Mumbai Music: Neela Bhagwat
Director: Surabhi Sharma; Cinematographer: Ajay Noronha
Duration: 01:11:31; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 20.367; Saturation: 0.097; Lightness: 0.175; Volume: 0.098; Cuts per Minute: 0.238; Words per Minute: 118.191
Summary: Neela Bhagwat is a pre-eminent singer of the Gwalior gharana who has been performing and teaching in Mumbai for nearly four decades. She studied with Sharatchandra Arolkar and Jal Balaporia. In this interview she discusses the special features of her training, profiles her teachers, talks about the audiences of Hindustani music in Mumbai, and describes her life in music.
TN: Neela, we want this discussion to be about your journeys, how you came into Hindustani music, how you started learning, where did you go actually to study, and where did you go to listen to other people sing. Where did you go to teach music...so different kinds of journeys that you've undertaken over the last many years that you've been a musician. you can just start talking about all of that.
About hearing music, I remember that in my early college days when we were living in Thana we used to come to Cowasjee Jahangir Hall to listen to great musicians. And it was quite far, but that's how I have heard Omkarnath Thakur in his I think - in his old age, when he had four students sitting behind him with the tanpura, singing with him. And in between he would just stop, he would wipe his tears, and he would say: "Mujhe yaad aa rahi hai, aur ek bandish main aapko sunaatha hoon" [I am remembering something, I will sing one more composition for you]. He would speak about the bandish, and then "Chalo bhai, shuru ho jaao" [come, let's begin]. Then he would start singing that bandish. All that, I felt, my god can one do it in a concert, in a big hall like this, but since Omkarnath does it, fine, it looks quite ok. It's very personal, he treats this as a personal platform, and he talks to the audience, he shares his own experience, and memories with the audience. That's his personality. Some people don't do it. Some do it. Omkarnath-ji did it.
And...that was very interesting. Because I've never met him, but I feel as if oh I know the person. So I don't know whether you can make a kind of inference from..about...presentation, that you should not talk about the personal, or you should talk about it, I think all this becomes a part of the memory, the social memory, the cultural memory. So it's ok if you are made that way, you talk about it. Birju Maharaj-ji used to talk also. And that was the beginning of my journey to udnersand great minds, great musicians, great artistes.
TN: Who else did you hear? [blank footage - battery being changed?] TN resumes: Who are the other musicians that you heard?
TN: You said Birju Maharaj also spoke about himself...
NB: I heard...
TN: but other famous musicians of the time that you went all the way to town to listen to?
NB: No, I don't remember having heard any such great person at that time, but I had seen Maharaj-ji, Birju Maharaj-ji, and he was very young at that time and very slim, and we thought his movements were so great at that time; I feel as he matured his expression, his bhaav-bathaana was becoming better and better, but his dance was superb at that time, and I can still visualise Birju Maharaj-ji's figure in Cowajee Jahangir Hall. Later on, after about.. in late 60s, Brij Narayan who was a very important organiser of music and dance in Bombay, he used to organise a concert called Kal-ke-Kalaakaar in which he presented all the youngsters. And then there was Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in which all the elderly, senior musicians and dancers were performing. In that, Haridas and Kal-ke-Kalaakaar, initially from 6 to 7 there was a lecture demonstration by a dancer, and that was very interesting. Sunil Kothari used to conduct it. He used to get them to talk and explain, and dancers used to come, musicans used to come.
I also went twice or twice there to know what..how they explain dance movements and the footwork and the gestures. So that I found very interesting, that Brij Narayan-ji considered lec-dems as an important aspect of a cultural festival.
TN: Where was this held? NB: This was in C J Hall, Cowasjee Jahangir Hall, then later on it was in Rang Bhavan, on Mahapalika Marg. Rang Bhavan was a great place for such festivals in those days. So all that Brij Narayan did, he really groomed the audiences in Bombay I feel.
TN: Both for music and dance, was it?
NB: For music and dance both. Since 60s or so I have seen that. I don't remember, we have to refer to some books, since when he began. But he must have begun much earlier, maybe early 50s or so. Immediately after Independence, whatever cultural happenings were conducted, I think this must have been one of them.
TN: What about more informal gatherings, like in Trinity Club - did you attend those? When you were in college?
NB: Trinity Club I went there once only to hear somebody - was it Sharad Sathe, my guru bandhu, or somebody else also, I don't remember very clearly. I sang there myself, and that was very interesting. I like that small baithak, and people who were very senior, very exprienced listeners, and I sing the oldest form of Gwalior gharana. And they were happily surprised that here is a young girl - I was much younger at that time - singing this old gayaki. Arre wah, tumhi chhaand man ta. I sang a khayalnuma, they were very surprised that I know a khayalnuma and I have the taleem [training], and I learnt from Arolkar [Sharadchandra Arolkar]. They were very surprised that I learnt from Arolkar Bua. Because Arolkar Bua was not a very popular figure, either as a performer or as a teacher. Because he explained things very well, and that was not much liked.
TN: I see.
NB: Strange. It is...
TN: So it's part of the musical culture that you simply have to experience it..you should not talk about it...
NB: I think so, that was the idea. But then some of us - many poets and film-makers and some people with literary background, they all went to him. Because they thought, haan - here is a person who explains also.
