Sunday, 11 May 2008

Radhika Mohan Maitra: His Life and Times - III

[Continued from Part II]

5. Radhubabu in his Prime

In 1939 Radhubabu was studying for a Master’s degree in Philosophy at Cacutta University and also enrolled in the University College of Law preparing for a Bachelor’s degree in Law. Hewas living in Calcutta in a modest lodging house for men. This was because Brajendra Mohan stubbornly refused to acquire property in Calcutta for fear that his children would lose touch with Rajshahi, leading to the neglect of the estate, particularly the temple of the family deity.

Radhubabu would return to Rajshahi whenever the University was in recess and for special occasions, most notably, the annual meeting of the Aashaaray Club, an informal gathering of friends of the Maitra family who celebrated the onset of the monsoons in the month of Aashaar (the middle of June) by holding a musical soiree , generally lasting all night, for which only the very distinguished of musicians would be invited to perform.

Around this time he went through an unusually fecund period of “music making”. Many of his best bandishes stem from the years ’39 to ’42. Some of them soon entered the corpus of what are called purani cheezen or “traditional items”. One of the reasons for this misconception (apart from the quality of the compositions) was that many of them were played in concerts by Vilayat Khan. (It is worth pointing out that usually Hindustani musicians play compositions from other gharanas (schools) only if they are seventy-five to a hundred years old. But Radhubabu and Vilayat Khan had come to an agreement that they would freely perform bandishes from one another’s repertoire.)

Because Radhubabu’s social credentials were impeccable, he began to attract a very large number of students from genteel Bengali families, some of them chronologically many years his senior. One such “older student”, the late Anil Roy Chaudhuri became a self appointed amanuensis and started making notations of Radhubabu’s compositions and later extended this to notating the traditional bandishes of Amir Khan and what Radhubabu would consider appropriate embellishments (taans) for these bandishes.

These notations preserved in huge ledger books was to become the very basis of Radhubabu’s method of teaching his disciples. Once the new student had learnt how to hold and tune the instrument and to play the basic scales, each lesson would begin with Radhubabu asking the student to copy from the appropriate ledger the bandish of a particular raga and some taans which he would specify by their number in the ledger. After the lesson had been copied Radhubabu would show the student how to execute the various musical phrases, if necessary, by playing them himself.

This might sound like an assembly line approach to teaching what is an “ancient musical tradition” but it was an extremely effective method. In mastering these rote exercises, his students would not only develop technical sills but also subliminally acquire “good musical taste” and an insight into the nature of the raga. This accounts for the fact that Radhubabu produced dozens of Sitar and Sarod students who, even if they were not brilliant concert performers, were capable of giving a satisfactory rendering of a basic corpus of thirty or forty ragas. Most importantly they were capable of imparting their own knowledge and skills onto a new generation of students.

6. A New Age Dawns

In the late thirties and early forties, Hindustani music was entering a “golden age”. In 1939 the organizers of the All Bengal Music Conference in Calcutta, faced a peculiar dilemma. A sarangi player, who regularly accompanied the great thumri singer, Begum Akhtar, requested an hour or so of time to present his own vocal recital!

He claimed to be descended from a legendary nineteenth century vocalist who had never given public concerts in Calcutta. After some hesitation, they gave him a slot during a usually sparsely attended afternoon session and were rewarded by a magnificent rendering of Shuddha Sarang; this was the first public concert given by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan!

In 1940 Ravi Shankar gave his first concert in Calcutta, soon to be followed by Ali Akbar Khan and Vilayat Khan. The emergence of these four “debutants” marked the beginning of a new era. Let us return to Radhubabu’s story.

7. Radhubabu in the Forties

After completing his education Radhubabu returned to Rajshahi and took up a position as Lecturer in the Philosophy Department of Rajshahi College. Lecturing however was not his cup of tea! Perhaps to alleviate the boredom of life in Rajshahi, Radhubabu decided to contest the municipal elections in Rajshahi as a candidate of the Congress party. He won the election easily, but more importantly, this foray into politics led to the acquisition of his most illustrious disciple.

In 1942 a new civil servant had come to Rajshahi to oversee the administration on behalf of the government. This new officer was an amateur musician and wished to get to know Radhubabu. However being a civil servant of the British administration he felt it would not be proper for him to visit the local zamindar: after all, part of his job was to oversee the activities of the feudal tax collector. Through an intermediary, he sent invitations to Radhubabu to visit his home and play but Radhubabu being a Congressman refused to visit a “British agent”.

However during the election campaign, the proprietor of a business enterprise, who could influence a large number of employees agreed to bring a substantial block of votes to Radhubabu if Radhubabu would help him get an extra quota of sugar. (This was during the War and sugar was rigidly rationed.) So Radhubabu agreed to visit the government official and play for him. Not only did the official grant the quota of sugar Radhubabu was looking for, but P. M. Dasgupta became a close friend and his son Buddhadev became a disciple in 1943.

Since it was difficult to get hold of a new Sarode in Rajshahi, Radhubabu loaned this new student the sarode which had belonged to Amir Khan.It was only 6 years later when Buddhadev started his training as an engineer, that he acquired his own instrument and returned the ancient heirloom to Radhubabu.

In july 1944, Radhubabu married Lalita Sinha a lady from the “royal family” of Sushang. The occasion was marked by great festivities in Rajshahi. A significant little incident bears mention. In Bengal weddings are always associated with the Shehnai: usually at the entrance of the house a small raised platform (the nahobat) is constructed where a team of shehnai players sit and for each stage of the proceedings render appropriate ragas.

Of course, such an arrangement had been made in the Rajshahi palace but to the consternation of the Maitra household, Ustad Bismillah Khan, who had been invited to participate at a soiree due to be held later, insisted on ascending the platform to do the “shehnai players’ job”! He even paid off the local musician who had been hired to play the shehnai saying that for the occasion of his friend’s wedding he would
not concede the right to perform nahobat to anyone else!

Sadly this was the last great festive occasion celebrated in Rajshahi: three years later with Independence (which in Bengal also brought in its wake the Partition) the entire fabric of Radhubabu’s life was torn apart.

[Continued in Part IV]

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