Bombay beyond Bollywood: when classical music traditions flourished in Mumbai’s red light district : The Tribune India

Krishnaraj Iyengar

Among Mumbaikars, mentioning Falkland Road, the city’s infamous red-light district, is taboo. Often, Grant Road, the largest commercial area in South Mumbai that houses this district, becomes an indirect and alternative reference. While Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent film Gangubai Kathiawadi focused on the area, little is known about the place’s rich musical heritage.

Bombay, now Mumbai, although widely known for cinema, has a long history of classical music. Many great traditions have flourished here. Some of the towering tabla patriarchs settled in the city’s off-limits to pursue their careers. “Unlike today, society then looked down on musicians and performers. Fortunately, the stigma has disappeared, the musicians enjoy a respectable status and are revered for their talent and skill,” explains 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 the highest caliber. While many sang light classical music, some were experts in classical styles like ‘khayal’ and ‘dhrupad’. It is believed that the former members of the royal family would have their princes trained in music and tehzeeb under their guidance. Their dwellings were called “kotha”, often misinterpreted as brothels. There was a room for musical sessions. Here, wealthy patrons and connoisseurs attended performances. For the tabla maestros, “bajana time” was a major source of income when they accompanied the performer during the musical session.

In his Marathi book, “Athvanin cha Doh”, tabla scholar Pandit Arvind Mulgaonkar recreates the era of the tabla representatives of Bombay Gharana, who have an almost two-century association with the city. Kalyan Building in Grant Road, now demolished for redevelopment, he says, was the hub of prominent musicians, including the residence of its guru, legendary composer and performer Ustad Amir Hussain Khan.

It was in Bombay that one of the greatest figures of the tabla, Ustad Munir Khan (1857-1936), guru of several historical 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 chains of gharana and studied four distinct traditions – Delhi, Ajrada, Farukhabad and Lucknow – under 24 gurus. Its tradition became Guldasta, Laliyana Gharana or Bombay Gharana, a fusion of the four colored schools.

Ustads and the Dangals

‘Dangal’ literally means a ‘fierce fight’. Back then, Fridays in Falkland Road throbbed with mind-blowing classical music on kothas from various baijis. While tabla solos were a common feature, other streams were also played. These were called “Jumme ki Dangal”, which lasted for several hours until dark. The musicians played in order of seniority, first the juniors followed by the seniors.

True to its name, dangals were an opportunity for problem-solving, heated discussions and debates, quarrels and fights, sometimes escalating to knife fights between masters known for their fiery tempers. Often the ustads challenged and clashed with each other.

“My grandfather, Padma Bhushan Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, when he was young, was taken to this area by his guru, Ustad Amir Hussain Khan. He was shocked and hesitant at first, but Khan reassured him that everything would be fine. To his relief, in a kotha, he saw famous pillars in attendance and serious classical music performing. Once, while playing a tabla solo himself on such an occasion, the baiji senior, in pure appreciation, placed a garland of banknotes around his neck,” says Ishaan, a representative from Bombay Gharana.

Today, Falkland Road resonates with catchy cinematic hits rather than khandani gaana-bajaana. The traditional kotha culture has disappeared. But always endearing memories, without missing a beat.

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