Musical Transgression: They were all deewaane together, all mad about music

in Article
Published on: 30 October 2020

Tejaswini Niranjana

Tejaswini Niranjana is currently Professor and Head, Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Visiting Professor with the School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University, India. She is the author of Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism and the Colonial Context and Mobilizing India: Women, Music and Migration between India and Trinidad.

Tejaswini Niranjana’s Musicophilia in Mumbai argues that the love of Hindustani music, which emerged in Mumbai around the mid-nineteenth century, led to the formation of a ‘lingua musica’ – a language that served to connect the diverse inhabitants of the city – and contributed to new forms of sociality, of being together in public. As musicians from different gayakis or styles came to Bombay, a culture of collective listening was created that brought together people of diverse social and linguistic backgrounds, who gave in to a musicophilia that enabled social transgression, sharing the ‘emotion’ called deewaanapan; they were all deewaane, all mad about music.

While the radio was creating a community of listeners that would tune in at the same time to listen to Hindustani music and semi-classical forms such as the natya sangeet, it was merely complementary to the varied physical settings in which the musicophiliac encountered music. Social transgressions – spatially understood – were sometimes inspired by the act of listening. At the same time as the radio was introducing a larger public to singers like Amir Khan who performed regularly in Mumbai mehfils, his fans would disregard conventional notions of respectability and enter spaces like Gangabai’s kotha, where he stayed. Thus the musicophiliac would without hesitation cross social boundaries to have the privilege of being with a musician he loved. As a young student of music, Murli Manohar Shukla went to N.B. Compound to see Amir Khan: ‘I was free, and since I was little I had the habit of making my way into places – like a mouse. And every kind of place would accept me. [Main free tha . . . chhota tha na, ghusne ki aadat thi – choohe ki tarah. Toh mujhe sab jagah accept karte thae.]’

TN: Aap kabhi Congress House ke paas gaye hain? (Have you ever gone near  Congress House?)

MS: Yes, I’ve gone to his house. I shut my eyes and went in. I went to meet him there. I went in the morning, reaching there at 10 o’clock. Amir Khan says to me, arrey, why have you come so early in the morning? I said, how can anyone call 10 o’clock early morning? It’s going to be noon soon! He was brushing his teeth at 10 a.m. [Haan, main unke ghar pe gaya hoon. Aankh band kar ke chala gaya. Mila wahaan unse. Arrey, subah subah . . . main 10 baje pahuncha hoon, aur Amir Khan saab bole subah subah kahaan aa gaye?! Maine kaha 10 baje koi subah kehta hai? Thodi der mein dopahar hone waali hai! Brush kar rahe thae woh 10 baje.]

Shukla’s recalling that he shut his eyes and went into the Compound suggests that he as a middle-class Brahmin was not really supposed to be at a kotha. He also makes a bemused comment about Amir Khan brushing his teeth at 10 a.m., which seemed very late to the youngster of regular habits, suggesting perhaps a ‘decadent’ lifestyle of the people who lived in the kotha who would not be up too early in the morning. The contrast is with nonhereditary musician Shukla himself, who as a youth also stayed up until the early hours listening to music or accompanying performers, but became accustomed to sleeping very little.

However, the option of going into a kotha to meet singers was, unsurprisingly, not one available to middle-class women. Musician Lalith Rao, who trained under Khadim Husain Khan in the 1960s and ’70s, said she knew that her accompanists – who played the sarangi, the table or the harmonium – lived in the N.B. Compound, but it would have been impossible for her to obtain a glimpse of that world, even though she lived practically next door in the Grant Road area. Her community of Chitrapur Saraswats, all music lovers, would have been scandalized, she says, at a woman of her class being seen in a place like the Compound 28. Incidentally, this is the same Brahmin subcaste to which Murli Manohar Shukla belongs.[1] 

Nayan Ghosh, a well-known sitar and tabla player, and principal of Sangit Mahabharati, spoke about his father, the musician Nikhil Ghosh, going to a kotha on the summons of his guru Amir Hussain Khan. Nayan Ghosh referred to it as the ‘forbidden area’, and called the tawaif ’s house, where the musicians gathered, the dangal (wrestling arena):

