The Tabla Enabler


On music maestro Jnan Prakash Ghosh’s birth centenary, Arunabha Deb examines how an enduring legacy was won at the cost of fifteen minutes of fame

Illustration: Kazi Anirban

MAY 9, 2012 marks the birth centenary of Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. It’s an arbitrary marker, for Ghosh’s musical legacy began on a football field in his teens. As he was about to head the ball, an opposing player ran to kick it. The boot struck the corner of Ghosh’s forehead. Till then, Ghosh had pursued varied interests with more than the cavalier curiosity associated with young bhadralok. He was a sportsman who played football, cricket and hockey with equal earnest; an artist who corresponded with Abanindranath Tagore with the intent of learning under him; and he was a student of music. The football injury damaged his eyesight to an extent that a serious pursuit of sports and art were excluded. Music, per force, became his sole focus.

Musicians aspire to be maestros. Ghosh could easily have been one. He was acknowledged to be among India’s best harmonium players. He underwent vocal training with luminaries like Pandit Girija Shankar Chakraborty and Ustad Mohammed Dabir Khan. As a tabla player, he was heralded as no less a performer than Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakwa, one of the 20th century greats. Ghosh instead pursued a somewhat circuitous immortality. He stepped away from the stage and dedicated himself to teaching.

No other guru has produced as many front-ranking tabla performers. From the fiery Pandit Shankar Ghosh to Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, his disciples have held audiences in sway for over half a century. Ghosh is the reason why Kolkata is the tabla capital of the world today. There is a movement to dub his style the “Kolkata Tabla Gharana” — the nomenclature would be a symbolic gesture since there is an entrenched if tacit acceptance that such a style already exists. His contributions to vocal music often get eclipsed by his work with the tabla but it is not an insignificant legacy. Two of Bengal’s best-known vocalists, Pandit Prasun Banerjee and Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, are his students. And, Ghosh was a prolific composer of songs in Hindi and Bangla. While his songs remain immortal in the Bengali consciousness, his impact on the tabla transcends geography.

It was never intellectualism at the cost of the listener. Ghosh’s compositions were cerebral, but realised in an aesthetic context

GHOSH RECEIVED his most rigorous talim from Ustad Masit Khan, the doyen of the Farukhabad gharana and also trained under Ustad Feroz Khan of the Punjab gharana, but he was not fettered by the gharana system. An obsessive gatherer of tabla compositions, he did not care about composer or gharana. He predicated what Ustad Zakir Hussain much later made the norm: to serve the cause of the instrument and develop a performance style with a robust variety rather than dwell within the confining walls of a gharana. To enrich his repertoire, Ghosh actually paid for compositions that were traded freely, and like a good Bengali middle-class gent, kept detailed accounts. Pandit Anindo Chatterjee recounts, “In his notebooks, against several compositions, there would be figures — 300 or 700 or something. It took us a while to realise that those were the amounts for which the compositions were bought.” Though Ghosh himself taught most of his students for free.

He was not just a collector; he worked his own ideas on all that he acquired. What finally emerged, in spite of comprising component elements of particular gharanas, had his trademark signature. Pandit Nayan Ghosh, that rare maestro who plays the sitar and the tabla as if he were born to play both, feels Jnan Prakash’s liberal education can be directly attributed for an analytical approach over the rote-learning tradition. Nayan’s father Pandit Nikhil Ghosh was one of Jnan Prakash’s senior disciples and Nayan spent hours watching the two interact. “Of course, hardly anyone else had the collection of compositions that he did, but he went beyond just reproducing what he learnt. And this, he could do because of his erudition,” says Nayan. “If you hear his own compositions — and he was a prolific composer — they are some of the most intellectually informed compositions in tabla history. But his compositions, be it tabla or vocal, always strike a balance between the intellectual and the artistic,” he added.

The disciples Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Prasun Banerjee
The disciples: Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Prasun Banerjee

It was never intellectualism at the cost of putting the listener off. Ghosh’s compositions were cerebral, but realised in an aesthetic context. Sanjoy Mukherjee, another disciple, recalls, “He said that you have to win a listener’s heart right from the time you read a bol— even before you play it on the tabla,” he said. A video recording of Ghosh in concert shows him performing with this precept. He introduces a piece as Much Ado About Nothing and then goes on to recite a rapid flurry of bols, but then, gently, the bols peter out, to finally end with a languid tihai. The Shakespearean connection couldn’t be clearer: the flurry of activity at the start and then the relaxed resolution.

Few Hindustani musicians can place their music and Shakespeare along the same arc. His erudition made him a popular figure: perhaps other maestros of the time found in him something that was lacking in themselves. His house at 25 Dixon Lane played host to every visiting maestro. Legends like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan treated him with as much respect as affection. Ghosh wore his greatness with a lightness of touch. His sense of humour is now part of Hindustani music folklore. He loved nonsense verse and had set a few of Sukumar Ray’s poems from Abol Tabol to tune. Of all his intellectually stimulating tabla compositions, the one no musician fails to remember is composed along the lines of nonsense verse: Nogener Ginni (Nogen’s wife). The poem has words like all poems do; it describes a fellow’s ludicrous troubles with his wife and kids. But each word in the poem corresponds with a sound on the tabla. He recites the poem, which is funny enough, and then he plays it on the tabla. Khan had laughed so helplessly after hearing it, Ghosh was worried he would choke. Asked to compere the All Bengal Music Festival Ghosh had the audience in splits when he announced, with his characteristic deadpan expression, a two-minute birokti (irritation), and not a biroti (interval).

In spite of his different compelling avatars, Ghosh’s greatest legacy to Hindustani music was as a guru. Mukherjee unequivocally acknowledges, “If he chose to be a performer, nobody would have listened to us.” He had the intellectual rigour of an academic but also the pulse of vitality of a performer. Several Hindustani musicians have been rendered peripheral with the ‘cerebral’ tag: great as archival material, but hardly sustenance for 3,000 listeners staying awake in the cold at all night music festivals. Ghosh was certainly good for the archives. But listeners who go ecstatic when they hear his disciples play his compositions will care little about that.

Vocalist Kaushiki Desikan will present a tribute concert in Kolkata on 5 May. Performers include Ajoy Chakraborty, Anindo Chatterjee, Sanjoy Mukherjee and Nayan Ghosh


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