And he had the great art of Gwalior khayal to explain - that was fantastic. He was liked by Brij Narayan, because Brij Narayan was into lec-dems [lecture-demonstrations] and performances, so Brij Narayan always organised his concerts. Once a year, he used to tell Arolkar Bua, chaliye, aaj aayiye aap.. hamaara yahaan gaana hai, kab gaayenge bataayiye [Do come today, we would like you to sing here - let us know when you would like to sing]. Usually it used to be in January that Bua sang there.
TN: So the explanation was given in Hindi, or English, or Marathi?
NB: In any of the three languages. Sometimes in Hindi, sometimes Marathi, little bit English, everything.
TN: How did you decide to go and study with Arolkar Bua? And how did you come to Gwalior gayaki?
NB: I was learning Jaipur gayaki earlier from Ganpatrao Tilak, and I learnt for three years. I used to perform, I performed khayals in Jaipur gayaki and then I thought I just have to sit and practise these fast taans and perform on the stage. It's rather...very mechanical, and I don't want to get into this area. Life is very vast, life is very interesting, then there is the Left movement which is waiting for me to do something, I would rather do that. I gave up music. I did not sing, I did not learn. But I could no stop singing at home. My tanpura was there, and I used to tune it, and sing at times. In fact there was a very interesting incident in 1967. There was an earthquake in Koyna, and at that time whole Bombay was shivering around 4 o'clock in the morning, and I saw my tanpura shaking. I got up suddenly- I said, my god, I can hold myself, but my tanpura - I have to hold it. So I was holding my tanpura, I said - oh oh oh, some chors [thieves] have come, or something terrible is happening, what is it. Then it stopped, and a little later we came to know what it was.
But this I remember. This was again I think used in Arun [Khopkar]'s film - in <Teevra Madhyam> Arun has used this incident. So I could never give up singing. But I stopped learning Jaipur gharana. And then I heard Arolkar - I could not understand him. TN: Where did you hear him? NB: I heard him in Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh. In those days concerts used to be held over there. And out great poet Manohar Oak, and the theatre personality Damu Kenkre, who were great fans of Arolkar, they organised his concert. Manohar Oak, he said: "Kai ga, aiklas ka, Arolkar la, Kai aiklas mag gaana [Have you heard Arolkar? If not, what music then have you heard?] Maybe I haven't heard music properly, but I would like to hear him. Then he said: Ye, mag - shanivari aahe gaana [Come then, the concert is on Saturday]. I asked:Ticketa aaheth ka? [Are there tickets?] Kiti ghetes tu? [How many do you want?] Then he and my father and my brother, all of us went to hear Arolkar. That was the first experience of listening to Arolkar Bua. I could not understand anything. He used to live in Shivaji Park, I happened to meet him, he wouldn't recognize me because I was one of the listeners. So I went him and did namaskar: Bua khoop chaan watla pan kahi kalla nahin [Bua, I felt very good hearing you but I didn't understand anything]. Mee yeu ka tumchya kade, aikala? Sharad Sathe tumchya kade shikto, tyacha lessonla ale tar chalel ka? [Can I come and listen to you sing? Sharad Sathe learns from you, can I come whenever he has his lessons with you?]. He said yes, come. Then he said he comes home very late, he comes at eight thirty. Chahel bua, mala kahi harkat nahi [That will be all right for me, I don't mind]. I used to go and listen to Sharad Sathe's lessons with Arolkar. And that was also very interesting. Sharad Sathe did not mind it either.
And Arolkar Bua welcomed... because then .. Arun [Khopkar - then Neela's husband] and I were totally impressed by his explanations. So we invited him home for lunch, and he was talking about his aesthetics, and khayal gayaki and how it was in 19th century, how it has come down to us, and how one has to preserve this gayaki. So I think my liking for Gwalior began with that. I realised that this man has some different kind of aesthetics to talk about. It's not like aam taur pe jo bataya jaata hai [what is commonly said] there is a melody and there is a taal and you sing the 'aa' 'uuu' 'aa', and then sing fast taans, and that's it. Arrive at the sam. That's enough. This was not like that. That appealed to me a great deal. I found that the general scenario of music was very taan-oriented, there was less bhaav [expression, emotion, sentiment, notion] expressed, which I found in Omkarnath as well as Birju Maharaj-ji. I then learnt from Lachhu Maharaj-ji, Birju Maharaj-ji's uncle, so Maharaj-ji was a great one in bhaav bathaana [to show or display bhaav]. So I could not appreciate music without any experience, without any bhaav, and I found that in Gwalior. And then the word was very important in Gwalior. ...If the word is important, then there will be a time when I can make my composition, my word will be there. Each one can sing one's own word. If it has to go on with time and history, if it stays stuck in the 19th century and the 20th century it's like singing mythology, like singing Ramayan and Mahabharat, like singing the old musical plays. But if I can sing my own experience, that's great. I must learn that gayaki. That's how I turned to Arolkar Bua.
TN: What did he teach you first? What raag did you start with?
NB: Yaman Kalyan. 'Avagunana khijiye gunisana', you know that bandish, no?
TN: No, I don't think you taught me...