The tawaif would sponsor one particular evening. This was on jummas . . . on Fridays. My father, initially when his guru took him there the first time, he was shocked at the whole atmosphere . . . the whole area . . . as you walk through the gullies and streets.[2]  His guru used to tell him, ‘Chalo aaj mere saath wahaan . . . so and so bai ke ghar mein, so and so bai ke ghar mein.’ [Come with me – let’s go there, to that bai’s house, to the other bai’s house.] And then he saw some of the greatest musicians. Young musicians would perform first. And seniors would all sit around and listen to them. And if somewhere a young musician went wrong or faltered – it could be vocal, it could be sarangi, sitar, tabla, anything – they would be stopped by the senior musicians. ‘Ruko beta, yeh fir se bajao. Kaun hain . . . tumhare ustad kaun hain?’ [Stop, son, play this again. Who’s your teacher?] ‘Pataa chala kone mein baithe hain.’ [Then they come to know that the ustad was sitting there in that corner.] Toh they would tell that ustad, please correct this so and so thing. Quality control was there! Correct this thing and bring him back. ‘Tum chheh jumme ke baad aa jao, tum dus jumme ke baad aa jaana. Phir se bajao.’ [You come back after six Fridays, you come back after ten Fridays. And play again.] So they used to give time to repair, make the correction, and come and perform again. So it would go from junior to senior musicians and often, there would be a challenge by some senior musician. He would play something and another would challenge or take objection, saying, ‘I don’t agree with this thing.’ Either they would come to an understanding, or often there were fights. And very serious fights!

TN: And these musicians were Muslims, Hindus or Parsis . . .?

NG: Mostly all the musicians were Muslims. So, my father [Nikhil Ghosh was Hindu] felt all the more kind of out of place there. Umm, however, he saw that all that happened in these places was music and nothing else. And quality music, you know! The senior ustads would sit there and the tawaifs had such etiquette, you know! They used to have this kind of a cane curtain. And all the ladies would sit behind and listen to these mehfils. They would arrange for the tea and the paan and the snacks and all that. So, it would start at about 4 in the afternoon and go on till about 12 or 1 in the night. And one by one, musicians would perform and some . . . when they entered into challenges or fights, it happened for the good of the music. Like somebody would say, ‘Iska joda nahi hai. Iss cheez ka joda nahi hai.’ [The other composition in this pair is missing.] Another musician would say, ‘Agle jumme ko main joda le aata hoon.’ [I’ll bring the other one in the pair next Friday.] And he would compose something and come and give an answer to that, you know. Make another composition. Our music grew primarily in such areas. Generally, we know about nawabs and maharajas and temples. But this was a big contribution . . . this place where tawaifs helped a lot, you know!

Once, Nikhil Ghosh had to defend his teacher’s reputation by playing in front of the senior musicians, and was commended for his performance. The tawaifs too praised him.

And they were very much fond of him. They were all like mother figures, you know. He went to the extent of saying that these were the real devis, you know, the real goddesses. These were the real devis who saved our music and kept it alive. So when we were young . . . he said, ‘Grow up a little more. I’ll take you to these areas and you must touch the feet of these ladies.’ ‘They are the people who kept our music alive.’

In spite of the elder Ghosh’s obvious fascination for the kotha where he had defended his guru’s reputation, he never went back to see it, although – according to his son – he often asked Muslim musicians that he met at concerts whether certain tawaifs that he had known were still alive.

The learned ‘Professor’ Deodhar had a close friendship with Bade Gulam Ali Khan (‘they were in love with each other’, says Sangeeta Gogate, Deodhar’s granddaughter, referring to their lengthy musical conversations), who was always to be found at the Deodhar School at French Bridge, a short walk from Chowpatty Beach.[3]  The students used to spend as much time as they could with the Khansaheb, and get him to sing to them. Not being content with seeing him at their school, they often went to his residence in N.B. Compound to listen to him. The little we know about the demographics of music students in the 1940s, when Bade Ghulam Ali began to spend sustained periods in Mumbai, suggests that they were middle class and mostly Hindu. By going to the Compound where Gangabai’s kotha was, they were, like Shukla and Nikhil Ghosh, giving in to a musicophilia that enabled social transgression.

