The Musical Legacy of Brahmanbaria – II
Posted by bangalnama on January 23, 2009
(Continued from Part 1)
Of the musicians that hailed from the illustrious Bajaina Bari (House of Music) of Shibpur, Brahmanbaria, and the Seni-Maihar school, Alauddin Khan was undoubtedly the most influential. He lived for 110 years, played over 30 instruments from the string, wind, bow and percussion groups, was a master vocalist in dhrupad, dhamar and other traditional styles, composed several ragas, invented and modernized musical instruments, trained some of the most revered musicians of our times, and conceived the first ever musical orchestra in the history of Indian classical music. A larger-than-life portrait of Baba Alauddin Khan emerges from interviews and recounts given by the maestro himself and several of his students including Pandits Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee, Ustads Ashish Khan and Mobarak Hossain Khan, and filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak.
The early years
Towards the end of the 19th century, a child named Alam was born in the Khan household of Shibpur in rural Chittagong, bordering Tripura. “Ustad Alauddin Khan was my uncle”, writes Mobarak Hossain Khan. “We called him Laal Jetha. His complexion was ruddy, like raw turmeric, and hence the name, meaning ‘red uncle’.” He was an unusual child, a born vagabond, and became a musical prodigy very soon. He was sent to a Maktab to study when he was a child. But school was unattractive to the boy. He bunked classes regularly and instead, spent time in the local Kali temple, or on the ghats of the Titas, where sadhus and bauls would assemble to sing.
Before long, the mother came to know of the boy’s daily expeditions. When forced to return to school, he left home promptly and fled to Calcutta, where he would spend days on the streets, surviving on “langarkhana” lunches and sleep nights on the porch of a ‘dispensary’ (clinic) near the banks of the Hooghly river; all the while urging and looking around desperately for a guru. Soon he become a flute player in the Star Theatre, and trained under a host of musicians in the city.
“Those days, prostitutes used to sing and dance on the stage. His pay was fixed at five rupees a month. He began his musical career as a flute player in Calcutta and went to Udaipur later. He dreamt of learning the Sarod from the great Sarod maestro Wazir Khan (of the Tanseni gharana), who was then at Udaipur. In spite of his best efforts, Wazir Khan did not care to meet him. Wazir Khan used to commute from his home to the Princely court on a horse-drawn carriage. One day Alauddin threw himself on that path to obstruct his way. This was about a hundred years back, things were different then. The knowledge of music used to be a well-guarded secret which none used to share with others”
So recounts noted filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, in an interview published in “Jalim Singher Journal”, Sept. ‘76-April ‘77. Ghatak reminisces in length in this interview, about his Guru of Sarod, revealing anecdotes from Baba’s childhood and later life. “That person, my Guru, was crazy. On behalf of the Sangeet Natak Academy I went (to Maihar) to make a documentary film on him. I came to know a lot of things about him then. Alauddin Saheb told these things to me. He used to love me!”
And he goes on with the Wazir Khan episode –
“I do not know to what extent you have seen those (earlier) days. I have seen but just a little. On stubborn insistence of the young man to be a pupil, Wazir Khan said: ‘Well, then be my servant.’ Alauddin Khan did his household chores, endured much hardship, and listened with a sharp ear to the maestro playing the Sarod. He was not allowed to touch the instrument. After two long years, Wazir Khan relented, accepting to admit him as a pupil. Then began the period of training. He learnt for full fourteen years. In those days, unless the Guru gave permission, no one could perform before an audience. I mean, you are simply not allowed! For example, I am not allowed. He (Alauddin) died without giving me permission, so I do not perform. I play for my wife and children only. I have stopped playing the Sarod.”
“Wazir Khan gave him the permission after fourteen years and with the permission, he went back to Brahmanbaria for a brief time. By then he was employed by the Maharaja of Maihar as the court musician of Maihar.”