NB: you haven't learnt it? Oh... that's a tough bandish. In teentaal. And my taal was totally bad, and he used to play.. and I made several mistakes, and then I said Bua mala kharach nahi yet [Bua I don't think I can handle this]. Honestly I was telling him, acchi baat nahi hain [this is not good] - mala kalatat nahi kay karaawa [I don't know what to do]. He said with your left, you have to count. I said: Ho ka? Bar. [Is that so? Ok.] So I started counting with my left hand, and in between I used to make mistakes, but I think it was his playing along with the singing that gave gradually a sense of taal, sense of rhythm in me.
TN: His playing what...?
NB: He used to play tabla. ...He played tabla and he taught. And that was the way to teach in the old days. There was no tabla machine. Many singers even now take the dagga-baaya in hand and they play the baaya. I did it initially, but if you have students who need sarega-regama corrected, then baaya is not necessary. And if you're surviving on music, you have to have all these sarega-regama tuitions.
That is also inculcating some kind of love for music in them, so I don't look down upon it. At the same time, I feel that one wants to teach the aesthetics, the beauty of this gayaki, and also one likes the students to come up with something new. That also happnes, I think. Gradually, my students were composing, they were writing on music, it happens by and by.
So how many years did you study with Arolkar Bua?
NB: I studied with him from 1969 till he was there. But initially for 8 years I used to go to him every day. Every evening I was there with him, and I used to learn. He realised that because I said.... mala yeth nai ani mala shikaycha aahe (I can't do this, but I must learn) so how can I learn. He said, ok, I'll teach you tabla. Then he taught me how to play tabla. I had tabla at home, so I started playing tabla and singing with it. Make mistakes, but ok, now I know how to correct myself; so I used to play tabla and sing. He realised that I was a very serious student. He was very happy about that, and he used to tell everyone hi khoop serious aaahe [She is very serious]. He used to tell that to his old friends. In about three years' time, he was completing 60 years and we celebrated his 60th birthday. So I wrote on his gayaki and principles and all that. That was appreciated a great deal.
That was in 1972, and during that period if somebody wanted to write on Gwalior, they used to say: "Neelala saangitla paije" [Neela has to be asked], and Arolkar also, if he was asked, "Bua, please explain this to us", [used to reply] "tumi Neelala vichaara hi tumala sangel [Ask neela, she will explain to you]. He used to say that. So I realised that I have to become more serious, and go deep into this gayaki, which is what I was doing, I was trying to learn, the pace at times slowed down. It's a relationship after all. It's a one-to-one relationship, and Bua was the traditional traditionalist, I would say. And I was too modern for him. I was a leftist, he never liked it. I was a feminist, he never liked it. And I used to write, and I used to talk. He never liked it.
And he could not help accepting that, because he needed someone to write on him. So he liked it and he disliked it. He was..bechaare Bua, he was in conflict with himself. But then he used to say evha nahin [not now] if I ask him to teach me something, he used to say: "Atha nahin, mag baghu [Not now, we'll see later]. Bua shik va na, khoop sundar hai ti bandish [Please teach me, it is a beautiful bandish]. He started postponing. Then I realised that there is something in him, which stops, you know, prevents giving. I don't know... TN: And he was like that with all the students that he had? NB: I think he was like that with everyone.
TN: So does this mean that as a singer passes away, the bandishes also disappear? NB: Yeah, yeah it does. TN: Do you have any idea how many he would have known and how many you did not learn? NB: Bua had learnt 1064 compositions of the tradition. Now I know only 337 of them. Of the 337, a few I have learned from Jal Saab [Jal Balaporia], so Bua was not willing to teach me everything. But he had a different idea. He said: "Tula ya pithawar basaiche [You have to sit on this stage], he said you have to become like a guru, you have to preserve the knowledge, you have to analyse, you have to become the source of ..the resource person for Gwalior and the khayal and the aesthetics and all of it. I used to say, but I also want to sing. I feel like singing and I enjoy singing. He used to say, "Theek hai. gayacha tar gaa pan he tujha kaam hai [Sing if you have to, but this is your real work]. He allotted this role to me, whereas I also wanted to sing and I was performing and I was enjoying [it]. I also started composing my own stuff. In about five years' time I was composing. I never showed it to him. I never told him. But I got a consent in an indirect way.
I once said to him, "Bua, whatever you say is so great that if you imbibe it then that really makes the beginning of the tradition for an artiste, isn't it?" He said, "Absolutely true." I said, fine. This means I can now compose. If I feel I have to try this out, I must compose. So I started composing. I never told him. I <never> told him. Sometimes in the newspaper if he read a report - tu kela hotas he [Did you do this?] Ho, prayatna karat hote [Yes Bua, I tried something].
