Remembering Durga, Sangeet Mahakumbh at Patna and Pandit Kumar Gandharva
There are great romantic lovers like Dev Anand renowned for their ways with women. And there are illiterate, bumbling ones no less endearing like Raj Kapoor with Padmini in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Bahti Hai – so has been my romance with Raga Durga for over 35 years.
Like anyone with an ear for music who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, I was glued to the radio if I was not doing anything else. My life was programmed around Vividh Bharati, Radio Ceylon, AIR Urdu Service, and by my early twenties I was thoroughly steeped in the music of the 30s through 60s – both film songs and non-film ghazals, geets, bhajans (which were collectively known as ‘private’ songs). I also knew that there was a shastriya sangeet, meant for those who learnt the shastras – the kind who did sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa on the tanpura, sitar or the harmonium in the mornings, to some amusement if not irritation of the neighbours.
Then my life changed in my early twenties when a friend gifted me an LP of Bismillah Khan-VG Jog jugalbandi, of which the anchor piece was Raga Durga. Obviously I knew nothing about Raga Durga, nor probably had I heard its name. But this piece mesmerised me, and its tune gripped me in a way that for many days no other song would come to my mind. My mind had become this LP in which Raga Durga played endlessly. Then I started looking for and collecting more and more Durga’s and going to concerts.
Sangeet mahakumbh at Patna in Durga Puja
Blessed were those who lived in Patna during 1950s through 80s because that was the place on the earth where every Durga Puja on Saptami and Ashtami nights, all the Gandharvas, Apsaras and Devas descended. There were all-night concerts of classical music and dance at multiple locations where thousands would congregate and enjoy the delight in the open air. There were four major Puja Samitis – Patna Junction, Gandhi Maidan, Langartoli and Govind Mitra Road – which would get the biggest names. There was no state involvement, it was completely financed, sponsored and organised by private initiative – businessmen and people with old money, erstwhile zamindars and princely states.
You imagine a sangeet mahakumbh – after finishing dinner, the whole of Patna and nearby places, lakhs of people would hit the streets. Walking was the only mode possible, because all the roads and streets would be clogged with people going from one venue to the other. After you have done Sanyukta Panigrahi at Patna Jn, you may walk down to Gandhi Maidan where you might catch Birju Maharaj, then at Langartoli you might get Pt Jasraj and then to Govind Mitra Road to get some Bhimsen Joshi or Kishori Amonkar. And so it would go on for the next night. Ustad Vilayat Khan at one venue, then MS Gopalakrishnan at the next and you could still be in time for Bismillah Khan and VG Jog at Gandhi Maidan, whom the audience would not let go and it would be about 10 in the morning when they would end with Bhairavi.
Every top artiste in the country had a fixed calendar for Durga Puja – the whole country knew Patna was their destination. Their time would typically start after mid-night. They would be preceded by ‘light’ music – even that would be of the class of Anup Jalota, Bhupendra-Mitali, Rajendra Mehta-Neena Mehta etc.
Alas, this great Patna tradition died a gradual death in the 90’s due to a combination of factors – changing demographics and taste, payment disputes between artistes and the organisers, and law and order situation. But I was there at its zenith. Thus started my delving into the world of classical music. I developed deep fascination for several other Ragas. Bhimpalasi came next in my pecking order, followed by about a dozen which became my great favourites – Desh, Desi, Sur Malhar, Madmat Sarang, Naiki Kanhra, Nat Bihag, Bhairavi, Kafi, Jaunpuri, Maand, Adana, Bageshree, Pahadi, Jaijaiwanti, Jhinjhoti, Yaman etc. To be sure, there were also some which held no appeal to me such as Pooriya, Todi and Shree.
Learning music from Guruji
I did not know why I liked some Ragas intensely and some not at all. My ignorance always rankled me. I was told that if you learnt classical music you would enjoy it even more. That opportunity came when my daughters were about 8-10 years old. We engaged a Guruji who came every weekend to teach them. I would try to make a mental note of his lessons – sa sa dha pa ga re sa re ga/ ga re ga pa dha pa for Raga Bhopali and so on. Soon I realised my heart was not in this Eklavya-style of learning. I would much rather spend my time listening to music. At the end of the session Guruji would very kindly stay on at my request for some time. I would bring out my favourite LPs and cassettes with great excitement to enjoy the music in the company of the master. There were pieces that would deeply move me, but I found Guruji shaking his head with disapproval. Either सम अपने स्थान से खिसका हुआ था (The fundamental note was not at its right place) or komal gandhar had got mixed with shudh gandhar or Desh had crept into Tilak Kamod. Nothing escaped Guruji’s discerning ears. I was mightily impressed, but I concluded learning music was beyond me. I have since remained as illiterate as ever, but that has not dimmed my love for classical music, and romance for Raga Durga in particular.
