Qawali Singers, Lucknow

Music in Awadh

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The history of an exotic and highly cultured Lucknow with all its pomp and splendour and its romantic Shan-e-Avadh associations actually dates from 1775A.D. when Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula shifted the capital of Avadh from Faizabad to Lucknow. As if with a magic wand, he changed the contours of the growing township and converted it into a beautiful city with parks, palaces, gardens and imposing architectural monuments. The glorious era of Lucknow lasted till 1856 when the last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah was deposed by the East India Company and banished to Matiyaburj near Calcutta. During these eventful years, Lucknow became one of the most celebrated centers of Oriental opulence, music, dance, drama , poetry and scholarship. The Nawab Wazirs brought with them their Persian music, dance, language, costumes and culture which blended beautifully with the already highly-developed arts, language and culture of Hindu India. This synthesis resulted in remarkably enriched forms of music, Kathak dance, poetry, drama, language and the celebrated Indo-Iranian ‘Ganga-Jamuni’ tehzeeb for which Lucknow became famous. The spoken language became a charming blend of Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Avadhi and in music too, brajbhasha had a favoured place. That hauntingly melodious Bhairavi Thumri composed by Wajid Ali Shah in his movement of intense grief while being forcibly parted from his beloved Lucknow for ever, is a fine example of such synthesis:-

“Babul mora naihar chhuto jaay
chaar kahaar mil doliyan uthhave…..

to which he added poignancy through the Urdu verse:

“Doston shad raho, thumko khuda ko saumpa,
Hamme apne dil-e-nazuk ko jafa ko saumpa,
Kaisarbagh jo hai, usko subko saumpa,
Daro deewar par hazarat se nazar karte hain,
Rukhsat hai ai vatan, ham to safar karte hain…..“

When Ustad Faiyaz Khan sang these lines in his vibrantly rich voice with great depth of feeling, he brought tears into thousands of eyes, in Wajid Ali Shah’s Chandiwali baradari in Kaisarbagh, which used to be the most popular venue for rabas, jashans and all India music conferences and festivals until the Nineteen-fifties. Into its historic pillars have been frozen the grand musical renderings, the tinklings of thousands of ghunghroos, the thunder of pakhawajs, the boons of baayaans and the resonant tones of sitars, sarods, shahnais and sarangis of the great maestros of the past. If only these pillars could have recorded all those events for posterity! Today, we have many acoustically superior and comfortable auditoria all over the city, but the mehfils of the past had a certain intimate atmosphere which is missing in these halls and shamianas.

Another example of Indo-Persian synthesis was Wajid Ali Shah’s rabas, a Persianised version of the Hindu Rasleela of Brajbhoomi. These rabas were perhaps the first experiments in kathak ballets. In Wajid Ali Shah,s books Bani and Najo, (recently published in Hindi by the U.P. Sangeet Natak academy) the Nawab has given details of numerous gats for kathak with line-drawings. Similarly, his books Diwan-e-Akbar and Husn-e-Akbar contain his prolific compositions covering Thumris, daadras, ghazals and others.

The enriching influence of Indo-Persian blends can best be seen in the Mughul style of Lucknow Kathak. There is a popular saying, jab Dilli ujadi, Lucknow bani. When Delhi’s years of glory ended, and arts like music, dance and poetry were on the verge of decay, it was the cultured and refind nawab Wazirs of Lucknow who offered lavish patronage and fostered them in their opulent darbars. In the history of Hindustani music and dance, Lucknow occupies a very prominent place among other musical centers such as Delhi, Gwalior, Rampur, Baroda, Jaipur, Maihar, Rewa and Alwar. The distinct style of Lucknow Gharana Kathak, Lucknow Tabla, Lucknow (poorab) Ang Thumri-Dadra and Lucknow style of ghazal singing prove the many-sided contributions of Lucknow to music and dance. The royal court was adorned by numerous descendantsof Sangeet Samrat Tansen’s musical lineage and they were essentially dhrupadiyas such as Ustad Pyar Khan, Basat Jaffar, Bahadur, Haidar and Nasir Ahmad Khan Ghulam Hussain, his son Dulbe Khan, Mehndi Hussain, Kalawant Raza Hussain and many others. This city has witnessed the efflorescence, the decline and the renaissance of Hindustani classical music and kathak dance over more than three centuries.

