State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

A musician needs two types of people in the audience – those who really understand the depth of the music and those who may not understand its full depth, but offer financial support for the musician.
Commercial music concerts of Indian classical music have changed over the last two to three decades. On the good side, it is becoming more financially possible to be a classical musician; on the bad side, audiences with a deep understanding of music are decreasing.
There was a time when the first five rows of commercial concerts were reserved for people who deeply understood music. Rich people in suits and expensive Kurtās were actually seated behind these rows. Only then did the artist get into the mood to play real music because there were people who understood it.
I remember one concert that happened in Ahmedabad 20-30 years ago. It was a concert of a well-known musician who was travelling abroad. A short time into the concert, the audience had stopped the concert. Five people were on stage. They asked the musician not to play Palṭās. If he was to play, he had to play real music or there was no need for the concert. This was the strength of the audience. There was no room for gimmicks. The audience understood Indian classical music and did not accept anything less than true playing.
Today, things have changed. Today, in many commercial concerts, the financial supporters, who often do not have a very deep understanding of music, are the ones who occupy the front rows, while those who understand music, the students and connoisseurs, end up sitting in some corner. The demand for high-quality has decreased, and the artist consequently does not play that kind of music because it is not expected of him.
You can clearly see the changes in commercial concerts. Commercial concerts of a single artist used to begin at 8pm and end at least 3-4 hours later. Now, they finish in a span of 45 – 90 minutes. The ālāp alone used to last 1 – 2 hours. Now, we hear perhaps a 5 minute ālāp and 2-3 Rāgas in that time period. This is not necessarily because the artist is incapable of performing a long concert. In the younger generation, there might not be as many who can (as the concert demand has changed), but we still do have artists who can perform these “real” concerts. However, the general audience is not ready or trained to listen to and enjoy these concerts.
The training of an audience will not happen overnight. It requires regular exposure to high-quality musicians. Those who have an understanding should not be afraid to demand high-quality music, while those who are developing an understanding should not simply accept whatever the market is giving them to be the best.
The development of an audience takes time and commitment, but if it is not done, there will be a very small chance of hearing a real Indian classical music concert in the future.

First Meeting with Abbāji (Ustād Allārakhā Khān)

First-Meeting-with-Abbaji

First Meeting with Abbāji (Ustād Allārakhā Khān)

It was 1975 or 1976. I came to know that Ustād Allārakhā khān was coming to Ahmedabad to accompany Panḍit Ravi Shankar. It was a program arranged by Sur Singār, an organization for which I was a young volunteer.
I received news of Ustādji’s arrival and that he had checked into a hotel across from Town Hall (I can’t recall the name). I went to the hotel at 8:30am with a small bouquet of flowers. I knocked on his door. I distinctly remember how he looked when he opened the door. He looked royal and emanated an immense personality. I gave him the bouquet, took his blessings and introduced myself.
He asked me who I was learning from. I gave my Gurū’s name – Panḍit Sudhirkumar Saxenā.
“Yes, I know him. He looks like me,” replied Abbāji.
This all happened at the door of his room. I began to doubt whether or not he would invite me into the room. But with a broad smile, he asked me to come in. He asked me to join him for breakfast. I was very hungry, but was too excited and shy to accept the food he offered. When I said no, he placed the piece of sandwich in my hand and encouraged me to eat. That was the moment when I fell in love with this great maestro.
After breakfast, he asked me to recite some compositions. He listened very seriously as I recited a composition of Ajrāḍā Gharānā. After I spoke the composition, he said, “See, in Punjāb, we do it like this,” and he started speaking some amazing compositions, which sounded like magic to me, but were beyond my comprehension, as I was a junior at that stage.
“I would love to learn this, if you feel that I am competent someday,” I told Abbāji.
“Yes, I will teach you, but the thing is that I don’t spend much time in Mumbai. I spend more of my time abroad.” Then again he started to speak some more compositions.
After an hour and half, I don’t know how, but I asked him, “Can you come to my home for lunch today?”
He started laughing. I was only a young youth. He asked where I lived. I lived only 20 minutes away.
“I would be honored if you would come,” I said
“OK. I don’t disappoint anybody. Let me call Raviji. If he does not have a commitment for me, I’ll come to your house.”
He called up Raviji and said to him,”There is a kid in front of me. He is very sweet and is asking me to come to his house. Do you have something for me?”
Raviji wanted to rest, so Abbāji was free to come to my home.
I called my parents, who were very excited to hear the news and insisted that Abbāji have lunch at our home. When I told Abbāji about lunch, he told me that he would see.
Now as I was only a young teenager, I did not drive a scooter, let alone a car. I asked Abbāji if he would be willing to travel by rickshaw, which he kindly agreed to.
A portion of the drive was along a lonely road next to railway tracks. Our luck was such that the rickshaw stopped working right along this lonely road! There was no one around and the rickshaw driver’s many attempts were futile. I was very embarrassed at this point, but to my surprise, Abbāji turned to me and suggested we find another rickshaw.
We walked about 1 km in the hot sun of Ahmedabad before we found another rickshaw and arrived at my home.
After meeting my parents and formalities, Abbāji asked me to get a pair of Tablā and play for him. After hearing some of my playing, he taught me a Punjāb composition, and this was my first Punjāb composition. I greatly enjoyed our time and it continued as we had our lunch.
After lunch, I had called a neighbour who has a car, so that we could drop Abbāji at the hotel in an appropriate mode of transportation.
The time we spent together that day is something I will always remember. After that day, whenever Abbāji came to Ahmedabad (once or twice annually), I would always be present as his sevak, and he regularly visited my home.
About 15 years later, after the demise of my second guru, Ustād Latif Ahmed Khān, I followed through on my desire to learn Punjāb Gharānā and became a Ganḍābandhit student of Abbāji. I’ll save stories about my Ganḍābandhan ceremony and other experiences with him for another time.

