The Tabla En­abler

On mu­sic mae­stro Jnan Prakash Ghosh’s birth centenary, ARUN­ABHA DEB ex­am­ines how an en­dur­ing legacy was won at the cost of fif­teen min­utes of fame

Tehelka - - MUSIC -

MAY 9, 2012 marks the birth centenary of Pan­dit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. It’s an ar­bi­trary marker, for Ghosh’s mu­si­cal legacy be­gan on a foot­ball field in his teens. As he was about to head the ball, an op­pos­ing player ran to kick it. The boot struck the corner of Ghosh’s fore­head. Till then, Ghosh had pur­sued var­ied in­ter­ests with more than the cav­a­lier cu­rios­ity as­so­ci­ated with young bhadralok. He was a sports­man who played foot­ball, cricket and hockey with equal earnest; an artist who cor­re­sponded with Abanin­dranath Tagore with the in­tent of learn­ing un­der him; and he was a stu­dent of mu­sic. The foot­ball in­jury dam­aged his eye­sight to an ex­tent that a se­ri­ous pur­suit of sports and art were ex­cluded. Mu­sic, per force, be­came his sole fo­cus.

Mu­si­cians as­pire to be mae­stros. Ghosh could eas­ily have been one. He was ac­knowl­edged to be among In­dia’s best har­mo­nium play­ers. He un­der­went vo­cal train­ing with lu­mi­nar­ies like Pan­dit Gir­ija Shankar Chakraborty and Us­tad Mo­hammed Dabir Khan. As a tabla player, he was her­alded as no less a per­former than Us­tad Ah­mad Jan Thi­rakwa, one of the 20th cen­tury greats. Ghosh in­stead pur­sued a some­what cir­cuitous im­mor­tal­ity. He stepped away from the stage and ded­i­cated him­self to teach­ing.

No other guru has pro­duced as many fron­trank­ing tabla per­form­ers. From the fiery Pan­dit Shankar Ghosh to Pan­dit Anindo Chat­ter­jee, his dis­ci­ples have held au­di­ences in sway for over half a cen­tury. Ghosh is the rea­son why Kolkata is the tabla cap­i­tal of the world to­day. There is a move­ment to dub his style the “Kolkata Tabla Gha­rana” — the nomen-

cla­ture would be a sym­bolic gesture since there is an en­trenched if tacit ac­cep­tance that such a style al­ready ex­ists. His con­tri­bu­tions to vo­cal mu­sic of­ten get eclipsed by his work with the tabla but it is not an in­signif­i­cant legacy. Two of Ben­gal’s best-known vo­cal­ists, Pan­dit Pra­sun Ban­er­jee and Pan­dit Ajoy Chakraborty, are his stu­dents. And, Ghosh was a pro­lific com­poser of songs in Hindi and Bangla. While his songs re­main im­mor­tal in the Ben­gali con­scious­ness, his im­pact on the tabla tran­scends ge­og­ra­phy.

GHOSH RE­CEIVED his most rig­or­ous talim from Us­tad Ma­sit Khan, the doyen of the Farukhabad gha­rana and also trained un­der Us­tad Feroz Khan of the Pun­jab gha­rana, but he was not fet­tered by the gha­rana sys­tem. An ob­ses­sive gath­erer of tabla com­po­si­tions, he did not care about com­poser or gha­rana. He pred­i­cated what Us­tad Zakir Hus­sain much later made the norm: to serve the cause of the in­stru­ment and de­velop a per­for­mance style with a ro­bust va­ri­ety rather than dwell within the con­fin­ing walls of a gha­rana. To en­rich his reper­toire, Ghosh ac­tu­ally paid for com­po­si­tions that were traded freely, and like a good Ben­gali mid­dle-class gent, kept de­tailed ac­counts. Pan­dit Anindo Chat­ter­jee re­counts, “In his note­books, against sev­eral com­po­si­tions, there would be fig­ures — 300 or 700 or some­thing. It took us a while to re­alise that those were the amounts for which the com­po­si­tions were bought.” Though Ghosh him­self taught most of his stu­dents for free.

