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Why Indian classical musicians never spoke of Bishnupur Gharana

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Indrajit Sen travels to Bankura and stumbles upon one of the oldest classical music gharanas, Bishnupur Gharana of Bengal, and reports on the dying music college .

Remember the elevated stone platform of Fatehpur Sikri, where Tansen sat every weekend and sang to a mesmerised audience that included Emperor Akbar? It is said his rendition even welcomed storms and thundershowers! Many will also recall the small princely state of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh that gave birth to one of the most prominent music gharanas of North Indian classical music, to which even Pandit Ravi Shankar belonged to. But how many of us have even heard of the Dhrupad Hindustani music gharana of Bengal? Even though down decades, classical music stalwarts claiming allegiance to Bengal have been performing all over the world, none had the time or intention to speak on the only classical music gharana of Bengal: The Bishnupur Gharana.

In the late sixties, Pandit Ravi Shankar, who had his roots in Bengal, initiated collaborations with the Beatles to popularise Indian classical music genre. But none visited the quaint temple town of Bankura, 200 km from Kolkata, where the only classical music gharana of Bengal- the Bishnupur Gharana- was dying a natural death. Over decades, this has been the state of our very own musical legacy, ignored by academics, performers, intellectuals and successive governments. Such has been the lure to perform in large concert halls, catering to mass audience, instead of the intimate surroundings of a music chamber.

Among the many distinctive genres of Bengali music, the Bishnupur Gharana is an extraordinary development. More specifically, Dhrupad, said to be the oldest style in Indian classical music, plays an important role in the significance of this genre. It had its origin in 1370, with patronage of the Malla kings of the Bishnupur royal family. It is truly a musical genre that is Bengal’s very own – flourishing amid its unique cultural ambience. Light, melodious compositions of opening sections, rhythm-sequences and tempo-structures are its trademark characteristics. During the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, India faced a serious dearth of patrons for music practitioners, which is why many musicians left the Mughal court to try their luck in the regional courts of the country.

Dhrupad artiste Bahadur Khan of the Senia Gharana arrived at the court of the Malla king Raghunath Singh Dev, hoping for patronage. He even trained Pandit Ramsharan Bhattacharya in Dhrupad, who, in turn, became the father of the Bishnupur Gharana.

On one of my travels to Bankura to explore its indigenous crafts, I happened to chance upon the oldest music college of India, Ramsharan Music College, located in Bishnupur. The principal had just left for his afternoon siesta and the two fourth class staffs, after a bit of coaxing, agreed to show me around, all along narrating the apathy of the authorities to nurture this seat of learning. A tiny dark damp stairway took us to the first floor, where I could see huge framed photographs of Ramsharan Bhattacharya, Gopeswar Bandopadhyay and other icons of the gharana staring helplessly at me. Century-old ancient musical instruments were tucked into wooden cabinets, half of them on the verge of falling apart. I pulled out a cob-webbed Sur Bahar from under a stool. The balcony overlooking the auditorium is at present the underground pipe warehouse of the Bishnupur Municipality!

But knowing the general tendency to overlook many such heritage sites by central and state governments, it was no surprise to find objects of such great national importance, lying in utter neglect. The college is awaiting affiliation to a state university for the last 20 years and the two-storied building is being managed by the Municipality, thus justifying the space as their dumping ground.

It is this college, where rare tempo-structures of dhrupad and khayal are researched and performed. At a time when the distinguished form of the Bishnupur genre is on the verge of extinction, a few unknown keepers are making concerted efforts to preserve the sanctity of this music college and feeling the need to conserve this century-old establishment to make the Bishnupur gharana thrive once again in the larger context of Indian classical music.

It was my fierce sense of belonging and relentless obsession about Bengal that triggered me to try and unearth the fascinating story of our own genre of music, while diving into the brimming and intricate details about a forgotten era of Indian classical music. Legwork and convincing the relevant individuals and authorities finally yielded results. The state government has woken up from an unforgivable indifference and has decided to structurally document the only musical gharana of Bengal, and do whatever necessary to spread it far and wide.

For me, stumbling upon this structure and its invaluable gems was sheer luck or destiny! I can only hope, this dying Gharana will soon revive.