Music-Mad in the Kotha
Chandrakant (Chandu) Ramjibhai speaks about the time he took his childhood friend Hari, later to become famous as the film star Sanjeev Kumar, to see ‘really crazy people’ or deewaane:

I got training for Foras Road since my childhood. [He would be sent to the kothas by his father to return repaired tablas.] My mother would always say, why are you sending him there, the boy will be spoilt. With me was Hari, Sanjeev Kumar. He would tell me – ‘Chandubhai, I want to see crazy people.’ He used to work in minor plays at the time. ‘I want to see how crazy people behave’, he said. [Woh bachpan se mujhe training mile hai, woh Foras Road ki. Jao, ma hamesha. ‘Kya tame, kyan moklocho? Kyun bhejte ho udhar, ladka kharab ho jayega. Mere saath Hari, Sanjeev Kumar woh bhi. Mujhe woh bolta hai mereko, Chandubhai, mujhe ganda dekhne ka hai, yaane deewane mujhe dekhne ka hai. Woh time mein chhote chhote natak mein kaam kar raha tha.
Woh time pe deewana dekhne ka mereko, kaise deewane rehte hai

I told him to wear a torn shirt. He used to live in Bhuleshwar. We also lived there earlier and from that time the two of us were friends, Hari being six months or a year older than me. He carried two tablas and we went walking to Foras Road. At that time my father would give me one rupee for the tram. The tram cost 10 paise one anna . . . one anna for the tram from Colaba to Mahim and you could go up to Dadar with one anna. [Baba dekh ek kaam kar, uska fata hua shirt pehen le tu. Who Bhuleshwar mein rahta hai, hum bhi pehle Bhuleshwar mein rehte thae, wahan se hum dono dost log aur Hari mere se 6 mahine–saal bada tha. Woh bhi do tabla uthave chalte chalte Foras Road jaave. Tabhi woh time pe baba Pitaji mere ek rupaiya dete thae tram ka. Dus paise ki tram thi ek anna . . . ek anna ki tram Colaba se leke Mahim tak, Dadar tak jaave ek aane mein.]

But we would save that one rupee [by walking]. We would go and give back the [repaired] tablas. I said ‘Hari, look, these are all crazy people who sit here.’ He said ‘Yes, Chandubhai.’ Allarakhibai recognized us, and said, ‘Chandubhai, who is this? Artist?’ I said ‘Yes, he acts a little in plays . . .’. ‘He looks like he does’, she said. Then she said, ‘Son, you come here, you want to see crazy people? You will find them all here. They would come at 1 or 2 in the night to listen, all these rich people. Even without drinking alcohol, they would be intoxicated [because of the music].’ The act of being a crazy person, he [Sanjeev Kumar] used it in [the film] Khilona. [Magar hum ek rupaiya bachate thae woh time pe. Phir wahan jaake tabley dete thae. Main bola, ‘Hari, dekh le yeh sab deewane baithe hai.’ Bole, ‘Haan, Chandubhai.’ Allarakhibai pehchante hai, ‘Chandubhai, kaun hai yeh? Kalakar?’ ‘Haan, hai woh natak mein thoda sa kaam . . .’. ‘Dikhta hi aisa.’ Phir baad mein bole, ‘Beta, tu yahan aa ja, tereko deewani dekhne hai na, milega sab. Raat ek ek do do baje aate thae Foras Road sab sunne ko yeh seth log. Peeke begair peeye huye sab masti mein rehte thae.’ Woh hi kaam usko Khilona mein kaam laga usko. Woh kaam usne deewane ka kaam usne Khilona mein banaya usne.][4]

The kotha was frequented by popular Hindi film music composers like Naushad and Madan Mohan, into whose tunes the thumri, the ghazal and the khayal often entered. One day, Chandhubhai, wearing a bamboo silk coat and a tie, went to give a repaired tabla to the tawaif Punjabi Jodharan in her kotha, and saw Naushad sitting there.

