July 28, 2020
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Maihar's Fading Notes

India's only classical music orchestra languishes amidst declining patronage and little foresight

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Maihar's Fading Notes

THERE'S an awful din of highway traffic outside, but this grotty old building in Maihar is resonating with the strains of Megh Malhar. For a raga evoking the majesty of gathering clouds, the Malhar served on a hot, sunny morning is possibly a deviant offering. But so is the 'band' playing it. Minutes before, a gaggle of sleepy unshaven musicians trooped into the building, took their dusty instruments, squatted on a frayed blue carpet spotted with bird droppings and began to play. It's been like this ever since they can remember: going through the rote of three-hour-long rehearsals, six days a week, year after year, waiting for the rare performance call. The sheen of Maihar Band, the only Indian classical music orchestra, is gone, but the ragged band plays on spiritedly. "We are different, but nobody really seems to care," says Sailendra Sharma, the 58-year-old orchestra leader.

The band's impeccable pedigree easily makes it different. Eighty years ago, sarod virtuoso and musical genius Baba Allaudin Khan organised the Maihar band with some 100 orphan children whom he brought home and taught strings, brass, bagpipes and drums. For the legendary musician, the ensemble was a pioneering experiment in fusing Indian and western instruments to churn out homegrown classical. Over the years, the band lost its pianist, flautist, clarinet and piccolo players and junked the instruments too; it also did away with vocals after four of its singers died.

But in this cob-webbed house of music in dusty Maihar, the droopy musicians still generate some of the sweetest classical cacophony with their ageing instruments: listen to Sharma working the mellifluous naltarang, the unique gunpipe xylophone, or wan-faced Gunakar Sawle's dazzling harmonium work or the pan-chewing Bijay Deo Singh's big cello riffs on the Malhar, the Bihag or a full-tilt bhajan. "This band brought classical music into homes and lives of ordinary people," says Delhi-based vocalist Shubha Mudgal. "That is its most significant contribution."

 But Khan's radical and successful experiment in declassing and demystifying classical music strangely finds few takers today. And nobody seems to care much. The Maihar Band, now on the state government's payroll, scrounges around for performances. After 80 years, it's still looking for an opportunity to perform abroad and record an album. The decline and fall of the band, in a way, epitomises the fading away—or the neglect of—Maihar, the small Madhya Pradesh town of music-loving, unsophisticated people, which Khan had turned into a nursery of Indian classical music. (Virtuosi like Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee and the reclusive Annapoorna Devi cut their teeth here under the tutelage of the mercurial legend.) Today, the Maihar music college, where Khan used to teach, is in a shambles and the town's music festival, which the musician kicked off in his lifetime, is struggling to stay afloat. "The band, the music college, the festival are priceless legacies of Baba Allaudin Khan," says Maihar Music College principal Ganga Prasad Mishra. "They should be preserved at all costs."

Look at the Maihar Band and you realise that there's very little of that happening. Since the ensemble is not an accepted Indian classical genre, most musicians also tend to ignore it. The playing band has effectively halved from the 22-member ensemble, including four vocalists, it boasted during its glory days. There are six more musicians enlisted with the band who, say the playing members, have been appointed "on grounds other than music" and seldom turn up for rehearsals. The band today is simply an appendage of the struggling music college under the state cultural affairs ministry. "The band was orphaned after the death of Baba Allaudin Khan," says flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia. "Now lack of attention has made it a village band."

 He is right. Band leader Sharma complains that most of the instruments are old and out of tune: the goat-skin belly of the sarod hasn't been changed in 15 years, the tablas sound flat, the harmonium is nearly a century old, and the 80-year-old naltarang, the unique instrument which Khan fashioned out of gunpipes today actually uses two water pipes as another set was never built. There is no money available for replacements. The band members take home some Rs 5,000 each in government salaries, eligible for a basic scale of Rs 1,400-2,640. They also get a kurta-pyjama set—the traditional stage outfit of the band—from the government once in two years. But the band hardly manages to set up half a dozen concerts a year, mostly in northern India, in absence of hardsell, promoters and interest.

What is most distressing is that the gay work of the band will possibly be never preserved for posterity: there is not a single recording available of its unusual renditions of the ragas. Only last year, the MP government brought out a tape containing recordings of 10 bhajans. "We want the band to be treated like artistes, not government servants," says Ram Suman Chaurasia, who plays sitar. "We are stagnating because there is no one to back us." Adds Ashok Barholia, the tabla player, a doctorate in music: "This orchestra would have gone places if it had a godfather." So in the end, the musicians, just like other government servants, turn up for a routine, mostly uninspired practice playing every morning. "We are not police sepoys, we are musicians. Music is a question of mood," fumes violinist Gokaran Prasad Pandey.

In a town where homes, shops, schools and colleges still have walls cramped with pictures of Baba Allaudin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar, the Maihar band musicians are being turned into dour government servants. Since the fate of the orchestra is inextricably linked to the once famous 42-year-old music college—the legend taught here for three decades—there is little sign of hope. The red-tiled, 78-seat college, housed in a derelict colonial rest-house on an unkempt 1.5-acre plot, runs on a paltry annual budget of Rs 1 lakh after paying off staff salaries. A donation of Rs 1 lakh from a central minister some years ago went into buying the last of some new instruments. The store collapsed a few years ago, and water seeps into the music room during monsoons. To cap it all, the music shack is located next door to the Maihar railroad and a mineral crushing factory. "Our music classes are drowned out by and snowed under sound and dust pollution," says Rajendra Prasad Sharma, the vocal teacher, struggling with the Bhupali Todi raga above the chugging of a goods train passing by.

Teachers suggest that the college went to seed after it was curiously transferred to the cultural affairs department from the higher education ministry in 1980. Agrees principal Mishra: "The cultural department doesn't understand how a college should be run." Now there's hope that it may return to the higher education ministry after a prolonged campaign by teachers. Another silver lining: the state government has recently approved Rs 22 lakh to set up a new college building elsewhere in the town.

Maihar almost ran dry of music when its showpiece, the Baba Allaudin Music Festival, a two-night-long free feast of some of India's best talents, simply stopped taking place for four years in the early '70s due to lack of funds and organisers. (The festival, kickstarted by the state government in 1962 to felicitate Khan on his 100th birthday, takes place on a three-acre playground next door to the legend's home.) Since then this fabled festival has gone through difficult times and the number of performing artistes has dwindled. Last year, the state government pumped in Rs 2.5 lakh for the conference, up from Rs 1.5 lakh. Local sponsors contributed another Rs 1 lakh to pay for the accommodation of artistes and arrangements. The number of performing artistes has also gone up: last year 12 musicians performed, up from four in 1995. This year, ambitious organisers have pegged a Rs 5 lakh budget for a grander festival. "But the money from the government usually comes in late, after the festival ends," says Kailash Jain, a music-loving physician and a key organiser. "We have to organise funds from other sources to pay for the artistes and their accommodation."

 In the end, the decline of the Maihar band exemplifies the slow fadeout of this once-fertile nursery of Indian classical music, the remote town which Baba Allaudin Khan made his home and produced some of the best musical talents of the century. Mudgal believes the band is still relevant today. "The ensemble may not be composed of the most highly skilled musicians," she says, "but it remains an interesting collaborative venture." Chaurasia says the band "steadfastly follows tradition" and should be respected and nurtured for that alone.

But, led by the band, Maihar is now a town of crumbling music schools, broken dreams and spoilt geniuses (see box). The home to a rich gharana-lineage of training that served as vehicles of continuity and change for centuries is fast becoming the remains of another day.

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