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‘Art will change with time, so the shastra can’t stay behind’: Prabha Atre

One of the seniormost performing artistes in the country, Hindustani classical vocalist Prabha Atre, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan last month, continues to challenge ideologies of a rigid system and make classical music approachable to all

prabhaPrabha Atre questioned traditional methods of thought and expression in Indian classical music, in the way it’s taught to young adults and the adherence to singing a raga at a particular time (photo credit: Express Archives)

Over the last 15 years, Hindustani classical vocalist Prabha Atre has headlined the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav — a significant event in the country’s cultural calendar. Initiated by Pt Bhimsen Joshi in memory of his guru, the annual Pune festival draws large crowds, who travel from far and wide, some even sleeping outside the ticket counter for festival passes in the morning. Until he retired in 2006, Joshi would close the festival. He then chose Atre, who has carried it forward even after his passing in 2011.

This year, the festival — Joshi’s birth centenary year — stands cancelled due to the pandemic. In its place, there will be Abhivadan — a three-day festival that honours the Kirana gharana doyen. Atre will be its main act on February 6.

At home in Shivajinagar, Pune, Atre, one of the seniormost performing artistes in the country, continues to do what she has for the last 70 years — wake up at dawn to discover the secrets of the swaras (notes). “There is no other way to hone your art, to discover something more,” says Atre, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan last month. She has earlier received the Padma Shri in 1990 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002.

Atre, at 90, may come across as an orthodox musician but a look at her oeuvre tells otherwise. She has nurtured this knowledge and at the same time questioned it. She challenged existing ideologies of classical music, in the way it’s taught to young adults, in the allegiance to a gharana, the adherence to singing a raga at a particular time and has been fascinated with the idea of using sargam (solfège) to present her khayals (thoughts). Sargam is declasse in classical music since it is used to understand the form at the beginner level, but it became the topic of her PhD in 1974. Her radical thoughts have riled many. But Atre is unfazed. “One needs to analyse and present a thought with logical reasoning even when it’s something as technical and abstract as the classical arts,” she says. According to Mumbai-based musicologist Deepak Raja, “Prabha Atre is a thinker, and one of the most respectable vocalists in the country.”

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Her ability to question the art form probably comes from the fact that she was not born into a family of musicians. “Forget about performing classical music, no one had even heard it in my family,” says Atre. Sometimes, the radio played at home, in Pune, and Atre found herself being pulled in by the voices of Noor Jehan, Begum Akhtar and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

prabha atre A younger Atre with her guru Hirabai Barodekar (photo courtesy: Prabha Atre)

But real learning happened when she met her gurus. Her father, a headmaster, employed a harmonium guru for her ailing mother. Though her mother quit after three-four lessons, Atre continued. She was in her mid-teens when her father’s friend took her to Mumbai-based vocalist Sureshbabu Mane, son of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan of the Kirana gharana. Atre sang Ka karoon sajni, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali’s famed thumri in raag Sindhu Bhairavi. Mane was impressed and agreed to teach her.

Four years later, when Mane died in 1953, his sister Hirabai Barodekar took her on as a student for the next couple of years. “My gurus were very open-minded and would always say ‘don’t be a photocopy’. They gave me a strong foundation,” says Atre. She also graduated in science followed by a law degree.

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Atre joined All India Radio, Ranchi, as an assistant producer in 1960, where she was introduced to a variety of musicians and genres, including Carnatic classical and Western pop. She was fascinated by the music of Ustad Amir Khan, the founder of Indore gharana, Patiala gharana legend Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and Roshan Ara Begum of Kirana gharana. This is when she was deepening her quest to critically analyse her own music. “There is art and then there is the shastra (science) behind it. Art will change with time, so the shastra can’t stay behind. My background allowed me to have a scientific approach to an abstract form,” says Atre. By then, she had begun to perform and was a rising star in the concert circuit in the ’60s. Like everything conventional, she grappled with the idea of marriage and decided it was not for her.

For all her success, there were no recordings to prove it beyond the concerts. In the ’60s and ’70s, LPs were the only way to reach a wider audience. But, Atre didn’t go that route. She calls it her own fault. “Many people approached me, but I was a very shy musician and refused,” she says.

In those days, alongside her was Kishori Amonkar — Indian classical vocalist Mogubai Kurdikar’s temperamental and talented daughter — whose popularity was on the rise. “Kishori took the vocal music world by storm. But Prabha retained her individuality and stature even at a time when the Indian music world was swept by the Kishori wave. These two careers, at their peak, were parallel for a good 25-30 years,” says Raja.

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By the middle of 1971 came an HMV record that overwhelmed the rasikas (aesthetes). It was Atre’s presentation of two much-loved ragas — Maru Bihag and Kalavati. Atre was 43 then, presenting one of her own compositions, not common at such an early stage. “The way we think of Kishori tai’s Bhoop, we associate Maru Bihag and Kalavati with Prabha tai,” says Hubli-based Jayateerth Mevundi, a leading vocalist from the Kirana gharana. “I see children singing her bandish (composition) Tana mana dhana in music competitions all the time. They may not know who’s composed it but that’s how popular it is,” he says.

After her last stint at AIR in 1970, Atre headed the music department at SNDT University, Mumbai, from 1980-92. There she turned around the curriculum, making it broader in approach, allowing students to explore various genres of music. According to Raja, there is hardly anyone who’s been a full-time teacher and retained a top-class status in the performing field. “Full-time teachers tend to be academic. But in her case, it did not stifle her,” he says.

Mumbai-based classical singer Chetna Banawat-Pathak, who has learnt from her for 24 years, remembers travelling with Atre for concerts. By the time they would reach a destination, a new bandish was ready. “Her raag Bahar bandish, Ritu basant aayi, was created on the train. One has to not just know the art form well, but go deep into the ocean for this,” says Banawat-Pathak. Atre’s inward reflections have led to many new ragas.

When Atre is not composing and performing, she is writing books. Her book Enlightening the Listener — Contemporary North Indian Classical Vocal Music Performance (Coronet Books Inc, 2000) is a guide to understanding finer details of classical music. “I wanted to explain the idea behind this system, teach it to students, and explain it to the masses,” says Atre, for whom the audience, often inconsequential to the concept of classical music, plays a significant role, “If we want people to appreciate classical music, then we have to make it approachable,” she adds.

To the world she is a scholar and a musician, but to her students, she is a friend and a mother, who sometimes cooks a typical Maharashtrian meal for them. Even after all these years, Atre’s discipline and commitment is impeccable. It’s probably why Atre sounds euphonious even at this age.

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A couple of years ago, there was a theft in Atre’s Pune home; some cell phones, pen drives and hard disks were stolen. It was 4.30 am and Atre was immersed in her riyaaz. She heard some rustling in the next room, she told the police later, but she continued to sing.

First published on: 31-01-2022 at 07:00:59 pm
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