Off The Record: What the mehfil meant to the artiste and her audience

A baithak is an intimate space, a confluence of minds and music. In the age of impersonal concerts in packed halls, we look back at what the mehfil meant to the artiste and her audience and how it has changed over the years

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi | Published:June 14, 2015 1:00 am
Pandit Jasraj at Sunita Budhiraja’s Delhi residence last year Pandit Jasraj at Sunita Budhiraja’s Delhi residence last year

In March this year, in a dimly-lit living room in a Gurgaon farmhouse, away from the cacophony of the city, a handful of people were seated on the floor. The furniture had been removed to make way for mattresses, the rustle of silk and the whiff of itr filled the room. A few moments later, there was a gentle announcement on the microphone: “Main Girija hoon.” Guests broke out into peals of laughter because the 86-year-old thumri legend is no stranger to the followers of Indian classical music. Girijia Devi let the laughter die down before taking a paan out of her silver paandaan. After putting it in her mouth, she began to sing Aisi hori na khelo kanhayi re in raag Mishra Pilu. As the audience let their appreciation show, Girija Devi responded to it with a smile and a glance. A private baithak such as this involve an intimate gathering and a tehzeeb different from a public concert’s, and Girija Devi, a regular at the baithaks organised by 81-year-old businessman Vinod Kapoor, knew exactly how to set the mehfil alight. Soon, requests and demands for a tappa or a particular thumri or a kajri she had sung long ago began coming in. Girija Devi obliged, happy to be performing amidst “those who really understand music.”

“Just like classical music cannot be learned from textbooks, it also cannot be performed in a textbook style to a concert audience. A baithak is the right way to listen to classical music,” says Kapoor, who is an old hand at organising baithaks. He first met Girija Devi in Rampur almost 50 years ago, when she was a 35-year-old embarking on a career in professional classical music, and he, a sprightly 30-year-old eager to make it big in life. An invitation to sing in Bareilly, where he was in charge of a factory, brought Girija Devi to the first baithak organised by him. “I had no idea about the nuances of classical music, but her voice filled my heart with joy. I listened to it like a rasik, finding happiness in it,” says Kapoor, who has hosted baithaks featuring Girija Devi several times since under “VSK baithaks”. Over the years, he has also hosted a slew of legends such as Begum Parveen Sultana, Pt Chhannu Lal Mishra, Gundecha Brothers, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, Pt Ulhas Kashalkar, Pt Venkatesh Kumar and many others.

Gundecha-Brothers A performance by the Gundecha brothers at Vinod Kapoor’s Gurgaon farmhouse

Private baithaks or mehfils were a part of a robust world of Hindustani music that came to the fore in the latter part of the 19th century. The Mughal empire was on its way out when classical music stepped out of the king’s courts and into the homes of wealthy patrons — merchants and noblemen — who hosted musical soirees in their mansions. While the baithaks were, and are, mostly attended by a few privileged ones (the patrons mostly invite friends, family, musicians and music connoisseurs), any rasik wanting to attend the evening is never turned away.

A parallel world to the more popular concert culture, baithaks are now few and far between. Only a handful of patrons such as Kapoor continue with the tradition. While the death of many elderly patrons have seen their families discontinue these events, another reason behind its decline is the dwindling interest in classical music. Very few people seem interested in investing money and effort in organising such soirees.

Yet, it was not always like this. A major chapter in the history of classical music was the arrival of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in Calcutta in the mid-19th century. “This supplemented existing practices of music patronage among aristocratic families of the region. Mehfils were regularly conducted and commercial recordings began in Kolkata. The city continued to be a hub of activity for the gramophone companies till the 1960s,” says Amlan Dasgupta, who has spearheaded the digital archive of North Indian classical music at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

Much like the setting of filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Jalshaghar, the chandeliered music rooms of Kolkata rajbaris played host to grand mehfils, where musicians such as Gauhar Jaan (the first musician to record her music in India) came in horse-drawn carriages to perform for the zamindars. The gas lamps would be lit, the air would be heavy with the smell of jasmine and and she would croon Aan baan jiya mein laagi, kaahe chitchor in her nasal voice to the accompaniment of a sarangi and a tabla.

“In the earlier part of the 20th century, grand mehfils were organised at the Pathuriaghata rajbari by Manmathanath Ghosh,” says tabla player Tanmoy Bose, who recently launched an initiative to revive the long-forgotten tradition of mehfils in Kolkata. Ghosh is proud of the fact that sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar met his guru and later father-in-law Ustad Allauddin Khan in one of the mehfils there. Then, there were regular mehfils held in nearby towns like Srerampore, Uttarpara and Agarpara. The prosperous mercantile class patronised such concerts and, after the arrival of recording technology in 1902, also made private recordings for their own collection. “Most of the contributions in our archive come from such mehfils,” says Dasgupta.

While the cultural scene in Calcutta was going through a slow churn, Mumbai and Delhi were becoming important hubs too. The famous Laxmi Baug building in Mumbai’s Girgaum, which celebrated its centenary in 2013, is known to have hosted legends such as the temperamental Kesarbai Kerkar and Moghubai Kudrikar (Kishori Amonkar’s mother) and is remembered for its all-night concerts. Hosted by Shantaram Narayan Dabholkar, a zamindar who had constructed the building, these baithaks became the toast of the town. In Delhi, cultural impresario Sumitra Charat Ram, vocalist Naina Devi and Pt Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, founder of the Delhi chapter of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, used to be at the forefront of baithaks that took place at their homes. “These were interactive, intimate spaces where most artistes found a knowledgeable audience. Indian music is like telling a story. You converse with your audience. The artiste is like a jeweller showing a precious stone. The encouragement becomes inspiration,” says tabla maestro Aneesh Pradhan, who recently penned Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay, that describes many such soirees.

