In Agra, thinking of Prabha Atre

I took this photo last November in Agra during a trip to attend a family relative’s greh pravesh or housewarming.

The sun was about to set. We had had a long drive from Delhi. Before the housewarming began, family and friends got together over tea and some snacks. Standing at the balcony, they talked about the slush that was released into the Yamuna river, considered holy by Hindus. I took in the view. It reminded me of the other side of the Taj Mahal, where the still waters of the river greeted you, dotted with industrial waste.

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And then I forgot about this photograph until I got addicted to the powerful voice of Prabha Atre, India’s leading Hindustani classical music vocalist.

Every vocal recital has a visual subtext to it. So when I listened to Atre’s famous dadra “Jamuna Kinaare Mora Gaon”, I tried to locate the landscape that her evocative voice sought to create. And the photograph is perhaps my answer to her imagination.

According to the accompanying note on the YouTube video, “Jamuna Kinaare Mora Gaon” is inspired from a folk song of Madhya Pradesh state.

In an interview to the Indian Express earlier this year, Atre, now in her 80s, said, “I just couldn’t be the serious classical singer only. I enjoyed thumri a lot.”

Indeed, her dadra is anything but a purely serious classical recital. Her singing is breathtakingly expansive; she teases out beautiful tones just by uttering the sound “aaa” in myriad ways. It is playful, creative, and keeps the folk flavour intact. It must have been a live concert or a private mehfil as the wah wahs are hard to miss.

The Mumbai-based singer belongs to a musical lineage of India that has its roots in the Kirana Gharana. She learnt music from legendary singers Sureshbabu Mane and Hirabai Barodekar, who received taalim from their father Abdul Karim Khan.

Khan was born in the late 19th century in Kirana village in Uttar Pradesh state. Kirana is supposed to have a mythical connection in ancient epic Mahabharata.

“Have you heard of Sonepat, Panipat in Haryana near Delhi? The village belonged to Karna, its colloquial form is ‘Kirana’. Karan used to live there. It denotes purpose, do or die,” Bhimsen Joshi says in this eponymous documentary made by film-maker Gulzar.

A tree showing members of the Kirana Gharana. Source: Pandit Bhimsen Joshi documentary by Gulzar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cip5Q6fadNI)

Besides being a science and law graduate, Atre is a doctorate in music and author of several books on the subject. According to this short biography, her music drew inspiration from Indore gharana’s Ameer Khan, and Bade Ghulam Ali, considered the Tansen of 20th century.

“Her music displays a distinct style and typical ingenuity in design and presentation. Indeed, her dignified presence on stage, her chaste and creative approach, her imaginative play with subtleties of tones and dynamics, her effortless control over intricate yet appealing phrases in alaap, taan and sargam, her precise articulation of words and stirring portrayal of emotional themes – all these make her music a singularly satisfying experience.” (Source: ITC Sangeet Research Academy)

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Ankush Arora

Delhi boy; dreamer, nature lover, photographer. Development communications professional. Ex-Reuters, NDTV. This is a personal blog.

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