Kolkata’s winter cultural calendar is incomplete without nightlong Classical music conferences. The city does boast of a rich heritage as Calcutta was the only place where men from different walks of life could listen to music at a time when the royal families and the rich were the patrons of Classical music exponents, barring entry of commoners to their private mehfils. Tarun Goswami remembers the golden old days with a touch of nostalgia.
It was 1984. The audience at the annual Dover Lane Music Conference held at Vivekananda Park was being enthralled by a debutante teenager who turned out to be none other than Ustad Rashid Khan. The thin, dark boy became a darling of the audience, many of them having trained ears for Hindustani Classical music. The rendition of Ragas like Todi or Mia Mallar was brilliant, blending grammatical perfection with emotion.
Rashid had already performed at private functions. His simplicity, innocence and dedication to music brought him success. In fact, I was present at a function organised by Mr Jayanta Chatterjee at Barrackpore where Rashid sung bhajans. He sang the bhajan, Baisnab jana, a favourite of Gandhiji. Interestingly, Lata Mangeshkar had taught him the finer nuances over telephone just a day before the show. Abhijit Banerjee accompanied him on tabla.
The 1980s saw the rise of another star, Pandit Ajay Chakraborty. His mellifluous voice coupled with his rendition mesmerised the audience. His impeccable training in Classical music and superb stage presence made him a rising star. He is truly the last of the legendary Bengali vocalists like Tarapada Chakraborty, Bhismadeb Chatterjee, Chinmoy Lahiri and Gyanendra Prasad Goswami. The maestro is equally proficient in bhajans, light classical songs and devotional songs.
Going back to the golden old days, Baba Alauddin Khan used to sit with Narendranath Dutta (Swami Vivekananda) while he learnt clarinet from his cousin, Amritalal Dutta. Later, Alauddin Khan went on to join Bengali Theatre and was inducted in Star’s musical team. He even played tabla in the background music of Chaitnyalila witnessed by Sri Ramakrishna who changed the name of the 14-year-old to Prasanna Biswas.
In the mid 1940s, Akhtari Bai (later Begum Akhtar) performed in the city with Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan on harmonium and Ahmedjan Therakua on tabla. Akhtari had just begun to sing when GaharJaan blessed the little girl on stage, predicting in front of the audience that in coming days she would be a phenomenon. True to her prediction Akhtari won recognition as the Ghazal Queen.
Two more musical conferences were famous- Tansen and Sadarang and both were held in Mahajati Sadan. Baba Alauddin Khan was a regular performer, playing well known Ragas on sarod and also his own compositions. Hirendranath Ganguly, more popular as Hirubabu, was on tabla. Hirubabu worked as the official liquidator of Calcutta High Court and never charged a single paisa for his shows.
Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had sung his famous song Ka Karu Sajani Ayena Balam leaving his audience mesmerised. Later vocalists like Heera Bai Barodekar, Mogubai Kurdekar, Gangubai Hungal and Kishori Amonkar had performed in these shows. It may be recalled that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi had arrived in the 1940s and was working in the house of Pahari Sanyal to learn Classical music. Ustad Amir Khan too possessed a love for the city and these conferences were incomplete without him.
The scenario changed in the late 1960s with the Naxalite movement. Audience dwindled and so did collections leading to winding up of conferences by mid 1970s.
Dover Lane Music Conference had a humble beginning in 1952 as a para function but gradually gained immense popularity and prestige offering budding musicians as well as established ones a platform to showcase their talent and perfection. The music conference held at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Gol Park on January 12, birthday of Swamiji, started by Swami Lokeswarananda, is known for projecting new artists. Swami Vivekananda, himself was a good classical singer and had co-authored a book Sangeet Kalpataru while still in college.
Among the current crop of musicians Kaushiki Desikan, daughter of Pandit Ajay Chakraborty and Sandipan Samajpati deserve mention. Well known vocalists like Pandit Arun Bhaduri and Girija Devi also performed at these conferences. I still remember Pandit Ravi Shankar performing at the Dover Lane conference in the mid 1980s. A few among the audience sitting in the front row were chatting while Panditji was tuning his sitar. He stopped midway and asked the audience to share the jokes with him since it will be boring to perform for more than an hour. The audience apologised and he carried on with his show. In 1996 Pandit Bhimsen Joshi received a standing ovation at the Dover Lane music conference when he sang Adhakhandan Dukho and Thumaka Chalato Ramchandra, the song that had become immensely popular due to the amazing rendition of VD Paluskar. In the same year Ustad Zakir Hussain was accompanying Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and their brilliant performance became a perfect illustration of ‘guru-shisya parampara’.
Interestingly, in both these conferences a sizeable percentage of audience are young interested in all sorts of music ranging from rock, to Western and Hindustani Classical. This openness is the defining mark of a good audience. With this trained audience we can hope that more Classical music conferences will be held in the city and more new talents will be found.