Beyond Bygone

Maestro in the classical music arena - Pt Ajoy Chakrabarty

Shyam Banerji in Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty: Seeker of the Music Within details an in-depth account of the life and work of one of most eminent classical vocalists of our times; Excerpts:

By 1971 Ajoy was deeply grooved into the dynamic orbit of learning from Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh. He was on the threshold of crossing his teens. Little did he know then that another twist of fate was in store for him. This twist in Ajoy's life came in the form of an invitation for his Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh to teach in Pennsylvania University in the USA for about two years. Ajoy did not want to lose his guru. However, most of the 1970s was destined to be full of defining developments in Ajoy's life. This was just the beginning.

In hindsight, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty can afford more than a smile when he looks back on the decade, but the day he heard the news that Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh would be going away for at least two years, the floor moved from under his feet. For the avid Kishore Kumar fan that Ajoy Chakrabarty was – and remains even today – it was like the great Kishore Kumar's super-hit song of the year, 'Ye kya hua, kaise hua, kab hua, kyun hua…', had become his own life-song. Ajoy could understand only one thing – someone sitting far away in Pennsylvania was taking his deity away.

He rang the temple bell loudly, said his prayers vociferously and raised the volume of his chants. Many of his gurubhais did the same, but alas, his deity relocated to Pennsylvania.

There is an old proverb, 'When God points his finger He also shows the way'. Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh raised his finger and pointed the way to a hallowed heritage that was a temple and a mosque rolled into one. Ajoy's life was about to change drastically. His dream had decided to come and stand in front of him.

One day Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh told Ajoy, 'I have been thinking, and I have a plan for you. In my absence, I want you to learn from Munawar Ali Khan.'

The suggestion was still sinking into Ajoy's mind, when he said, 'Yes, Ustad Munawar Ali Khan, son of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb. He will be the right guru for you. He is a very nice man too. Just like his father was.'

Ajoy said, 'No Guruji, I want to continue learning from you!'

Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh laughed, 'How can I teach you from Pennsylvania?

And who said that this means that you will stop being my disciple? I will be there with you as long as I live. Now trust me, and do what I say. Learning from Munawar Ali will be wonderful for you.'

Ajoy had great faith in Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh's judgment. Brought about by unexpected circumstances Ajoy's dream was standing in front of him. Like his guru, his father Ajit Chakrabarty also asked him to embrace his dream. However, at times a question did crop up in Ajoy's mind, 'Was he losing Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh to find Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb?' And then he told himself, 'Guruji cannot be wrong about me.'

They could hear the voice even as they neared the door. The voice of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saheb. Someone was listening to a recording. The voice added to the possibilities ingrained in those moments of waiting as Ajoy and his father stood outside the door of Ustad Munawar Ali Khan's Park Circus residence in Calcutta. The thumri ended with a flourish. Ajoy knocked, lightly at first and then a bit louder. The door opened. They introduced themselves, after which they were ushered in and asked to wait. This was the house of the Khalifa (Caliph) of the legendary KasurPatiala gharana, the inheritor of the great heritage of Ustad Kale Khan, Ustad Ali Baksh Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and his younger brother Ustad Barkat Ali Khan. Mementos, awards and images, including a huge one of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb lined the walls and shelves.

This was Ajoy's first encounter with the glorious, almost fortified, concept of brotherhood that is unique to Hindustani classical music – 'the gharana.' It was the antithesis of the world in which he had grown up. In the picture on the wall, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's eyes were full of love. At one glance Ajoy knew that tales of his magnificence and magnanimity were true. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb's regal posture in the image and his signature moustache somehow seemed to suggest to Ajoy – who was feeling a little nervous anyway – that he was in for very strict learning, if Ustad Munawar Ali Khan decided to accept him as a disciple. Would he?

Soon a dignified man with his eyes full of goodness walked in. Ajoy recognised him as Ustad Munawar Ali Khan and touched his feet. Ustad Munawar Ali Khan made some general enquiries about Ajoy. On Ajit Chakrabarty's asking him if he would like to hear Ajoy before deciding to teach him, Ustad Munawar Ali Khan smiled and said, 'No. That will not be needed. Jnan Prakash Babu has recommended him. I will teach him.' Turning to Ajoy he said, 'But you may have to come every day. I hope that will not be a problem.'

'Not at all,' Ajoy replied.

I was actually quite overwhelmed by the occasion. I was entering a gharana. It was something that I had never really imagined would happen to me. I had always been a very serious student of music. With a father who verged on being what I can best describe as an 'enlightened and well-meaning dictator' there was no option. Please take that lightly. I am glad that my father was what he was to me.

Anyway, here I was in Ustadji's house, entering the portals of a very formal, history-laden world of Indian classical music. Everything seemed to be rooted in parampara (tradition). As tradition demanded, Ustadji asked us to come the next Sunday for ganda bandhan – the ceremony of tying the sacred thread called ganda.

Ajoy's father asked Ustad Munawar Ali Khan Saheb what they needed to get for the ceremony. Ustad Munawar Ali Khan said, 'Whatever is convenient for you Chakrabarty Saheb. I have no demand, but for the ceremony get some sweets, one piece of clothing, some cotton thread and a token nazrana.' Ajoy and his father thanked him for his largeheartedness.

(Excerpted with permission, from Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty by Shyam Banerji; published by Niyogi Books. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Fire'.)

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