March 18, 2017. Ustad Zunain Khan, the torchbearer of the Jafferkhani Baaj sitar playing style, was to perform a jugalbandi with me. It was an unusual combination – his magnificent sitar and the new kid on the block, the Pratham tarang.
Some of the classical music aficionados were amused at the sight of the two instruments lying side by side. The eager audience that had heard me tapping away old Hindi film songs with consummate ease for years waited for the anticlimax to unfold. The odd-looking instrument with screeching keys would be no match for the sitar. May the goddess Saraswati rescue Rajendra Naik.
The encore that I received for my rendition of short pieces of classical ragas, matching esoteric taan to taan with the imposing sitar, was incredible. Finally, the Pratham tarang had arrived on the classical music scene.
My journey with this instrument began in the 1950s in the form of the toy-like bulbul tarang. I was in secondary school at the time. This simple instrument had half a dozen strings fixed clumsily at both ends. The tightening mechanism too was primitive. One had to have a discerning ear to keep all the strings tuned, but the young boys and girls who eagerly adopted it to play Hindi film songs such as Man Dole and Mera Dil Ye Pukare Aajaa didn’t give a damn.
I soon discovered that the Almighty had gifted me the skills to play intricate passages from difficult film songs. Those who laboured to repeat what I could play finally gave up. Rajen must have been a great musician in his past life, they rationalised.
Soon I tossed the notation book out of the window and learnt fast on my own, tapping away at the clumsy keyboard for hours to master the patterns. Becoming a darling of friends and relatives was inevitable. Playing at local functions and school entertainment events became a regular feature.
Deep inside, however, I was searching for something that touched the heart.
Hostel life at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, where I later enrolled, was tough, but I still found time to coax better musical sounds out the folk instrument. A baithak arranged at the home of one of the teaching staff members marked a turning point in my understanding of Indian music. That evening, Arvind Parikh performed on his sitar for six hours at a stretch right into the wee hours. To say that I was hypnotised is an understatement. “This is it, Rajen,” I told myself. What I had been playing until then was just pedestrian.
In the third year of my engineering degree, I enrolled at the music class of the great vocalist Pandit Manohar Barve at Dadar in Mumbai. He had been called a child prodigy. Primarily a vocalist of the highest order, he could play almost any instrument with consummate ease.
Incredible as it may sound, he advised me to take up the violin. But he was my guru and he knew best, didn’t he? For over a month and a half, he taught me the basic structure of ragas. It was easy to relate the ragas to some of the film songs I played on the bulbul tarang.
Thus began my parallel journey of relating to both classical and film music. Indians are blessed to have access to a great treasure of film music. I am sure every one of us would have memorised at least a hundred songs.
The next summer vacation, I had to have my way. I insisted on learning the sitar from Pandit Barve. I learnt more about the structure of ragas. Playing strokes on the strings of the sitar came easily to me, unlike the movement of the bow of the violin.
After graduation, I enrolled in the University of Tulsa in the United States, and I carried my sitar along. Before my departure, I discovered that a new version of the bulbul tarang had appeared, called shahi baaja. It was bigger in size, with additional strings to strum the jhala that the sitar affords. My father shipped the shahi baaja to me later.
In the US, I practised both the sitar and shahi baaja, keeping abreast of the latest songs as well as some prized records of Pandit Ravi Shankar. My parallel journey continued. I managed to learn the Western music notation system, which helped me read a voluminous book on Indian classical music by great German musicians. It was ironical that I appreciated the treasure of Hindustani classical music by reading the notations of the ragas in a book written by a German.
At a music function at the Oklahoma State University, a newspaper reporter described my shahi baja as a musical instrument “native to India”. I was furious! The word “native” pinched me. It gives the impression of a highly primitive form of instrument played by aborigines.
On my return to India, I continued my quest to learn everything about Indian classical music. In Mumbai, I was finally face to face with Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, with whom I did riyaaz every morning at his home for three years, in the true guru-shishya parampara. I grasped the nuances of the sitar through the structured Jafferkhani Baaj that the ustad had devised. Secretly, I yearned to transpose these techniques to a new form of shahi baja.
Enter the Pratham tarang
I finally landed on my present form of instrument, the Pratham tarang in 2000. An enterprising instrument maker in Mumbai had made the precursor to the present instrument that I play. I altered the tuning method to match with the sitar. This required a complete, domino-type of change in the sequence of the keys. A new string was added to the strumming strings to match the sitar. The spring mechanism was strengthened to permit the heavy landing of fingers on the keys.
I owe the name “Pratham tarang’ to the dedicated volunteers of an organisation called Pratham that has, over the years, done stupendous work in making primary education accessible for underprivileged children. Together with Yogi Patel, my classmate at the University of Tulsa and later the chief fund raiser for Pratham USA, we managed to raise a sizable amount of contributions for Pratham through a six-city concert tour in the US and Canada in 2006.
The greatest challenge was to bring out the beauty of Jafferkhani Baaj from my Pratham tarang. I experimented with different angles of striking the plectrum, together with fingering techniques to play intricate Jafferkhani Baaj taans. The technique to play the slow alaap to develop the raga took some time to evolve.
The process is not over yet. Music per se, and Indian classical music in particular, is a never-ending journey. The more you dig, the more you realise the impossibility of reaching the bottom of knowledge.
There is a class of listeners who enjoys classical music but desires to understand it as well. The best way to realise this is through film music based on classical ragas. I believe I can reach out to them by patiently playing classical music through the film songs with which they are familiar.
Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan showed the way decades ago by playing classical pieces in memorable songs in Anarkali, Mughal-e-Azam, Goonj Uthi Shehnai and many more. I can follow his footsteps and adapt my playing technique on the Pratham tarang.