Baba Alauddin was the central figure in his gurukul (school) in Maihar. Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, in his essay “My Maestro as I saw Him”, talks about the gurukul practice and how Alauddin’s liberal worldview helped spread the parampara (musical legacy) beyond genetic lineage, as was a prevalent practice in gurukuls for ages:
“Gurukul presupposes that the students be in constant company and guidance of their master whom they serve in every way. It is only when the master is satisfied with the earnest and sincerity of the student, that he imparts his power and the wealth of all the realizations of his own Sadhana (practice). Between the teacher and the taught the principle of give and take is solely this – the student can only offer his devotion and service, and the teacher can let him have knowledge and truth.”
“Sad to say, for many many years this principle used to operate in a limited sense and the great Ustads kept up a very secretive approach. They would not let the student see the truth unless there was a blood relation between them. Baba Alauddin Khan Sahib was great in going against this current, and courageously proving that our music is not a hidden magic but essentially a matter of practice aiming at self-realization. He was not a musician by family tradition. His life is quite a classic story of endless tests and trials through which he found his way towards knowledge and enlightenment. It is probably this background which bred such a strong antipathy towards anything mean and narrow in the sphere of teaching. He was a teacher incarnate. Any student, if really deserving, had from him the shower of his blessings and by the sheer touch of his genius, felt quite transformed.”
Alauddin was also guru to his grandchild Aashis Khan (son of Ustad Ali Akabar Khan), and excerpts from an interview by Ustad Ashish Khan reveals one of the most intimate stories of tutelage, passing of a musical lineage from a grandfather to a grandson:
The beginning: “I was very young when I was given a baby sarod. Probably 5 or 6 years old. This baby sarod was given to me by my grandfather, and he started teaching me. He would draw lines on the sarod plate so that I could put my finger in the right spot. At first it wasn’t that many hours but gradually it stretched to 12 hours a day – 4 in the morning, 4 in the afternoon, and 4 hours in the evening. Plus, he would teach me whenever he would feel like – sometimes in the morning, sometimes in afternoon, even during the night. I used to practice in his bedroom, or in the big sitting-cum-living room, so that he could hear me and correct me. That way I was always under his guidance, I was protected.”
The early taalim: “To begin with it was only simple exercises. No raag, or raaginis, no compositions. Just exercises, to develop the right and the left hands. First it was alaankars and bols, and then there was a stage when he started to show me meend (bending) because meend can only be practiced when the ear is fully developed. But before that, you have to be able to play correct notes, and all shuddha swaras (natural notes), no komal swaras (sharp tones), nothing. This went for a few years. Then he started giving me gats (compositions). It used to be Raag Bilawal during the day. In the evening it was Yeman Kalyan. This went on for another few years. He never changed the raagas, never gave new materials. Unless I perfect the exercises to his satisfaction, he would never give me a new lesson. If I couldn’t play the old lesson, how could I pick up a new one?”
Coming of age and the first concert: “Once I perfected the early lessons, after some time, as I became more matured, he started pouring things. My God, I was so overwhelmed, it was too much for me to digest. Because I was so young. I was eleven, twelve. Sometime I used to hate it, because it was so rich, so complex, and so difficult to be able to differentiate between raagas, for example the three raagas – Puriya, Sohini, and Marwa! Same with the trio of Hamir, Kamod, and Chayanat! They were so very related, with subtle borderline differences. Raagas from these families were very difficult for me to absorb, to memorize, and to be able to digest. So that is how my taalim went, on and on for years.”
“Then at twelve or thirteen, I played with him in New Delhi on All India Radio. A national radio program, in a live broadcast. Tabla was played by late Pandit Kanthe Maharaj, the Guru and Father of Kishan Maharaj. That was a great experience for me.”
In the preface* to Alauddin’s autobiographical book “Amar Katha” (My Life), Pandit Ravi Shankar writes fondly about his guru.
From his account we learn that Baba was a simple, honest and upright man. At the Gurukul, he used to enjoy narrating anecdotes from his life and those of his forefathers, in small informal gatherings, consisting of students and guests. He was a portrait of contrasts – the strictest disciplinarian for students, yet a man with the most compassionate soul. Baba was a fatherly figure at Maihar, an endeard speaker in familiar circles for his spontaneous sense of humour (he often jokingly called himself a descendent of the dacoit Bhabani Pathak from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ”Devi chaudhurani”, referring to ‘Siraju Dakaat’ – the convert son of his forefather Dinanath Debasharma*), a short-tempered guru (often striking students with musical instruments when they made mistakes in their taalim) – all in one.