I said, Mother, I have kept the tabla over there. She said, yes son, come sit here. I said, Ammaji, I want to hear ‘Ka karoon sajani aaye na baalam’ in your voice. Naushad pricked up his ears. Barkat Ali Khan Saab’s ‘Ka karoon sajani aaye na baalam’, I want to hear that, and then I’ll leave in two minutes. [Bola, Ammaji, tabla rakha udhar peeche wahan pe.’ Bole, ‘Haan beta, aao baith idhar.’ Main kaha, ‘Ammaji, mujhe “Ka karoon sajani aaye na baalam”, itna sunna tha aapke gale se.’ Naushad ke kaan tight ho gaye. ‘Barkat Ali Khan Saab ka “Ka karoon sajani aaye na baalam”, woh mujhe sunao ek, main jata hoon abhi do minute ke andar.]

Naushad said, ‘Punjaban, who is this boy? He must be just about 17 and he is requesting a song from you? Who is this boy?’ Madan Mohan [the music composer] was sitting nearby. Punjaban said, ‘This boy is like my son. Sometimes when he gets into the mood he wants to hear me sing a ghazal, so I have to sing for him . . . and I sing for him with love.’ [Naushad bole, ‘Punjaban, yeh kaun ladka hai? Umar uski 17 saal ki hai, woh aapko farmaish kar liya? Kya hai ladka kaun hai?’ Madan Mohan baaju mein baitha tha, ghazal mereko sunne ki thi, bole, ‘Yeh ladka hai apne ladke ke barabar hai, magar kabhi mood mein aaye toh bol deta hai mujhko mujhe gaana sunaana padta hai. Woh ghazal sunaane padti hai mereko usko ek pyaar se . . . main suna deti hoon usko.]

And then the songs she presented . . . Punjaban Jodhan . . . all these singers and musicians, they would come there to listen, because they would get something out of it. They didn’t come there for timepass. They would get something from there. [Phir jo unhone ek cheez batayi hai . . . wah wah Punjaban Jodhan ne yeh sab gaanewale jo sangeetkar bhi hai woh wahan aate thae sunne ke liye, unhe uske andar kuch milta tha un log ko. Aise hi wahan aate nahi thae timepass karne ke liye. Jara bhi usko bhi kuch cheez milti thi usko.]

Chandubhai is a figure who doesn’t identify his action of going to the kotha as socially transgressive, because his father owns a tabla-making shop and he runs errands for him, taking the instruments wherever they are required, whether it is the music conference, the concert hall or the kotha. For his friend Hari, it was clearly the first time he was entering such a space although he was from the world of theatre; and for Chandubhai’s mother, a craftsman’s wife, her teenage son would be ‘spoilt’ if he frequented the Foras Road establishments, even though the same male musicians and composers who went there also came to the tabla shop. In the kotha, the young table maker occupies a position of equality with famous film composers since they are all deewaane together, all mad about music.

'Musical Transgression' is an excerpt from ‘Deewaana (The Mad One): The Lover of Music’, Chapter 3 of Musicophilia in Mumbai: Performing Subjects and the Metropolitan Unconscious by Tejaswini Niranjana published by Tulika Books, March 2020.

For a comprehensive account of the Chitrapur Saraswats, see Frank Conlon, A Caste in a Changing World: The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmans, 1700–1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

[2] Nayan Ghosh added that his father ‘was deeply spiritual at that time, associated with Ramakrishna Mission. So, he discussed this with the chief swamiji [spiritual leader] here in Khar Ramakrishna Mission. He was young, so he said, “My ustad has taken me to this area. It is troubling me very much. What do I do?” The swamiji said, “You have nothing to worry about. If your mind is clean and pure and you’re going for this [the music]. Your ustad lives there, and he’s such a great soul.” Amir Husain was a godly person. “He himself is staying there. You should have full faith in your guru and just be with him like a shadow. Forget about anything else. It doesn’t matter where you’re going, you know. The real vidya is there. You try to bring it out from there”, he said. That’s when he got some confidence.’

[3] Sangeeta Gogate, interview by Surabhi Sharma and Tejaswini Niranjana, 24 June 2013.

[4] Chandrakant Ramjibhai Mewada, interview by Surabhi Sharma and Tejaswini Niranjana, 22 June 2013.