ON August 22, some 150-odd music aficionados gathered at the Godrej Dance Academy Theatre at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts complex, for a listening session of the works of legendary multi-instrumentalist and teacher Baba Allauddin Khan. For two hours, musicians, musicologists, connoisseurs and music students absorbed and celebrated the genius of the Maihar gharana maestro, as flautist Nityanand Haldipur guided them through rare and priceless recordings.
It was an evening filled with magic and nostalgia. After all, there haven’t been too many commercially-released recordings of Baba, who passed away in 1972. Though many enthusiasts would have heard his work on the Saregama HMV compilation Chairman’s Choice — Great Gharanas: Maihar, it covered only a minuscule percentage of his actual repertoire. As such, this session was an ‘ear’-opener.
We shall discuss more about the session later. But before that, a little bit about the maestro. Three aspects of his musical personality clearly stand out: his sheer versatility, his role as a teacher and his contribution as an innovator. While diehard classical music followers would know many of the things mentioned below, not-too-familiar listeners would be fascinated to read about his achievements.
In every sense of the word, Baba Allauddin Khan was a unique musician. Though his specialities were the fretless stringed instrument sarod, the violin and the sursingar, a bass and larger kind of sarod, he could play some 30 musical instruments. From his generation, he and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan played a major role in popularising sarod. But going by the sheer number of instruments Baba played, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he has been India’s most versatile classical musician ever.
The world, of course, generally knows him as the person who taught sarod great Ali Akbar Khan (his son), sitar maestros Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee, flautist Pannalal Ghosh, surbahar exponent Annapurna Devi (his daughter) and violinist VG Jog. While Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar played a huge role in popularising and teaching Indian classical music in the West, the others were masters of their instruments, immensely popular among audiences.
Those in the music field also know the fact that Baba taught numerous others. Besides the Maharaja of the erstwhile princely state of Maihar in what is now Madhya Pradesh, others under his tutelage include sarod players Bahadur Khan, Sharan Rani, Shyam Ganguly and Jyotin Bhattacharya, and sitar player Indranil Bhattacharya. Baba’s grandsons Aashish Khan, Dhyanesh Khan and Shubho Shankar (son of Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi) also benefited from his guidance.
Apart from pure classical musicians, Baba taught composers and music directors like Timir Baran, Vishnudas Shirali and Robin Ghosh, and was known to have been a guide to SD Burman, Roshan and Jaidev. As such, he played a pioneering role in musical education, he himself having learnt from many musicians.
His contribution can also be measured in the number of raags he composed, his creation or improvisation on instruments and even the initiation of the concept of an orchestra, thitherto unknown in Indian classical music.
A huge number of raags have been credited to him, some of which were later played by Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Annapurna Devi and their disciples. These include, among many others, Hemant, Hem-Bihag, Maanj Khamaj, Bhuvaneshwari, Gandhi, Prabhakali, Shubhavati and Madanmanjari, dedicated to his wife.
As a multi-instrumentalist, he not only improvised on the tonalities and techniques of many popular instruments, but also developed the sitar-banjo, which as the name suggests is a combination of sitar and banjo, and the nal tarang, made of steel gun pipes.
The orchestra he formed was called the Maihar Vadya Vrind, or commonly, the Maihar Band. Mostly comprising orphans whom Baba had discovered after a famine, and then trained musically, it followed the western classical concept of having many instruments played simultaneously, but the difference was that it used Indian raags.
Naturally, his story made for very interesting listening among those who attended the session, part of the Nad Ninad series. Besides highlighting his musical greatness, Haldipur — a disciple of Annapurna Devi —talked about his personal life, his running away from home as a child in order to learn music and his religious beliefs. Though he was a devout Muslim, Baba was also a devotee of Saraswati, Hindu goddess of knowledge and music.
Starting with raag Devagiri Bilawal on sarod, the audience was taken on a voyage that included rare compositions in Malgunji, Sindhura, Hem, Charjuki Malhar, Kaushi Bhairav, Komal Bhimpalasi and Shubhavati, besides more popular raags like Asavari, Tilak Kamod, Shuddha Kalyan and Shuddha Nat. A majority of pieces were played on sarod, but one also heard a few recordings on violin and sursingar.
Among the highlights was the playing of two versions of raag Bihag, one on violin and another on sarod, and the rendition of Tribandh, which blended elements of kedar, Khamaj and Kaafi. There were also a couple of recordings by the Maihar Band.
Many of the pieces played were recorded when Baba was in his 80s, and yet sounded as though a youngster was playing them. Such was his mastery.
In terms of government recognition, Baba was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, which is India’s second highest civilian honour. But for Indian music connoisseurs, he is no less than a Bharat Ratna, the highest honour. We are sure many present at the listening session would think on similar lines.