Wednesday, January 18, 2006

goddess of music and beauty

I would get a chance to visit her place around festive deepawali season. Earthen lamps would illuminate this spacious two-storied building in downtown opera house of south Mumbai that had entry point from the side. Tapping footsteps from small wooden stairs would announce the arrival of incoming visitors. It had a sprawling hall and row of rooms one behind the other with common alley. There was a small balcony at the edge of the hall with colored glass panes on top. With continuous streaming of visitors, main door would always remain open. A sprawling hall with cream and brown hexagonal ceramic tiles, high ceiling with a roof resting on slender wooden columns, stained glass windows, would be the place for every visitor to be ushered in. Furniture was minimal except few wooden divans and chairs in one corner. Most of the hall was occupied by spread out cushioned mattresses and decorative mats for visitors to sit down.

All visitors after removing their footwear at the main door would head diagonally to a place adjacent to protruding balcony that was adorned with Deepawali lantern. The place that was sacred for visitors was where she would sit on a wooden reclining chair that had a movable arm with circular cut hole to fit well-polished brass kalash (vessel). This was used to spit chewed beetle leave remnants. In the corner, would be two huge Tanpuras - an Indian classical string instrument- made of a big pumpkin with the hollow neck. A big wooden swing with brass handles opposite the balcony was positioned in such a way that swing would not touch the chair. With advent of evenings, glow from glass lampshades would make those huge portraits on the walls glisten and shine.

I was told that this place had witnessed dignitaries from royal lineage, politicians, and musical stalwarts. Those were the days when food for guests was served in silver thalis and spoon. Despite aristocracy was past her prime, it was still the luxurious and interesting environ for me. I enjoyed seeing this hall humming with people – dressed with elegance carrying with them packed Indian sweets or dry fruits. Woman wearing their choicest of gold embroidered saris sprinkled with attar- Indian perfume, those ladies who were not associated with the music, would head to interior rooms of the mansion after touching her feet reverently. I would watch with amusement those special persons who would sit down under her feet for a small chat. I admired Tanpura’s dark brown polish and marble inlay artwork on teak wood and wondered how it would be if I were to vibrate those strings and hear resonant sound from that pumpkin .I was curious how a pumpkin can become so hard once inside the Tanpura . I marveled that huge swing but could not enjoy its ride; it was rude to be there when she was on her chair.

She was in her ripe age of 90’s but despite her frail health and wrinkles spread all over her body, her glowing skin was still intact. She would wear her cream-colored silk saree without any border. With her gold-rimmed round spectacles, she would carry an aura of princess. She may not have been princess, but every Maharaja in her prime days wanted her to grace special royal festivities and occasions. Even at this age, she had a sharp memory, would easily identify people, and talk to them in soft tone. After years, when I read about Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings, I learnt that his mohini paintings were evolved on this lady and she was one of his earliest model for some of his memorable paintings.

For me, until then, she was just an aajibai (old grandma) – a respected elderly figure who has something to do with music and carried charisma with some rich and powerful people. It is only in later part of my growing years, I learnt the enormity of her personality and her accomplishments as a singer known as goddess of music. Her name is Anjanibai Malpekar- a recipient of Sangeet Academy Award

She was born on April 22, 1883 in non-descript place in Goa, learnt music from the age of eight under Ustad Nazir Khan who alongwith his brothers Ustad Chhajju Khan, Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan shifted to the Bhendi Bazar area of Mumbai and thereafter their singing style became known as “Bhendi Bazar Gharana.” The most distinctive feature of this Gharana was their presentations of Khayals. Lata Mangeshkar too was associated with this Gharana when she learnt her early music lessons under Ustad Aman Ali. It seems that Anjanibai had a good knowledge of Marathi, English, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, and Arabic and wrote Urdu Shayaris.

She must have been rebellion in many ways. Else, in that era, who would have courage to marry a Gujarati industrialist without even informing family members? Those were the days when singers would be invited to the court of Maharajas but they had to stand all the way. It was impudent for a singer to sit in front his highness and sing. Anjanibai broke this norm and refused to stand and sing. Haughty attitude to patrons of art and music but Maharajas acceded to her demands. Anjanibai’s first performance was at Muzaffarabad Hall, in Central Bombay in 1899. This was followed by performances all over the country. She won a number of awards and she became reining a musical queen patronized by princely states and industrialists. It is said that most of the musical stalwarts made sure to visit her place during their visits to Mumbai. Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande took her help in writing sargams for complicated taans. Gauhar Jaan would stay at her place whenever she visited Bombay from Calcutta. Kishori Amonkar was her favourite disciple. Kumar Gandharava as a kid would come and mimic singers. Begum Akhtar would take lessons from her. Backed by shipping magnet husband, both goddess of wealth and music must have blessed her in abundance. However, all of sudden she lost her voice and no medical help would set it right till Narayan Maharaj – a swami close to pune blessed her and helped her to regain her voice. Soon after that incident, she decided to quit giving musical concerts.

Things took vicious turn within few years of her quitting music; she lost in quick succession her musical mentor –Ustad, her mother and her spiritual guru who helped her to regain her voice. This was followed by colossal loss of her husband’s business fortunes eventually losing his life in this shock. Financial loss made its foray into deterioration of material wealth of prime real estates that had to be sold to pay the business losses. Her well-wishers pleaded with her to start singing to put a stop to dwindling fortune, but Anjanibai had a strong resolve; she refused to touch the Tanpura. Its only Kumar Gandhrava’s musical rendition at her home made her modify her oath of touching tanpura only to teach music to her students. After that, her association of music remained only with her students. Goodwill, affection of her ardent fan followers and patrons was intact until she was alive .They made sure she was accorded all the respect she deserved.

Anjanibai died on August 7th 1974.

Today, with no musical heritage running in her next two generations and with no supplementary income, most of the musical treasures are either been handed over to various museums or left in dilapidated condition. The sprawling hall that once adorned ornamental fixtures now wears desolate look, walls that spruced up with oil paint have little coat left, and some of the broken hexagonal tiles are covered shabbily with cement fillings, window stained glass panes are replaced by cardboards. Huge paintings stand erect amidst gloomy surroundings but they do not shine or glisten under fluorescent tube lights. Reclining chair, Majestic swing and those portraits are perhaps the only mute spectators of this saga from riches to rag transition.

Some of the fascinating archives of Anjanibai Malpekar:


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