Classical musicians with the rare gift of composing are scholarly innovators

To a musician, a hawker selling his wares might well be calling out to the scales of a raag. Legend has it that Pt. Dinkar Kaikini’s well-trained ears captured the notes of the quintessential kerosene seller of the 60s, the sing-song call etched in his memory forever. Several years later, this maestro of the Agra gharana created a new raag, based on the shadaj, komal rishabh and shuddha madhyam that he had identified in the hawker’s call. He added teevra madhyam, some shuddha dhaivat, and a liberal portion of devotion to create the raag Gunaranjani.

Like Kaikini, there are musicians today who are performers as well as composers. Here, we look at two such artistes: one who has enriched the world of Hindustani classical music with her musical prowess and compositional ability, and another, whose work calls out for attention.

“Creating a new raag is addressing an artiste’s urge or need,” says Prabha Atre, a prolific composer and singer. “That is why each generation has added new raags and compositions that have stood the test of time.” Even the uninitiated remember Atre’s beguiling bandish in Maru Bihag and Kalavati, which marked the beginning of her journey into composing. She now has more than 500 compositions in several raags to her credit — and at 88, she is still composing!

Methodical process

Atre’s 19-part lec-dem series ‘Aalok’ is both enriching and engaging. With a scientist’s spirit of inquiry and experimentation, she follows a methodical and studied process to raag creation, always on the lookout for something new. She has the courage to present well-established raags in a new light, notable examples being Maru Bihag, Shyam Kalyan and Jogkauns. It’s not just musicians who’ve taken to singing Atre’s compositions; they’ve also been taken up in dance and drama.

Chaitanya Kunte, a young Pune-based artiste, cites Atre among his influences, placing her among a gallery of greats that includes S.N. Ratanjankar, Aman Ali Khan and Kumar Gandharva. He has himself composed more than 200 pieces — sargam geet, thumri, dadra, chaturang, trivat and bhajan — and innovated many new raags and taals. Having studied the work of musicians of years past, he has used the gleanings to revive forgotten taals and thekas, most notably the Adha Matra taal.

Listening to his creations, you can see the influence of his training in the Agra, Gwalior and Atrauli gharanas. Not only a vocalist, he plays the harmonium too and Kunte’s compositions, collected and published in his book Raga Chaitanya, are sung by many renowned musicians, including Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, Arati Ankalikar, Raghunandan Panshikar and Anuradha Kuber.

Few new raags stand the test of time. Jogkauns is one example that comes to mind from recent times, a contribution by the eminent composer and musician Jagannathbuwa Purohit, which has won the hearts of performers across gharanas. Who knows which pieces or raags written by today’s musicians will enthral future generations, but what’s clear is that only a few musicians have the gift of composition, and they are the ones who push the boundaries of classical music.

The writer is a Hindustani vocalist.

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