He was a bookworm – a regular subscriber to the contemporary “Bharatbarsha”, “Prabashi”, “Basumati”, “Sangeet Prabeshika”, as well as Hindi magazines like “Maya”, “Manohar Kahaniyan” etc. He used to read practically any book he could lay his hands upon. Baba had a strict policy of not receiving any gifts from his students. However, Ravi Shankar and other disciples soon figured out that books, magazines and journals were exempt from his list of forbidden gifts! Baba had indeed a broad spectrum of reading: “Shei Quran, Gita, Ramayan, Mahabharat, Bankimchandra, Robi Thakur theke shuru kore Dasyu Mohan series, ittyadi detective lekha ebong bat-talar boi kichhui tini bad diten na.” (He didn’t leave out anything – starting from the Quran, Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata, classics like Bankimchandra, Tagore, all the way to the detective tales from “Dasyu Mohan” series, even Bat-tola booklets. He read everything!) Reading and gardening were his most loved pastimes, when he was not engrossed in riyaz or teaching.
Pandit Nikhil Banerjee also paints a candid picture of Baba’s life in Maihar, in his memoir-essay:
“While staying at Maihar Baba gave as a life-style very much like that of an Ashram or hermitage. As a person he was simple, unassuming and completely devoid of egoism. He lived a life with the minimum of necessities and always helped himself to the best of his physical abilities. He had a strong aversion towards any kind of luxury. Maihar is a place of extreme climate and it becomes unbearably hot during the summer because of the limestone factories that surround it. Once, his son Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib bought an air-cooler and took it to Maihar with the expectation that it might give him some relief. After a few days it was rejected with scorn. As long as his health permitted him to move, he would wash his own clothes every day and would go to the market to buy his daily necessities and not let the students go there and waste their valuable moments of practice.”
“He practised austerity in his own life and had therefore the right to impose it on us. He was a disciplinarian and would never allow the slightest deviation from his ideals of simple living, strict observance of Brahmacharya during our stay at Maihar, a total withdrawal of the mind from all kinds of superficialities, directing all the energy to practice of music and concentration. In going to enforce all this he had to keep up a certain hardness which was, in reality, a show. Stories of Baba’s severe scoldings, beating with the bow of violin and throwing of tabla hammer are so common that people are sometimes terribly mistaken to assume that he was a kind of an old village schoolmaster lacking in any sophistication, with only the ability to be rather ridiculously stern. But this image of himself he deliberately projected in order not to allow any liberty to the disciple. He always had the tension that soft treatment on his part would only spoil them. One day I heard him speaking out rather candidly, “Don’t you see that I am a grandsire? Don’t I feel like taking them (meaning his grandsons) in my arms-patting and loving them. But I am afraid it may spoil them.” Here was the inner voice which could be heard seldom or never. Beneath the veil of toughness was the soft and tender soul bubbling with humanity.”
“We used to watch with wonder how in different corners of his premises he arranged to set up wooden pieces of shelter-racks to let the birds build up their nests. At the time of his meals these birds would gather around him and he enjoyed their company. Whenever any Sadhu or saint was around, Baba would give him God-like treatment, offering food and clothing. He used to clean with his own hand the left-overs of their food and never let us touch them.”
“I cannot resist the temptation to narrate a couple of episodes which reveal Baba’s humanity.”
“Once in the market at Maihar he watched a person sitting out rather dejected in a corner with a number of dholaks (folk drums) to sell but not heeded by anyone. He was touched so much so that he took up one dholak and started playing. The result was obviously a crowd around him. Many of them were throwing coins and a few dholaks were sold out within a short time. Baba saw that some money were collected. He gave it all to the dholak-seller and went home happy.”