Shobha Deepak Singh, director at Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, remembers hosting legendary vocalist Ustad Mallikarjun Mansur at her home in Delhi almost three decades ago. She talks of how a small, intimate audience immediately put the artiste at ease. “During one soiree, for instance, Mansur stopped in the middle of a khayal and said, ‘Shobhaji, ek beedi pee loon?’ Such was the comfort of a baithak. He could have never done that in a concert,” says Singh, whose baithaks also featured Pt Ravi Shankar, Ut Vilayat Khan, Ut Amjad Ali Khan and Siddheshwari Devi.

A performance by Ustad Vilayat Khan at Vinay Chandra Maudgalya’s home in Delhi A performance by Ustad Vilayat Khan at Vinay Chandra Maudgalya’s home in Delhi

In a grainy, black and white video on YouTube, Mallika-e-ghazal Begum Akhtar is seen wrapped in a Kashmiri Jamawar shawl, singing Tabiyat in dinon begaana-e-gham hoti jaati hain. Around her, an appreciative audience sits enraptured, giving daad at regular intervals. In another video of a baithak in Mumbai, a young Ustad Rais Khan is accompanied by a young lad on tabla, who he refers to as “Allah Rakha ka beta.” The boy, still only known as Zakir Hussain back then, is seen playing variations of rhythm patterns of the classic background score of Pakeezah. The ambient music of the film finds a variety of twists and turns in Khan’s gayaki ang. “There were discerning listeners back then and the baithaks were the place to spot talent,” says santoor player Satish Vyas, who remembers his father’s performance at the house of the owners of Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital.

Connoisseurs and baithak veterans remember the flamboyance of Pandit Ravi Shankar, the intensity of Kishori Amonkar or the sincerity of Ustad Allauddin Khan. A 1962 baithak in Bangalore, the audio recording of which was made available to us by Shruti Chatur Lal, curator of Ta Dha, a Delhi-based museum on tabla maestro Pt Chatur Lal, has the legendary Ustad Ali Akbar Khan playing a fast gat in raag Yaman alongside Pt Chaturlal, mridangam vidwan Ramaiah MS, and Carnatic vocalist Doreswamy Iyenger to an appreciative and interacting audience.

Musicologist and sitar player Arvind Parikh recalls how after a baithak at Mumbai’s Bada Mandir, Ut Vilayat Khan, who had already performed to his heart’s content till the wee hours of the morning, told him to drive him to the promenade in Colaba. “With a cigarette in his mouth, he would sit in the backseat of the car and keep tinkering with the sitar. A baithak was so rejuvenating that he came up with ideas and just kept trying them until he was really tired and would ask me to take him home,” says Parikh. But artistes are also wary of connoisseurs at baithaks, he says. “They will never try anything new at a baithak. Wahan ki audience toh haath pakad leti hai agar ek swar bhi idhar udhar ho jaye (They pick up even the slightest deviation),” says Parikh.

Baithaks began to fade out in the late 1960s when the economic fortunes of the country went through deep upheavals. Music embraced the popularity of the public recitals with musicians becoming used to the idea of playing in impersonal spaces, to a large audience that included those not aware of the richness of classical music. By entering the concert arena and finding corporate sponsorships, classical music became more secular in style and form, but also left behind a world of whimsy and personal intimacy. “In dark auditoriums, the artiste is often the only one under a spotlight. Sometimes, they don’t even know who they are singing to. There is very little interaction,” says Pune-based musician Pushkar Lele, who is a regular at Kapoor’s baithaks and the ones organised by musicians Bharat Kamat and Suyog Kundalkar in Pune. Lele believes that now the artistes also have to compete with distractions like the IPL tournament.

Vinayak Chitter performs at Sahana Banerjee’s house in Pune Vinayak Chitter performs at Sahana Banerjee’s house in Pune

But when a baithak does happen, a handful of patrons in the country leave no stone unturned to make the artiste comfortable. Sunita Buddhiraja, CEO of a Noida-based public relations firm, recalls a baithak by Pandit Jasraj in her Bangalore home in the late ’90s that had her break two walls and change the flooring for one evening. “Pandit Jasraj had agreed to sing, but I felt that my drawing room was too small for a baithak, though I had hosted 100 people in the past there. I decided to break two walls that attached the living room to a bedroom and we could accommodate 125 people,” says Budhiraja, who has been hosting private baithaks since the ’80s. Kapoor says, “The least I can do for musicians is give them a deserving audience. I can’t listen to a concert where an artiste has to perform for two hours and go home. What is classical music without an all nighter?”

Pune-based sitar player Sahana Banerjee likes to invite younger artistes to her baithaks. “Most older patrons like to invite established artistes to their baithaks. I feel younger artistes need a similar platform too. It helps them gain confidence,” says Banerjee.

In most cases, the artistes receive a nazraana as a mark of appreciation. While most musicians and patrons don’t discuss any form of monetary compensation, there are rumours about jewellery being gifted to female artistes and artifacts to the male performers. “In earlier days, the patron would sometimes remove a ring or a necklace and gift it to the artiste. Sometimes, there is no payment at all, but sometimes, cheques are given,” says Pradhan.

With fewer baithaks around town, artistes hope that newer patrons will come forward. “I’m singing for the masses at concerts but an artiste deserves her creative freedom, which can only be achieved at these baithaks. I hope these baithaks don’t disappear altogether,” says Girija Devi.

With inputs from Premankur Biswas

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