The festival was opened by Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is from Patna.
The Navras School of Performing Arts organised the first ever festival of literature on music in Patna. Author musicians included Dr Aneesh Pradhan, whose scholarly books on music include Tabla: A Performer’s Perspective, and recently, Chasing the Raga Dream; Dr Meeta Pandit (Pandits of Gwalior), Vidya Rao (Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainaji) and Vidya Shah (Women on Record). The festival had six panel discussions and featured three live concerts.
Amateur musicians and authors Dr Vikram Sampath and Namita Devidayal spoke about the subjects of their books, veena maestro Videwan S. Balachander and Ustad Vilayat Khan on the first day of the festival — both these artists were extremely colourful men in their personal lives, and Vikram laughingly made the point that perhaps that was why their music had so much “shringar ras” in it! Hindi poet and author Yatindra Misha recalled his interactions with the great Lata Mangeshkar, on whom he has written a book.
The festival was opened by Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is from Patna. He recalled the Dussehra festival of classical music held annually in Patna in bygone years and verbalised his hope that Patna once again retained its stature as a centre of the classical arts. The lifetime achievement award was presented by him to Vidushi Padma Talwalkar. This was followed by a concert by Dr Meeta Pandit of the Gwalior gharana — one would have expected Vidushi Padma Talwalkar to sing after her felicitation. Meeta sang what she called her favourite Raga Puriya Dhanashri, followed by the popular “Na maanugi” in Raga Khamach, and ended with a lilting kajri.
The next day’s session started with a magnificent dhrupad concert by Bihar’s own Mallick brothers, Prashant and Nishant. Their Raga Parameshwari was a delight — Prashant’s gravelly voice and range in all three octaves admirable. The “chautaal” (12 beat) composition was a “pad” of Kabir that they put to tune and taal.
A talk on the tawaif tradition followed: Panelist Arun Singh from Patna recounted a lovely tale of Zohra bai of Patna in the 1870s, who gently steered the interest of a young admirer away from her and into safe matrimony. Another anecdote, highlighting the low status in the music world of the immensely talented tawaifs, was about Ustad Faiyaaz Khan publicly humiliating the great tawaif Gauhar jan in the 1910s or 1920s, and yet 40 years later praising a young Sidheshwari Devi, saying he had not heard such thumri since the days of Gauhar jan!
The next session was entitled “Devpriya and Devadasi” — the extremely articulate Dr Swarnamalya Ganesh from Chennai expertly traced the history of the Devadasi tradition and explained why she as an exponent who had learnt from the masters of the Devadasi tradition felt the need to call herself a “sadir dancer, rather than the later, sanitised name for the form, Bharatanatyam. Her concluding short demonstration of “abhinaya” was truly wonderful, and showed the importance of making a theoretical point with a visual/aural demonstration. Vidya Shah during her session too sung briefly, to the delight of the audience, as did Namita Devidayal.
The next session on gharana included on the panel Jaipur Atrauli exponent Padma Talwalkar and Gwalior singer Meeta Pandit. Both demonstrated their music briefly, much to the delight of the audience. The discussion was general, not specifically a dissection of the salient features of each gharana. Dr Ajit Pradhan made the somewhat interesting point through an anecdote that the gharana system may have diluted the purity of the raga tradition, but Dr Meeta Pandit deftly deflected this chain of thought.
In the next session on the difficulties of writing on music, Dr Aneesh Pradhan somewhat poignantly spoke of the need for publishers to promote books, rather than relying on the authors themselves. As an artiste, he shared how donning so many diverse caps was not possible. Namita Devidayal admitted that after the publication of her third book she realised the futility of trying to separate the role of author and promoter.
The session with Bombay Jayashri, co-author of two books on musicians sadly was cancelled — the last session of the festival was of Saira Begum from the tawaif tradition in conversation with Vidya Rao and Irfan Zuberi. The festival ended with a percussion ensemble headed by Pandit Suresh Talwalkar.
As Shinjini Kumar, moderator of two sessions, said, writing on music is like chasing an elusive woman who does not want to get caught. Dedicating an entire festival to literature on music, a niche area, is a welcome step and the experience of the Patna Litfest on music was most invigorating. The good number of people in the audience, despite the heavy rainfall on the first day, who visibly enjoyed the sessions, was heartening, as were their queries after each session. The wonderful collage of photos of masters of yore set the ambience and mood for the discussions — the availability of the books on sale thoughtful, as one was able to get the books autographed. Dr Ajit Pradhan, the festival director, is to be congratulated for this pioneering effort.
Shailaja Khanna writes on music, musicians and matters of music