A Tale of Two Malhars

by Rajan P. Parrikar
First published on SAWF on Jul 24, 2000

Rajan P. Parrikar

Rajan P. Parrikar

Namashkar.

The Malhar group of ragas constitutes a major tributary of the Hindustani stream.  These melodies have won their spurs through their intimate association with the seasonal and rustic elements of the land and have come to be firmly ensconced in the musical palate of the lay and the lettered alike.  A detailed treatment of the major Malhar prakars will be presented later in the year, time and weather permitting.  For now, let us sample a couple of delicious Malhars, both belonging to the aprachalita (uncommon) category.

Our tale begins in Allahabad, where Prof. B.R. Deodhar scrapes an acquaintance with the hermetic master, Bholanath Bhatt.  Deodhar writes in his Pillars of Hindustani Music (Popular Prakashan, Bombay):

 
 

In 1944, I saw vocalist Pandit Bholanath Bhatt for the first time at the Music Conference held at Allahabad…When I made specific enquiries, I learnt that Panditji was a sort of recluse, stayed away from strangers and chose to pass on his knowledge of music only to a selected few…In 1946, I happened to revisit Allahabad. One of my disciples lived there. One day I overheard him humming some cheejs to himself. As they sounded unfamiliar to me, but rather beautiful, I asked him where he had picked them up. He was visibly uncomfortable but finally blurted out, ‘Sir, please forgive me. There is a musician called Pandit Bholanath Bhatt here who taught them to me. He does not teach anyone unless he agrees to become a black-thread pupil. So, I am afraid, I had to go through that ceremony.’ On hearing his reply I reassured him. I said he had not done anything wrong in becoming a black thread pupil of Pandit Bhatt. In fact, he should learn whatever Panditji had to offer with great care because what he was humming seemed to be of top quality. ‘Get all you can’, I said, ‘and when your vacation is over come back to me.’ He was greatly relieved to find that I had not taken the whole thing amiss. Then I said to him, ‘You might go and see Panditji now and tell him that I should very much like to call on him if he did not mind. Ask him what time would suit him.’ He took me to see Panditji that afternoon at the latter’s residence in Alopi Bagh. Panditji lived at a sort of hermitage called ‘Ramagumfa’ where he had a room to himself. I went in and took a seat. Panditji had heard my name and after some preliminaries, conversation turned to music. He sang a number of cheejs for me including a few varieties of raga Malhar and told me which ragas seemed appropriate to him for various seasons. Sweets were brought and I was urged to sample them.

The cheejs he sang were both catchy and of noble lineage. The words of the cheejs were pure and unmutilated. He sang for me a few dhamars, some tappas, khayals (big and small) and several thumaris. I formed a high impression of the man and his knowledge and he too seemed perfectly at ease in talking to me.

 
 

Bholanath Bhatt was born in Darbhanga in the Mithila region of Bihar, once a stronghold of dhrupad music. The vicissitudes attending his early years presented great tribulation and toil. He emerged from his travails to become the court-musician of the Maharaja of Darbhanga. Among his teachers was the formidable Wazir Khan of Rampur. In 1935 he made Allahabad his home and lived out the rest of his musically rich, materially spartan, life there. Prof. Deodhar continues:

 

Swami Avadh Bihari Dasji, a saintly person, lived on the bank of Ganga, in the Ramayani area of Allahabad at the time. As the holy man had discarded all clothing he was frequently referred to as Nangababa (naked sadhu). Avadh Bihari Das had a large number of disciples including several educated persons. Pandit Bholanath took this man’s discipleship and began to obey his every command. Panditji’s fame as a musician reached professional women singers of Allahabad many of whom started coming to him for music lessons. One of them was a wealthy Muslim woman who developed a very high regard for Panditji and started accompanying Panditji, when the latter attended Avadh Bihari Das’s religious discourses. The devotional atmosphere surrounding the sadhu had such a deep influence on her that she decided to discard all material things in favour of a life devoted to God. She converted her city residence into a temple, discarded her Muslim name and began to call herself ‘Ramaa’ and spend her money for the benefit of ascetics and other religious persons.

Swami Avadh Bihari Das, alias Nangababa, loved Pandit Bholanath’s music. So, when the time came for him to leave this world, he turned over all his estate to him. Under his guru’s orders he was never to go out of Allahabad. All his material needs had been met now and he did not have to work for his living. When we two became acquainted he already had a few disciples. But, when I realized his true worth, I lost no time in spreading the word among music lovers. Here was a really talented musician who was a virtual storehouse of rare compositions and was now inclined to teach others. Why not take advantage of this? What I said had the desired effect and numerous musically inclined people began to take instruction from Panditji…As a descendant of a family of minstrels he inherited poetical faculties. Even in ordinary conversation what he said had often a poetic quality. He knew Tulasidas’s Ramayana by heart; besides, his guru told him to make it a habit to sing excerpts from the historic work in (different) ragas.

He had a weakness for sweets and always had supplies of his favourite sweetmeats in his room. Whenever I called on him he would open a canister of sweets and place it before me: ‘Deodharji, sing and partake of this from time to time’, he would tell me. He owned a man-drawn rickshaw and had a full-time servant to draw it. On getting up every morning he would have his bath and proceed to a village called Phaphamau – across the Ganga – to buy fresh vegetables. He would then ask the cook to prepare a savoury meal. From 11 a.m. onwards there was a stream of visiting sadhus and sanyasins (ascetics) whom he and Ramaabai would serve food. It was only after these people had been fed that Panditji would have his own lunch after 1 p.m. In the evening, he would take a rickshaw-ride in the town, then return home and read portions of the Ramayana…

 
 

Deodhar’s book deserves to be read in its entirety for his are accounts of personal encounters with some of the greatest Indian musicians of the early part of the 20th century. It is available for purchase at many of the online bookstores.

