Song of Surrender

Friday, 3 March 2017

Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan (18 Feb1927- 4 Jan 2017)

A tribute

By Meena Banerjee

Sitar maestro Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, who passed away at his Bandra (Mumbai) residence  in January this year, was in the league of such great names in the field as Ravi Shankar,  Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee,. He effortlessly straddled the worlds of Hindustani classical music and Hindi cinema, and established the ‘Jafferkhani baaj’ – a unique style of playing the instrument.  He was highly decorated, receiving such awards as Tantri Vilas (which he received at the hands of former prime minister Indira Gandhi), Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Tagore Ratna and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

How did Halim Jaffer Khan achieve such eminence when the legendary triumvirate of sitar were at their peak? This question haunted me, and I put it to him when, during his last Kolkata visit in 2004, I met him at the residence of his prime disciple Harashankar Bhattacharya, whom he fondly addressed as his ‘Bada Beta’ (elder son). He took the question very sportingly and answered, ‘Riyaaz ki roshni ne raah kar di (Devoted practice illuminated my path) and my disciples are now following it. In 1976, I founded the Halim Academy of Sitar in Mumbai. Zunain, my son-disciple and a few dedicated disciples like Prasad Joglekar and Gargi Shinde have come forward to take care of the Academy; and Harashankar founded ‘Madhyami’ here in Kolkata to promote and propagate the Jafferkhani Baaj. His young boy Deepshankar is showing great promise of keeping the flag flying high.’

I asked him why he calls called his style ‘Jaffarkhani’ and not ‘Indore Baaj’ as a member of the Indore Beenkar gharana that follows the tradition of Ustad Bande Ali Khan. He patiently explained that since his playing method had experienced a paradigm shift from the tradition he belonged to, and since his singer father had sowed the seeds to invent new traditions within the tradition, he dedicated this baaj to his father Jaffer Khan.

Born to this renowned vocalist and erudite musician in Jawra, Madhya Pradesh, Khansaheb’s early life was steeped in music, related scriptures and literature. Extremely well versed in Indian philosophy he quoted Sanskrit slokas effortlessly and on this occasion too he floored me with some such quotes.  

According to Khansaheb, he started his musical career with the All India Radio while in his teens in the early 1940s. He was among the earliest trendsetters of Indian classical musicians collaborating with western musicians. Khansaheb  partnered jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck in 1958, even before the Beatles met Ravi Shankar. He also teamed up with English classical guitarist Julian Bream in 1963. He became the first Hindustani classical musician to collaborate with a Carnatic musician when he did so with veena vidwan Emani Sankara Sastry.

He was also among the earliest sitarists to perform in Hindi cinema. As far back as 1946, composer Khurshid Anwar first invited him and he later worked with eminent composers like Vasant Desai, Madan Mohan, Naushad and many others. He played the sitar for KL Saigal's film Parwana (1947) followed by epic films like Sampoorna Ramayan, and Mughal-E-Azam, classical dance and music based blockbusters like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje and Goonj Uthi Shehnai, apart from other hits like Yadein, Shabab, Kohinoor and numerous others. Raga Hamir-based song ‘Madhuban me Radhika naache re’, soulfully sung by Mohd Rafi with Khansaheb’s scintillating sitar as its backbone was a big hit in the 1960s.

It was this wide spectrum of his music-world that chiselled Khansaheb's musical persona. He remained an extremely broad-minded traditionalist who embraced all aesthetically appealing aspects of music belonging to different genres – be it folk or light classical or pristinely pure classical. He adopted numerous Carnatic ragas like Keeravani, Latangi and  Kanakangi and modified them to suit his baaj and Hindustani classical music. Khansaheb also invented ragas including Madhyami.

Shraddhanjali

Madhyami is also the name of the organization founded by Harashankar Bhattacharya under whose aegis an emotion-charged ‘Shraddhanjali’ was offered to his Guruji Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan on 28 January at Bhasha Parishad Sabhagar. Choking with tears Bhattacharya recounted', "Guruji selected Madhyami as the identity of this organization because its idea was conceived in my residence in Madhyamgram,  a suburb of Kolkata". Harashankar and Deepshankar played a father-son duet in raga Marwa, the first raga taught to the senior by their beacon. 

Earlier, while discussing the characteristics of this demanding style he had clarified, ‘Guruji’s style was noticed and recognised as ‘exclusive’ way back in 1940s! Jafferkhani baaj is almost completely based on tantrakari which incorporates almost every imaginable aspect of instrumentalism. It has some unique components of vocalism as well.

‘Usually sitar players start their recital by strumming the strings for resonance, but we start our alap with “lahak” or a kind of echo. When the index finger of the left hand presses the ‘baaj’ string to contact the fret of a note, plucking the same string with the mizrab brings out the natural echoing tone of that particular note. Guruji invented this style of using echo and meend-echo (same method that glides over several notes). This is difficult. It needs very gentle and delicate touch with tremendous control on each stroke, but leaves a different and perceptible impact.

‘We call our alap ‘jod alap’. It has a tempo faster than usual.  The jod too begins on a faster than usual tempo and uses a unique ‘chapka anga’ which covers six-to-twelve notes in one stroke of mizrab. Fine ornaments like zamzama (two notes in descending order within one jerky stroke), khatka (ditto in ascending order), murki (three notes in one stroke), uchaat (combination of khatka-murki), uchaat-ladi (stringed uchaats) and ghaseet (sliding movement) make it heavily ornate. Moreover, the playing of two strings simultaneously, like guitar, further gives a unique chord-like tonality. According to Guruji jhala becomes unnecessary after all this.

‘Our gatkaris (whole gamut of playing the gat-composition) incorporate complex rhythm-play in which each beat gets divided in several parts. For example, usually a Masirkhani gat begins from the 13th beat of teental (16 beats). But Guruji’s composition often take-off from 12 and ½ beat or from 14th beat. One must understand the starting from even numbered beat is much more difficult from the odd-numbered ones. The gatkaris also encourages the traditional ‘ladant-ka-baaj’ when both sitarist and tabla player improvise simultaneously before arriving at the sam (first beat of the tala cycle). The soft tonality turns to power-packed melody at this stage, which climaxes in the thhonk-jhala with greater number of chikari strokes than in a normal jhala.’

Deepshankar, perhaps the youngest exponent of Jafferkhani Baaj, said, ‘Since both Dadu and Baba always encouraged me not to copy them but to think and analyse before following them, and since I am deeply influenced by my vocalist mother, a disciple of Pandit A Kanan, I try to inject vocalism in my playing. Dadu, as a token of approval, soaked in blessings, gave me his jacket which he wore on the day of his debut recital.

‘What can be a more precious award than this!’, said Deepshankar, who, along with his father received the prestigious ‘Jadu Bhatta Award’ in December 2016. The award acknowledges a successful guru-sishya duo that strives to carry the tradition forward. ‘Guruji asked me to show the trophy and I had my seat reserved in January. How would I know that this would be utilised to attend his last rites?’ said a shaken Harashankar Bhattacharya.

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