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No fan, no fridge, but what music!
At a concert by Raza Ali Khan organised by Delhi's Punjabi Academy, the audience could easily have been divided into two groups. While the veteran listeners were drawn by nostalgia for the mesmeric baritone of Patiala gharana's Ustad Bade Ghulam Khan who passed away in 1966 at the age of 64, the youngsters were equally fascinated by the music of grandson Raza Ali Khan, who was barely four years old at the time. Perhaps the performer managed to satisfy both groups, for he sang ragas in a manner that his grandfather had immortalised, having been trained in the initial years of his career by the Ustad himself, in the traditional gandha bandha, disciple-guru tradition.
Living under the same roof allowed Raza a chance to see a humane side of his guru's nature. "Every morning, I would see my grandfather tie a fistful of coins in a large handkerchief and when he heard a beggar calling for alms below his bedroom window, he would drop a coin or two from his bundle into the bowl, " he says. "By evening the handkerchief would be empty. "
His boyhood memories of his grandfather's room are still crystal clear. "His room was devoid of any furniture save for a large takht on which he sat. His shagirds and visitors sat on a durree below and a couple of chairs were placed for his close friends who visited him every day, " he recalls. "One of them, Yusuf Khan, was an attar merchant in the Park Circus market, and the other two were Hari Shankar Dutt and Amulya Babu. None of them incidentally were musicians but the foursome got on fine. "
The old Ustad was a great stickler for the rules and maintaining exacting standards. He refused to buy a radio or allow one into the house and even chided his wife for switching on the fan or fridge because the low hum interfered with his music. Yet, far from demanding a tomb-like silence, the home was filled with music all the time for Ustadji sang non-stop from morning to evening and even on his deathbed he had remarked to his son, Ustad Munnawar Ali Khan, that the sound of the fan in his hospital room could be tuned to Raga Gunkali, and with a little tweaking, to Raga Todi.
Formal lessons began for Raza after the gandha bandhan initiation and customary partaking of jaggery and gram. Despite him being a toddler, the indulgent elder never hesitated in taking him to his concerts. And at the Bal Gopal Mandir at Baranagar when he had thrown a tantrum for a 'toy' that was being offered to the deity, the swami of the mandir had intervened and had given it to him. "Years later, when I was practising at my home in Kolkata, I felt a presence before me. It was Swamiji from the mandir who had come to ask me to take my grandfather's place and present a concert offering at the temple. I immediately obliged and as I sang my grandfather's composition 'Mahadeva Mahesh'. I felt a strange peace as if it was my way of replacing the toy offering that I had taken away, despite the protests made by grandfather. "
His grandfather's central instruction to him was to sing from the heart and not from the throat. Raza has faithfully followed this directive and illustrated it, quite literally, by singing a syllabic pattern or taan across all the three octaves, without so much as moving a single throat muscle, even as his barber continued to shave him. The correctness of posture, says Raza "was taught by making me sing in front of a large mirror so that the right facial expressions, the right enunciation and the right form was created through the sounds of the rendition. Grandfather's favourite saying was: "Tum ek nirakar koh aakar de rahe ho'" (You are giving form to what is formless).
Sometimes, a music lesson took on the form of a little game. "He would sing out a taan and 'challenge' me to repeat it. At first, they were simple four to five notes of the octave and I sang them confidently for a reward of four annas. Then the game became harder as the taans became more convoluted, but I was hooked and determined to reproduce them instead of conceding defeat and forgoing my four-anna prize money. " So from the initial number 'Aari Nabi/ Aari Ali' to the more intricate thumri compositions, Raza's music imbibed the Patiala behlawa and the sargam taans, so much so that he says emotionally, "When I take the stage I feel a feedback in my voice and he is singing through me. "
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