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Posted on 09 July 2011

Striking familiar notes

Arunabha Deb says that the bandish is still the backbone of any Hindustani classical recital

Shubha Mudgal

The Dixon Lane residence of Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh had witnessed several stellar recitals by legendary Hindustani musicians; it was a kind of nerve centre that drew almost all musicians of significance, whether living in or passing through Kolkata. Amidst this galaxy of unforgettable recitals, one, though, will always stand out: an earth-shattering Chhayanat by Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, performed in 1954. During the recital, just after he starts his drut bandish Newara baaje, baaje re mori payaliya/Jhanana jhanana jhana nana nana, he stops singing to tell his audience that the bandish is beautiful in spite of the “mamuli bol, gharelu bol” that it contains. This is true for hundreds of bandishes in the Hindustani classical repertoire: the lyrics don’t make for compelling literature; yet, the syllables placed in a particular melodic context create magical compositions.

The bandish — a well-defined composition — has traditionally been regarded as the soul of a raaga and also as an index of a depth of a musician’s talim (training). A Hindustani musician continues to be judged by his/her repertoire of bandishes. In recognition of the continuing relevance of the form, the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, has organised a Bandish Festival from 7-9 July. The Festival will have Shubha Mudgal, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, Rashid Khan and Vasundhara Komkali pay tribute to some of the greatest composers in Hindustani music.


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To most listeners of ‘songs’, the lyrics are usually as important a part of the listening experience as the melody. In the context of khayal, though, the melody almost invariably gets precedence. A bandish is essentially a gateway to a raaga. It offers the audiences the first glimpse into the character of the raaga in which it is set; it is important, therefore, that a bandish, more than anything else, is faithful in representing the melodic essence of a raaga. Ashwini Bhide Deshpande describes a bandish as “a stepping stone to a raaga”. Deshpande is one of the few contemporary Hindustani musicians to have produced a whole book of bandishes (Ragarachananjali in two volumes); the genesis of the book was her quest for melodic expressions in a raaga. “I would often be in a situation where I would know a vilambit (slow) composition in a raaga, but would not have a drut (fast) composition to complement it and vice versa. This pushed me to create compositions of my own,” she says.

As a contemporary composer, Deshpande does feel that a lot of the lyrics in old bandishes have no real relevance in the lived experience of people today. “There is a common theme of the saas-nanad that runs in earlier compositions – how they constantly delay the meeting with the beloved. That is not really a relevant theme today – if you take the lyrics literally. However, if you look at the idea of the meeting with the beloved being delayed – that still persists; instead of the saas-nanad, you have the city traffic,” she says. Shubha Mudgal used the very same theme of the saas-nanad as an example of an outdated reference point. “I can’t relate to a lot of the lyrics in old bandishes, but I still find them beautiful – the structure of the sounds and syllables create an atmosphere that goes beyond the so-called literary value of the lyrics. And there are several bandishes where on one level there is a description of an everyday occurrence – like someone asking a boatman to ferry him or her across a river – but we all know that a crossing can have greater significance.”

Ashwini Bhide

As an example of double-layering in lyrics, she recounted the following anecdote: an organiser had been continuously pestering Pandit Kumar Gandharva to participate in a music festival and the maestro had been refusing resolutely. Ultimately, the organiser had his way; Gandharva agreed to travel to sing at the festival. However, when he arrived, he was appalled by the organiser’s hospitality. (Rather, the lack of it.) There was no one to look after his needs and he was pretty abandoned. He performed Raaga Shudh Shyam at the festival, and as a special tribute to the organiser, he sang a bandish that he had composed earlier in the day: “Moye bulayke poochho na re/ Ajab reet tero haiga re”. The words, of course, were cutting in the given context, but could well refer to a larger idea of abandonment and consequent disappointment.

Mudgal feels that the pattern of lyrics in bandishes is unlikely to undergo a radical change because Hindustani music is fundamentally apolitical. “Nobody tries to make a statement through a bandish,” she says. The structure of a bandish continues to be driven by aesthetic concerns and for Mudgal, too, a bandish has to primarily establish a raaga. In fact, she goes on to say that a bandish should ideally be constructed in such a way that it should have in-built windows for improvisation. “There are some bandishes that are gorgeous, but they are so dense or wordy that it is almost impossible to expand them with the help of improvisations,” she says. The bandish and the improvisations, ideally through a seamless process of complementing each other, should complete the jigsaw of the raaga.

Planned as a tribute to composers, the Bandish Festival will have Deshpande sing the compositions of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the fountainhead of her gharana, and Mudgal will be singing compositions of Kabir. Unfortunately, the compositions of Kabir are not bandishes in the strictest sense of the word. A bandish is a composition which has been written and set to tune by the same person. “We have no way of knowing what Kabir wanted his compositions to sound like. There are indications in some compositions that they should be set to a particular raaga, but the raagas themselves have undergone massive changes since the time of Kabir; we can’t say with confidence that Raaga Shree, the way we know it today, was the way it was at the time of Kabir,” says Mudgal. It is a pity that Mudgal has not been asked to sing the compositions of her guru Pandit Ramashray Jha (who composed under the penname ‘Ramrang’ and was one of the most prolific composers of the modern era). Similarly, it would have perhaps been more exciting for an audience to get an evening of Deshpande performing compositions from her own book. Since the festival is already featuring compositions by Ustad Inayat Hussain Khan and Ustad Faiayaz Khan, compositions by Jha and Deshpande would have showcased bandishes across a larger time span and allowed listeners to decide for themselves if the idea of the bandish, which continues to be the backbone of any Hindustani classical performance, has undergone any significant change.

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Posted on 09 July 2011



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