Saturday, 10 May 2008

Radhika Mohan Maitra: His Life and Times - II

[Continued from Part I]

3. Radhubabu and Calcutta in the 1930’s

When Amir Khan passed away, Radhika Mohan faced the difficult decision: how was he to further his musical education? The two great contemporary masters of the sarod lived far away in Central India and although both of them had met Radhika Mohan during their visits to Rajshahi, neither had heard Radhika Mohan play the Sarod. As far as they were concerned Radhika Mohan was just the eldest scion of the zamindar of Rajshahi. When Radhika Mohan visited them individually, expressing a desire to become a disciple, they treated him very graciously; they addressed him as “Radhubabu” in deference to his feudal status, but neither seemed to be interested in teaching him.

One of them suggested that Radhubabu learn from a Calcutta based student of his since this would obviate the necessity of long journeys. The other maestro told him that he first needed to have an accurate idea of the annual income of the Rajshahi estate so that an appropriate scale of nazarana (remuneration) could be determined. The young Radhubabu was no fool and simply made polite noises and left.

After coming back to Calcutta, for he had now joined Presidency College, he sought the advice of many well wishers and finally decided to become a disciple of Mohammed Dabir Khan, a Veena player of the Seniya gharana (school) who was a direct descendant of Tansen, the court musician in Akbar’s durbar. Radhubabu studied alap, dhrupad, dhamar and later the technique of Sursringar from Dabir Khan for more than 12 years.

Radhubabu’s music now began to develop in unexpected ways, quite independently of his formal talim (training) under Dabir Khan, simply because he was now living in a major metropolitan city. It might be useful at this point to pause and give a brief thumbnail sketch of the ambience of Hindustani music in Calcutta at this time.

4. Calcutta’s Culture in the 1930’s

Calcutta was culturally and intellectually a vibrant city: Rabindranath and Raman the first two Indian Nobel laureates had been based in Calcutta and the intelligentsia had become aware of the enormous possibilities which would open up upon doing work that met the highest international standards.

However Hindustani music was not regarded as “high art” perhaps because of its association with the decadent lifestyle of the last Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, who lived in the outskirts of the city in the last years of his life. Cultivation of classical music was confined to the mansions of the landed gentry (zamindars like the Tagores) and the newly rich business houses (like the Mullicks of “Marble Palace” fame).

What music flourished outside these aristocratic premises was scattered in enclaves of Muslim neighbourhoods like Metiaburuz, where the musicians who were part of Wajid Ali Shah’s entourage had taken up lodgings after the Nawab’s death. Amir Khan would stay in such a neighbourhood during his visits to Calcutta. Most importantly, the middle classes did not in any significant fashion involve themselves with Hindustani music.

The case of D T Joshi, a young boy from an upper middle class Brahmo family , who was to become a close friend of Radhubabu, illustrates the situation very poignantly. Joshi got interested in music because he used to go past a sitar-maker’s shop on his way to and from school. He started learning Sitar from the only teacher who was available — the owner of the shop. One day he was introduced by his sitar-maker cum teacher to a bearded gentleman who the sitar maker said was the best sitar player alive. The young boy Joshi innocently asked this gentleman if he could play jhala, a technique the shopkeeper refused to teach him! The gentleman smiled and invited Joshi to come to a concert he was giving that evening. Joshiji would later say that his whole life changed when he heard Inayet Khan that evening! Joshiji was to become one of Inayet Khan’s most favoured and distinguished students.

I have recounted this incident to bring home the point that classical music was an esoteric and “forbidden art” . In Calcutta at that time a College student from an upper middle class family could order books from Heffers’ of Cambridge or Blackwell’s of Oxford, but could find a good Sitar teacher only through the unlikeliest of coincidences!

Radhubabu’s first concert in Calcutta also is illustrative of the ambience in which Hindustani music was practiced in those days. Radhubabu had been invited by a member of the famous Ganguly family to play in an evening concert where two other Ganguly family members, Shyam (on the Sarod) and Hirendranath (on the tabla) would be performing.

When the concert ended and Radhubabu was about to leave the venue, he was greeted loudly by a ruffianly looking fellow who congratulated him for playing a concert worthy of a disciple of Ustad Amir Khan. The man explained that Amir Khan when he came to Calcutta lived in his neighbourhood and that he regarded Amir Khan “like my own ustad”. So he had brought along his “comrades” to make sure that Radhubabu was not heckled by the followers of a rival Sarod maestro from whom Shyam Ganguly was then learning!

It is my conviction that this encounter made a very deep and negative impression upon the young Radhubabu. He never quite overcame his distaste for the concert scene in Calcutta and much preferred the more scholarly and genteel Marathi Brahmin audiences he encountered in Maharashtra.

Radhubabu’s musical horizons were widening all the time. He recorded a few short pieces for the Megaphone Company of India in 1936. these 78 RPM recordings show that already he was trying to break new ground as far as the idiom of the Sarod was concerned. Features, like tans modeled upon khayal, which he would not have learnt from Dabir Khan,were showing brief glimpses. Clearly the more eclectic variety of music he was now hearing was influencing him!

Soon he started broadcasting over the newly established Calcutta station of the All India Radio and people in other places started taking notice.Apparently the great Allauddin Khan once called his son and daughter over to the radio and chided them with words to the effect “See how a zamindar’s son plays “di ri di ri” (a typical set of sarod strokes) — surely you ought to be much better than him!” The two maestros who had turned him away started to send out feelers to Radhubabu that all he needed to do now is come and get a “final coat of polish” and both of them were more than eager to have him in their stable of disciples.

In 1937 Radhubabu decided to enter a music competition sponsored by the All India Music Conference of Allahabad. Not only was he judged the best sarod player but the best competitor in all sections and invited to give a recital during the Conference. In fact he got further exposure when Allauddin Khan who was scheduled to play with his son, Ali Akbar Khan asked Radhubabu to accompany him since Ali Akbar was indisposed.

In those days the musicians who participated in this Conference were housed in large and elaborately furnished tents by the riverside: one tent to each artist and throughout the day musicians would visit one another chatting, gossiping and interacting cordially. So Radhubabu became known to almost all the contemporary music stalwarts not just as the son of a zamindar but as a talented young Sarod player who could hold his own amongst professional musicians. Radhubabu had arrived!

[Continued in Part III]

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