I have not given up my dream of learning music, but I have postponed it for afterlife. For those interested in some introduction to Durga, here is a very good one.
Some heavenly Durgas
Meanwhile here are some Durgas, which have fascinated me over the years. I have so many of them in my playlist, it is difficult to leave some – one unique thing about Durga is no matter who is the artiste, the very first few notes transport you to a deeply blissful world.
Bismilaah Khan and VG Jog jugalbandi: Love at first sight
This is the one which started my romance with Durga when I was very young, and as Spencer Tracy reminisced in his long monologue in the climax of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Tonight about his passion for Katharine Hepburn when they were young, ‘I know exactly how I feel about her…old yes, burnt out certainly, but I can tell you the memories are still there, clear, intact, indestructible and they will be there if I live to be 110’.
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan
I am not the only one whom Durga has enchanted this way. I remember Adnan Sami mentioning in a TV reality show that when he first heard Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s Raga Durga, it was an experience he could not describe; the effect was so deeply moving, his whole concept of music changed. This was exactly how I felt when I first heard Durga. Thanks to Music Today his Durga has acquired an iconic status. Here is a shorter version he is presenting live at a DD National’s music show.
Adnan Sami and Zakir Hussain
Adnan Sami is a maestro on the keyboard. Playing a classical raga on keyboard has its limitations. But Durga impressed him so much, the first time he teams up with Zakir Hussain on stage at a concert sponsored by Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi, he chooses this Raga to play.
Hari Prasad Chaurasia
There is something very special about Durga and its appeal is pervasive. I came across Durga at the unlikeliest place a few months ago when I happened to visit Chandigarh. I stayed near Sukhna lake. I took morning walk around the bank of the lake, and lo and behold I hear Durga on flute wafting through the piped music system from the shrubs at the promenade! God bless the Chandigarh Administration. Here is Durga on the flute by Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia, which I believe was the one playing at Sukhna lake.
Pt Bhimsen Joshi
Instrumental music cannot match up to the human voice. A very famous traditional bandish in Durga Tu raskhan re/ Chatur sughara balamwa is a favourite with singers from different gharanas. But the most celebrated and definitive is this gem from Pt Bhimsen Joshi – Tu raskhan re in slow tempo followed by Chatur sughara balamwa in fast tempo.
Pt Rajan Mishra-Sajan Mishra
Durga is the most befitting Raga for stuti of Goddess Durga. I have used Ghulam Mustafa Khan’s Jai Durge durgati pariharini earlier in my article on the Forgotten Composer, Pardesi. Perhaps the best known Durga stuti in Durga is Jai jai jai Durge Mata by Mishra brothers of Benaras, again thanks to Music Today. This piece is remarkable for their very relaxed elaboration of each note of Durga.
Ustad Fateh Ali Khan
How do the music lovers across the border in Pakistan respond to Raga Durga? Great music transcends borders and cultures. In this live TV performance Ustad Fateh Khan starts with these opening remarks – Isko bahut pasand kiya gaya hai. To aaj mood hai is raga ka, ki aap logon ko Durga sunaya jaye. The anchor endorses Ji Bismillah. Then the first few notes of Durga on the sarangi are followed by Sakhi mori rum jhum. The effect is magical, and the next 18 minutes you see the Ustad, accompanists and the audience bound together in an ethereal experience.
Pt Omkarnath Thakur
What happens if you compress 18 minutes of Sakhi mori rum jhum in 3 minutes? The reproduction technology of 1940-50s required that artistes had to limit their composition in a 78 rpm disc of 3 minutes. Many doyens of classical music baulked at the idea, but some great artistes decided to adapt. It is this format which contains some of our most precious musical legacy. A master like Pt Omkarnath Thakur can mesmerise you in 3 minutes of Sakhi mori rum jhum as if he gave a full scale khayal. (Note: See comment #17. Shri Kiran Begari points out that it was sung by Pt Narayanrao Vyas. I tend to agree with him. It seems the uploader has wrongly attributed it to Pt Omkarnath Thakur.)
Ashwini Bhide Deshpande
A tarana is a delightful fast tempo garnishing that is usually sung at the end of the khayal. It is also not uncommon for some artistes to sing it as a stand alone piece. This tarana by Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, one of the leading artistes of today, is delightful as well as profound, appropriate to Raga Durga.
