lyrical notes

A polymath’s memoir evokes the time when Bombay was at heart of Hindustani music

An English translation of Govindrao Tembe's memoir in Marathi, Maza Sangeet Vyasang, is set to make the landmark work accessible to a wider audience.

At his last concert in Mumbai sometime in the early 1900s singer Maujuddin Khan presented a thumri, a north Indian light classical genre, in raag Bhairavi. The distinguished vocalist from Banaras sang this at the residence of a woman singer named Baputara, in Kalbadevi, a crowded locality near the city’s downtown area that now houses wholesale markets for cloth and steel utensils but was once a hub for Hindustani music.

Maujuddin Khan’s recital attracted a large audience that included other eminent musicians, such as vocalist Bhaskarbua Bakhale, sitarist Barkatullah Khan and been player Majid Khan. The performance began in the evening and ended at 5 am the next morning.

“Every note was soft and expressive,” writes Govindrao Tembe, in the English translation of his memoir in Marathi, Maza Sangeet Vyasang, which was released on February 3 in Mumbai. “His firat [a style of delivering fast-paced musical phrases] was a beauty, and bols [enunciation of the lyrics] full of emotion.”

This description of Maujuddin Khan’s singing appears in a chapter of the book titled “Long musical nights in Mumbai”. It is among the many vignettes from the world of Indian music in western India in the early 20th century that Tembe includes in his memoir. The English translation, My Pursuit of Music, rendered by the late CR Kuddyadi and published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, will make Tembe’s landmark work accessible to a wider audience.

A polymath who lived between 1881 and 1955, Tembe was an actor, music composer, playwright, writer and a harmonium player. He learnt music from Bakhale and hugely admired Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur Atrauli gharana, whose gayaki or style of singing he tried to adapt to the harmonium. Among other things, Tembe composed music for the Marathi musical play Maan Apmaaan, which opened in 1910, and the first Marathi movie with sound, Ayodhyecha Raja, released in 1932. He also acted in both.

He was a pioneer in many respects. At a time when many people were sceptical about the suitability of the harmonium, an import from the West, for Indian classical music, he established it as a solo instrument, and through his own refined playing brought greater respectability to it as an accompaniment. He left behind about fifty 78 rpm records of his harmonium-playing, estimated Suresh Chandvankar, secretary of the Indian Society of Record Collectors.

“At one of his recitals, he played raag Puriya Dhanashree and then the natya geet [theatrical song], Mama Sukachi Thev, set in raag Tilak Kamod,” recalled Tulsidas Borkar, the hugely respected octogenarian harmonium player based in Mumbai who spent three months with Tembe in Pune in 1953 when Borkar was 19 years old. “I felt I was listening to someone singing.”


Pioneer in music writing

Published in the mid-20th century, Maza Sangeet Vyasang was a trendsetter in its genre for its musical sophistication and grace of expression. The book was much more than a memoir: it was also a valuable historical document and a work containing insightful music criticism that was of considerable literary merit.

Its rich historical value can be gauged from just the one description of the soirée featuring Maujuddin Khan. We learn, for instance, that women musicians patronised other artistes; that Hindus and Muslims shared a warm and easy relationship in that milieu; and that Bombay was an important centre for Hindustani music.

While writing about Khan, Tembe also reveals his flair for music criticism. Talking about another of Khan’s mehfils, or chamber concerts, Tembe writes: “He started with a composition in Kamod. His taans [fast-paced improvisations] were impressive. His raag elaboration had limitations; it lacked the majesty of the khayal form [one of two main Hindustani classical genres].... Khan-saheb realised that he was not able to regale his audience in khayal, and so he switched over to thumri.”

By all accounts, Tembe’s language and style are of a high order. “Maza Sangeet Vyasang will remain an immortal achievement not only in the field of fine arts but also as a priceless piece of Marathi literature,” wrote the late Vamanrao Deshpande, a musicologist, critic and friend of Tembe, in a chapter devoted to the multi-dimensional man in his book Between Two Tanpuras. “The book...established a new tradition of appreciative writing on musical performances...Govindrao...adopted a style of writing about music which became a model for later writers on music.”

Besides the memoir, Tembe wrote many articles and two other books on music: Kalpana Sangeet, a scholarly work of musicology, and Gaayanmaharishi Alladiyakhan Yaanche Charitra, a biography of Alladiya Khan. “It is indeed rare to come across a person who combines in himself the qualities of a musicologist, first-rate music composer and a man of letters,” wrote Deshpande.

Harmonium blues

The harmonium, or pump organ, made an uneasy entry into Indian classical music. In the early 20th century, during Tembe’s time, when nationalist sentiment was on the rise, some people saw it as an imposter, like the British colonial rulers. But many knowledgeable people had sound technical and aesthetic reasons behind their scepticism about its value in Indian music.

The harmonium has discrete notes and cannot therefore reproduce the microtones in around the main notes, the various ornamentations around and movements between them, all of which are central to Indian music. For this reason, the All India Radio, under BV Keskar, banned the instrument (along with films songs and cricket commentary).

Yet the instrument became hugely popular as an accompanying instrument, and remains so to this day, for a variety of reasons. The first is that the number of competent players of the dominant accompaniment until the turn of the 20th century, the sarangi, was on the decline when the harmonium came on the scene. The sarangi is a fretless bowed instrument that can reflect the nuances, ornamentations and microtones of Indian music.

Sarangi players were often paid a pittance compared with the main artiste. This was demoralising because the instrument is difficult to master, requiring between 15 to 20 years of dedicated learning, according to Dhruba Ghosh, an eminent sarangi player who heads the Bhavan’s Sangeet and Nartan Shikhshapeeth in Mumbai. The harmonium, in contrast, requires roughly half the time to master, and is a much less complicated instrument, Ghosh said.

Partly for this reason, the harmonium became popular, especially with first-generation learners from the middle class, who were taking to Indian classical music as it moved from royal courts to urban concert halls at the turn of the 20th century and as the monopoly of hereditary musicians on the art form began loosening.

“The harmonium is a good way for ordinary people to access music,” said Ghosh. “In some ways, it was a sociological solution for people to access learning at the elementary level. It allowed common people to learn music even if they did not have access to a great master.”

In Between Two Tanpuras, while talking about how Tembe gave up playing the instrument in the latter part of his life, Deshpande alludes to the harmonium’s limitations. “Perhaps because the harmonium could not fully absorb Govindrao’s musical virtuosity, the overflow was diverted to theatre.”

Today, the harmonium is a fixture on the concert stage, with musicians and audiences perhaps having revised their expectations of it as an accompaniment, for by highlighting just the main notes, it allows the main artiste to fill in the ornamentations around them that are intrinsic to raag-based Indian music.

Nripati Kanya

Kanha Karat Mose Rar

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