‘Tis the witching hour of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars, they glisten, glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen,
For what listen they?
John Keats, 1795-1821
Years can go by, but the habits of one’s growing-up years never really fade away. I came of age in staid Madras, in an era when the city was dead by 9 o’clock at night. Weekday or weekend, I was dutifully tucked into bed and fast asleep well before 10 o’clock, waking up at the crack of dawn to the raucous cacophony of chants, calls and cinema music from the neighborhood temple, mosque and teashop that each competed to drown the other out.
They were duly surprised - and suitably impressed - when I announced, on a recent Saturday, that I was going to attend part of an all-night concert. At 2am, the dark heart of the witching hour. That I was not so uncool, after all. That there was yet hope that I might be transformed into one of those ultra-hip New Yorkers who teeter about in impossibly tight clothes and high heels.
The all-night concert was of Hindustani music, and was set up by an organization called Chhandayan. There were singers, and sitar and sarod players. The musician I really wanted to listen to was Kaushiki Chakraborty, who was singing at 2 o’clock in the morning. I had first heard her music thanks to Uttara, and I was just blown away by her amazing vocal control and range, by how perfectly and effortlessly she performed unbelievably difficult vocal pyrotechnics, as well as by the bell-like clarity of her voice. What a wonderful opportunity, to actually hear her live!
While I can appear quite convincingly well-informed about Carnatic and Western classical music, my knowledge of Hindustani music is largely nonexistent. Growing up when I did in Madras, there was an almost impregnable wall between Hindustani and Carnatic music. All I knew of that music was that it was practised by what seemed like a bafflingly indistinguishable assortment of Khans playing an equally indistinguishable assortment of instruments whose names began with the letter S (sitar, santoor, sarod, sarangi, surbahar). Everyone had heard of Ravi Shankar, of course, in no small part thanks to our national obsession with fawning over those who had won recognition and admiration from the West. I remember listening to Ravi Shankar once, years back, in the Music Academy during the December Season. The hall was packed to overflowing, with hundreds of “Madrasis” eager to get a taste of the exotic North. The music was divine; but I had no idea what I was listening to.
Things have changed quite a lot, but not nearly enough. Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandis, a cutting-edge trend in my youth, are quite common these days. However, I think I can quite safely say that many people listening to these jugalbandis have a very lopsided understanding and appreciation of what they are listening to. I know I do. I “get” the Carnatic portion of the jugalbandi far more than I do the Hindustani portion. Carnatic music aficionados like to point out that many Carnatic musicians are adept at singing Hindustani-style songs; no Hindustani musician bothers about Carnatic music, they sniff. No doubt, Hindustani music fans have their own bones to pick about the proclivities and quirks of the vidwans of the South. Still, it is nice to see that the age-old biases and mindsets are slowly fading away, and that there is an elevation of interest and in opportunities to indulge that interest in both types of music among people from all over the country, particularly the young.
Today, with the Internet, there is no excuse for ignorance. Of course, it has also spawned legions of faux-experts, but that is another rant for another day. Musicians are traveling around far more as well, and I have been hugely fortunate in having been able to listen to legends like Bhimsen Joshi, Vilayat Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Amjad Ali Khan, live. But for the Internet and Youtube, I might never have heard (of) Kaushiki Chakraborty. I had read about and heard her father, Ajoy Chakraborty, an affable bear of a man who sings with tremendous warmth and a preternatural rhythmic virtuosity. What impressed me most about him was that well after he was an established, well-renowned Hindustani musician, he determined that he could not truly call himself a scholar of Indian music while remaining ignorant of an entire system of music - Carnatic. So, he began - from scratch - taking lessons from Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna. Imagine the humility required to do something like that, to put himself through all the frustration and vexation of learning something new, when he was already riding high, perched securely in his comfort zone. People like him are chipping away at that once impregnable wall between the two styles of music that really complement each other far more than they are different or disassociated.
I hoped that Pandit Chakroborty’s own daughter, Kaushiki, would have imbibed his spirit of inclusion, syncretism, open mindedness and curiosity. That, and her incredible voice, were reason enough for me to set my alarm for 1am and stagger out of my warm bed and home into the dark, rain-slicked streets of New York.
The concert was being held in the hall of the Society for Ethical Culture. This society, founded in 1877, just a few years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s paradigm-shattering On the Origin of Species, calls itself a humanist movement, deriving its tenets from the principles of ethics and a respect for all humanity and nature, not any particular theology. The hall in New York was built just over a hundred years ago, in 1910. It is cavernous and cathedral-like in its sweeping expanse of space, and there are rows of benches, much like those in a church. A hand-painted sign above the performance area reads, The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground. If only that could always be the case. Unfortunately, I think, the Ethical Culture movement never gained the traction and following its founders hoped it would.