Great Nakkārā Player – Ustād Dilāwar Khān

Great Nakkārā Player – Ustād Dilāwar Khān

One day, I received a phone call from some friends in Jaipur. A nakkārā player, Ustād Dilāwar Khān, was coming to Ahmedābād. (At the time, I did not know it, but he is one of the greatest nakkārā players in the world. I highly recommend that you listen to him.)
The Tablā has many influences and origins. The nakkārā (picture below) has a very strong influence on Tablā. It is two drums that are played with sticks. They are not widely played as an instrument. It is typically just played with the Śehnāi (Shehnaai). It is also rare to find nakkārā soloists of this caliber. Before hearing him, I had never heard the nakkārā played with such virtuosity.
The program was held in an old haveli (villa/ mansion). Almost all the good musicians of the city had congregated to hear the Ustād play. Before going to the program, I did not know what to expect, but my Jaipur friend had been adamant that this was not to be missed. I went to the program with a student of mine, Nitin Tripārti. As I watched him tune his instrument, I could anticipate the caliber of his playing.
His solo blew me away. He played all the complex compositions of the Tablā using sticks on the nakkārā . His solo was set in Tīntal. Similar to a Tablā solo, he began with a peśkār. He produced amazing mīnḍ using thin sticks. You could see his sādhanā in his playing. The speed of his kāidās and clarity of his relās. It was a Tablā solo, but with sticks. It’s difficult, but try to imagine Tirakiṭ compositions played with sticks. He played La killa (naga naga naga) with tremendous speed and power on one drum.
Everyone in the audience was amazed. Dilāwarsāheb took farmāiś from the audience. Panḍit Kishen Māhārāj was present and requested to hear a laggi. The way he played Dha Te Na Da laggi, with amazing speed and fluidity! The concert was truly a treat for musicians, especially for Tablā players.
I had always heard that Tablā, came from the nakkārā. That evening, I could clearly see and hear the relationship between the two.
After that solo, I never heard or saw Dilāwar Khānsāheb again. I searched for other nakkārā players, but never came across anyone who could play his level of playing and mastery. That evening was one of those rare concerts in my life, and even though there was no recording, I can hear it as clearly as I did nearly 30 years ago.

Playing with Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā

Playing with Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā

It was 1979 or 1980. I was working as the youngest tabla teacher in the city at the Gandharva Māhāvidyālaya Manḍal, one of the oldest music institutes in Ahmedabad. Our principal, Mr. Rāvjibhāi Patel, called me and said, “We are doing a national conference of Māhāvidyālaya Manḍal at Valsāḍ for three days. I am very happy with your playing and want you to play one solo and one accompaniment during the conference. We will all go to Valsāḍ the day before the performance in the morning by train, so be prepared for this event.”

