Why the queen of ghazals Begum Akhtar ordered, ‘Parda Uthao’

In Indian classical music, a live audience will always be that secret ingredient for a lajawab performance

On a cold winter evening in December 1964, the 400-seater Sapru House in the Capital was packed to the brim, every member of the audience waiting to catch a glimpse of mallika-e-ghazal Begum Akhtar. She walked on to the stage at about 9 pm, treating her audience to a bouquet of ghazals, thumris and dadras. Every couplet and taan was met with a “wah” or a “kya baat hai” from the audience. Akhtar would lift her hand to her forehead and acknowledge the appreciation.

When the curtains finally came down it was nearly 2 am, but the audience didn’t want to leave. Instead, they kept calling out for an encore. As she smoked her Capstan cigarette behind the curtains, Akhtar could hear the commotion. After a few drags, she said to those around, “Parda uthao (lift the curtain)”. With an impish smile, she broke into “Bedardi sapne mein aa ja”.

Delhi-based writer Satish Chopra has never forgotten that evening. “Audience shehenshah thi tab (The audience was the king then)”. Their demand came with a lot of affection and knowledge and you just couldn’t refuse. They were the ones that made the artiste who she was. The internet or television wasn’t a part of the game then,” says Chopra, who writes about the incident in writer Yatindra Mishra’s book, Akhtari (Vani Prakashan).

For any performing artiste, the proscenium is an emotional space, where a combination of dexterity and soul leads to catharsis. In this, the audience has a vital role to play. Unlike literature or painting, music is not created or innovated in isolation. The audience is always deeply involved, their interaction enriching the piece.

The pandemic hit this engagement, and in turn, the process of creation. Even though the world was turning to the arts for healing and solidarity – we participated in concerts from artistes’ living rooms around the world – that sense of community was lost. With no live audience for almost a year, musicians spurned convention and rose to the occasion with virtual performances. But the warmth of a concert and its success has always come from those present before them.

Ask artistes to choose between the energy of a live concert or the accessibility of a virtual performance and most would pick live music in a heartbeat. “The artiste and the audience feed off one another’s energy, which belongs in that room, full of those eager to see you create your art,” says sitar player Shubhendra Rao, among the few Indian artistes who travelled abroad last year for a live concert. He, along with his cellist wife Saskia Rao-de-Haas, travelled to Spain in December for a centenary celebration for his guru, Pt Ravi Shankar. Recently, he also performed a socially-distanced concert at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. \ Indian music thrives on direct, unadulterated interaction between the artiste and the audience. In the early 20th century, there used to be a special carpet spread right in front of the stage, reserved for the best of connoisseurs. They were called the “wah wah mandli” – a demanding lot; the artiste had to work quite hard to get their attention. “Indian classical music is a process. It’s not a product. The moment you remove the audience, it becomes just a product. For instance, a recording in a studio is a product, a concert will never be so,” says Mumbai-based musicologist and writer Deepak Raja.

It is well-known that Ut Vilayat Khan and other musicians of the time would always invite friends for recording sessions. Khan’s audience often included music critic and author Mohan Nadkarni, a Pt Ravi Shankar acolyte. At a concert in the ’60s, Khan once said into the microphone, “Mohan baabu, dekhte hain ki aaj meri mizraab mein zyada taakat hai, ya aapki qalam mein (Let’s see if my plectrum has more power than your pen)”. This kind of exchange would elevate the charm of live performances.

With recordings also came the shift in audience presence. An LP or a tape could go around the world. Even so, there were artistes who shunned recordings because they felt that music belonged to the live stage. Vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar felt that other artistes would copy her style and refused to record. Only a few of her renditions survive as surreptitious recordings and a handful of HMV LPs.

Kerkar also chose her audience. She would decide when and who she would sing for. She rarely announced the raga she was singing. Her high-handedness led to a love-hate relationship between her and the audience. But her singing prowess won them over, especially the connoisseurs, who forgave her arrogance.

Kerkar has often been compared to Jaipur-Atrauli gharana legend Kishori Amonkar, daughter of Moghubai Kurdikar, Kerkar’s contemporary. Amonkar would often refuse to sing if she felt that the audience was badly behaved. When an industrialist’s wife once ordered a paan during her performance, Amonkar screamed, “Am I a kothewali to you?” From editors and politicians to industrialists, many have faced Amonkar’s wrath during concerts. At her last concert in Delhi at SPICMACAY’s ‘Music in the Park’ series in 2017, the audience sat in fearful silence, not moving in the aisles. The soundcheck wasn’t going well. “This is a complete waste of my time,” she shrieked. “Yet, the audience always admired her brilliance,” says Raja.

Santoor maestro Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma, too, is known to chide his audience, albeit politely, if they applaud too much. Once at a concert, he said, “Performance ke dauraan aap apne astra shastra na chalayen. Araam se sune (Do not use your weaponry during the performance. Listen patiently.)”. Pt Jasraj, too, was known for his humorous exchanges. After his performance at the Delhi Classical Music Festival two years ago, a man yelled from the audience, “Pandit ji, aaj tussi Punjabi shabad nahin sunaya (You didn’t sing the Punjabi shabad today)”. Pt Jasraj smiled and said, “O mere yaara, kal hi Punjab mein suna ke aaya hoon. Agli baar sun lena (I just sang it yesterday in Punjab. Next time).” Everyone laughed.

Then there is Begum Parveen Sultana, who smiles, jokes, concedes to the audience demands and indulges in long conversations on stage. At a housefull concert in Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium a few years ago, she offered the audience spilling over on the aisles space on the stage. “There is a lot of space. Please come,” she said. One of Patiala gharana’s most striking practitioners held her audience mesmerised afterwards. “The audience for an artiste…is a representative of god,” she had said. “Which is why performing to a screen can never work for our music,” says flautist Ajay Prasanna.

The audience is the final bastion of appreciation in the exacting and complex world of music. Which is why, last year was extremely difficult for both practitioners and their audience. With the world opening up slowly and cautiously, both are counting on its return.

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