This week, Sonic Saturdays takes a break from the ongoing series on tabla gharanas, and moves to something more topical.
India celebrates November 14, the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthday, as Children’s Day. It is a tribute to the close association he enjoyed with children and to recognise his concern for their care, education, and future.
While Nehru’s birthday may have been eclipsed in recent times by activities like cleanliness campaigns, one hopes that Children’s Day will continue to be observed. It is essential to focus on issues related to the present and future of children and encourage children to embrace diverse cultural influences that negate every sort of regimentation. Given the lack of any creative policy that addresses these and related areas, it may not be possible to expect such an enlightened approach from the state.
But one does not need to wait for initiatives from government channels. The first steps need to be taken by parents and teachers, in order to introduce children to a holistic education that is not equated solely with acquiring skills necessary in the conventional job market.
Lessons from history can be drawn to inspire similar work in present times. The fact that children from hereditary courtesan and musician families studied music from an early age was not surprising, as it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would lead lives as professional musicians. In a sense, they did not have the luxury of making their own career choices, but in most cases, the family environment and the social milieu that they came from kindled a strong passion for music. This was expressly heard in their performances in later years.
Some of these children were prodigiously talented and made a mark early. But this was a situation quite unlike the one we see in most reality shows. While such shows focus on material benefits that winners of these shows receive, the child artists referred to here, received their share of accolades, but went on to further hone their talent by undergoing advanced training under the watchful eyes of their gurus.
This week we feature three child prodigies from the past, whose music was recorded in the 1930s and 1940s.
Sharafat Hussein Khan
Here, Sharafat Hussein Khan (1930-1985) of the Agra gharana sings raags Bihag and Multani at age 12. The composition in Bihag is set to a medium paced Teentaal, a cycle of 16 matras of time units. The song-text is a eulogy to Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. The composition in Multani is also set to Teentaal. In both cases, Sharafat Hussein Khan exhibits tremendous confidence and ease in exploring the melodic and rhythmic possibilities. His vocal range allows him to traverse the octaves easily even in taans or quick melodic passages. He employs gamaks or rapid oscillations around notes and other ornamentations in various types of taans. These are not clean or polished renditions, but they amply demonstrate the makings of a maestro even at such a young age.
Salamat Ali Khan
Salamat Ali Khan (1934-2001) of the Sham Chaurasi gharana made this recording of raag Basant at age 9. The composition is set to the 12-matra Ektaal. Khan displays ease in elaborating upon the theme. His proclivity for singing superfast taans and tihais, a rhythmic device used to approach the sum/sam or the first matra of the cycle, is seen even at this early age.
The concluding film recording features Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992) singing a Meera bhajan at age 13. The first frame mentions his age as 10, but in all probability he was 13 in the year 1937 that this film was shot. Even so, this short rendition is a perfect example of the prodigious talent that Kumar Gandharva was known for in his childhood. Not surprisingly, he was featured in several music concerts even at an early age. Here, it is evident that he gives more importance to the melodic elaboraton than to the song-text. His malleable voice and innate creativity allows him to do quick flourishes interspersed with more relaxed progression. His ease with the rhythmic movement is also palpable.