The Gwalior Gharana of Hindustani music, one of the oldest in India, the gharana to which Miya Tansen, one of the Navaratna (Nine Gems) in the court of Emperor Akbar is believed to belong, has today a strong woman protagonist. Dr Meeta Pandit, the first and only woman from a traditional music family to have taken to music professionally, carries forward the legacy of 250 years and six generations of the Pandit family of the Gwalior Gharana.
“Originally our family hailed from Chinchwad near Pune and we bore the surname of Chinchwadkar. We were well-known scholars of Sanskrit, Kirtankars and Vidwans of Dnyaneshwari, the thirteenth century interpretation of the sacred Bhagvad Gita. But as the Shindes or Scindias as they are known, followed their political destiny and moved towards Gwalior, one of the many Marathi families to move with them was ours. The head of the family was Ramchandra Chinchwadkar, who was ably assisted by his son Vishnu Chinchwadkar. In Gwalior, the raj gayaks (court musicians) were the brothers Hassu-Haddu-Nathu Khan, who were taught bhajans by my ancestors to sing in the Devghar temple of the Scindias. Slowly the two families came close,” explains Meeta about how the music of this gharana came into the family.
Despite the fact that the two brothers enjoyed much pomp and splendour as the royal musicians, when it came to the Pandit family — called so now because of their deep knowledge of the Sanskrit texts — things were different. “Even the four children of Vishnu Pandit were granted unfettered access to the talghar (basement music room) of the doyens of the gharana, and were able to witness the secret riyaz sessions and training practices,” admits Meeta, calling upon the research she did for her doctoral studies on ‘Contribution of the Pandits of Gwalior to Hindustani music’.
“Apparently, of the four sons of Vishnu Pandit, it was my great grandfather Shankar Pandit, whose vocal texture made him a personal favourite of Hassu-Haddu Khans. Khan sahebs opened the doors of their treasure to the four sons — Gopal Rao, Ganapat Rao, Shankar Rao, Eknath — and accepted them as them as their disciples. This vidya or specialised knowledge came into the family,” says Meeta with a sense of historical destiny.
“Our home was always a mecca for great vidwans (learned persons) and leaders. Swami Vivekanand once visited our house,” recalls Meeta. Few know that the Swami was adept in both singing and the playing of the pakhawaj. On a visit to Gwalior, he expressed a desire to play music. He was led to the home of Shankar Rao Pandit; in the musical session that followed, the two sang and played the percussion for each other in turns.
“My great-grandfather and grandfather were great people. Taught with care by his Ustads, he had such a vast ocean of musical knowledge, ragas and compositions, so vast that if he sang daily, a raga would be repeated only after six months”.
Gratitude towards the guru for sharing such esoteric knowledge was a big part of their lives. “When Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan Saheb (son of Ustad Nathu Khan) resigned from the court of Gwalior in 1886, he came to live with him, and stayed for 30 years! My great grandfather left no stone unturned in offering guru-bhakti, seva to the level expected, even when he had to sell great grandma’s jewellery”. Those were certainly very different times — even though not very long ago. “It was for this reason, because this cultural wealth had been acquired with so many sacrifices, that grandfather always insisted that the children of the family must be taught this vidya,” explains Meeta.
This is one of the reasons why Meeta took on the mantle of the torch-bearer of the lineage of the Pandit’s of Gwalior gharana. Actually, there was another reason as well. In effect, her brother 27-year-old Tushar was being groomed as the torch-bearer of the gharana, when in a tragic road accident in 1994, he left this world. He was then working on his doctoral dissertation.
Meeta, who was very close to Tushar, stepped into his shoes, completed a doctorate on the same subject and decided to take on the mantle, breaking the glass ceiling in the process. She had the good fortune of being taught by both, her distinguished grandfather and her highly knowledgeable and respected father, Pt Laxman Krishnarao Pandit, as well. “I remember my father teaching all three of us, eldest brother Tushar, Atul and me, together. The remarkable thing was that he taught us in fifth kala, which is the female pitch. He instilled discipline in us by example and my life consisted of study and music with just a sliver of time for play.
“Each one of us would do riyaz or practice in one room and so often all the rooms of the house had music resounding through them at the same time,” recalls Meeta, from childhood memories. “Summer holidays were a blessing for riyaz” she admits, laughing, and looking even more animated
She suddenly stopped and looked at me questioningly- “But did you know, it was my mother who was my first guru,” she asked. Home-maker Abha Pandit has all the qualities expected of women in such an illustrious family. She is emotionally strong, religious, taking care effortlessly of the house and all her father-in-law’s and husband’s disciples. She knows music though she has no personal ambitions. “I probably began learning music with my mother from the time she sang her first lullaby for me. I do remember her teaching me my first theka (rhythmic cycle). It was the 16-beat tilwada tala, and I can admit it is not an easy one. Till today she is my biggest critic. But equally she is the wind beneath my wings, encouraging me as I follow my path”, says the emotional daughter.
By the time Meeta joined the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College of Delhi University for graduation, her career had already taken off. “My first concert for Spic-Macay came when I was in my third year. It was at Hindu College and I was the opening act for Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma. The poster carried my picture. When it was put up in college, it created quite a stir and all my friends came to hear me. It felt good to see them all in the audience,” recalls Meeta.
After having performed at most of the important platforms of Indian music in India and overseas, and having received the coveted Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar in 2007, Meeta Pandit has also made big mark in collaborative work with foreign musicians of eminence. “I got a unique opportunity to do cross-cultural work as an artiste in residence, in a scheme offered by the government of France. Artist Manish Pushkale was the other recipient. I lived and worked in Paris. This opportunity was an eye-opener. I returned with a concert tour called ‘The Gift’ in which I performed along with pianist Allie Delfau.”
Last year Meeta had a very successful international concert at the Womad festival in Australia, New Zealand. This year she was once again at Womad, this time in a film No Man’s Land, which marked the centenary of the First World War, in which Meeta was recorded against the backdrop of the Gwalior fort singing a song of lament and pining.
Meeta has always been open-minded about her music and the many roles that she can play while serving it. That is why she enthusiastically presented a raga and film song segment on the breakfast show on DD Bharati, hosted a bilingual show on World Space Radio featuring interviews with other artistes, and also initiated long archival recordings of great masters of music for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. “Music is a very satisfying profession for me, although my school and college friends may consider it alternative. I look forward to all that I have ahead of me still — and I can tell you, it doesn’t let me sleep”, says Meeta Pandit, in harmony with a very old music tradition that is her inheritance, that she makes relevant in new times.