contours of the bandish. All emphases on swaras ensured vazaan, weight and balance to the raag. Khurana mentions learning soz or Islamic laments sung during Muharram when all other music was forbidden, to keep the voice in trim.

One day, the ustad said, “You are singing exactly what I am teaching you. You are a woman. You can’t take all the taans I sing. Don’t copy. Find your own voice.” The disciple remembers gratefully, “That is how my ustad helped me mould myself. What a heartbreak when he passed away in 1964!” Khurana’s mentors stimulated an intellectual thirst in her. Her lecdems, research publications, documentation of Rajasthani folk music and the principal gharanas, have established her as a musicologist as well. She has a fascination for aprachalit (out-of-vogue) raags. “In the past, each State and region specialised in certain raags. But, today many artists stick to 3-4 morning, evening and night raags. As board member of Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), I suggested that scholarships be instituted for sishyas to seek the masters and learn these raags. It did not happen.”

So Khurana decided to do her bit, first by organising an all-woman tala vadya kutcheri (1983) and later, an all-woman festival of aprachalit raags (1996). Next, she encouraged SNA to conduct the successful Raagdarshan Fest of less known raags in Kolkata (2002). Shanno Khurana has a precious moment to share, which convinced her that good music can promote peace and unity. After all, didn’t her guru Mushtaq Husain Khan ask, “Swar mein kabhi Hindu ya Musalman hota hai kya? (Are there Hindus and Muslims among the musical notes?”)

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