The Birth of Khayal: By the 18th century,people were bored of the rigid and highly disciplined Dhrupad-Dhamar. The khayal was evolved and popularized by Niamat Khan ‘Sadarang’ (1670-1748), a great musician and vainik at the court of Mohammad Shah Rangeele. He once defied the imperial orders, and in order to escape wrath, he fled to Lucknow and lived here in peaceful obscurity for some years. It was during his sojourn in Lucknow that he evolved the khayal style and composed hundreds of khayals under his pseudonym ‘Sadarang’, followed by his two sons, ‘Adarang’ (Feroz Khan) and ‘Maharang’ (Bhupat Khan). Today, not a day passes without our hearing some of the profilic khayals composed by them, subsequently thousands of khayals have been composed by musicians and vaagyeyakaars from all over North. Following the example of the creator of the khayals, Sadarang, many of the subsequent composers have assumed pen-names like Ustad Faiyaz Khan (‘Prempiya’) Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (‘Sabrang’) , Pandit Bhatkhande (‘Chatura’), Ratanjankar (‘Sujan’), C.R.Vyas(‘Gunjan’), Wajid Ali Shah (‘Akhtar’) and Dinkar Kaikini (‘Dinrang’). The composition of many of them have been published, offering us a vast choice of bandishes ranging from dhrupads and dhumars to taranas and thumri–dadras.

The ‘Qawwal Bachcha Gharana of khayal singing’ also flourished in Lucknow because the Lucknow Gharana of exponents began with a famous qawwal named Ghulam Rasool. His descendants became famed exponents of this gharana which had the deep influence of qawwali introduced by Amir Khusrau. The founders of the now famous Gwalior gharana were none other than Bade Mohammad Khan and Nahhan Peerbux descendants of Ghulam Rasool. They created this new gharana after they migrated to Gwalior. It was Shori Miyan, the son of Ghulam Rasool, who invented the tappa which is now at its
best in Gwalior and Varanasi.

Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan, the famed exponant of Lucknow Gharana khayal is also considered the father of thumri, and the prime disciple, Ustad Khurshad Ali Khan was one of the most accomplished exponents of both styles. He was a very popular radio broadcaster and mehfil singer. This grand old man died in Lucknow on April 15, 1950 at the ripe age of 105. However, it was much later that the thumri reached the peak of its popularity in Lucknow.

People welcomed the simple and appealing presentations of mundane, yet sensual and even passionate themes in the spoken dialects of the area (Avadhi, Brajbhasha, Bhojpuri and others) sung in simple ragas, already familiar to them through folk songs of the region. In spite of objections and protests from purists, Wajid Ali Shah took the lead and fostered the new musical bloom in his colourful garden both as a patron and as a profilic composer, and also in other active ways. He recruited many beautiful, talented young girls for his parikhana or ‘Abode of the Fairies’ where he got them trained in singing thumris, dadras and ghazals with bhavabataana by professional gurus. A large number of Akhtar’s thumris, dadras, savans and hories are in mixed dialects and in varieties of talas and ragas. He popularized these through his numerous rabas or dance-dramas performed by his paris. Kathak dance and thumri enriched each other and both reached high peaks of popularity.

Maharaj Bindadin enriched both as he was a superb dancer and profilic composer and his thumris were ideally suited for bhava-abhinaya in Kathak. Besides their richness in ragas and talas, another outstanding quality of his compositions is the highly mystical, literary and often allegorical word-content, surcharged with Krishna-bhakti or devotion to Krishna, even the sringara is on a higher spiritual plane. Bhatkhande’s kramik series contains thumris by many other popular composers like Kadarpiya, Sanadpiya, Daraspiya, Harrang, Achapal and Sabras. (Pseudonyms were acquired by them too) As thumris have vital links with the courtesan culture of Lucknow, it is necessary to understand the courtesan’scontribution to Lucknow’s heritage.

Along with the numerous musicians, poets dancers and scholars who came from Delhi, there was a large scale migration of tawaifs to Lucknow which became a replica of the colourful and corrupt court at Delhi during Mohammad Shah Rangeele’s reign. The courtesans became “a necessary ingredient of the decadent culture of the last days of the Muslim rule in India” (Amir Hasan, “The palace culture of Lucknow”). These accomplished courtesans, like the geishas of Japan, played an important role in the sociocultural life of Lucknow. There are long lists of the names such famed songstresses-cum-dancersin the books of Wajid Ali Shah, in Hakim Karam Imam’s Madnul Mausiqui (1859), and in Sharar’s “The last phase of an Oriental Culture” in which he writes, “It is unlikely that anywhere else were there perfect demonstrations of the art than by the courtesans of Lucknow”. Munsarim WaliGoharjan, Zobrabai, Jaddanbai and Mushtaribai were celebrated singers of that era. However, the musician who gave a distinct stamp of her own to Lucknowi thumri and Ghazal was Begum Akhtar. She was our last and most vital link with Lucknow’s colourful musical past.

