Every year, January 26 not only brings to us yet another Republic Day but it is also around this time that we are informed about the new Padma awardees. The Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri are civilian awards instituted by the government of India in the 1950s to recognise the distinguished service of individuals in their respective fields. The awards are announced on the recommendation of the Padma Awards Committee, which is constituted by the prime minister every year. Headed by the cabinet secretary, it includes the home secretary, the secretary to the president, and four to six eminent persons. Their recommendations are submitted to the prime minister and the president for approval.
Understandably, in a country as diverse as ours, it would be difficult to satisfy every section, given the limited number of awards that may be instituted each year. However, it is equally true that the choice of awardees has been a source of resentment among those who may have lost out in the race or among their well-wishers. The cause of bitterness is not entirely unfounded, given the nepotism that has often influenced the selection process.
Last year, the government decided to put in place a process that would be transparent and eliminate favouritism. Whether this has impacted the process favourably is anyone’s guess. In any case, the announcement of an award does not, or rather, should not, affect the work of any individual. This should be particularly true of musicians, who otherwise claim to be in a perpetual spiritual existence. Sadly, this is not the case, as is evident from the rancour that is palpable among musicians, and that at times finds voice in the media. It almost seems as if musicians are waiting with bated breath to be conferred with these awards and to then use the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan or Padma Shri, as the case may be, as titles prefixing their names. Obviously, these awards cannot be used as titles, but neither the musicians nor concert organisers pay heed to this.
Too little too late?
Clearly, the awards seem to have lost their earlier prestige and significance among musicians. This year, there are fewer musicians chosen for the awards, but what has caught the attention of Hindustani music afficionados is the mention of Imrat Khan as a recipient of the Padma Shri, which happens to be ranked third in the order of Padma awards. Social media posts revealed that music lovers were at a loss about whether Imrat Khan was indeed the renowned surbahar and sitar player and younger brother of the maestro Vilayat Khan. Confirmation of this news led to further consternation, as the more informed among the listeners believed that the award had come to him too late and should have been upped to the Padma Bhushan or Padma Vibhushan, given his experience and age (Khan is 81). Some even said Imrat Khan should have declined the award, just like his brother refused state awards in the past.
But as I mentioned earlier, the announcement of an award has nothing to do with the actual practice of music, so perhaps, it would be opportune to listen to a couple of tracks featuring Imrat Khan, both as a surbahar and sitar player.
On the first track, Imrat Khan plays an extended aalaap or introductory melodic chapter on the surbahar in the seasonal raag Mia ki Malhar. Although known for its association with the monsoon and, therefore, not usually performed at this time of the year, the choice may appeal to listeners experiencing unseasonal rain in northern India.
In the second track, Imrat Khan plays a drut gat or fast instrumental composition on sitar in the raag Darbari Kanada. The composition is set to Ektaal, a cycle of 12 matras or time units. The tabla accompaniment is provided by the Kolkata-based Sabir Khan.