Old timers would remember that the first recordings made were of three or four minutes only, and it was a challenge for a classical musician to encapsulate his vast training into a brief presentation of only a few minutes. This had to showcase the main features of the raga, express “ras” (emotion), display command over “laya”, as well as show virtuosity. This was a difficult task indeed for artists who were trained in a style where time had no significance; it was the perfection of presentation that was of prime importance. Some truly legendary recordings of Ustad Imdad Khan, Ustad Inayet Khan, Gauhar Jan, and Janki Bai are still available for a new generation of listeners.
As a tribute to this style of presentation, noted sitar exponent Smarajit Sen has recorded a CD entitled “Shade of Ragas – an essence of 78RPM Records”; released recently in Kolkata by Bihaan Music. Smarajit spoke of the time when “great stalwarts who were used to performing a raga for 3-4 hours, poured their best into these short recordings. I am just a learner, it’s not possible for me to reach these legends, but this is my humble attempt to show respect for these legends.”
None of the 16 tracks exceed 4 minutes; Smarajit has additionally brought in the flavour of presenting ragas according to the time cycle theory still prevalent in the North Indian classical music tradition. Interestingly, he has also played compositions of several great masters, and has not just stuck to his gharana the Senia Shahjahanpur gharana, Pt Radhika Mohan’s branch. (Smarajit was a disciple of the late Pt Buddhadev Dasgupta).
The CD has Smarajit’s tribute to his gharana, with him playing Nat Bilawal, (an unusual mixture of ragas Nat and Bilawal); the composition is a rare “bandish” of Ustad Mohammed Ameer Khan, grandson of Ustad Murad Ali Khan, the founder of this branch of Senia Shahjahanpur. He also plays two “gats” composed by Pt Radhika Mohan Maitra; one in the rare raga Chaya Bihag popularised by the master, and the last offering, in Raga Bhairavi
The record opens with the morning raga Ahiri, one of the 12 todis. The composition is a vilambit teen taal gat, composed by Pt Nikhil Bannerji. In the brief time at his command, Smarajit embellishes the “masitkhani” (style composed by the Senia Ustad Masit Khan) “gat” with well executed “dir dir”stroke work. The second raga too is a Todi, Bilaskhani (said to have been composed by Mian Tansen’s son Mian Bilas Khan, on the death of his father). Unusually, the “taal” here is Pancham Sawari, a 15-beat cycle, the gat based on an older traditional gat is composed by Smarajit himself.
The fourth raga is Vibhas, played not in the usual Bhairav “thaat”, (group) but in Marwa thaat. This is a dhrupad composition of unknown provenance, said Smarajit. It is played in Chautaal (12 beats). It was a pleasure to hear “Chautaal” on the tabla. Surprisingly, the fifth raga is again a todi, this time Gurjari todi, the “taal” “chartaal ki swari”, in 11 beats. Smarajit is able to show the pathos of the raga in a gat composed by himself. Perhaps instead of playing three todis Smarajit, could have started with one of the many Bhairavs.
It is indeed a pleasure to see how Smarajit has paid musical tribute to four of the dominant sitariyas of the last century, who have truly shaped the way the instrument is played today – Ustad Imdad Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar and Pt Nikhil Bannerji. Ustad Imdad Khan’s three minute recording of a “drut teen taal gat” in raga Kalingra in beautifully rendered by Smarajit; his riyaaz evident in the crystal clear “dir dir” strokes. The Darbari Kanhra “gat” he plays is a tribute to the sitar legend Ustad Vilayat Khan, being a composition recorded by him. Smarajit also plays raga Shudh Sarang, the composition is by Pt Ravi Shankar; and Smarajit has performed this beautifully in the “laya” driven style of the master.
The seasonal monsoon raga Ramdasi Malhar is also presented, a khayal composition of Ustad Amir Khan. The early evening raga Gauri is next, in Jaitaal, (13-beat time cycle) followed by the lighter Manjh Khamaj in Rupak taal. Creditably, Smarajit manages to keep the CD from getting monotonous with constant raga changes by choosing to present ragas of differing moods and with different layas. Rather surprisingly, Jog kauns despite being a late post midnight raga is recorded next, in dhammar taal.
Smarajit brings in a pan Indian favour by presenting raga Hemavati, one of the 72 Melakarta Ragas of the Carnatic pantheon. His Sohani too is a delight.
Smarajit’s melodious touch, and evident “riyaaz”, combined with his considerable “taalim” make his music a pleasure to hear. He feels in today’s fast-paced world, where focus is limited, this offering combining brevity with variety may bring in new listeners, who will find the presentation of this strictly classical format enjoyable. It is indeed an enjoyable experience. The CD is available online at bihaanmusic.com.