TN: But when he came to hear you sing, did you ever sing anything that you had composed? NB: I once did that. It was a guru purnima [special day on which teachers are accorded respect] organised in Vyas Sangit Vidyalay. Dr Vidyadhar Vyas had organised it, and I was to sing and then Bua was to sing. Some other singer who took a lot of time was eating into our time. But anyway I had about half an hour or so. I was standing in the small balcony of that vidyalay, and I was singing to Shankar Abhyankar who is a follower of the Kumar Gandharva style. I told him that today I feel like singing Malkauns. It was 11.30 I think, it was [the] time for Malkauns. And really speaking I want to sing my bandish in Malkauns. Then he said, "Why don't you sing it?" Baap re buancha samor majhi bandish shakyach nahi [My God, before Bua, and my own bandish? No way]. Arre pan mhanun tar bagh, tyanna kahi nahin watnaar kadachit tyanna anand hi hoyil [Sing it and see, he will feel nothing, maybe he may even like it]. Tumhala asa watta ka? Myi mhanun pahate [Do you think that? OK, I will sing and see]. Just needed some kind of, you know, encouragement from somebody. So he said, sing it, and I did that. TN: Which one was it? NB: That was 'Main apne saiyya sang saachi'. TN: Give us two lines. NB: [sings] Main apne saiyya sang saachi...main apne... saiyya sang saachi. Ab ka hain ki laaj sajni, paraghata vhe-e-e naachi. Apne saiyaa sang saachi. I sang this bandish. TN: Meera [Meera bhajan]. NB: Meera. But he never said anything. And I didn't tell him also.
There was a little fear about him. Because suddenly if he is annoyed with you, then he will certaily not teach. Otherwise there's a chance that you get to learn something, so you had to please him. Now in a way that guru-shishya relation was creative for me, because I composed a lot and whatever little I learned, my other...the poor students did not get to learn even that much. And some of them said: 'Arre, tum ne jhagad jhagad ke itna toh leliya, accha kiya. Humko woh bhi nahi miltha hai. (You fought with him and got this much, you did well, we don't even get this much).
TN: So did he write down all the 1064 bandishes? NB: Yes, yes, he has written them... TN: Do you have access to them? NB: This is another story, which....[laughs] TN: Ok. If you can't speak about it, that's ok. NB: Yeah, yeah. It's a difficult thing to speak about. TN: Which student has which compositions... NB: It's there. In fact he told his nephew and his wife to burn that book along with him. So when he passed away, he died in the morning, and then the nephew called me up: 'Neelatai, chala [Neelatai, come] so I went and I saw that the book was there near his feet. then I said: 'Itha kaa thevlele' [Why are these books there?] He said Annani sangitlay, majhya barobar he jaloon gelela pahije [Anna has told us, this should be burnt with him]. Ti vidya aahe, jaloon deta kama nahin [This is vidya (learning): we can never allow it to be burnt]. Pan Anna mhanale tasa [But that is what Anna said]. 'He bhag, Anna manaale, thae thyaanchapurta theek hai [Look, this is for him to think], It's for him to think like that. Not for us. We have to think differently. I'm going to lift it. I'm going to keep it aside. So I lifted that book. I kept it away. And that's how we just saved it. And now I'm not getting that book again [laughs ruefully] because it's with my elder guru bandhu and he is just not giving. This is the property relation which... I have no property, I'm giving it to everyone, but that's me. People are different.
TN: And with Jal-saab, how was the interaction? NB: I went to him because I was not getting anything new from Arolkar Bua, so I went to Jal-saab. TN: Where had you heard him sing? NB: I used to hear him everywhere, because he came for Arolkar's concerts. He came for Krishnarao Pandit's concerts, Gwalior ke log hain toh aapas mein itna toh milna-julna hota tha [this much meeting up the Gwalior people used to do], and Jal-saab used to sing behind Krishnarao Pandit, so I had heard him. I had heard his concerts also. I organised his concerts, and I used to get lots of people for his concerts. So all the other guru bandhus used to say, Baalu Patwardhan for example, he said: 'Ata Jal kade zaayla panje - thyacha kade khub bandishi aahet [Now you go to Jal: he has many bandishes]. Ani tya aapan shikhun getlya pahijet [And these I have to take from him through learning them].
So I thought let me now ask Jal-saab if he will teach me. He said, yes, he will teach... These two had a lot of bickerings about each other. Arolkar Bua hated him, and Jal-saab always said that he [Arolkar] learnt from Dr. Moghe and he doesn't acknowledge him as his guru, so that's very bad. It's a sin for a musician to do it. I used to hear it, and keep quiet. I did that for nearly 3-4 years, and in... TN: Where did you go? You went to Andheri? NB: I went to Andheri. He used to teach one bandish in one day. I used to go on Saturdays, he taught a bandish, and on the way back in the train I used to immediately make the notation so that I don't forget. I used to keep humming. Sit in the Andheri train, which leaves from Andheri, so there is nobody in the ladies' compartment. Some women who had finished their work and were going back, it was nice to meet them at that time. And I used to hum and I used to write down the notation, that was really wonderful. Like that I learnt 56 compositions from him. TN: What kind of raags?... NB: The same raags, but different compositions which Arolkar Bua had not taught. I knew them, I had heard them from all these Gwalior people, but Bua never taught me. So I learned them from Jal-saab. Jal-saab was angry with me: he said, you don't give my name as your guru. I said, no, but I do that. Then I had to show him the writing, the press clipping bagha mi ithe dilela aahe aapla naav [Look, I have put your name here]. And then Bua used to say: 'tu tyacha kade zyaathes?' [You go to him, do you?] I said, no, I don't go. Then he said: 'Tyaani tyaacha nao guru mhanoon lihile aahe [But his name has been written as your Guru. Mala mahit nahi kasa lihile te lihinyavarcha kaam aahe [I don't know how it has been written, that is the business of whoever wrote it]. Mi kahi jaat nahi [I don't go to him]. Tyacha kade gelis tar khabardar [I forbid you to go to him], majhya kade mag paool takaycha nahi [You don't then set foot in my house again]. Yeoo nam ke [Don't bother to come to me]. Ti ghaan aahe Gwalior chi [That is the filth of Gwalior]. Pan Bua tumhi asa kaa mhanta? [But why do you say that?] Changla gaatat te [He sings well], chaan watta [I feel good]. Tumhala kalat nah [You won't understand] mhanoon tumhi asa mhantaat [So you say this]. I realised that it's some conflict between the two which I'm sandwiched between, and I have to bear with it and keep quiet.
