The sparsely done central Mumbai home is in keeping with the life and times of Dr Prabha Atre who has always shunned ostentation and devoted herself to her music. As the legendary Kirana gharana maestro walks in in her signature white sari with red border, the first thing you notice is her modest, zero-ego persona – a far cry from not only some of her peers, but rank juniors.
The wearer of many hats, this thinker, academician, author, composer, researcher, reformer and guru is modesty personified. “I’ve only served the cause of music with devotion. Everything else is just an offshoot of that,” says the artiste who turns 85 today. She’s to be publicly feted by the who’s who among musicians like Pt Ajay Pohankar and Sadhana Sargam, who will sing her compositions in a two-day concert over this weekend.
Born to middle-class school teacher parents in Pune, music happened by accident. “Following my mom’s illness, my dad got home a harmonium to stop her brooding and a music teacher would come teach her. While she tired of the lessons within four-five days, I was smitten and continued.”
After her initial training under Vijay Karandikar, Atre, who is fondly known as Swaryogini, was under the tutelage of Kirana gharana legends Sureshbabu Mane and Hirabai Badodekar. “Hirabai was a top artiste of her time, equally at ease with kh?yal, thumri, n?tya sangeet and bhajan. Her fragile, silken, honey voice, her capacity to emote with it and yet maintain clarity, ensured all her concerts were packed. It was my guru who pioneered concerts by women artistes in India. Till her time, the woman performer would not be allowed to sit on the stage in front of the largely male audience. Hirabai changed that. Today, if we can sit and sing on an equal stage with men, the credit should go to her.”
In the 1960s, while working with AIR Nagpur, Atre was exposed to Ustad Amir Khan Saheb’s style. This brought major changes in her musical thinking, she points out, quickly underlining her debt to the legendary Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan for her thumri style. “Although I’ve not learnt from him directly, my thumri has its roots in his style, by which I was strongly influenced.”
While admitting to influences from Roshanara Begum and actress-singer Noorjahan, Atre admits that her desire to learn and imbibe the best in her art ensured she didn’t shut herself off from other gharanas. “I don’t think a gharana should cramp an artist’s creativity since there is so much to learn from exposure to other styles as well.”
When she was young, she recalls, the main source of music was All India Radio. “There used to be few live concerts and very few gramophone recordings available. There was very little exposure to the music of other artists. The only source was one’s guru and most gurus did not even allow their disciples to listen to other musicians. There was no choice but to adhere to the system. Today, artistes have more exposure, more freedom. I am fortunate that my guru was very generous and broad-minded. He allowed me to imbibe from other styles.”
Atre says she is enchanted by the Carnatic style of music. “Their gamaka (peculiar oscillations) and sargam (Indian equivalent to solfege, a technique for teaching music) singing make me wonder how enriched my music would have been with some training in that style too.”
She is equally fascinated with Arabic music (“Its tonal quality, emotionally-charged notes and its complicated twists leave the listener intrigued”), film music (“It has made me conscious of tonal quality of voice, ability to change texture; clarity of words, musical pronunciations and effective emotional expression”) and Western music, which she says provokes her to think in new directions.
When quizzed about her unusual choice of topic, sargam, for her doctoral thesis, the former head of department of music at SNDT university laughs. “Credit for that should go to music critics and some senior musicians who objected to the use of sargam in vocal music for reasons best known to them. This made me think about the different aspects of sargam — its origin, development, utility in training, potential in bringing variety in musical material and enriching the overall expression of stage performance, various styles of rendering, ability to get adapted to various genres from classical to popular music, including film music, fusion, etc. Today, except for folk music, sargam has entered all types of music.”
A firm believer in academic background being helpful to musical thinking, the music guru says: “Academics helped me look at music with open eyes. It made me critically and objectively examine what is offered in the name of tradition and also helped me seek contemporaneity in it in terms of our own times. It let me correlate my music to psychology, sociology, physiology, physics, aesthetics, poetry, philosophy, and cultural history, making it holistic.”
One of the first women to extensively travel abroad on the concert circuit in the ’70s, she feels Indian artistes need to cut down on the surround-sound and get back to basics. “Music is no more merit oriented. Publicity has assumed unthinkable dimensions. Public relations, glamour, image-building are directly related to money, fame, awards and many things. You have to learn to blatantly promote yourself to sell, say like any other commodity in the market. Otherwise sit at home and be happy with whatever comes your way.”
The artiste, who stayed single and devoted herself to her music, was awarded the Padma Shri only when she was 60. She waited another 20 years to be conferred the Padma Bhushan. “I think my best award is the love and respect from music lovers,” she says, brushing it off in her characteristic style.
On a high note
Dr Prabha Atre has authored several books on music. Her doctoral thesis on Sargam, or the use of sol-fa notes as musical material, is pioneering. This was followed by the critically acclaimed Swaramayee, Suswaraalee, Swaraanginee, Swaranjanee and Swararangi (an anthology of 550 of her popular compositions in classical music and bhajans). She began the Swaramayee Gurukul to bridge the gap between academic institutions and the traditional guru-shishya parampara and plans to nurture talented students into becoming professionals.