Her singing always created visions of the glorious and opulent era when high-class music, Urdu poetry, refined tastes, gracious living, polished manners and polite language in everyday life, had all combined to make Lucknowi culture famous and widely admired. Her training in classical music under renowned ustads, her rich and resonant voice, fecund imagination, romantic temperament and thorough knowledge of Urdu poetry (shared by her husband Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi, Bar-At-Law), and her rich repertoire of thumris, dadras and ghazals made her the most outstanding exponent of these styles. The artistic blend of poorab and Punjab ang touches was a distinctive feature of her individualistic style. Her few genuine shagiruds keep alive their deeply loved Ammi’s style. Shobha Gurtu’s renderings also bring back nostalgic memories of Begum’s style. Bhaiya Ganpatrao, the harmonium exponent from the Gwalior royal family, and Moizuddin, the ‘Badshah’ of thumri would often come and stay in Lucknow as they had many disciples and admirers here. Raja Nawab Ali and Babban saheb and their disciples are still spoken of with great admiration. Although Lucknow is regarded as the mother of thumri, later on, Varanasi became the thriving center of semi and light classical music. Varanasi has produced and continues to produce
large numbers of outstanding and popular thumri singers.

An Enriched Tabla gharana: After Modu and Bakshu Khan migrated from Delhi to Lucknow, they drew inspiration from the great pakhavajiyas, Kathak-dancers and light classical musicians who flourished here. Since Lucknow was the ‘Mother of thumri’ and the home of Kathak, the tabla gharana that was evolved here was naturally moulded and enriched by both. Khalifa Abid Hussain (1867-1936) who taught in the Bhatkhande college, his Son-in Law Khalifa Wajid Hussain, the later’s son Khalifa Afaq Hussain (a popular artiste of Lucknow Doordarshan), Padmasri Jahangir Khan from Indore, Biru Misra from Benares, Hirubabu and Sapan Chowdhry from Calcutta are a few out of the long list of Lucknow Gharana tabla exponents.

A Unique Style of Kathak: The seeds of Kathak lay in the ancient Raasdbaari and Kathavaachakes traditions inter-connected with the spread of Vaishnavism and these thrived mostly in the temples. The earliest kathaks to come to Lucknow (from Handia near Allahabad) were Maharaj Iswari Prasad Misra and his brothers and the style that they brought to Lucknow was named Natwari Nritya. Iswari Prasad’s nephews Prakash, Dayal and Harilal became court-dancers to Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula (1775-1797). Among the descendants of these Brahmin Kathaks, Thakur Prasad and Durga Prasad became the respected dance-gurus of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. In the Moghul court, Persian costumes, romantic themes and Persian names such as aanad, salaami peshkaar and nikaas that were introduced.

Lucknowi Kathak as it exists today is the result of the combined genius and creativity of the Kalka Binda brothers. Their family residence in Lucknow, Kalka-Binda-ki-deorhi is the real birthplace of pilgrimage for kathak lovers, students and scholars, when the two brothers were alive, it was the meeting –place of great artistes from all over North India and the deorhi constantly throbbed with musical sounds, percussion rhythms and the tinkling of hundreds of ghungroos. Reputed songstresses of the time like Gauhar Jan and Zohrajan would come to Lucknow often, not only to give mujras, but also to earn the honour of becoming the disciples of Maharaj Bindadin. Every today there are few who have seen his dancing and tell us how Bindadin could create beautiful poses of Lord Krishna while dancing on multicoloured powders sprinkled over the floor. Sharar wrote, “While dancing, his feet touch the ground so lightly that he used to dance sometimes on the edges of the sword and come to no harm”. Their great art was enriched and popularized by the sons of Kalka (Bindadin had no issues) Achhan Maharaj (father of Birju Maharaj), Lacchu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj (father of Krishna Mohan and Ram Mohan). The portrayal of moods (bhavas) through abhinaya, innovation of various chaals and an expressional style based on the nayak-nayikabbedas were some of the valuable contributions through which Binda Maharaj enriched Lucknow Kathak. It is admirable that in a darbar steeped in sensualismand surrounded by hedonists including the ruler himself, the Kalka-Binda brothers could maintain the style in all its purity on a noble, aesthetic and spiritual level. They made the form precise, and at the same time saturated with raas. A gifted composer, Bindadin has left hundreds of lyrical compositions (like dhrupad, jhoola, thumri, hori, dadra and bhajans) in lilting ragas and varied talas, ideally suited for bhava-abhinaya and mostly centred around Radha-Krishna themes.