TN: What was the difference in their methods of teaching? NB: There is no difference in the methods of teaching. A little difference in the design of the bandish. Sometimes the antara Jal-saab used to finish in one aavartan, while Bua made it more relaxed and did it in two aavartans, that was the only difference. Same design, same things. TN: And neither of them wrote anything down? They just sang it and you have to learn it? NB: Jal-saab did not mind it. TN: He would write the notation? NB: He didn't mind writing the notation. He didn't mind me writing in the books. 'Jal-saab, mala saanga na he notation mazha chukla aahe ka [Tell me Jal-saab, is this right? Have I made a mistake in the notation?] I could ask him. He was more modern, he worked in Air India, he was a Parsi, all these factors are really important. His children were educated, and he was financially settled. Bua bichaare, was alone and not really settled, so that little bit of loneliness..He used to feel frustrated that he was so alone, and nobody really cared for him. We all were there with him, but he always felt that there is nobody for him, which was not true from our point of view, but he felt it. You can't help anyone feeling something.
So..the methods of teaching were the same, the design was the same... Bua's aesthetics inspired him to do things differently, which he did. There is one bandish: 'Tu aiso hi karima rahima', in Darbari Kaanada, which Jal-saab sang in ektaal, he taught it to me in ektaal. And I had heard Bua singing it in teentaal. Both sound beautiful. I personally liked the ektaal bada khyal a little more, because it's a very profound statement in that composition. It's a beautiful composition. TN: Can we get a jhalak of it? NB: Jhalak of both the forms....tu aiso hi karima rahima hakima paaka paravara digaar, garvi ko garava doora karatara ek chhina mein, dukhi ya na ko morey daata...tu aiso hi karima. This is the ektaal. Bua used to sing it like this: [sings same lines in teentaal] It's a little speeded up, the rhythm is faster. And there is more joyfulness in the teentaal bandish, whereas the ektaal bandish is more profound. TN: Darbari is that kind of raag, no? NB: I think it's a deep raag, it's like the ocean.
So that was the only difference I think in the... TN: In the way they taught...
SS: Where did you grow up? In which part of Bombay did you grow up? NB: I grew up in this house. TN: Matunga. NB: I am staying here for 53 years. SS: You used to go to all these places from here? NB: Yes. TN: So previously you lived in Thane and then you shifted here. NB: yes, in 1960 we shifted here, 1960 April. And since then I have laways lived here. 3-4 years I was away, after marrying Arun [Khopkar], we had a place and we lived in Sion at King's Circle, but then I'm here. TN: You probably also saw this area developing in front of you, in terms of the music and the interest in music? Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre, later Karnatak Sangh, many of these venues in Dadar-Matunga would be very familiar to you, as you're growing up, right? NB: Yeah, when I was growing up, Dadar-Matunga Cultural Centre concerts were held in Chhabildas Boys' High School. That was a huge hall, not a very nice hall, with a very horrible toilet, and good greenroom but bad toiled. Nobody liked it there, but everyone loved it there, because so many people could be accommodated. It was easy. Dadar Station se nazdeek. Bus ke liye nazdeek. [close to the station and the bus stop] You walk down... So that was it. And I think the AC hall was a little new... at that time, there was no idea of an air-conditioned hall. It was a middle-class culture. Lower middle class and middle class. Upper middle class if they came, haan tyaana accommodate karava lageel thoda sa hya hall madhye [They will have to 'accommodate' somehow in this hall] But primarily it was middle class culture. And it was great to hear musicians over there. Because the eye contact was perfect. And it was a hall like this, I don't know what was the length and the width, but the artist always sat in the middle of the wide line of the hall, and then the audience was sitting like this around him so that everyone could have an eye contact.. the artiste could see who has come who has not come. Kya kar rahe... So everyone was really listening to the artiste. Idhar udhar chatting, yeh woh kuchh nahin. [laughs]
TN: And is there always a tradition of older and more established singers going and listening to younger people, or going and listening to their peers and their friends, how does that dynamic work in the auditorium? NB: It's not a common thing really speaking. But in the old days it was there. I have not experienced that so much. Jal-saab sometimes gave me a venue, he said: 'Tumhi ikde gaa' (You sing here), then he used to organise, he used to tell the organisers to have my concert. But Bua never did that. Nor did Sharad Sathe. The Gwalior people are really useless I tell you. They don't promote each other. They don't help each other. That is the reason Nandu [Amarendra Dhaneshwar, singer and music critic, also husband of Neela Bhagwat] and I decided we must have a platform for music, musicians; and we will be equal to all gharanas and all musicians [treat them all equally]. And we will not have this bickering with us, because it is really unhealthy. It's not fair. So let's be fair and let's have music on our platform. Therefore we had the Khayal Trust, before that we had 'Khayal' as a group, with lec-dems and sometimes performances. But with Arolkar Bua passing away in 1994 we started organising festivals of music, first in his name and gradually in Krishnarao Pandit's name, then Nizamuddin Khansaab's name, because he was also very close to us, this great tabla player.