A sarod recital was in progress when I entered the hall. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was almost full. Many people were dressed for a night out in town, in glittery jewels and colorful sarees and kurtas; others (like me) looked like they had rolled straight out of bed and arrived there. Indeed, I saw a few people sprawled out, fast asleep, on the benches. Perhaps the concert provided the soundscape for their dreams.
The sarod concert came to a lively, rhythmically electrifying end, and after a round of enthusiastic applause, there was a palpable air of expectation for the appearance of the next performer - Kaushiki.
She came onstage, young, smiling, a burst of freshness and charm, dressed in a pale pink saree. The settling in and the tuning were done quickly, and Kaushiki began her recital with an alaap (improvisation) and song in the raga Abhogi.
What a voice she has! Pure, clear, honeyed. And how she sang that Abhogi! Each note was caressed and pampered and fondled like a cherished child. Then those very notes were tossed and spun about at a dizzying speed, each one always landing perfectly, always enveloped in a melodic halo. The harmonium’s gliding echoes were the perfect accompaniment. There were periods of silken repose interspersed with episodes of frantic energy. At times I felt I was watching a conjurer at work as Kaushiki toyed with and performed magical feats of juggling with Abhogi’s swaras.
As I listened, I got to thinking about this and that, as one is apt to do when listening to music, and I wondered: wasn’t Abhogi a Carnatic ragam? I had heard it sung dozens of times in Carnatic recitals, but had never heard, or heard of, it in Hindustani music.
Google rose to the occasion and came to the rescue. And that is how I read about Abdul Karim Khan, a musician who lived from 1872 to 1937. He was born in Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, and is best known for the development and popularization of the Kirana gharana (or style) of Hindustani music. He traveled around the country, with stints in the courts of several kings. Of these, the one that had perhaps the greatest influence on his evolution as a musician was Chamaraja Wodeyar, the Mysore Maharaja. He was a favorite musician at his court, greatly admired and appreciated by the king and his musicians. Listening to and mingling with the many Carnatic musicians who worked and performed there, the ragams and nuances of the South permeated Khan’s musical consciousness and found expression in his Kirana gharana. He was perhaps the first Hindustani musician to study Carnatic music. There are records of his having sung quintessentially Carnatic ragams like Kharaharapriya, Saveri, Hamsadhwani - and Abhogi.
Abdul Karim Khan must have been a fascinating character. The solemn, earnest picture of him in his Wikipedia entry belies the deliciously scandalous life he led. The story goes that he, along with his brother, arrived in Baroda in 1894 to try their luck at the court of the Baroda king, who was known for his patronage and support of musicians and for the high quality and standards of his court. They popularized their Kirana gharana here, and soon the town was abuzz with talk about these brothers who attracted both a large fan following and a fair number who frowned at their innovations and experiments. The person whose opinion truly mattered, the ruler Sayajirao Gaekwad, enjoyed their music and their fearlessness, and Abdul Karim Khan might have had a long and glorious career here.
If he had not fallen in love with the wrong woman.
Just four years after he arrived, he slipped out of Baroda late one night, eloping with one Tarabai Mane. He certainly picked a woman guaranteed to cause the maximum uproar and scandal. She was a Hindu, the daughter of a court sardar. He was a Sunni Muslim Pathan, already married, and a struggling musician.
The pair fled to Bombay where, after a year of living together, they got married and led a busy, productive life teaching and performing music. They had seven children and two of these were musical prodigies. Alas, after 22 years, the magic wore off, and Tarabai walked out of the marriage along with the children, who never saw their father again. One of his daughters, Hirabai Barodakar, became one of Maharashtra’s most beloved singers, lauded by laypeople and critics alike, who raved about how she sounded exactly like her guru. No mention was ever made of the fact that her guru was also her father.
This was the man who was most likely responsible for bringing Abhogi into the Hindustani canon, and singers like Kaushiki have nurtured it and enabled it to blossom and reveal its melodic magic, so beautifully evocative of the darkness and mystery of the night.
After the piece in Abhogi, Kaushiki sang a dhrupad in Charukesi, and ended with a song, made popular by Shoba Gurtu, in the raga Pahad.
I left after that. Back out into the rain-lashed darkness, through the now empty streets, back home, and back to sleep.