My Life: Alladiya Khan

If you want to know what a musician’s life was like at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the book to go to is Khansahab Alladiya Khan’s My Life, translated by Amlan Dasgupta and Urmila Bhirdikar. Published by Thema, with an insightful introduction by the translators, the memoir takes you through five decades of Khansahab’s musicianship --  training, travelling, performing and teaching – starting  in Uniyara where he was born, and ending around 1922 when he left Kolhapur after the death of his patron Shahu Maharaj, to spend the last years of his life in Mumbai.

The narrative not only allows us to see the Jaipur-Atauli gharana patriarch’s life as he wished us to see it, but opens up the entire vista of patronage and performance that existed a century ago. However, even during Khansahab’s years in Kolhapur, the music scene was already changing. The change is recorded in a conversation that Khansahab reports having had with Shahu Maharaj . Maharaj asked him why artists who measured up to the greatness of earlier musicians could no longer be found. Khansahab’s reply was a counter question. “Maharaj you know all the kings that are today in India. Is there even one among them who nurtures any one of the fourteen arts or supports skilled artists?” Shahu Maharaj answered in the negative, upon which Khansahab offered a pithy analysis of the relationship between enlightened patronage and the preservation of the arts that once existed. “A practitioner of an art would live under patronage for thirty or forty years and study his art completely and master it. He would train thousands of disciples. He did not have to worry about food, or clothes, or anything else. When he came out of his penance, he would create a new era in his art.”

What a magnificent vision this provides of patronage and the nurture of art.

There was another aspect to this nurture, revealed earlier in a telling anecdote which Khansahab recounts. The Maharaja of Ratlam had invited Khansahab to sing for him. The seating arrangement in the special room where the Maharaja was accustomed to listening to his court musicians, upset  Khansahab. The Maharaja and his queen sat “in a high place, and beneath, some distance away, was the singer’s position.” Khansahab refused to sing in such a setting with its implications of a hierarchy that hurt the artist’s pride in himself and his art. Musicians and their patrons, we are told elsewhere, always sat on the same level.

The artist’s pride and the manner of acknowledgement  he expected to receive from his patron, is also reflected in another episode that Khansahab recounts. The anecdote, narrated to him by his uncle, relates to Shadi Khan, a dhrupad singer. It appears that the Maharaj of Dattiya was so pleased with Shadi Khan’s music that, on the day after his first concert, he requested him to perform sitting on a platform built of coins worth a lakh and a quarter rupees.  At the end of the concert, the Maharaja expressed his appreciation by gifting the entire platform of money to him. The Maharaja’s farewell line to him was, “Shadi Khan, in all your life you will not have seen such a generous prince.” Shadi Khan said not a word. However, as he rode out on an elephant, he scattered all the coins around in handfuls. This news reached the prince. Next day, when Shadi Khan arrived to bid farewell to the prince, he said, “Pardon my saying so, but you too have never seen a singer like this in your life!” The Maharaja gracefully submitted to being put in his place and gave the singer ten thousand rupees for his music and, perhaps, the lesson he had been taught.

The crucial event of Alladiya Khansaheb’s life was his loss of voice in Amleta where he sang before the court twice a day for four or five hours each time. “For two years my voice was in a bad condition,” he writes. “By the grace of Allah it improved, but the old sweetness and power did not return.” He does not analyse how this altered his singing style, merely saying, “From that time, I had to concentrate on the intricacy of my singing.”

The 68 pages of My LIfe and the appendix in which Govindrao Tembe analyses the features of Alladiya Khansahab’s music, are enormously enlightening. But they also make a thoroughly enjoyable read, not least because the translation is so readable.     

Published On : 07-05-2014