“If we want people to enjoy classical music, we have to make it more accessible”: Prabha Atre


There has been a sudden increase in activity in Hindustani classical singer Prabha Atre’s Shivajinagar House in Pune. Preparations are underway for its next performance on February 5 – a tribute to Kirana gharana dean Pt Bhimsen Joshi the year of its centenary celebrations.

Atre, 90, the country’s most successful classical artist, will conclude Abhivaadan – the three-day tribute festival to be held this week at the Sawai Gandharva Smarak in Pune. The main Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen music festival, which has been headlined by Atre since 2006 (when Pt Bhimsen retired from concerts) is canceled this year due to the rising Omicron variant.

Exactly like the last 70 years of her life, Atre is engrossed in trying to understand the deeply complex and meditative intricacies of Indian classical music on a daily basis. “Nothing has changed. I get up early every day and practice. There is no other way to refine your art, to discover something more in it,” Atre says during a telephone conversation with The Indian Express.

Atre received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour, for his contribution to the arts last week. “It’s important that your government recognizes your work,” says Atre, who received a Padma Shri in 1990 and a Padma Bhushan in 2002.

With her practice routines, indulgence with her sadhana, gentle demeanor, reverence for her gurus – the legendary Sureshbabu Mane and Hirabai Barodekar – and deference to the art form, Atre can come across as an orthodox musician who follows the rules. But a look at his work highlights a music universe in which an artist nourished her knowledge and at the same time also questioned it. His radical thoughts annoyed many colleagues the musicians, its elders and its critics during this period. “It’s not about questioning just because you want to. It comes with a reason. You have to be able to analyze and present that thought with logical reasoning, even when it’s something as technical and abstract as classical arts“, explains Atré.

But a person’s thinking can be as revolutionary or as traditional, but what matters is what is delivered. According to Mumbai-based musicologist Deepak Raja, “The proof was always in the pudding, because it always delivered. Prabha Atre is an out-of-the-box thinker and for 40 years has been the country’s most respectable singer. We can’t argue with that. Music is in constant transformation and does not stagnate. Thus, each great musician will bring his own contribution to thought as well as to expression. In that sense, she is one of the greatest,” says Raja.

Prabha Atre, one of the country’s most respected singers, has transformed the thought and expression of Indian classical music over the past 40 years. (Photo: Prabha Atre)

Perhaps the courage comes from the fact that Atre does not come from a musical family and was never bound by the kind of reverence that the others were. “Forget performance classical music, no one had even heard of it in my family,” says Atre. When she was growing up, the radio would sometimes play at her house in Pune and Atre would find herself carried away by the voices of Noorjehan, Begum Akhtar and Ut Bade Ghulam Ali. But the music beyond just listening to it happened “by accident”. Atre was about eight years old when his mother fell ill and began to ruminate. Her father, the headmaster of a nearby school, employed a harmonium guru to distract the mother from illness. She quit after three-four lessons but Atre continued. Her father’s friend once heard her sing and recommended that she be properly taught. Atre was in her mid-teens when he took her to Mumbai-based Sureshbabu Mane and her sister Hirabai Barodekar, the son and daughter of Ut Abdul Karim Khan of Kirana gharana. Atre sang Ka karoon sajni, the famous Ut Bade Ghulam Ali thumri in Raag Bhairavi. Mane was impressed with how she approached the famous piece and agreed to teach her. She sang Yaman for an entire year before being allowed to do another raga.

Four years later, when Mane died, her sister Hirabai, another gharana legend, took her on as a student for the next two years. After touring with her for two years, where Atre learned more from listening to her than actually learning on her feet, she decided to practice the form and explore it on her own. “At that time, Hirabai was very busy. But the foundation was now established. I was made to understand the language of music. My gurus were very open minded and always said it would never be anyone’s photocopy. I felt it was time to explore this world on my own now,” says Atre, who also earned a science degree followed by a law degree from the University of Pune. “The world of frog dissection or the world of criminal justice didn’t seem like the right career choice,” says Atre.

So Atre joined All India Radio, Mumbai, as an assistant producer, in 1959. It was here that she met and heard a variety of musicians and genres, including Carnatic classical music and Western pop music. She was fascinated by Ut Amir Khan, the founder of Indore gharana, Patiala gharana legend Bade Ghulam Ali and Roshan Ara Begum of Kirana gharana. “The radio has broadened my horizons. This strain really influenced me,” says Atre, who was now also trying to critically analyze his own music and the tradition it came from. “There is art and then there is the shastra behind it. The art will change over time, so the shastra cannot be left behind. My background allowed me to have a scientific and logical approach to an abstract form,” says Atre, who had by then started performing in Maharashtra and was a rising star on the concert circuit in the early 1960s.

But there were no records to prove his mantle beyond the local concert world. LPs were the only way to reach a wider audience in the 60s and 70s. Atre calls it his own fault. “So many people approached me back then, but I was a very shy musician and I refused,” says Atre.

Then in the middle of that in 1971 came an HMV record that overwhelmed the rasikas. It was Atre’s presentation of raag Maru Bihag and Kalavati followed by a thumri to Khamaj. Atre was then 43 years old and presented his own composition, which is not common at such an early stage.

By exploring khayal gayakiAtre also used and talked about the extensive use of sargam while delineating the khayal. In the world of classical music where aakar (vocal improvisation using the long vowel ‘a’) is appreciated and sargamum is downgraded, just a tool to understand the shape, Atre decided to do a thesis on the subject. After her time in radio, Atre headed the music department at SNDT University, Mumbai from 1980 to 1992, where she ruffled the entire curriculum making it broader in its approach, allowing students to explore various genres of music because “why should they stick to just classical music”. performing arts “Full-time teachers don’t always excel as great musicians, as their performance tends to be academic. But in her case, it didn’t suffocate her. She managed to analyze and think critically about her music and her presentation a lot more,” he says.

And in the midst of all this Atre also invented new ragas such as Apurva Kalyan, Darbari Kauns, Patdeep-Malhar, Shiv Kali, Tilang-bhairav, Ravi Bhairav ​​and Madhur-Kauns. A few years ago, one of his compositions was also adapted by the Swiss/Dutch singer and composer Susanne Abbuehl, who also trained in classical Hindustani singing with Atre. According to vocalist and son of Pt Bhimsen, Shrinivas Joshi Atre, Shrinivas Joshi Atre’s approach is also a result of his training in Kirana gharana which he says “is a very open space that allows his artists to explore more “. “My father did the same apart from a few other singers in our gharana,” he says

But Atre also preferred not to enter into the rigidity of gharana systems. “I learned under Kirana and my music reflects that style of softness of note and expression. But that said, we have to take whatever we can from everywhere and embellish our musical style,” says Atre, who not only composed and performed, but also wrote books on classical music, its analytical thinking and its presentation.His book, Enlightening the Listener — Contemporary North Indian Classical Vocal Music Performance (Coronet Books Inc.; Har/Cas edition (2000)), is famous with foreign students who want to understand the finer details of classical music. music. She also wrote Swarangini and Swaranjanee – two books dealing with compositions. The goal was to reinvent and reshape the music to acquire new resonances, not only for the audience but for Atre herself. “I think it’s also in my nature to analyze. I have an academic bent where I never wanted to play. I also wanted to explain the idea behind this system, teach it to students, explain it to as many people as possible,” explains Atre, for whom the public plays an important role. “We don’t just do sadhana. We present our art. If we want people today to be able to enjoy classical music, we also have to make it a bit accessible,” says Atre.

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