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Notes to the City

A collaborative project showcases the significance of a Mumbai neighbourhood in the history of Hindustani classical music.

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh |
Updated: June 9, 2015 5:19:27 pm
delhi talk, talk, muic, classical music, hindustani classical music, Tejaswini Niranjana, Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Indian Express A view of the Trinity Club, also known as Trimurti Sangeet Mandal, which became a hub for future stars of Hindustani sangeet in the ’50s. (Source: Photo by Ganesh Shirsekar)

When Bangalore-based cultural theorist Tejaswini Niranjana returned from the Caribbean after a project on chutney music in the region, she carried a few questions back home. Exploring the subjects of migration, music and women, Niranjana’s questions were now directed towards her own state, Karnataka, that unlike other Southern states, has a history of producing some of the greats in the Hindustani classical music such as Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal. But what must have led these Kannada-speaking artistes, to veer towards Hindustani sangeet, wondered Niranjana. The answers, the search for which went on through research of old recordings, documents and a series of interviews, kept pointing at one place: the city of Bombay.

“If Hubli, my hometown gave me Rs 5 for a performance, Bombay offered Rs 125,” Hangal is heard saying in an old recording found by Niranjana. It explains how, with the crumbling of the Mughal courts and the decline of the princely states, Calcutta losing its Colonial importance and Delhi’s administrative problems, musicians all over India turned to Bombay for a new patronage.

“This is were all economic activity was,” says filmmaker Surabhi Sharma, who was collaborated with Niranjana and architecture theorist Kaiwan Mehta in a multi-disciplinary project titled Making Space Making Music. “Migrants — merchants and traders including Gujaratis, Bhatiyals and Marwaris, were settling in here. They had money and they wanted to push forward this musical culture because they realised this is an art form that needs to be propagated and preserved,” she adds.

The project that culminates in an exhibition is on from June 15 to July 7, at Mumbai’s Studio X, has led to the discovery of an unlikely, and perhaps, overlooked chapter in the history of Hindustani music. The ongoing show links the history of Hindustani sangeet and that of post-independence Bombay.

At the centre of this flourishing musical culture was a particular neighbourhood: Girgaum, that owing to its proximity to the Bori Bunder and the Chhatrapati Sivaji Terminus, became an ideal place for the merchants and traders to settle in. Even today, populated with old fashioned chawls and shops, the environs of Girgaum hark back to a kind of lifestyle that has disappeared over time. While a large section of the residents moved to the suburbs as the city expanded, the music scene too moved away from the neighbourhood.

Some, like 54 year old Nitin Shirodkar, still live there, to tell tales of bumping into Ustads and having a friendly chat around the corner of a street. In one of the videos from the project, Sharma interviews Shirodkar reminiscing how the chawl would turn into a performance arena, with people standing in pavements to listen to greats. “Classical music was well within the reach of the middle class then. Artistes were not that fussy,” Shirodkar tells us.

Several performance spaces and music schools, that exist even today, emerged in the neighbourhood. Laxmi Baug, one of the first performance spaces in the area, is now rented out for wedding functions and religious ceremonies. So is the famous Ganpati celebrations of Lamington Road Cha Raja was once known for getting some of the biggest names to perform.

For any artiste visiting the city in the 50s without a place to stay, Trinity Club, also known as Trimurti Sangeet Mandal, would offer its immediate services. Founded by Bhaskar Rao Bua Bakle of Agra Gharana, it became a hub for many future stars. A one room chawl that is still functional today, it is stocked with all the essential musical instruments and framed photographs of famous musicians such as Gauharjan, Abdul Karim Khan, “Bhugandharva” Rahmat Khan, to Kesarbai Kerkar. It is now, however, set to be demolished to give way to a new structure and shift to a different locality, Shirodkar informs us.

Through photographs, videos, texts and talks, the project that is funded by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region-Heritage Conservation Society, Making Music Making Space explores the multi-layered stories that emerge out of the neighbourhood and its link with the music during 1860-1950.

For instance, the growing popularity of the Hindustani classical music would create ripple effects in the other art forms related to music of the time, such as cinema and theatre. Writers from Uttar Pradesh, tawaifs from the North Indian courts and the baijis of Goa coming down to Bombay also helped Hindi gain centrestage in the larger cultural environment. The need for accompanying instruments would lead to the emergence of shops of musical instruments such as the Azad Avnad music shop.

This would pique interest in people in learning the art giving way to the emergence of music schools in and around the neighborhood such as as Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at Chowpatty and Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. Deodhar school of music, near French Bridge, is perhaps the most prestigious of all. It was instrumental in starting the ‘notation’ process in Hindustani classical music. It was instrumental in making classical music more accessible to the people. Legend has it that BR Deodhar, who founded the institution in 1925, gave Bade Ghulam Ali Khan break as a vocalist when he was a sarangi accompanist with the courtesans performing in the city. “As was the tradition in those days, when he performed for the first time in the school, the audience showered money, Rs 40, a handsome sum. He was overwhelmed and said that even Lahore didn’t show him as much love as Mumbai,” says Shirodkar.


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