TN: I didn't mean organising concerts, I was actually thinking... if something's happening in Chhabildas for example, would many other singers also go and listen to that performance? NB: it depends. If they are invited, they would. TN: Oh, they would not go by themselves? NB: They don't always do that. Some people do, some don't. It's up to..what you think of your dignity as...some people don't do it.
SS: Chhabildas is also around the same time as Saifee Hall, a lot of the modern Hindi and Marathi theatre, Dubey [Satyadev Dubey], everyone is working over there. Was there a lot of interaction? NB: No interaction, not at all. TN: The music had left the theatre by then, no? SS: Yeah, ...the modernists NB: also, the theatre people in bombay are not used to listening to classical music, unless they find somebody like Bhimsen Joshi, who is heard everywhere in the country. Then they would go and hear. ...they didn't see any connection between the voice culture in music and theatre voice culture. So the actor was not really looking upon herself or himself as a voice worker. I did work with Dubey so I could treat myself as a voice worker, and I made a special programme of voice culture for theatre actors also. But nobody does that generally. They should do it. I think it's a great loss to the theatre people. Though Sulabha Deshpande is interested in it, and she often invites me and says : 'Neela, saang aamhala ...chala aapan karu ya [Neela, tell us - let us do something together] She's very open.
TN: But there was a connection with cinema. You've often sung for very avant garde filmmakers. NB: yeah. TN: And there's a way by which cinema is then able to absorb this kind of musical input. NB: Yes, that avant garde filmmaker was always my friend, so I sang for them, Kumar [Shahani] or Anup Singh, or Saeed [Mirza], or Arun [Khopkar], ...Farida [Mehta] I sang for once. Rajat Kapoor also. But they all were friends, many of them learnt from me also. Kumar learnt, Rajat learnt, Saeed's wife Jennifer was learning. Om was learning, Om Puri [Hindi film actor]. So that was the connection between avant garde cinema and me. And they really appreciate music. Even now they appreciate. ...Alaknanda [Samarth, actor] has been so much part of that cinema; she's not here but she's quite here I would say. Alak and I keep working together on voice. We have a very deep connection through the voice.
TN: So you yourself have had very interesting collaborations across continents, across kinds of music, even worked with Carnatic music with Aruna Sairam NB: Yes. TN: What is the meaning of these collaborations for you, what do you explore when you take up something like that? NB: I think the main thing is that even if I appreciate Carnatic music I can't change my voice modulation to suit that music. So what I <can> do is I can interact, and I can relate. That was one way of appreciating Carnatic music and also learn a bit from that. I remember Aruna and I discussed the raagas for nearly two years, and then we thought we had enough material to present the Hindustani-Carnatic comparative programme. And it was Susheela Rani Patel who hosted the first programme. She was open to this idea, and others were...I don't know, we never asked because...
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TN: Tell us something about your early access to music. When you were growing up, when you were a litttle girl, did you hear Hindustani music around you? NB: Yes, very much. TN: Where? Where did you hear it? NB: It was more in the plays. Plays like 'Saubhadra' and 'Samshay Kallol' and 'Sharada'. We were living in Thana at that time, and my father was Treasurer in some committee which used to organise plays to raise funds for that school. So we got a chance to see the plays. TN: and which were these natak companies? Were they from Bombay? Were they from somewhere else? NB: They were from Bombay itself. Lalit Kaladarsha,and some other groups, I don't even remember their names. But 'Saubhadra' was there, and Ram Marathe and Suresh Haldankar, they were acting and singing in those plays. And Prabhakar Karekar, who is now over sixty, he used to sing, very well at that time. He was a pupil of Suresh Haldankar, and what a fantastic voice he had at that age.
TN: So that was your first exposure to the theatre? NB: Yeah, yeah, and I used to dream of singing and...sometimes my parents would say aaj natkala nahi jaycha udya tushi pariksha aahe [No theatre today, tomorrow is your examination]. Pan mazha abhyas zhaala, mee yatey [But I have finished my studies, I will come]. They would say, nothing doing, you have to sit at home. TN: did you hear and did you learn those songs, from sangeet natak? NB: I used to sing them. I used to perform them. TN: You don't remember now? NB: I have stopped doing it. If I start singing I will get them. But it hardly makes any sense. TN: did your family have a gramophone player? NB: No, but we had a tanpura, we had a harmonium, we had a tabla, my father used to sing, all my aunts used to sing. They used to sing in the music squads for the pre-[sic] Independence movement, they all used to sing in that. So we grew up hearing, 'Vijayi vishwa tiranga pyaara', something like that. and 'Yaare saare ithe gama hya jhendya khaali' [Come all, under this flag] And we made fun of those songs as children, because we tried to put it on the floor Thoooraaa asa.. Funny! We used to say that. We were naughty kids, and we were making fun of those songs. But that was bringing us up.