“About religion Baba was very broad-minded. When he used to have his daily prayer or Namaz, he would ask me to go into my room and have my Gayatri Yapa. Some of the habits and practices he suggested got so firmly riveted into my mind as mantras or sermons. He would say, “Whenever you are giving a performance, meditate on your Guru first and then you will see that he takes you over and carries you through. Whenever you play a Raga, begin with worshiping and welcoming it. Imagine it to be deity. Bow down and pray that it should have mercy on you and it should become alive through your medium. Never approach a raga with a feeling of pride or vanity in your heart. Music grows out of the purest feelings of your soul and hence the mind of the musician, if only purified, can produce the vibration.” Baba’s behavior on the stage sometimes became rather erratic. But this was only the result of a certain tension and apprehension that he might fail to establish the raga. I saw him many times uttering Namaz and even crying out “Ma, Ma” to Goddess Saraswati. This appeared strange to people. But I had the most glorious experience to hear the same person playing surasringar to himself in Maihar with all the serenity and calm of mind. I still remember that after a couple of minutes it seemed too much for me. The emotional appeal was so tremendous that my entire being was gone to pieces, senses suspended and it was a trance all over. Anyone who heard him there could realize how great a Naad (sound) Yogi he was.”
Legend has it that after an epidemic (’red-fever’ according to popular consensus, Mobarak Hossain Khan calls it plague) Baba Alauddin Khan was affected by the tragedy and with an aim to provide solace to orphaned children inducted them (with aid and enthusiasm from the ruling prince Braj Nath Singh) into an orchestral group that came to be known as the Maihar Band (1918). “Band” was a popular word in those days, because of the British. It was a symphony of different instruments, a concept that never really existed in Indian music before the British arrived. The Maihar Band was conceived as a troupe of young musicians playing indigenous instruments like the sitar, esraj, sarangi, dotara, ektara, shehnai, flute, tabla and bayan.
“They were motivated by the idea of having an indigenous philharmonic apart from the formal Military band that was under the charge of Alauddin Khan. Soon with Baba’s passionate teaching and dedication of the young boys and girls, there existed an orchestra that used the full range of Indian instruments with a few western ones. Baba could impart sufficient knowledge of music to these untrained children so that they handled western instruments like piano, violin and cello with equal ease. The band positioned itself in the gallery above the main Darbar hall and would play western and Indian compositions to the dignitaries assembled below. Alauddin led as the band-master. He would often exclaim that there is no equal on this earth to this classical band. In his early years of musical training in Calcutta, he had trained with the famous Indian conductor Habu Dutt as also with Robert Lobo (conductor of the Eden Garden Orchestra). His appreciation of western music was testified by the sketch of Beethoven that always hanged in his room in Maihar. During his stay in Rampur as an artiste in the court band he adopted several Dhruva-padas to orchestral compositions.”
“The young members of the band, awed by their own ability to produce the magical sound of the orchestra, mastered the skill of memorizing the compositions. According to Shri Lakhanlal Pandey, a Sitarist in second generation Maihar band, there were about 250 compositions of which some 150 bandishes are known to present members of the orchestra. Apart from some western tunes, compositions in Khamaj, Tilak Kamod (aao gori gale lag jao), Yaman abounded along with rare ones like Hemant, Bihag etc. He invented ragas like Madan Manjri, Subhavati, Dhavalasri, Hemant-Bhairav, Bhuvaneshwari, Hemant, Manj-Khamaj and Hem Bihag etc. However in orchestration he kept the compositions simple so that the children could pick them up. He was quick to appreciate the wandering minstrels and adopted folk tunes like Rajasthani Ghoomar, Mand, Baul of Bengal and folk songs from Malwa for the orchestra.”
Alauddin was an innovator. The resources in a small princely state like Maihar were limited. The palace had a grand piano; violins could be obtained with some effort but other western instruments were simply out of reach. Till the time a cello could be ordered and supplied, Baba got a sarangi made which measured twice the size of usual one. It had strings which could be tuned and using a large bow would give out a deep tone almost that of cello. He named it “Saranga”. After using Sarod in the troupe, Baba found that this melodious instrument could not be heard among others. He then set out to create a replacement which would serve his purpose. He fixed the plate and frets of Sitar to the leather base and bridge of Sarod and played it with a plectrum (Jawa). Baba also invented Chandra Sarang but could not include it in the band. It was a complex instrument with leather mounted base of Sarod, fret-less but with resonance strings, played using a bow. Another novel invention was the Naltarang, designed from barrels of different bore guns.
