Friday, 9 May 2008

Radhika Mohan Maitra: His Life and Times - I

Radhika Mohan Maitra: His Life and Times

- Kalyan Mukherjea

1. Introduction

Radhika Mohan Maitra (1917–1981), popularly known as Radhubabu, was one of the finest sarod players of his generation. Perhaps more interestingly, he lived through a period of unprecedented change both in Indian society and Hindustani music. Hindustani music, the way it is perceived by society and the way it is propagated changed enormously during Radhubabu’s lifetime. Not only was his career affected by these changes, his career had an enormous effect upon how the general public and the community of musicians perceived one another.

This biographical essay attempts to convey an impression of the spirit of the times in which Radhubabu developed as a musician; many small anecdotes, not important for an account of Radhubabu’s life, have been recounted since they throw light upon an era of which hardly any trace remains.

This essay is based upon my recollection of conversations with Radhubabu and some of his closest friends. I have checked the biographical details with Radhubabu’s daughter, Ms. Sudeshna Bagchi but, of course, any errors are solely my responsibility.

2. The Early Years

The appellation “Radhubabu” comes from ”Radhu” , a dimunitive form for “Radhika” and the honorific suffix ”babu”, which is something like the Japanese “san” or Hindustani “ji”. Since the use of “babu” while referring to a young boy or teenager is somewhat inappropriate, I have in describing Radhubabu’s early years, preferred to use his name.

Radhika Mohan was the eldest son of Rai Bahadur Brajendra Mohan Maitra whose father Lalit Mohan was the zamindar (feudal adminstrator) of a large estate whose main centre was the town of Rajshahi. (Rajshahi is now located in Bangladesh, just across the Indian border is Maldah in West Bengal.)

The zamindars lived on the income accruing from the taxes they collected from their estates, this right had been granted them in the late 18th century by the East India Company, the first British colonial adminstrators of India.

The zamindars were often addressed as “raja” or “maharaja” depending on the size and prosperity of their estate. They lived with as many of the trappings of royalty as they fancied and could afford. Thus zamindars who enjoyed music often employed masters of Hindustani classical music as “court musicians”.Indeed they were largely responsible, through their patronage, for the preservation of Hindustani classical music after royal patronage at the Mughal court declined during and after Aurangzeb’s reign.

One of the court musicians in Rajshahi during the 1920’s and 30’s was the Sarod player Ustad Mohammed Amir Khan of Shahjahanpur who was Radhika Mohan’s first teacher. Another musician who had a profound influence on Radhika Mohan during his early years was the great Sitar player Ustad Inayet Hussain Khan whose son the late Vilayat Khan was a dominant figure in the Hindustani Music scene in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Inayet Khan was the court musician at the estate of Gauripur the seat of the Roychoudhuris — a great patron of music and friend of the senior Maitra. In fact not only were the two patrons friends, but Amir Khan and Inayet Khan had a warm personal relationship. According to Radhubabu, Inayet Khan would, in private, refer to Amir Khan as ”chachamiyan” or uncle! Moreover, in an era when aristocratic ladies largely stayed in their own quarters, Radhika Mohan’s mother, Binapani, had become a disciple of Enayet Khan.

It was fairly common for one or more members of the patron’s family to become students of the musician-in-residence; generally these “noble disciples” did not exert themselves strenuously to master the music, although some exceptions did occur. For instance Birendra Kishore Roychoudhuri of Gauripur was a sursringar player who was greatly respected, even by professional musicians, for his musical accomplishment.

A younger cousin of the senior Maitra used to take lessons from Amir Khan, but hardly ever exerted hinself and was making little progress when the young Radhika Mohan got fascinated with the instrument and whenevr the opportunity arose, tried to imitate the lessons his elder cousin neglected to practice. One day Amir Khan saw the small boy trying to play the Sarod and approached Brajendra Mohan with the proposal that Radhika Mohan become his disciple.

The senior Maitra was not too keen about this but Amir Khan was greatly respected in the Maitra householdand his requests could not be summarily rejected. More importantly, Binapani was very keen that Radhika Mohan acquire some background in music. So Brajendra Mohan relented though he extracted a promise from the ustad that the youngster’s studies will not be compromised by his music lessons. Radhika Mohan started formal lessons from Amir Khan in 1928.

Since the teacher and student were more or less under the same roof, lessons were delivered orally by singing and later by exhortations to imitate as the ustad played. Radhubabu, in later years, followed the same method with his own disciples, except that the newer generation of learners had to copy down notations of the “lesson of the week”, so that a fading of memory would not hamper all progress for a whole week.

The relationship between Amir Khan and Radhika Mohan must have been somewhat unusual: Radhika Mohan addressed his teacher as “ustad” and Amir Khan when teaching him would address him as “beta” (son) but if Radhika Mohan addressed a request, Amir Khan would start his response with “huzoor” (sir) as befitted an employee speaking to his feudal lord!

Amir Khan’s hunch that Radhika Mohan possessed a certain natural musical talent was soon vindicated when Radhika Mohan began to make rapid progress. On one occasion when Inayet Khan had come to perform at a concert in Rajshahi, he heard Radhika Mohan and as a gesture of his appreciation of the young boy’s talent, sought Amir Khan’s permission to teach Radhika Mohan a few of his choice compositions. Many generations of Radhubabu’s students have learnt some of these “bandishes” (compositions) from the notations made by Radhika Mohan in his voluminous ledger books in which he kept record of his lessons. This warm relationship between Amir Khan and Inayet Khan was carried over into the next generation: Radhubabu and Vilayat Khan were close friends.

There were other musical stimuli which Radhika Mohan experienced. Because of Brajendra Mohan’s interest, many concerts were held in Rajshahi and musicians, both professional and scholarly amateurs, were frequent visitors. From one person from the latter category, Shree Bhagavan Sen , a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Radika Mohan received his first lessons in Dhrupad singing and playing the Pakhawaj.

It should be mentioned that although the court musicians were employees of the zamindars, Amir Khan was not always in Rajshahi nor Inayet Khan in Gauripur. They had the freedom to go and play concerts at other “courts” or in metropolitan cities and Amir Khan would go every year to Calcutta for several months on end. During these visits he gave concerts and taught a large number of students, at least one of them, Timir Baran later achieved popularity as a composer and concert musician.

During his visit to Calcutta in 1934, Amir Khan fell ill and passed away. Radhika Mohan who had just matriculated from High School, rushed over to Calcutta upon hearing that his ustad was ailing but by the time he arrived the ustad had already been buried. More heart-breakingly for Radhika Mohan the ustad’s instrument, which had belonged to the 19th century sarodiya Murad Ali Khan (Amir Khan’s grandfather) had disappeared! It would be many years before Radhubabu would recover this ancient and beautiful instrument. One of his most distinguished disciples, Buddhadev Dasgupta, played on this instrument for the first six years of his musical career.

[Continued in Part II]

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