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Bombay beyond Bollywood: When classical music traditions flourished in Mumbai’s red light area

Bombay, now Mumbai, though recognised largely for filmmaking, has a long history of classical music. Many great traditions flourished here. Some of tabla’s towering patriarchs settled in the city’s forbidden quarters to further their careers. “Unlike today, society then looked down upon musicians and performers. Fortunately, the stigmas have vanished, musicians enjoy respectable status and are revered for their talent and skill,” says Ishaan Ghosh, tabla maestro and historian.

‘Baiji’ or ‘tawaif’ (courtesan) is a word wrongly associated with prostitution. They were exceptionally trained singers and dancers of a high calibre. While many sang light classical music, some were experts in classical styles like ‘khayal’ and ‘dhrupad’. It is believed that the erstwhile royals would have their princes trained in music and tehzeeb under their guidance. Their dwellings came to be called ‘kotha’, often misinterpreted as brothel. It had a hall for musical sessions. Here, the wealthy patrons and connoisseurs attended the performances. For tabla maestros, ‘time bajana’ was a major source of income when they would accompany the performing artiste during the musical session.

In his Marathi book, ‘Athvanin cha Doh’, tabla scholar Pandit Arvind Mulgaonkar recreates the era of tabla exponents of the Bombay Gharana, who have an association of nearly two centuries with the city. Kalyan Building in Grant Road, now torn down for redevelopment, he explains, was the hub of eminent musicians, including the residence of his guru, the legendary composer and performer Ustad Amir Hussain Khan.

It was in Bombay that one of the greatest figures of tabla, Ustad Munir Khan (1857-1936), guru of several historic masters, including Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa and Ustad Amir Hussain Khan, had settled. For the first time in the history of tabla, Khan saheb broke the gharana shackles and studied four distinct traditions — Delhi, Ajrada, Farukhabad and Lucknow — under 24 gurus. His tradition came to be called Guldasta, Laliyana Gharana, or Bombay Gharana, an amalgamation of all four colourful schools.

Ustads and the dangals

‘Dangal’ literally means a ‘fierce battle’. Back in the day, Fridays at Falkland Road throbbed with earthshaking classical music at the kothas of various baijis. While tabla solos were a common feature, other streams too were performed. These were called ‘Jumme ki Dangal’, which would last for several hours well until nighttime. Musicians performed in order of seniority, first the juniors followed by seniors.

True to its name, dangals were occasions to settle issues, for heated discussions and debates, quarrels and brawls, sometimes including even knife fights between masters notorious for their fiery tempers. Often, the ustads challenged and confronted each other.

“My grandfather, Padma Bhushan Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, when young, was once taken into this area by his guru, Ustad Amir Hussain Khan. He was shocked and hesitant at first, but Khan reassured him that all would be well. To his relief, at a kotha, he saw some famous stalwarts present and some serious classical music happening. Once when he himself played a tabla solo on such an occasion, the senior baiji, in pure appreciation, placed a garland of currency notes around his neck,” says Ishaan, a representative of the Bombay Gharana.

Today, Falkland Road resounds with catchy film hits rather than khandani gaana-bajaana. The traditional kotha culture has disappeared. But memories still endear, without missing a beat.

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