Raghupati raghav raja ram, remembered as Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, originally didn’t sound the way as we know it today. Composed by legendary vocalist and composer Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, founder of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya (1901), the tune based on raag Jaijaiwanti, one of gurbani’s most loved ragas, was largely the same. But it came with embellishments of Gwalior gharana — the clear expansive voice, the emphasis on the melody of the bandish, bol baant (rhythmic play using the words), and elements of the lightning speed sapaat taans.
The history of India would be incomplete without its music. And the history of its music would be incomplete without Gwalior gharana, the oldest musical gharana and one of the most significant chapters in the compendium of Hindustani classical music, which flourished under Raja Man Singh Tomar; Mian Tansen was one of its early proteges.
This school of music is now the subject of a documentary — Gwalior: A Journey of Indian Music — by 25-year-old filmmaker and drummer (Sushmit Sen Chronicles), Nandit Desai, and was screened at IGNCA, Delhi, last month.
The 52-minute documentary was the dissertation film for Desai, a National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, graduate. “I was trying to find my niche in filmmaking when I began work on this. I grew up in a home where classical music was the order of life; my mother Subhadra Desai is a classical vocalist. I saw a programme on Doordarshan about Gwalior gharana, and thought that there is no film on any particular gharana and I should attempt one,” says Delhi-based Desai, whose past projects include an experimental documentary on Thol Bird Sanctuary, and and a documentary-styled project on Varanasi.
In the film, Desai records its glorious past — the inception and propagation through Gwalior’s musicians including Ustad Rehmat Ali Khan, Ustad Bade Inayat Hussain Khan, and Pt Vinayakbuwa Patwardhan. He has interviewed musicians including Pt LK Pandit, Meeta Pandit, and Pt Madhup Mudgal. He chose Sadhna Shrivastav as narrator, remembered by most as a Doordarshan newscaster from the ’80s and ’90s, and by the classical music rasikas as the voice announcing classical concerts.
The documentary takes us through many facets of the gharana — how it came into existence during the 16th century under Raja Tomar; how khayal singing, as we know it today, emerged from dhr upad under the aegis of the gharana while incorporating the elements of qawwali; and the sociological and musicological reasons for the emergence of khayal. The film tells how Ustad Naththan Peer Buksh of Gwalior was one of the early masters to create khayal — the orderly system of presenting a raga which became extremely popular in 18th and 19th century.
What’s interesting about Gwalior is the inclusion of Persian words in the pieces and concepts of bandish ki thumri. “When you listen to singers of Agra, Jaipur Atrauli, Banaras or Kirana gharana, there is a certain texture of voice that you identify those gharanas with, but with Gwalior gayaki there is no such texture, awaaz bana ke gaane wali parampara (formulating a particular singing voice) does not exist. There was a certain oneness, but the way their voices were produced, every artiste had a unique way, something I didn’t find in other gharanas. That struck a chord,” says Desai, who took 14 months to create the film.
The film moves from musicians’ homes in Delhi and Mumbai to Raja Tomar’s palace in Gwalior, describing the vastness of the gharana that found patronage with the Scindias later. “The film compelled me look at music from the perspective of a filmmaker and cinema from the perspective of a rasika.”