TN: So radio was playing music..I'm wondering where all you heard music? NB: Radio, yes, radio also was another thing, and in fact in my childhood I was very sick, and lying down for four months, I had pleurisy. I was not to move, and I was bedridden. But I used to listen to radio and make notes on whatever I heard: amkyani kasa gayla [how someone sang], hyacha bhav hota, hyachat taana hota [there was bhaav here, there were taans here] all that, writing criticism - it began since that. TN: How old were you? NB: I was in the 8th standard. that means, kithi asnaar [How much would that be?], nau, daha, atra, baarah. I must have been twelve years old. But I started writing poetry and songs and male te karaaycha aahe [I must do that) that silly romance that's there. Not that is has gone now, but it was very much there.
You were talking to me about Aruna [Sairam] and I. TN: About collaborations. You've done other collaborations with Western classical musicians. NB: Yes, yes. TN: Tell us something about that. How do you think about your own music then, when you engage the Gwalior gayaki with something like piano, or... NB: Working with Aruna, we could use the bol, the word. Because we belonged to the same culture, though systems are different. But when I was talking about how to compose with Aldo Brizzi - I was in Paris and we had a common friend, and she brought us together. We were discussing how it is - I was telling him about my experience, he was telling about his. And then he said, 'Neela, we must work together'. Then he invited me in the year 2001 to work with him. He said this is a new programme, you come, and sing. Then he came here, to hear all the ragas. He picked up two ragas. One is Raag Shri and one is Miya Malhar. I sang with Brazilian percussionists, then French flautists, and a Yoke singer called Wimme Saari from Finland - it was an interactive music without words. And the ony attempt was made --by Trio d'ergante from Paris, these three people, the flautists, they wanted to play Raag Shri and Malhar, but they could not produce the andolan in Malhar. Shri they tried to play, they did attempt. And there was another instrument which is called moringa - moringa has a hole on top, and two holes on the sides. The sides and top, all the three holes, this girl Michelle she was playing, and I was singing with her. And it was not like tabla, because there was no rhythmic cycle, but it was a great experience.
I was singing tappa, in between I was singing slow alaaps, and meend and other things, and then accordingly she would play something softer. It was very interesting. TN: So this was very unstructured in a way that's quite different from developing a raag... NB: They have no rhythmic cycle. We have taal. They have no taal. They have an ongoing rhythm. Even piano, I worked with Camilla Saunders [in 2000], I worked with Marion Von Tilzer [in 2002]. And with both of them we decided to just respond to each other. Basically we took the natural notes, the ordinary saregama padanisa. We shifted a little from there, still a little further, and finally we ended in what I would call [Raag] Kalavathi and she was playing something else. And in Kalavathi I suddenly sang a teevra madhyam. So she didn't know what to do, and she was going somewhere else, and I was trying to match up with that, it was a journey hand in hand, with notes and shapes and that culture. It was beautiful. There was only one thing that all the musicians from Holland decided to do. They liked this taraana, Driya naare tanom, in Raag Bhairavi. So Marion learnt the Taraana, I wrote down the notation, and I sat with her to fix the taal. She finally was good in that taraana, she played it with the taal, and Haiku Dijker who plays tabla anyway, and Lenneke who plays violin, she learns from D.K.Datar, so she is used to the rhythmic cycle. So all of us we do it together, and they call it Bombay Boulevard [in 2004].
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TN: It's like meditation. Capturing the ambient sound now.
TN: That would be a nice thing. We're still getting it organised. We have to talk to the persons, get hold of the place, we thought that will be really interesting. SS: You wouldn't have ever gone to Laxmi Baug? NB: I have been there, years ago. I had heard some old singer.... SS; By the time you are listening to music, it's no longer... NB: It's no longer a popular venue. TN: You would have never heard Kesarbai Kerkar.... NB: I have heard Kesarbai. I have heard her three times. Her last three performances [in 1966, 1967 and 1968], held in Dadar-Matunga Cultural Centre, held in Chhabildas High School, I was there. Because I was a member of Dadar-Matunga Cultural Centre, and they had a very funny kind of membership. To the man they would charge Rs.3, and to the woman they would charge Rs.2. And to the student, I don't know what, it was Re.1 or something. I could never understand this. Gender difference in the fees is funny. But Dadar-Matunga Cultural Centre for a long time had this, then they stopped at some point of time.