At that time in my life, I did not understand the value of being able to travel with some of the greatest musicians of Ahmedābād and Gujarāt. I picked up Jhālāsāheb and Rāvjibhāi in my student’s car, and we arrived at the station at 6 am to catch the 7 am Gujarāt Express. At the station, we met up with Prānlālbhāi Shah (one of the best violin teachers of that time), Lāljibhāi Patel (best harmonium player), Neenā Shah (Rāvjibhāi’s student) and many young musicians.

Once we boarded the train, I was amazed to learn that all these senior musicians took great interest in eating snacks at each station. At the first stop, someone got off to get Fāfḍā and Jalebi; at Naḍiād, it was goṭā; at Baroḍā, yet another snack and the list goes on. Every stop was a new treat.

The accommodations for all the musicians was in a school and that was quite the nourishing experience. In one corner, someone would be singing, while a couple of beds down, another musician would be playing the violin. It was a great energy to be a part of. I was the youngest tabla player. Everyone gave me love and respect, which just increased my confidence.

The next day, the second performance was my solo. I played pretty well and got a lot of applause from the audience. After my solo, I went backstage. There, I found internationally-known singer Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā. He was so impressed with my playing that he made me his accompanying artist for his program the following day. I was not too enthused about the idea, because the Tablā player generally only plays ṭhekā for vocal performances.

I thanked him for the opportunity and told him that I was not in the practice of accompanying vocals. I believe he understood why I said no because he immediately said that he wanted powerful Tablā in his vocal performance and that I had the freedom to play whatever I wished.

Excited by this, we decided to practice in the morning to prepare, and the performance that ensued is what I consider to be one of the best performances I have given.

My First Meeting with Panḍit Saxenāji

My First Meeting with Pandit Saxenaji

On the first death anniversary of my first Tablā Gurū, Panḍit Sudhirkumār Saxenā, I want to reflect on this great man who had immense knowledge of Tablā. I had a great love for him, and he had the same for me.


It was an evening in the month of February, 1971. My father told me that a big music festival, called Baiju Festival, was going on in the city, arranged by the Government of Gujarat. In addition, he informed me that Tablā maestro Panḍit Sudhirkumār Saxenā was coming to perform and encouraged me to attend. I was very young at that time, but I was learning and playing Tablā for more than seven years. My teacher, Mr. Narmadā Śankar Bhaṭṭ, was a senior disciple of Panḍit Saxenā ji. I requested my father to take me to the festival.


He took me to the newly opened Jai Śankar Sundari Hall. With great curiosity, I sat in the third row, waiting anxiously for Saxenā ji’s turn to perform. He was slated to play two items: the first, with Gujarāt’s great vocalist Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā, and the second with a sitārist.


When he came onto the stage, I was amazed by his presence and personality. He had a very small frame, not more than 5 feet in height. He wore a very nice kurtā and black koṭi. I would later learn that the koṭi was his signature style. Before him, I had already met many, many tabla players. Amongst of them all, he struck me as the most sober, most learned and calm person. His playing style mirrored his personality: neat, steady and balanced.


In his first item with the vocalist, he played nothing in vilaṁbit besides ṭhekā. I found this disappointing as I was expecting rolls and powerful drumming. But when madhya laya began with Rāga Megh, he played a small composition followed by a gat, which was enough to prove him to be the best student of Ustād Habibuddin Khān. In sitār accompaniment, he played some compositions, which I just could not understand at that time.


After the concert, I rushed backstage and touched his feet. I introduced myself. He told me he was coming back to Ahmedābād after ten days as a judge for the Gandharva Māhāvidyālaya competition. I told him proudly that I was participating in the same competition.


My father then arrived, did namaskar to Saxenāji, and asked him about me. Very humbly, Saxenāji replied, “I will be coming to Ahmedābād next week. Then I will get a chance to listen to him and give my remarks.”


With the determination to impress him at the upcoming competition, I returned home with my father and lasting memories of my first meeting with Saxenāji.


What happened next, I will write at another time.


Postnote by Gurūji Panḍit Divyāng Vakīl’s Student:
Panḍit Sudhirkumār Saxenā was one of the last Ustāds of the Ajrāḍā Gharānā. He spent many of his years in the care and service of the great Ustād Habibuddin Khān. He was the first professor of music in a higher-education institution in India, serving initially as a Professor, then Head of the Music Department at MS University in Baroḍā , Gujarāt. He passed away on November 30, 2007. He continues to live in the memories of his students and through his teachings.