My encounters with Raga Durga (?) in Chennai
I happened to stay in Chennai for about a month for official work a few years ago. This coincided with their season of musical festival, which is still a living tradition there – concerts at multiple locations, albeit a bonsai version of Patna of the 1980’s I saw. In my evening rounds of various venues I would come across something which would draw me like a magnet – this was an unmistakable Durga effect. My local escort was not musically inclined, which I found a little surprising, because I thought every Tamilian was a musician. But he was able to arrange my courtesy visits to the greats like MS Gopalakrishnan whom I had heard in Patna – he was equally proficient in playing the violin in Carnatic and Hindustani styles. That was my discovery of Shudh Saveri, equivalent of Durga. Next you have this beautiful lady illustrating the two Ragas in the two systems, followed by Shudh Saveri recital in three parts by the doyen of Carnatic music GN Balasubramanyam – slow, medium and fast tempo. You can listen to each part independently in any order, but if you have time, I suggest proceed in sequence.
Rajani Gayatri explains Shudh Saveri and Durga
GN Balasubramanyam_Shudh Saveri
My ultimate Raga Durga experience: Kumar Gangdharva live
Sometime in the early 1990s, I had the singular good fortune of listening to Kumar Gandharva live with a small invited audience. I willed with all the shiddat, ‘Pray, please Kumarji, please sing Raga Durga’. Amazingly my silent prayers reached him because he announced in his divine voice, मैं आपको सांझ समय का राग संजारी सुनाऊंगा, राग संजारी. उसके पश्चात थोड़ा समय में मैं आपको राग दुर्गा (!!!) सुनाऊंगा. और ये दो राग होने के बाद एक मीरा का भजन, एक गोरखनाथ का भजन और एक कबीर का भजन, इतना मैं आज आपको सुनाऊंगा (I would present before you an evening Raga Sanjaari first, Raga Sanjaari. After this, I would present Raga Durga for a short while. After these two Ragas, a Meera bhajan, a Gorakhnath bhajan and a Kabir bhajan. This is what I plan to present before you today). It would be at least 15 years later when Shahrukh Khan would take avatar in Om Shanti Om to recount my experience thus, Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho to poori qayanaat use tumse milaane ki koshish mein lag jati hai (If you desire something with all the intensity, the whole universe sets about to get it for you). I managed to get a copy of that recording by means which may not be entirely honourable. Love makes you blind. Kumarji passed away in about a year’s time after that, so this might be one of his last public performances. After about two decades I am redeeming myself by putting out my priceless possession in public domain. There was some loss of quality towards the end when I decided to digitise the tape, but Kumarji’s voice has enough timbre to give you a sense of the heavenly impact this had on the audience.
My pilgrimage to Gandharva Bhoomi
In my job, getting entangled in the web of our legal system is a common occupational hazard. My experiences range from hilarious to horrifying. But the most bizarre was this summons I got from the Judicial Magistrate, First Class of Dewas to appear before him on such and such date at 10 AM failing which he would be compelled to issue a non-bailable warrant against me because I had failed to respond to his earlier notices (which I can swear I had never received). Someone has said law is an ass, and you do not argue with an ass. Except that Dewas was the place where Kumar Gandharva had spent most of his life, it was as good as Timbuktu to me and I could not see any earthly reason why I should get that summons from the magistrate. Anyway, after a good deal of research on how to reach here, I set upon my train journey with some trepidation, accompanied by my wife who was bound by her vow at the time of saat phere to stand by me through good times and bad times. I took it as divine will, hoping that I might just get a chance to pay my homage to Kumarji’s place and meet his family members.
The court matter turned out to be surprisingly benign. Firstly, I was not an accused but a witness (which fact was not clear from the summons). My job was to ‘prove’ my signature on an official document which ‘A’ was citing as evidence in his suit against ‘B’. After the customary Main jo kahunga sach kahunga aur sach ke siwa kuchh nahin kahunga and Main apni marzi se bina kisi ke dabaav mein bayaan de rahaa hun, I ‘proved’ my signature. I always thought that this provision of the Indian Evidence Act was quite absurd; the court could very well ask the concerned office to confirm the authenticity of a document. But I did not crib this time, because my next stop was Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s house, Bhanukul, to pay my homage to him. Vasundhara Komkaliji received me and my wife with great kindness. I mentioned to her the live concert when Kumarji sang Durga in which she also lent her voice. (As a matter of fact she often provided vocal support in his singing, which always enhanced the beauty of his presentation). Their daughter Kalapini Komkaliji happened to be away on a concert. Here is a photograph of our visit there.
Today is Maha Saptami of Navratra, when the idol of Goddess Durga is installed with sacred rituals, which brings her divine presence in the image. This night about 30 years ago I would join a sea of humanity, going from one sangeet mahakumbh to the other, hoping to meet my favourite Durga. I met some other beauties, many of whom I liked immensely, but Raga Durga remained my principal consort. Wishing everyone a Happy Durga Puja and blessings of the Goddess for all.