Kesarbai- another thing about her was that she was a very whimsical person, and she would say, 'Aaj he maajha concert-la nakoth, tey aslethar mee gaanaar naahi' [I don't want this person in my concert - if that person comes I won't sing]. She was very fond of Arolkar Bua, she came to hear Arolkar Bua once, in Sachivalay Gymkhana, and it just so happened that the microphone fell on the baaya, the dagga, and the dagga broke. So the concert could not begin. But there was Mr.Nanjudiah who lived very close by. he said, I'm getting my baaya, aap thodi der rukiye. In about 15 minutes, he brought the baaya and the concert began. And Arolkar Bua sang 'Banare Balayya', Yaman Kalyan he sang, and a little later he was going to sing Kafi, when Kesarbai said: 'Mee jaate atha maazhe pair dukhela laagle' [I will go now, my feet are hurting]. So she was getting up, and strange it is, but there were those small benches which I think the schoolchildren sit on. Kesarbai, with her grand white sari, and that kind of middle parting, and curly hair, and big tikka, she was sitting on that bench for schoolchildren, and she said: 'Maazhe pair dukhela laagle, mee atha utthae' [My feet hurt, I will get up]. She got up, and Arolkar Bua started 'O miya jaanewale'. Mala jau detoos ki nahi tu [Will you let me go, or not?] Then he said 'Atha tumhi yavoon basaava [Now you must come and sit]. Then she came and sat. [laughs] And I was there sitting in that concert. It was really great to see the whole natak happening. Kesarbai was a personality on the stage. She always wore white. And she always took the pallu on the head. Even while she was singing. Sometimes, it fell down, but that was her way of presenting herself. Siddheshwari was the same generation, but she never did that. She always had her pallu like this, and she sang. But Siddheshwari was more emotional. A lot more emotional than Kesarbai. Kesarbai's programme was fixed, and she sang that, and it was perfect. Nothing here and there. Whereas Siddheshwaribai while singing she suddenly kept quiet, closed her eyes, 'Main dukhi ho rahi hoon. Thodi der ruk jaati hoon.' She would stop! Maybe she was controlling her tears. She was a great singer I would say. But of course there were fights between Siddheshwaribai and Begum Akhtar, and Begum Akhtar always looked down upon her. 'Unko awaaz lagaane meh hi kitni der lag jaati hai', she would say. But when the voice was wound up, oh, it was really great. It was fantastic. For a listener, both were good. Begum Akhtar had a different intensity, and Siddheshwari had a different power and intensity.
The listener is always more democratic, and open. Even now I think they are very democratic. Even in Karnatak Sangh [hall in Matunga] I would say, or Dadar-Matunga Cultural Centre, somebody like me who presents feminist compositions on the International Women's Day, or I try to explain and interpret the composition in a particular context, they like that. But they like somebody like Ashwini Bhide who will not talk about it, they like her also. They like everyone. In that sense they are really democratic and equal to all.... TN: That's why you [Khayal Trust] give a prize to the best listener, no? NB: Yes, yes. TN: It's the tradition of the Khayal Trust, everytime I've gone for a concert...they give a memento to the best listener, NB: We give a prize to the best listener on the basis of whether that listener is listening just to music or is more culturally aware. The listeners that we have awarded - they go to see plays, they see films, they attend lectures, they are there for Hindu-Muslim unity conferences. Another thing which should be mentioned is the relation between Muslim musicians and the non-Muslim ones - I'm not calling them Hindu, but non-Muslim musicians. The Muslim musicians I feel are very open in their appreciation, whereas the non-Muslim musicians would say bara hota (it was all right). They would say [loudly]: 'Kya gaaya apne- apne dil ko choo liya [How well you sang - you touched my heart]. They would speak..it must be their language also, that's teaching them to appreciate in this way. Soemone like Aslam Khan, or Raja Miya, kabhi aate hain concert ke liye, ..aise muh band ke nahi jaate. Waisa hum bhi unka gaana bahut pyar se hi sunte hain.' That pyaar ki baat is there with some Muslim musicians which rarely is with the non-Muslim ones. Strange...
But... they are not very open otherwise. They won't let their daughters sing. They know music, but they won't come up on the platform. The only exception is Hidayat Khan's wife, Afroz Banu, she sings thumris very well and he doesn't mind that. She really performs on stage. ...Their economic condition is also not very good. Somebody as great as Nizamuddin Khansaab lived in Vaanzhewadi [CHECK] in half the size of this room, and five people, six people, lived in this room. One corner is a bathroom, one corner is a kitchen, one corner is the bedroom, and one is the hall. The cot they have is being raised so that people sleep down below the cot. And during the day the tablas will stay there. Raat ko wahaan se tabla nikal jaata hai, aur log so jaate hain. They are also responsible for it, because they don't believe in education, don't believe in mixing...but how and who will change this situation I don't know...It's only Alla Rakha's family which has changed. Because of education. It's a huge problem according to me. Mainly in a city like Bombay it's very visible.
Lekin, ek baat kehna hi chahiye, ke 1993 mein jab dange phasaad huye [when the riots took place] I was worried about Nizamuddin Khansaab. And one day after that week was over, I met Khansaab, and I said, 'Khansaab, aapko kuch taklif huyi?' 'Arre bhai, mujhe kya taklif honewali hain. Mere yahaan toh saare apne dost hi hain. Woh mujhe sambhaal lete, kaun pakdega?' And he was quite ok. But that kind of fraternity didn't exist everywhere. With him, it was there. Wahaan unki namak ki chai bhi banti hain, aur de jaati hain na sabko. You know they put salt in the chai, na? They put salt, and khub auta auta ke chai banaate hain, aur pilaate hain. Woh bahut achhi lagti hai woh chai.