He was not just a col­lec­tor; he worked his own ideas on all that he ac­quired. What fi­nally emerged, in spite of com­pris­ing com­po­nent el­e­ments of par­tic­u­lar gha­ranas, had his trade­mark sig­na­ture. Pan­dit Nayan Ghosh, that rare mae­stro who plays the sitar and the tabla as if he were born to play both, feels Jnan Prakash’s lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion can be di­rectly at­trib­uted for an an­a­lyt­i­cal ap­proach over the rote-learn­ing tra­di­tion. Nayan’s fa­ther Pan­dit Nikhil Ghosh was one of Jnan Prakash’s se­nior dis­ci­ples and Nayan spent hours watch­ing the two in­ter­act. “Of course, hardly any­one else had the col­lec­tion of com­po­si­tions that he did, but he went be­yond just re­pro­duc­ing what he learnt. And this, he could do be­cause of his eru­di­tion,” says Nayan. “If you hear his own com­po­si­tions — and he was a pro­lific com­poser — they are some of the most in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­formed com­po­si­tions in tabla his­tory. But his com­po­si­tions, be it tabla or vo­cal, al­ways strike a bal­ance be­tween the in­tel­lec­tual and the artis­tic,” he added.

It was never in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism at the cost of the lis­tener. Ghosh’s com­po­si­tions were cere­bral, but re­alised in an aes­thetic con­text

It was never in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism at the cost of putting the lis­tener off. Ghosh’s com­po­si­tions were cere­bral, but re­alised in an aes­thetic con­text. Sanjoy Mukher­jee, an­other dis­ci­ple, re­calls, “He said that you have to win a lis­tener’s heart right from the time you read a bol — even be­fore you play it on the tabla,” he said. A video record­ing of Ghosh in con­cert shows him per­form­ing with this pre­cept. He in­tro­duces a piece as Much Ado About Noth­ing and then goes on to re­cite a rapid flurry of bols, but then, gen­tly, the bols peter out, to fi­nally end with a lan­guid ti­hai. The Shake­spearean con­nec­tion couldn’t be clearer: the flurry of ac­tiv­ity at the start and then the re­laxed res­o­lu­tion.

Few Hin­dus­tani mu­si­cians can place their mu­sic and Shake­speare along the same arc. His eru­di­tion made him a pop­u­lar fig­ure: per­haps other mae­stros of the time found in him some­thing that was lack­ing in them­selves. His house at 25 Dixon Lane played host to ev­ery vis­it­ing mae­stro. Le­gends like Us­tad Bade Ghu­lam Ali Khan and Us­tad Amir Khan treated him with as much re­spect as af­fec­tion. Ghosh wore his great­ness with a light­ness of touch. His sense of hu­mour is now part of Hin­dus­tani mu­sic folk­lore. He loved non­sense verse and had set a few of Suku­mar Ray’s po­ems from Abol Tabol to tune. Of all his in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing tabla com­po­si­tions, the one no mu­si­cian fails to re­mem­ber is com­posed along the lines of non­sense verse: No­gener Ginni (No­gen’s wife). The poem has words like all po­ems do; it de­scribes a fel­low’s lu­di­crous trou­bles with his wife and kids. But each word in the poem cor­re­sponds with a sound on the tabla. He re­cites the poem, which is funny enough, and then he plays it on the tabla. Khan had laughed so help­lessly af­ter hear­ing it, Ghosh was wor­ried he would choke. Asked to com­pere the All Ben­gal Mu­sic Fes­ti­val Ghosh had the au­di­ence in splits when he an­nounced, with his char­ac­ter­is­tic dead­pan ex­pres­sion, a two-minute birokti (ir­ri­ta­tion), and not a biroti (in­ter­val).

In spite of his dif­fer­ent com­pelling avatars, Ghosh’s great­est legacy to Hin­dus­tani mu­sic was as a guru. Mukher­jee un­equiv­o­cally ac­knowl­edges, “If he chose to be a per­former, no­body would have lis­tened to us.” He had the in­tel­lec­tual rigour of an aca­demic but also the pulse of vi­tal­ity of a per­former. Sev­eral Hin­dus­tani mu­si­cians have been ren­dered pe­riph­eral with the ‘cere­bral’ tag: great as archival ma­te­rial, but hardly sus­te­nance for 3,000 lis­ten­ers stay­ing awake in the cold at all night mu­sic fes­ti­vals. Ghosh was cer­tainly good for the archives. But lis­ten­ers who go ec­static when they hear his dis­ci­ples play his com­po­si­tions will care lit­tle about that.

Vo­cal­ist Kaushiki De­sikan will present a trib­ute con­cert in Kolkata on 5 May. Per­form­ers in­clude Ajoy Chakraborty, Anindo Chat­ter­jee, Sanjoy Mukher­jee and Nayan Ghosh

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: KAZI ANIR­BAN

The dis­ci­ples

Pan­dit Nikhil Ghosh, Pan­dit Ajoy Chakraborty, Pan­dit Anindo Cha er­jee, Pan­dit Pra­sun

Ban­er­jee

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