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Notes from another time

Sakuntala Narasimhan's book on the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana captures the cultural history of a period


ALL IN GOOD TIME Sakuntala Narasimhan: `Striving for perfection is worth emphasising in an age when students are in a hurry'

Till recently our only link to Rampur-Sahaswan gharana was the outstanding musician Ustad Rashid Khan. One had heard about the legendary Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan and how he instilled terror in all those in his vicinity. Also about how the great Ustad Aamir Khan of Indore gharana took some elements from the highly emotive Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. The more contemporary connection to the 170-year-old tradition is Kavitha Krishnamurthy and Shankar Mahadevan's light-classical rendition of "Albela Saajan Aayo Re" for the film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, a bandish of the gharana. Apart from these snatches of information, not much was known.

Special honour

Earlier this year, three experts of this gharana (Ghulam Mustafa Khan, Shanno Khurana and Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan) were presented with National awards. Sakuntala Narasimhan's book The Splendour of Rampur-Sahaswan Gharana (Veenapani Centre for Arts, Rs. 220), coinciding nicely with this event, sheds some more light on the gharana.

Sakuntala Narasimhan, a prolific writer on music and feminist issues, has been training in Rampur-Sahaswan gharana since 1966. In this book, a logical outcome of her decades of learning, she takes the reader on a detailed and engaging trip of the evolution of this ornamentative style. She captures the cultural ingredient which seldom makes it to pages of history. Replete with lush minutiae of the life and music of the great Ustads who shaped the gharana, central to Hindustani music, the book is a pleasure to read. "After completing my doctoral dissertation in music, I was looking for some musical topic to get my teeth into. I wrote a proposal for a research on the Rampur gharana and got a fellowship. My guruji Hafeez Ahmed Khan, who passed away recently, was not only an excellent teacher, but also a great storyteller. He recounted lots of anecdotes related to music. I realised it was the most colourful style, rich with cultural history," explains Sakuntala on the beginnings of the book. In fact, Sakuntala, during the course of her study, discovered Rampur was the most "happening" city. Musicologists said: "What Paris was for painting, Rampur was for Hindustani music."

Putting the book together was like groping in the dark for Sakuntala. As she herself notes in the book, Indian musical heritage with a past of over 2,000 years has survived through an oral tradition. Till Pandit Bhatkande came by in the mid-20th Century and insisted on the importance of writing music, there was no document. Interestingly, it was a far-sighted ruler of the princely state of Rampur, Hamid Ali Khan, who commanded the ustads of his durbar to help Bhatkande document the oeuvre of different gharanas. Yet, questions like how a gharana developed, how they were taught and the support they received had no answers in the books.

Sakuntala embarked on a six-year journey, which meant extensive travelling. "I travelled to Mumbai, Delhi, Baroda (where Nissar Hussain Khan was court musician for several years) tracked old tapes in private collections, went to places like Nadiad and Ahmedabad to music lovers with fine collections of archival records." She made several trips to Rampur too. They were quite a discovery in that while some residents were proud of their heritage, the town as a whole didn't seem conscious of the fact that they were heir to one of the most valuable collection of documents pertaining to art and music in their Raza library. The museum has apparently been hailed as having the best collection in the world, but as Sakuntala rightly says: "I am not sure if this is known within India itself."

The book doesn't remain a dry inventory of historical events, but is a passionate record of a time, with a generous sprinkling of interesting anecdotes. It highlights the contribution of the royalty in preserving classical music. In fact, they went to absurd lengths to keep their musicians happy. She talks of how during Nawab Syed Yusuf Ali Khan's time, artistes from Delhi, Lucknow and Kashmir moved to Rampur. His successors Nawab Hamid Ali and Raza Ali Khan collected over 50,000 books and 15,000 handwritten manuscripts in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Turki, Pushtu, Gujarati, Telugu, Hindi and English. This is part of the State library's priceless collection. If Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur devoted most part of his life for the cause of dhrupad, Mohammed Adil Shah of Delhi had more than 100 musicians in his court.

These musicians, surprisingly, had connections down south too. "The Mysore maharaja was so fond of Nathan Khan that he invited him every year for the Dasara celebrations. Nathan Khan died in Mysore in 1901." After his demise, his son Abdulla Khan was given a salary by the maharaja of Mysore. The lady who has to her credit the first gramophone record, Gauhar Jan, was invited and honoured by the Mysore state. It's only in our times that we hear artistes living and dying in penury, but the kings took great care of their musicians and were extremely proud to have them adorn their durbars. Haddu Khan, in early 20th Century, received a salary of Rs. 2,000!

Many influences

An entire chapter in the book is dedicated to how the gharana came under various influences. In a discussion on the teaching traditions of this school, Sakuntala says: "This kind of timeless striving for perfection is worth mentioning in an age when students are in a hurry. It is possible and probable that an element of disregard for time factor was what produced great masters. Nissar Hussain Khan too has said commenting derisively on the lack of depth in modern teaching-learning regimens: `Maheeney mein aat baar? Yeh bhee seekhne ka thareeka hai?'" Beginning from a map of the region to the lineage to bloodlines to biographies of practitioners, the book is a meticulous effort. There are almost 40 bandishes with notations in the book. It is not a book just for music lovers but for even those who think music is not about a face and a voice, but also about a past that nurtured it.

At the end of a successful project, Sakuntala does have a regret. "My guruji Hafiz Ahmed Khan kept asking when the book would be out. But he passed away in July 2006, without seeing the book."

(The book will be released on September 17, at Ananya Sabhangana, Malleswaram, 6 p.m.)


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