The members of the first Maihar band were: Anar Khan (Sitar), Vishwanath (Violin), Shiv Sahaya (Bansuri, Clarinet), Ramswaroop (Sitar, Banjo), Baijnath (Bansuri), Tansu Maharaj (Harmonium), Brinda Mali (Israj), Moolchand (Israj), Assistant Band-master Jamna Prasad/Gulgul Maharaj (Harmonium), Jhurrelal (Nal Tarang), Pt. Girdhar Lal (Nal Tarang, Piano), Lachchi Surdas (Tabla, Dholak), Sukhdev (Saranga, Cello) Pt. Urmila Prasad (Cello), Mahipat Singh (Sitar), Chunbaddi (Israj), and Dashrath Mali (Sitar, Banjo).
As the story of his life unfolds from historical accounts, anecdotes and personal memoirs, Ustad Alauddin Khan was perhaps the single brightest luminary in the world of Bharatiya Shashtriya Sangeet. Owing to his multifaceted contributions as musician, composer, teacher, and conductor, he was hailed as an ‘acharya’ and had been referred as a ‘‘monarch in the realm of music’.
Ustad Mobarak Hossain writes, “The contemporary swarupa (identity) of classical music was created and enriched by his contribution. He also introduced Indian classical music to the western world and opened up to the west a new horizon – In 1935, he went on a global tour with the dance troupe of the great Indian dancer, Udayshankar. During this tour, Baba enchanted his audiences with the magic of his music. To the music lovers of India and other countries of South Asia, Alauddin Khan is revered as a saint and considered an institution. He is accoladed as the founder of the distinctive Sangeet Gharana, named Seni-Maihar Sangeet Gharana.”
The Ustad had a penchant for creating ragas. He composed new ragas like – Hemanta, Prabhatkeli, Hem-Behag, Chandika, Rajesri, Madan Manjari, Durgeswari, Muhammad, Kaushi, Shubhabati, Umabati, Nagarjan, Bhagabati, Hemanta-Bhairab, Swarasati, Dhabalsri, Madavgiri, Megh-Bahar, Bhuvanswari, Haimanti, Manj-Khambaj, Kedar Manj, Gandhi-Bilawal and Rabindra, among others. He wrote several songs and gats and whenever he conceived any raga, he immediately scripted it down. His skill in writing lyrics was magnificent and he often used the childhood pen name ‘Alam’ for his lyrics. Baba wrote a number of books on music, too. His performances in the courts of maharajas and nawabs, as well as public performances in urban concert halls were flamboyant and grandiose, and the Ustad was honored with awards and titles, including “Padmabhusan” and “Padmabibhusan” by the government of India, “Desikuttam” by Biswabharati University in Santiniketan and the title of “Khan Sahib” by the British government.
An important contribution of Alauddin to the contemporary musical scene was his role in the development of indigenous musical instruments through necessity and experimentation. While working with the Maihar Band, he invented the Chandrasarang and the naltarang. Besides, his contribution in the modernisation of the sarod has been significant.
Alauddin was also a noted vocalist. His skill in Dhrupad and Dhamar was unmatched. He was equally skilled in Khayal and Thumri. Though sarod was his main instrument, his command over bina (veena), behala (violin), sursringar, rabab, chandrasarang, bnashi (flute), clarinet and shehnai was unparalleled. He could also play well on percussion instruments like pakhwaz, madang, dhol, tabla-bayan, naqara, tikara, etc.
The first gramophone record of Alauddin Khan came out in 1935. These were recitals on the sarod and violin and the discs were brought out by the Megaphone Gramophone Company. Later, long-play records of these recitals were also produced.
