Mumbai and Indian music: classical and light
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
The late 1800s- 2019
By Amarendra Dhaneshwar, Sep 25, 2019: Mumbai Mirror
A Gwalior gharana exponent on how Mumbai became a hub for cultural performances and an epicentre of Hindustani classical music.
What would have happened if Noor Jahan had not migrated to Pakistan and continued to stay in Bombay?” This was a question that was put to veteran composer Naushad saheb, during the early 1980s, when the songstress had paid a goodwill visit to this metropolis and received a tumultuous welcome.
“The loss was hers,” Naushad saheb shot back. “Had she stayed, she would have sung the tunes, which were composed by a variety of musicians who hailed from all parts of the subcontinent — I’m from Uttar Pradesh; C Ramchandra and Vasant Desai from Maharashtra; Burmandada and Salil Chowdhury from Bengal; and Nayyar from Punjab. But in Pakistan, she was compelled to sing mostly Punjabi tunes, which became monotonous and repetitive after a while.” Nothing could be truer.
The promised land
Bombay — as Mumbai was called then — is a multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-cultural melting pot, which led to a variety of musical and cultural expressions, reflected in all forms of music.
Naushad saheb’s observation is telling. Bombay began to take shape as an important commercial and industrial centre during the British era, particularly in the second half of the 19th century. Its location as a port, and its humid climate, helped the setting up of textile mills and other ancillary industries. The British established a vast railway network, which brought about a cultural and economic transformation. This also led to the development of a vibrant music scene. Thanks to the railways, the new emerging city became easily accessible to musicians from all over India. This also led to a healthy exchange of ideas in the Hindustani musical scene.
For several centuries, musicians won the patronage of royalty. The British slowly and systematically began to establish their control over the subcontinent. The princely states, with some exceptions, were annexed and musicians, as well as other skilled artisans and artists, lost their patronage. They began to look for other avenues of employment, which traders, mill owners and industrialists in Bombay readily offered.
Before the advent of cinema in the early 20th century, theatre and music were the only sources of entertainment. Music appreciation was an activity strictly pursued by the well-heeled, who could afford to organise private mehfils of artists coming from different parts of India.
Bombay became an epicentre of music during the late 19th and early 20th century and continues to occupy this unique place on the musical map of the nation. One of the venues popular in those days was the Framjee Cawasjee Hall, located opposite the Metro Cinema. Another popular venue was the majestic Laxmi Baug, which stands tall even today, on the Avantikabai Gokhale Road, near Royal Opera House. Ustad Faiyaz Khan frequently performed at the Blavatsky Hall, opposite Chowpatty Bandstand. Post-Independence, the Cowasji Jehangir Hall, which now accommodates the NGMA, as well as the open air Rang Bhawan, were the prime performance spaces.
It was, however, only afterwards that music missionaries such as Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande vigorously helped make music more accessible to people who wanted to learn as well as listen to music. This took place in the 1920s and 1930s. Prior to this, ticketed music performances were unheard of. Even music circles could also be counted on one’s fingertips. “Kalyan Gayan Samaj”, “Bombay Music Circle” and “Suburban Music Circle” were the few exceptions. In a way, they began the process of democratising music.
Until 1920s, private mehfils at the grand mansions of the uber wealthy were the norm. Govindrao Tembe, a pioneer among harmonists and a famous composer of natya sangeet, has written about musical mehfils in Bombay. The Nizam of Hyderabad and Seth Dulichand from Calcutta, for instance, would come with his own musicians to the city and camp for months, to treat Mumbaikars to the music. The sessions would begin at 9 pm and would conclude around sunrise the following day.
The legendary classical singer Rahimat Khan, who was given the title “Bhu Gandharv”, performed at the bungalows of wealthy people such as Jaggannath Shankarseth. Only a select few could attend those sessions. At one such concert, it’s said that Rahimat Khan, who belonged to the Gwalior gharana — the fountainhead of Khayal music — taught a lesson to an big-headed tabla player by singing at a superfast tempo, which the tabla player could not match.
Bombay had its own indigenous gharana of music called the “Bhendi Bazaar gharana”. Hindi cinema’s indomitable singer Lata Mangeshkar is a product of this gharana.
In the 19th century, singer Chhajju Khan and his three brothers Nazir Khan, Vilayat Hussain Khan and Khadim Hussain Khan, who lived in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, migrated to Bombay. They set up their home “Behind the Bazaar”, which, according to the legend, came to be mispronounced as “Bhendi Bazaar”. They developed their own style of Khayal singing, which came to be recognised as the “Bhendi Bazaar gharana”.
The most sought after classical singer trained by them was Anjanibai Malpekar, who was known for her astonishing beauty. Her radiant looks charmed the famous painter Raja Ravi Varma, who used her as a model for one of his most important paintings. The Ustads of Bhendi Bazaar wanted to build her up and pose a challenge to the eminent Gwalior thumri singer Chunna. They did prevail in the end.
Musician Alladiya Khan, Faiyaz Khan and Abdul Karim Khan stayed in the city and trained many aspiring singers in the early 20th century. After Lokmanya Tilak’s death in Bombay on August 1, 1920, Mahatma Gandhi announced the creation of “Tilak Swarajya Fund” for which charity shows of the popular musical “Manapman” were held. The highlight was the coming together of two contemporary actor singers Balgandharva and Keshavrao Bhosale. It was looked upon as a veritable contest. The show was held in Baliwala Theatre and was completely sold out. Another interesting feature was the initiative and the participation of the Parsi community in keeping the music scene alive. There was a “Parsi Gayanottejak Mandali”, which not only organised shows, but also encouraged music education and the research work of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.
In South Bombay, the Agra Gharana Ustads such as Vilayat Hussain Khan and Khadim Hussain Khan propagated their gayaki for several decades. The purest Gwalior Khayal was preserved and taught by Sharadchandra Arolkar and music schools were set up and run by Narayanrao Vyas and BR Deodhar. In fact, Deodhar’s school was a prime venue where eminent musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Amir Khan performed. Tabla legends like Amir Hussain and Alla Rakha Khan belonged to this city.
The All India Radio, which began its operations in 1927, in Ballard Estate, contributed a lot to the development of the music. The 1930s and 1940s were the two decades during which something was constantly happening on the music scene. The famous Vikramaditya conference, which was held in the University Convocation Hall, in 1944, brought two musicians into the limelight. They were sitarist Vilayat Khan and the Patiala gharana vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. They rose to great heights and mesmerised music lovers from all over the world.