Babanrao Haldankar: The Agra gharana loses one of its most forceful voices

The Hindustani musician, who passed away on November 18 at the age of 89, did much to propagate this demanding but grand tradition of khayal singing.

When Babanrao Haldankar first went to learn with Khadim Hussain Khan in 1959 at the age of 32, the Agra gharana singer’s wife turned to her husband and said with a mock curtness that was only half in jest, “You had better teach Babanrao as if he were your own son. Otherwise there could be trouble between us.” By all accounts, Khan appears to have complied. Haldankar had then already learnt from the Jaipur gharana’s Mogubai Kurdikar for five years. He went on to learn for two decades from Khan, developing an original style that had some Jaipur inflections but was deeply rooted in the Agra gharana.

His award-winning book Aesthetics of Agra and Jaipur Traditions was a comparative study that arguably ended up being a subtle manifesto for the Agra gharana. With his demise, following a heart attack, in Pune on November 18 this tradition has lost one of its most authoritative voices.

“Khansaheb gave him all he could, and Babanrao had the capacity to absorb all of it,” said Raja Miya, the fine singer who is Khan’s nephew and student. “They were an excellent match.”

By the mid-20th century, the Agra gharana’s centre of gravity, like that of the Jaipur gharana’s, had moved to Mumbai from North India. Khan, Kurdikar and Haldankar all lived within walking distance of one another in India’s financial capital. Here, hereditary musicians such as Khan rapidly adapted to the changing circumstances and began teaching people outside their families and became legendary gurus.

In Mumbai, where he lived for most of his life, Haldankar studied engineering and held a day job till he was around 50. He then spent about a decade in Goa as the director of music at the state-run Kala Academy. He returned in 1995 to Mumbai, where he remained till he moved to Pune about six years ago.

He grew up in an artistically rich atmosphere. His father, Sawlaram Haldankar, was an accomplished painter known for his water-colour portraits. His most-recognisable painting, The Woman with the Lamp, for which his daughter was the model, hangs in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore.

Haldankar senior was also a lover of classical music. His studio, attached to his home in the Opera House area of South Mumbai, became a salon that attracted painters, musicians and other intellectuals.

Chamber musician

Haldankar did not penetrate the mainstream even though, until the end, he had a firm and tuneful voice – the first point of entry for uninitiated listeners. He largely performed in intimate settings because, to fully appreciate his singing, listeners needed more than a passing knowledge of music.

The Agra style of khayal is a demanding form, both for the listener and learner. It lays considerable emphasis on rhythmic play, or laykari. Like in other khayal styles, the composition is the central vehicle for elaborating a raag. But the Agra gharana uses the technique of bol-banav, rhythmic improvisation using the composition’s lyrics, the most extensively.

Uniquely, it has incorporated the nom-tom aalaap-jod-jhala from dhrupad singing, the other and older Hindustani genre. This is an elaborate introductory segment that precedes the composition and is rhythmic but is sung without percussive accompaniment.

Under Khadim Hussain Khan’s tutelage, Haldankar learnt the challenging art of rhythmic improvisation in dhamar taal, a rhythmic cycle of fourteen beats with a complicated internal structure. It comes from the dhrupad tradition.

Previous generations of Agra gharana singers could play with the dhamar form as easily as the ubiquitous teen taal, set to 16 beats, but that is not the case today, said Raja Miya. “I myself cannot claim to have command over the dhamar,” he said.

Haldankar was probably one of the few khayal singers left who did. As recently as on October 9, he presented a dhamar, in raag Maru Bihag, as part of his performance concluding a Guru Purnima function in his honour in Mumbai. Here is a clip from this event, albeit showing him singing another raag.

Haldankar sings Darbari Kanada at a Guru Purnima function in his honour on Ocrober 9, 2016.

Teacher, scholar, composer

Haldankar was a treasure house of rare and complex raags, for which both the Jaipur and Agra gharanas are known. On October 20, he enthralled a hall full of listeners at the Aundh Sanget Mahotsav, a 76-year-old prestigious music festival in Aundh village in southwestern Maharashtra, with his renditions of Shyam Kalyan and Ram Gauri.

Haldankar sings Shyam Kalyan at the Aundh Sangeet Mahotsav in October 2016. Here, his dazzling bol-banaav and laykari are on display.

Imbibing not only his guru’s music but also his passion for teaching, Haldankar trained dozens of students, many of whom are senior musicians today. He guided and encouraged music students who approached him. Full of energy and good humour, he lulled his admirers into believing that he would always be there, an eternal wellspring.

“We’d sit awestruck, with our mouths wide open, amazed by his musical thoughts, his stamina and urge to refine himself even at that age,” said Bhavik Mankad, a young student of Arun Kashalkar, probably Haldankar’s senior-most disciple. Mankad is also a resourceful archivist who has been unearthing forgotten recordings, including those of Haldankar’s, and uploading them online.

Haldankar promoted upcoming musicians through two organisations he helped found, Sajan Milap and Ragashri Sangeet Pratishthan. He composed about 200 bandishes, several of which he compiled in a book accompanied by a CD.

Besides the Agra-Jaipur comparative study, he wrote two more books, one on the development of gharanas and the other a detailed study of raags and their structures as interpreted by the Agra gharana. This also came with a helpful CD and will now surely become an even more valuable resource for music students.

Haldankar’s contribution to Indian classical music cannot be measured in the facile and misleading terms of the number of stages he graced or CD sales he notched up but by the musical values and wealth of ideas that he passed on in a myriad ways and has left behind for future generations to mine.

Haldankar’s magnificent rendition of raag Bahaduri Todi
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