The family tradition were continued by the “triumvirate”: Achhan Maharaj excelled in chaals and lightning foot-work, Lachhu Maharaj enriched the graceful laasya aspect while Shambhoo Maharaj became famous as the “Abhinaya Samrat” of kathak. Today all these are being enriched and passed on to hundreds of pupils by Achhan Maharaj’s brilliant son Birju Maharaj, the prime legatee of the Kalka Binda traditions. He is also a repository of the family art and of hundreds of Binda’s compositions. A multi talented singer, master of numerous percussion instruments and the most outstanding exponent of Lucknow Kathak, Birju has proved his excellence as a performer, guru and choreographer. As the director of Kathak Kendra, Delhi, he has popularized Kathak all over the world, so that one can find his disciples in Europe, U.S.A. and the South East Asian countries. Among the outstanding dancers groomed under him are Sarswati Sen, Krishna Mohan, Ram Mohan, Bhaswati Misra, Durga Arya, Vijai Shanker (who runs a Kathak school in Tokyo), Pratap Pawar (who runs a school in London), Paris-born Veronique Azan, Arjun Misra (a senior guru in the Kathak Kendra, Lucknow), Madhukar Anand and Kajal Sharma. Birju is a fine combination of tradition and innovation and the numerous ballets by him and his troupe have won wide acclaim. His Kathak Kendra troupe has been praised as “the Bolshoi of India.” The Lucknow Kathak Kendra which has built up a good reputation under its founder director Lachhu Maharaj, had been languishing for many years for want of a devoted guru. Since the last few months, it is once again in the limelight under the dynamic Arjun Misra, a disciple of Birju, who has already attracted a large number of students.

The Uttar Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademy has had many distinguished past chairmen, but it was under Thakur Jaideva Singh, the great scholar and musicologist, that it launched many new schemes, most important being the publication of a large number of books on art. Under the secretariship of V.V. Srikande during the last nine years, the Akademy has become known as one of the most active ones in the country. What with the weekly Avadh Sandhya concepts (of music, dance and drama) the centenaries of great artistes of the past, Kathak festivals, competitions and drama festivals, this academy offers plenty of musical fairs all the year round.

The Bhatkhande College of Music established in Lucknow in 1926 has played a vital role in training generations of performing artistes, dedicated gurus and gifted composers. The immensity of Bhatkhande’s contributions to music can be fully appreciated in the context of how music and dance had become arts to be shunned by girls and boys from cultured families because these arts had acquired a stigma owing to association with debased forms practiced by prostitutes. The art of music had drifted far away from the theory and there was utter confusion and controversy. It was more than six decades ago that the chatturpandit succeeded in reinstalling the falling image of the muse on a lofty pedestal and also in reconciling theory with practice. It was lucky for Lucknow that he chose this city as his karambhoomi and established the College here, and that this was the venue for two out of five historic All India Music Conferences (in 1924 and 1925). Upto the Fifties, the reputation of the College was so formidable under the principal-ship of Dr. Ratanjankar, that some of the greatest musicians and dancers of the North used to be frequent visitors and performers here. As an alumni, this writer has had the privilege of attending a large number of these unforgettable soirees. Today, the missionary spirit of the past is gone, and the standards have fallen under the prosaic management of the State Government.

The Uttar Dakshin Cultural Organisation was started in 1974 by a group of Hindustani and Karnatic music-lovers as their contribution to national integration through music and dance. Its impressive tenure of 19 years of activity covers numerous musical evenings by musicians and dancers from all parts of India.

Lucknow has contributed music directors, (like Naushad, Madan Mohan, Roshan), actors and actresses (like Kumar, Iftekar, Akhtari Bai, Bina Rai, Yashodhara Katju, Swaranlata), singers (Talat Mahmud, Anup Jalota, Dilraj Kaur, Krishna Kalle), writers (like Amritlal Nagar, Bhagawati Sharan Varma, Achala Nagar), lyricists and dancers. Lachhu Maharaj was a very successful choreographer for many films. Pahadi Sanyal, Leela Desai and Kamlesh Kumari of New Theatres at Calcutta were all trained here.

Though Lucknow’s endearing pahle aap culture is being swept away, there is still a quality of warmth in this city. Amir Hasan writes in his ‘Palace Culture of Lucknow’, ‘No other city can perhaps claim to have won a larger measure of love and loyalty from its citizens than Lucknow’. He has compared Lucknow to “an exquisitely charming courtesan who is highly sophisticated, elegant, well-mannered is a good conversationalist, has a fairly good knowledge of contemporary literature and topics of the day, and is capable of satisfying the diverse tastes and needs of her clients and admirers”.

An often quoted couplet by poet Hazarat Nasikh goes as follows: Lucknow hum pe fida, hum fida-e-Lucknow, kya hai taakat-e-aasman ki jo hamse churdaye Lucknow! (Lucknow is in love with me, and I am in love with Lucknow, No force on earth can separate me from Lucknow!).

Credits : Susheela Mishra / This article was originally published in Taj Magazine