Alauddin breathed his last in the year 1972, the end of a legendary era in Maihar. Nikhil Banerjee reminisces, “There was a very old temple on top of a hill at Maihar known as the temple of Saradamai. Pilgrims came there from far and near and surprisingly enough they would come to see Baba straight from the temple. To the poor common people of Madhya Pradesh who knew nothing about music, Baba Alauddin Khan Sahib was sort of a Sadhu-a noble soul. People of Maihar loved and honored him like anything excepting the Muslim community, who did not quite approve of his liberal views on religion. After his death they at first refused to carry him for burial. There was a storm of controversy. But at the end we saw that the burial procession was being attended by the Hindus and Muslims alike and even the chief priest of the temple of Saradamai joined. It was a marvelous spectacle! Baba can be compared to Sant Kabir whom both the Hindus and Muslims claimed to have belonged to their community. I would rather say that like Sant Kabir he was far above these social distinctions. He was a great Naad Yogi.”
Alauddin Khan had a number of gurus at various points of his musical career, covering a wide spectrum: Fakir Aftabuddin Khan, Nulo Gopal, Amrita Lal Dutta, Lobo Saheb, Amar Das, Hazan Ustad, Ahmed Ali Khan and finally “Beenkar” Wazir Khan. His disciples were equally diverse in their musical forte. The list included his brother Ustad Ayet All Khan, son Ali Akbar Khan, daughter Roshan Ara (Annapurana Devi), son-in-law Ravi Shankar, nephews Khadem Hossain Khan, Mir Kashem Khan, Bahadur Hossain Khan, Yar Rasul (Phuljhari) Khan, grandsons Ashish, Dhyanesh and Khurshid Khan, and other disciples like Nikhil Banerjee, Timirbaran Bhattacharya, Vasant Rai, Rabin Ghosh, Pannalal Ghosh, Vishnu Govind Jog, Jotin Bhattacharya, Indranil Bhattacharya et al. Some of his lesser-known disciples trained from the Maihar band – Sanat Banerji (Sarod), Ranjit Banerji (Chandra Sarang), Shiv Balak Tiwari (sitar), Som Kartik Sharma, Shyam Bihari (sarod) graduated from orchestra to solo-artistes and moved into various allied fields, like teaching, broadcasting etc.
The Ustad’s daughter Annapurna Devi, often considered as the purest inheritor of the musical ideology of Alauddin Khan ( she was once described by Ustad Amir Khan as being “80 per cent of Ustad Alauddin Khan”) also carried forward the unadulterated Seni-Maihar parampara. Though herself a recluse (as far as public recitals were concerned), she was a renowned guru, and groomed an impressive array of shishyas. The line-up includes Ashish and Dhyanesh Khan, Shashwati Ghosh, Amit Hiren Roy, Sudhir Phadke, Daniel Bradley, Peter Van Gelder, Sandhya Apte, Headset Desai, Rooshikumar Pandya and Prabha Agarwal, all sitarists; Bahadur Khan, Jyotin Bhattacharya, Uma Guha, Basant Kabra, Pradeep Barot, Stuti Dey, and Suresh Vyas, among sarodists; and Nityanand Haldipur and Milind Sheorey, among flutists.
From Amir Khusru to Tansen and from Tansen to Alauddin, were watershed legacies shaping the very history of music in our country. Alauddin Khan, born into an unassuming family in a small village of Shibpur in Chittagong, became the biggest living legend and one of the brightest pole-stars of north Indian shastriya sangeet.
Aashish Khan interview – Hyphen Magazine (http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/)
Ritwik Ghatak interview – Face to Face: Conversations with the Master 1962-1977, Cine Central
Nikhil Banerjee – My Maestro as I saw him (http://www.raga.com/cds/211/211text.html)
Mobarak Hossain Khan – Ustad Alauddin Khan, Monarch in the realm of music, New Age daily, Bangladesh, Sept 2005.
Rajiv Trivedi- Forging Notes: Maihar Band (www.omenad.net)
“Amar Katha” (My Life) by Alauddin Khan, Ananda Publishers, India.
*Scans from the preface of “Amar Katha”: