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Partnerships in percussion

by December 24, 2016 General

A clip from the 1960 Marathi film, Umaj Padel Tar, has gone viral on social media. It has a tabla player who uncannily looks like the legendary percussion wizard, Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakwa, accompanying actor Shubha Khote. The clip shows her miming the words of a classic song sung by artist Manik Varma for the film.

“With his Chaplinesque moustache, the tabla player does look like the master. But he’s not Thirakwa Khansaheb,” says Sudhir Nayak, the noted harmonium-accompanist, who is scheduled to play next week at Pandit Nikhil Ghosh Smriti Utsav – Nazrana, organised by Sangit Mahabharati’s Pandit Nayan Ghosh to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Ustad Thirakwa.

The viral video can be viewed as a testament to the Ustad’s charisma, which continues to enthral people nearly half a century after his demise. The festival will feature vocal recitals by Ustad Rashid Khan and Pandit Venkatesh Kumar, and a tabla jugalbandi by 32-year-old Anubrata Chatterjee, son of maestro Anindo Chatterjee, and 16-year-old Ishaan, Nayan Ghosh’s son and disciple. The concluding session will feature another jugalbandi by U.S.-based Lucknow gharana doyen Swapan Chauduri and Nayan Ghosh representing the Farukabad style.

The festival, which also commemorates 60 years of Sangit Mahabharati, belongs to the genre of memorial or barsi concerts that are prominent in Hindustani classical percussion music. Over the years, some of these concerts have morphed into polyphonic avatars, with singers paying tribute with their best to the memory of a percussionist or an instrumentalist and vice versa.

Such festivals owe their popularity as much to the organisers’ clout and the quality of participants (not to forget sponsors) they manage to attract as to the calibre of the artist being commemorated. Ustad Thirakwa, for instance, was revered both as a soloist and an accompanist. “He belongs to the glittering galaxy of Hindustani classical music along with other supernovae such as Aftab-e- Mausiqui (‘Sun of Music’) Fayyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Allabande Khan, Alladiya Khan, Allauddin Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan,” says Nayan Ghosh, tabla player and sitarist.

Nayan got his talim in ragadari, tabla and sitar from his father, the late Nikhil Ghosh, who was a noted performer of the Farukabad style of tabla-play himself and the educationist-founder of Sangit Mahabharati. Nikhilbabu’s elder brother was the celebrated flautist, Pannalal Ghose, who received talim from another polyvalent genius, Baba Allauddin Khan of the Senia-Maihar Gharana. Pannababu was popularly known as ‘the Father of the North Indian Flute’. (On a personal note, this writer has in his possession an exquisite flute that the maestro made from Singapore bamboo. The bansuri was gifted to the writer’s father by the flautist at his residence in Malad after a puja, which Pannababu conducted after blowing a large white conch.)

Celebrating genius

As a budding newspaperman, I’ve also had the opportunity of meeting Ustad Thirakwa and listening to him at close quarters. I can still recall the resonance of his playing and the clarity and precision of articulation. Tabliyas would call this nikas, a Zen-like use of fingers to evoke mystical sounds from inert leather.

“His outward gravitas could be misleading,” says Nayan. “Khansaheb had a wonderful sense of humour and was always up to some prank, which he would play on my father whenever he could find the time from their arduous daily practice. In fact, that prankish imp-like quality is immortalised in Khansaheb’s name itself,” says Nayan. “When he was around 12, Ahmed Jan was brought to Bombay by his father Hussain Baksh and elder brother Mia Jan, both of whom were noted sarangi players, and placed in the hands of the tabla stalwart Ustad Munir Khan.” The tutelage was to last for 25 years but at a very early stage, his guru’s father, Kale Khan, called him ‘Thirakwa’; or ‘Thirku’ because of his playful and naughty nature.

“The nickname stuck and became synonymous with his virtuosic dancing fingers. With Munir Khansaheb’s guidance, Ahmed Jan acquired a massive repertoire and expertise in the Farukhabad, Ajrada and Delhi styles. He played the Delhi style so superbly that it brought about memories of Natthu Khan, the most prominent representative of the Delhi gharana.”

A highlight of Ustad Thirakwa’s career was his 10-year association with the legendary singer-actor Bal Gandharva’s Marathi drama troupe. After its dispersal, he joined the Rampur Darbar as a much-pampered court musician. He served with distinction till the end of princely rule in 1947, when he joined Bhatkhande College of Music in Lucknow as a senior tabla guru.

Multitalented musicians

Four years before the musician’s death, Films Division made a documentary, Mount Everest of Tabla. Though it does sound clichéd and hyperbolic, the title, which is metaphorically correct, may be artistically inaccurate. For all his prowess, Ustad Thirakwa was also a gifted vocalist. In this respect, he belongs to the pantheon of multivalent greats such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan, both of whom initially trained as sarangiyas, just as Thirakwa did.

Similarly, the Kirana gharana great, Abdul Karim Khan, began his recording career as a veena-player. This raises intriguing questions about the fundamental quality of musical genius: Is it essentially multi-dimensional? The prodigally talented Carnatic vocalist M. Balamuralikrishna, who passed away last month, was, for instance, equally adept at playing stringed instruments like the violin, the viola and percussion instruments like the mridangam and khanjira in addition to being a gifted character actor, playback singer and phenomenally productive composer. Likewise, Mewati gharana maestro Pandit Jasraj, principally known as a vocalist today, began his stage career as an accompanist with the tabla.

Sangit Mahabharati’s founder, the late Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, was also a gifted performer-pedagogue who began his talim as a vocalist and later switched to tabla. “The passion for melodic music aspect of Hindustani sangit remained with him forever,” recalls Nikhilbabu’s disciple, the noted tabla-player Aneesh Pradhan. “This led him to befriend vocalists and instrumentalists, to accumulate a vast repertoire of traditional compositions, which might otherwise have been lost,” says Pradhan.

A similar feat of cultural conservation and dissemination was launched at the end of the 19th century by Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande. The other illustrious ‘Vishnu’ (Digambar) Paluskar had already set up his Gandharva Vidyalaya by then. This was the first school to run on public support to impart formal training in Indian classical music. Bhatkhande’s music college came up in Lucknow in 1926. Garlanded portraits of both these stalwarts are seen in the Films Division documentary on Thirakwa: the opening sequence shows the maestro playing the tabla in the foreground with Nikhil Ghosh on the harmonium. By happy coincidence, Ustad Thirakwa also served with Sangit Mahabharati.

Pandit Nikhil Ghosh Smriti Utsav – Nazrana,

December 28 and 29, Nehru Centre, Worli. See

The author is a senior

editor and columnist