Bholanath Bhatt

Bholanath Bhatt

Once Prof. B.R. Deodhar spilled the beans several well-known performing musicians from Maharashtra made the pilgrimage to Allahabad in the hope of sampling and learning from Bholanath-ji’s rich store of compositions and ragas. Among the seekers was Bhimsen Joshi, who made the yatra around 1956. To him Bholanath-ji dispensed an exquisite composition in the melodious Raga Chhaya Malhar. Bhimsen was so enamoured that he promptly confined it to vinyl.

 

Raga Chhaya Malhar

Throughout this discussion, M = shuddha madhyam, m = teevra madhyam.

Chhaya Malhar is a compound melody formed by joining elements of Raga Chhaya to the raganga Malhar signature M R (M)R P. See On Gaud Malhar and Miyan Malhar for a discussion on the foundations of raganga Malhar.

Chhaya contributes its characteristic swoop from pancham to rishab, P–>R, and the overall melodic flow is sketched below.

Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" (© Rajan P. Parrikar)

Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang"
(© Rajan P. Parrikar)

S, RGMP, P–>R, RGMP S”, D n P, P G M R S

A sample chalan of Chhaya Malhar may be formulated as follows:

M R (M)R P, P–>R

R G M D P, M G M R (M)R P

P N D N S” R” S”, S”, D n P, P–>R, R G M P, G M R S

The nyasa-sthana on pancham is important. An inapposite nyasa on rishab or undue brightening of the madhyam may tilt the development towards Nat Malhar.

Bholanath Bhatt’s memes today reside in his disciple, Pandit Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang.” Jha-sahab, too, traces his antecedents to Darbhanga in Bihar. Deodhar’s description of Bholanath Bhatt’s quirks – his love of Ramayana, his poetical instincts and lyrical manner, aversion to publicity – are replicated to a large extent in Jha-sahab. He is the most distinguished, bar none, vaggeyakara alive in the Hindustani parampara.

Jha-sahab demonstrates the original outline of this luscious Chhaya Malhar composition as received from his guru. Notice the meend in the antara from P to R; it underscores the Chhaya component.

sakhee Shyam nahin aaye mandarva
barasana lage umadi ghumadi ghana

chamaka chamaka bijariya chamake
morava [koyala] kare pukara “Kunwar Shyam” nahin aaye

The composer of the bandish is “Kunwar Shyam” (Goswami Lalji Maharaj, died c.1910), the reclusive saint-musician who only performed within the confines of Delhi’s Radha-Govind temple. The last distinguished representative of the ‘Kunwar Shyam’ tradition was the late Laxmanprasad Jaipurwale. Kunwar Shyam’s compositions are seen to be felicitous, vested with unusual melodic and lyrical beauty.

Bhimsen Joshi

Bhimsen Joshi

And now, Bhimsen’s tour de force with the same composition. In his words, the received bandish has been “processed in the Kirana factory.” Although the “Bhimsen processor” is, in general, guilty causing injury to the sahitya, in this case at least we are spared of the trauma. Perhaps the sheer lyricism of the mukhda moved him. Bhimsen has also inserted significant musical amendments. By assigning the sam to the rishab, the Nat component is advanced, thus rendering the composition more a composite of Chhayanat and Malhar. He has also supplied an additional Malhar artifact, to wit, the n D N S” cluster.

 

Raga Arun Malhar

This is one of the older varieties of Malhar but although it finds a mention in Pandit V.N. Bhatkhande‘s monumental work Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati no details are forthcoming. There are a couple of other works where the raga is treated but again only in the sketchiest of terms. No authentic renditions are available in the public domain.

A young Ramashreya Jha

A young Ramashreya Jha

Jha-sahab received this raga along with a traditional composition from his guru Bholanath Bhatt. To that bounty he has added his tithe in the form of a druta bandish.

Raga Arun Malhar is developed by grafting on the raganga Raga Shuddha Malhar strands of other ragas identified below:

S, RGMGM – Gaud
n P M G M – Tilang
P N D N S”, D n P – Bilawal
M R (M)R P, S” DPM – Shuddha Malhar
D D n P D G P M – special prayoga

Strains of Gaud Malhar prevail. The Tilang-like tonal phrase provides a very pleasing effect. All the above raga-lakshanas are embodied in the two compositions adduced. First we hear Jha-sahab dispense the traditional dheema Teentala bandish: kaha na gaye.

kaha na gaye saiyyan kachhu batein ghar avana ki
ritu barkha mein anata rahe pee
kaise kate ratiyan sawana ki

We conclude with Ramrang‘s own matching druta composition. In the text, Bavana refers to Lord Vishnu’s avatara of the ‘dwarf’ Vamana, who humbled the virtuous but haughty King Bali. The metaphor of Vamana’s long step (“daga”) points to the ‘length’ of the night.

bairana bhayi rtu aaja barkha ki eri sakhee
raina yaha sawana ki daga bhayi Bavana ki
“Ramrang” avana ki maga jo’oon dwara khari

 
 

A snapshot below of Pandit Ramashreya Jha‘s original manuscript of his composition in Raga Kesari Kalyan. Click here to hear this composition.

Ramrang

Ramrang's original manuscript of Kesari Kalyan