Updated: January 7, 2015 11:21:53 am
It was 1971. In dimmed concert halls across the country, some of the most accomplished artistes such as Kishori Amonkar, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Ravi Shankar were delivering class acts. These were not just concerts. At least not to the thousands who managed to get tickets. The musicians were at the peak of their careers and classical music was never more upmarket. Around the same time, HMV brought out a recording — a chhota khayal in raag Maru Bihag — by a relatively unknown vocalist named Prabha Atre.
Known until now only as the legendary Hirabai Barodekar’s reticent student, who accompanied her during her concerts, Atre had a strong and well-cultivated voice. At age 43, this was her own composition. A piece in a relatively modern raag, with only a taanpura, a tabla and a high-pitched peti being played along, the crafty bandish had all proportions in place. It echoed the cadence of the legendary Ustad Amir Khan. It was a career-defining moment for the science and law graduate. Even illustrious.
“The piece became famous. Every concert I performed after that, people requested it. It suited my temperament and style. I had learnt the system from the gurus. Now it was time to evolve and compose. I wanted to do that on my own. Spontaneity needs to be one’s own,” says Atre, over a telephone conversation from her Mahim apartment in Mumbai.
Her sentences are short, her phrases crisp, but the reverberations are potent, like the striking eloquence of her gayaki. The 82-year-old headlined this year’s Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav — one of the biggest and the most prestigious music festivals in the country. The festival’s founder and cardinal pillar, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi passed away in 2011. Since 2006, when Pandit ji fell ill, it was Atre in every finale. “It’s quite a responsibility and honour,” says Atre. Despite her excellence and seniority, there was opposition from other artistes because she brought changes to the presentation of sargam (a set of notes) in a raga as distinct musical material besides aalaap, bols and taan. “If you are confident, if you’ve thought it through, keeping in mind the rules taught to you, you have to evolve. One needs to move forward with tradition,” says Atre.
Growing up in Pune with parents who were teachers, raagas and riyaz were fancy worlds and Bollywood music “not healthy”. For Atre, music happened by accident. Her mother fell sick and “soon went into a brooding mode.” This is when a harmonium guru was employed to keep her mind off the illness. She quit after three-four lessons; Atre continued. In her teens, she went on to learn from Sureshbabu Mane and later from Barodekar. “I would have been dissecting frogs otherwise. Singing is a better option I think,” says Atre, who also acknowledges the influence of Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, which equipped her in other semi-classical genres such as thumri, daadra and ghazal, a rarity in the system. “I just couldn’t be the serious classical singer only. I enjoyed thumri a lot,” says Atre, who has written books on classical music, its analytical thinking and presentation. Her book, Enlightening the Listener — Contemporary North Indian Classical Vocal Music Performance (Coronet Books Inc.; Har/Cas edition (2000),
is famous with foreign students, who want to understand the finer details of classical music.
Despite the famous HMV-recorded Maru Bihag that made her a known name in the circuit, many concerts with precise grammar and technique, and a senior position at All India Radio, Atre is perhaps the least recorded artiste of her stature. “It’s all my fault. I just kept postponing it because I was busy with the sadhana of it, writing books and teaching. I kept myself away from recording for Akashvani and Doordarshan. It just was more comfortable that way. Now, it doesn’t really matter. I’m still singing. Aren’t I?” giggles Atre. Just like that shy teenager who accompanied Barodekar, one who was to surprise the world with her originality.
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