A self-deprecating laugh often punctuates her arguments and the voice is gentle at all times. But don’t mistake that for diffidence. In a career spanning nearly 70 years, Prabha Atre has defied every inviolable norm in Hindustani classical music – its insularity, teaching system, khayal practices, sanctity of raga time-cycles and gharana loyalties.
Last week, Atre turned 90, the oldest practitioner of the Kirana gharana started by the legendary Abdul Karim Khan at the turn of the 20th century and burnished by the likes of Bhimsen Joshi. It is a legacy that Atre upholds even as she defends her right to question and reshape it.
“In our classical arts, we are still sticking to the grammar prescribed by old texts like Sangeet Ratnakar and Natya Shastra,” she said. “This worked at the time when the shastras were written but we have to forge new paths for our age, change our thinking.”
Musicologists switch between synonyms of the word defiant to describe Atre’s life in music – rebel, revolutionary, reformer, re-interpreter. It is to her credit that the polemics have not affected her standing as one of the greatest thinker-musicians of our times. A lot of this has to do with her level-headed, analytical approach to a music system weighed down by its own ponderance.
It is not that the field is short of trailblazers who have raised many of the questions she has. But what marks Atre apart is that she had the skills to theorise and articulate her ideas, researching, writing and speaking prolifically in a field where introspective immersion in the art is all.
“In the last century, few musicians have paved a path that amalgamates tradition and new thought – she is one of them. She knows how to use theory as a tool,” said Chaitanya Kunte, musicologist and harmonium player, putting her in the same league as other changemakers of the last century, such as Kumar Gandharva and Kishori Amonkar.
Atre’s own music, spanning everything from khayal to Marathi ghazals, and mostly using her own prolific compositions, has been marked by expressiveness and a remarkable ability to connect. For music lovers at large, even those who don’t particularly care for classical, she is the honeyed voice that turned the 1971 album Night Melodies into a stunning pop hit.
The energy of that album was uncommonly infectious for classical music. Featuring an off-beat Maru Bihag, an earworm of a Kalavati and a thumri in Khamaj, it became what vocalist-scholar Milind Malshe describes as a “modern classic” – something that transcended gharanas, time and audiences, just as Kishori Amonkar’s Bhoop did. For an entire generation of listeners, Maru Bihag and Kalavati came to be synonymous with Atre.
The record catapulted Atre into stardom, showcasing her as a reflective and bright innovator who used tradition to fly into her own realms, acknowledging the influences of other gharana stalwarts such as Amir Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. And above all else, there was the voice.
“The utter sweetness of the voice – sweet, not as in cloying or girlish, sweet as in honey,” said writer-translator Shanta Gokhale. “The little surprising nuances she could bring in the rendering of her bandishes, smooth, fluent. One vilambit, I don’t even remember the raag – quiet, meditative, feeling around the syllables of every word, almost as though they were tactile. The image before my eyes was of a deep well, of dark but clear water. Because, besides being meditative, it was also deeply emotional. And cerebral too. It was an intriguing and totally compelling combination.”
As Gokhale points out, Atre’s music is tranquil at all times. And it stays that way even as it runs with fleet-footed taans. “She has always said let the music talk to you and the listeners first through the alaap, the chamatkari (dazzling) display can come later,” said her student Arati Kundalkar.
To understand Atre’s unique place in music, it is necessary to go back in time. She started her first lessons around the time women had begun making great strides in classical music. This included the colossus of her gharana, Hirabai Barodekar, said to be the first woman to demand ticketing of her stage performances.
Born into a family of teachers, Atre had been an unusual entrant into a field dominated at the time by traditional musicians. But what shaped Atre’s essential character as a thinker-musician was her empowering stint as the shishya of Abdul Karim Khan’s children – Sureshbabu Mane and after his premature death, his sister, Barodekar. By all accounts, they were progressive artistes who encouraged their young student to be curious.
“My gurus taught me never to accept anything blindly,” she said. “‘Mera gana nahin gana (don’t sing my song),’ guruji would say, ‘think through first, then accept’. So, logic and reasoning are very important to me and my background in law and science also informs this thinking. When I take a position, I don’t fear criticism because I can defend myself.”
Atre’s stint at All India Radio exposed her to the work of other artists and music forms, which in turn led her to academia. She headed the music department of SNDT University in Mumbai, where she shook up the curriculum and brought in eclectic influences including global music.
Atre came up with some radical and contentious thoughts on khayal singing. Primary among them, still debated and criticised, was advocating the extensive use of sargam (solfege) in khayal singing. In a music form that places high premium on the abstract, the sargam is seen as a somewhat inferior element. But for Atre, it made for the subject of a PhD dissertation.
“In Hindustani music, especially in Jaipur gharana, sargam is considered the skeleton of a khayal – it is the aakar [voice projected ‘aa’] that is considered the core because it has a resonant tonality,” said Malshe. “But she has been steadfast in arguing that sargam can be used aesthetically and with great effect.”
Atre brought a new dimension to the use of sargam by employing it as a prime tool of exploration, just as in the Carnatic system which has had a deep impact on her music. She has pointed to the fact that sargam instantly pulls in listeners. “I was exposed to sargam while I was working at AIR, where I got to hear all kinds of music,” said Atre. “I found it fascinating musical material to use for singing and researching.”
Over the years, she proposed other radical theories that irked the khayal fraternity, critics and music lovers. If khayal is moving towards greater abstractness in its evolution, abandoning many elements of the dhrupad form it was born of, she asked, why not further trim the use of literature and retain only the mukhda (refrain)? Why insist on a time scale for ragas in this age when you can hear music anywhere, anytime, and what about melodies that are sung at odd times of the day when no concerts are held? Why the obsession with theoretical notions of a raga’s vadi-samvadi and pakad (staple patterns) when the end goal is to attain its full form?
Vocalist Atindra Saravdikar, whose book Kirana Gharane Parampara Ani Pravah (Tradition and Change in Kirana Gharana), traces the evolution of her gharana, says Atre, who is also his guru, has been a rebel figure since her early career. “Now there is a lot of talk around issues she raised but at the time she spoke up through her books Swaramayee and Suswaravalee, tradition was unquestionable in Hindustani music,” he said.
The notion that classical music is forged in the fire of inward-looking sadhana or tapasya (lifelong penance) is so strong that the audience is mostly seen as passing witnesses to this journey. Atre is among the rare few who put the audience first, all her students tell you. How to pick the ragas for a concert, gauge audience mood and comprehension, how to switch tala systems to prevent tedium, how to sit, use the mic for fricative sounds – all these matter in her world, says her vocalist and student Padmini Rao. “She was very forward looking on audience inclusivity,” said Rao. “She doesn’t sit on the stage with eyes closed, but is keenly attuned to the audience’s pulse. For her, music is a living, breathing thing even as it says grounded in tradition.”
Atre says it is imperative to connect with listeners in a world of short attention spans to ensure the integrity and survival of good classical music. To this end, her Pune home has served as the venue for many talks and lecture demonstrations. “Leave aside good musicians, our institutions are not even creating good listeners,” she said. “So we will only end up with excitement-seekers at concerts, those who only want musical acrobatics they can applaud, and this is already happening.”
All images courtesy Prabha Atre.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.
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