Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Lit Fest on Music


The town of Patna was the venue of an unusual festival—a literature festival devoted to books on music and musicians, and books written by musicians. Carefully curated by Ajit Pradhan, and his organisation Navras School of Performing Arts, the festival was spread over two days and included six sessions on music, and three concerts. Inevitably, with artists talking about their art, the sessions also ended with impromptu demonstrations, which were a true delight.

The festival was dedicated to the late “Ganasaraswati” Kishori Amonkar, as it was she who awakened in the organiser Ajit Pradhan the desire to delve into the written word of musicians. It was fitting that her disciple, the venerable Padma Talwalkar was honoured on the inaugural day with a lifetime achievement award.

The first session was a discussion by authors Yatindra Mishra, Vikram Sampath and Namita Devidayal on the subjects of their books, entitled Music and the Maestros. Yatindra Mishra, the only non-musician author on the panel, has written books on Bismillah Khan, Lata Mangeshkar, and Girija Devi amongst others. Vikram Sampath has written on the veena maestro S. Balachander, and thumri queen Gauhar Jan. Namita Devidayal, a disciple in the Jaipur Attrauli tradition, has written on her gharana and its exponents, and more recently a book on Ustad Vilayat Khan. The informal interactive free-flowing discussion, moderated sensitively by Shinjini Kumar, touched on the problems faced by the authors—how not knowing the subject personally impacted their writing, how music being an aural experience could never adequately be examined in text, the importance of steering away from controversies and scandals that were not necessary to portray the subject. The evening ended with a vocal recital by Gwalior gharana sixth-generation exponent Meeta Pandit, whose book Pandits of Gwalior is a milestone work on the history of her illustrious family. Incidentally, it has also boldly explored the shortcomings in the outlining of the ‘thaat” system of north Indian ragas established by Bhatkhande.

The next morning started with a dhrupad concert by the 13th generation representatives,Prashant and Nishant Mallick from the princely state of Darbhanga, the biggest patron of music in the region. The pakhawaj accompaniment by Kaushik Mallick enhanced the brief concert immensely; interestingly the brothers chose to sing raga Parameswari created by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and thus was not part of their taleem, showing how their singing tradition remains innovative and creative even today.

Next was a session entitled ‘Nazakat, Riwayat, Ada’ dealing with the tawaif tradition. Sadly, author of Tawaifnama, Saba Dewan could not attend this session as planned; the panellists were vocalist Vidya Shah (author of Women on Record), music lover and Patna based journalist Arun Singh and Akhilesh Jha who has written a book on Mehdi Hasan. The session was moderated by Shankar Jha, an organiser of music festivals and a music connoisseur. The session touched upon the low status of tawaifs in society despite their vital role in keeping alive cultural traditions over generations. A touching story was recounted about Patna’s Zohra bai, who had lived in the court of Maharaj Rameswar Singh of Darbhanga as a young girl. After his death, his son Kameshwar Singh located her and invited her to perform at his coronation ceremony; and tried to pay her with gifts and cash. Deeply wounded, Zohra bai gently refused saying she was like a daughter of the house of Darbhanga and could not accept payment for its festivities. Such was the relationship between the tawaif and the patron. Vidya Shah broke into a lovely song, twice, to make her point musically.

The next session focused on the devadasi tradition of the south, wherein Swarnamalya Ganesh traced the history of the tradition to current times, following it with a demonstration of abhinaya. The other panellist author Pavan Varma was not able to make his point lucidly.

A discussion on gharanas followed—Jaipur Atrauli represented by Padma Talwalkar, and Gwalior by Meeta Pandit. Archivist Irfan Zuberi from the Dagar tradition and Ajit Pradhan were the other co-panellists. Padma Talwalkar who has learnt from three gharanas made the valid point that the disciplined confines of a gharana was necessary initially; then later on, as a musician one could rise above the confines. Her impromptu rendition of raga Tilak Kamod was interesting, as was Meeta Pandit’s demonstration of a “tap-tarana” (a tarana sung in the staccato tappa style; a speciality of the Gwalior tradition).

The next session focused on the problems of writing on musicians. The panellists were tabla exponent and author Aneesh Pradhan, Namita Devidayal and Akhilesh Jha. Sadly the session of Bombay Jayashri in conversation with disciple-author Vikram Sampath was cancelled; the last session of the festival was entitled “Riwayati Purab ang Gayaki” and featured Banaras based Saira Begum from the tawaif tradition, and author and thumri singer Vidya Rao, whose book about her guru  Heart to Heart – Remembering Naina ji, gives invaluable insight into the world of thumri of the 1950s to the 1970s. The session was conducted by Irfan Zuberi, who gently delved and brought out beautiful memories of both singers.

The conclusion of the festival was with a thundering concert, by tabla maestro Suresh Talwalkar and his team, in which uniquely he was accompanied by a vocalist rather than the other way around.

One hopes this innovative initiative of  Lit Fest is taken forward to other cities too, as a non-intimidating dialogue with musicians and about books on musicians paves the way for a general listening audience to engage more with the arts, and listen more to hardcore classical music. 
(writes on music, musicians and matters of music)

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