In the fifteenth episode of our series on public spaces named after Hindustani musicians and institutions connected with Hindustani music, we visit NCPA Marg in Nariman Point in South Mumbai.
The road is named after the National Centre for the Performing Arts, or NCPA, a premier arts institution in the city established in 1969. Situated on this road, the massive complex is home to several performance venues of varying sizes, a gallery and centre for photography, and an audio-visual archive.
As a centre for diverse performing arts, it has hosted music, dance and theatre performances across genres. Not surprisingly, therefore, it has hosted numerous Hindustani music performances. In addition, its venues have been hired by other presenters for similar performances.
I have several memories of the National Centre for the Performing Arts and I hope readers will indulge me for the few autobiographical accounts that I am including in today’s column.
My earliest memory of visiting the Centre was before the existence of the huge performance venues seen today in the complex. This was on February 24, 1976, when I attended a condolence meeting for Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, the renowned tabla maestro known for his artistry and long experience over four generations.
During the five years prior to his death on January 13, 1976, Thirakwa was one of the Honorary Professors at the National Centre for the Performing Arts conducting master classes in tabla. Even though I was only ten at the time, the occasion is firmly etched in my memory, and I can still remember the ambience. I was probably the only child amongst the adults seated in the foyer of the Little Theatre, the smallest performance venue at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.
I remember being there with my mother and witnessing not just the speakers who addressed the gathering but also being captivated by the general atmosphere in that thickly carpeted space with wooden panelling. I was there because my guru and the notable tabla player and educationist Nikhil Ghosh was one of the key figures present at the occasion.
Little did I know then that I would visit the National Centre for the Performing Arts innumerable times after the passage of a few years, both as a listener and a performer. I became a member of the library, which allowed me access to the reference books and the vinyl discs that were housed in the neighbouring room. As a college student, I would walk from the Elphinstone College to the National Centre for the Performing Arts for afternoons to be spent over books and music.
In fact, the collection of vinyl discs was varied, and it was here that I could not only listen to the music of Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaz Khan, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, and more Hindustani greats, but also to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, or to symphonies. Not just that, but I was happily surprised that I could also listen to throat singing from Tuva and other music available on discs that would otherwise have not been part of my world of music at the time.
As described on its website, the Centre began as the brainchild of Jamshed Jehangir Bhabha and “the project came to fruition with the full support of JRD Tata and Professor Rustum Choksi, who convinced the Dorabji Tata Trust to make an endowment of Rs 40 lakh towards building the National Centre for the Performing Arts”.
But for me, as I am sure for many other students of music, performers and scholars, the immediate connection with the National Centre for the Performing Arts and the impact felt as a result of some of the programmes conducted there was because of the creative and intellectual vision of ethnomusicologist and scholar-musician Ashok Da Ranade, who served as Deputy Director (Research, Theatre Development and Publications) from 1984 to 1993 at the institutions.
Some of these programmes were jointly presented by Ranade and prominent literary figure PL Deshpande, who was director of the National Centre for the Performing Arts at the time. It is in this context that I would like to mention the next major experience I had at the National Centre for the Performing Arts was back in 1988.
I was a participant with several others at a training programme in cultural musicology with special reference to documentation of performing arts. It was designed by Ranade with ethnomusicologists Regula Qureshi and Helen Myers as the main experts. Sixty lectures on nine subjects, 60 workshops on 13 subjects and 40 exposure sessions on four subjects were held in the span of a month.
Many scholars and performers from music and dance attended the day-long sessions to hear experts in the fields of ethnomusicology, Hindustani and Carnatic music, folk music from different geographical areas, musicology, religious iconography and more. Field trips had also been organised as part of the schedule.
If I remember correctly, the programme had been funded by the Ford Foundation. This was done at a time well before “immersive” became a trendy word to describe such experiences and there was no doubt that it was successful due to Ranade’s meticulous approach and his non-hierarchical vision of various categories of music.
Indeed, this and several other programmes initiated by Ranade were illustrative of the difference that an institution could make if its activities were envisioned by a luminary in the field like him. Sadly, institutions today often remain physical spaces, rather than tangible representations of larger visions and philosophies.
In the years to follow, the National Centre for the Performing Arts co-hosted with the Mumbai-based Music Forum and Sangeet Research Academy many seminars on Hindustani and Carnatic music. Sitar exponent and businessman Arvind Parikh, in consultation with Ranade, was the prime mover in all the seminars.
While the National Centre for the Performing Arts has undergone many changes since its inception, its year-long schedule includes a number of Hindustani concerts that are often arranged as part of larger thematic programmes. Additionally, it awards scholarships to young Hindustani performers.
We end this episode with two recordings of the many programmes that have been hosted by the National Centre for the Performing Arts.
The first features eminent vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar, who presented compositions of SN Ratanjankar and Anant Manohar Joshi as part of the annual Bandish festival. He is accompanied by noted tabla player Suresh Talwalkar and by well-known harmonium player Sudhir Nayak.
The last video clip is a feature on a special programme that the National Centre for the Performing Arts had organised to mark the birth centenary of the celebrated vocalist Begum Akhtar.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.