Interview: Prabha Atre - “I have never imitated anyone” - Hindustan Times

Interview: Prabha Atre - “I have never imitated anyone”

ByManjari Sinha
Sep 21, 2023 09:11 PM IST

The Hindustani classical vocalist who is now 90 years old talks about her lifelong riyaaz, her years at AIR and the deeply intellectual quality of her singing

Eminent musician Prabha Atre, who has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, the Kalidas Samman, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in the course of her long and illustrious career, is admired as an erudite scholar, versatile composer and performer, and a generous guru. A warm personality, I had the good fortune of having a long conversation with her at the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology (VNIT) Nagpur, during the 8th International Convention of the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY), in June, earlier this year. Now 90 years young, the Hindustani classical vocalist left the audience awestruck during the inaugural concert of the weeklong convention.

Prabha Atre performing at VNIT, Nagpur, during the SPIC MACAY’s eighth International convention in June 2023. (Swaramayi Gurukul) PREMIUM
Prabha Atre performing at VNIT, Nagpur, during the SPIC MACAY’s eighth International convention in June 2023. (Swaramayi Gurukul)

My first question was about the secret behind her energy and the magic of her voice that seems untouched by the vagaries of age. She attributes it all to her lifelong habit of riyaaz or rigorous practice. “If I miss this sadhana even for a day, it makes me feel bad and uneasy all the time. Riyaaz is a continuous process. It’s not about merely the practice which you do with the taanpura in the morning. Thinking about music is also riyaaz, listening to music, reading and writing about music, teaching, researching, everything is riyaaz for me, it continues throughout the day,” she says.

Atre does not come from a family of musicians. Both her parents Abasaheb and Indirabai Atre were teachers in Pune. They encouraged her to participate in all extracurricular activities at school including music. At home, she picked up music from the harmonium player who was called in to teach Indirabai to cheer her up during an illness. Listening to young Prabha’s singing, one of her father’s friends suggested that she be properly trained and introduced them to Sureshbabu Mane, the well-known vocalist of the Kirana Gharana.

Prabha Atre performing in a photograph dated 18 March 1989 (HT Photo)
Prabha Atre performing in a photograph dated 18 March 1989 (HT Photo)

Impressed by her rendition of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s famous thumri Ka karun Sajni, Mane took her on. “He was opened minded and never forbade me from singing thumri or semi-classical music,” she says reminiscing that for a whole year, he taught her just Yaman raga, which was boring at times but laid a strong foundation that made it easy for her to learn other ragas.

After his death, Atre was tutored by Mane’s sister and disciple Vidushi Hirabai Barodekar. Hirabai was at the peak of her career and the young Prabha began accompanying her wherever she performed. “I did learn the khayal gayaki under Suresh Babu but it was while accompanying Hirabai on the tanpura that I learned the etiquette of stage presentation,” she says adding that mehfil ka gaana or performing on stage is an entirely different skill. “It was under her tutelage that I learned that one has to have a sixth sense to asses the ragas or repertoire that would work for the kind of audience that has turned up for the performance”.

“I was a good listener. During my years of working with All India Radio (AIR), I got the opportunity to listen to the best of musicians with an open mind. This gave me a discerning perspective of what needs to be taken and what is redundant in parampara,” she says adding that a complete knowledge of the raga is necessary for a musician to know what she should do with it and what she shouldn’t. “The use of dhaivat, for instance, in important in hameer, but what about the other swaras of that raga? During this period, I was also exposed to the gayaki of Ustad Amir Khan, which brought about major changes in my musical thinking,” she says revealing that listening to Noorjahan, Roshanara Begum and particularly the thumris of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had an impact on her music.

Working with radio made her understand that it is mainly a “microphone medium” which emphasized the importance of voice culture and the acoustics of tonal quality. “Vocal music is different because every voice is different,” she says pointing out that while film and sugam sangeet have poetry, raag sangeet is abstract. “Ragas are flowers like gulab and chameli with a specific fragrance of their own,” she says.

While radio gave her the opportunity to conceive and produce new programmes and learn techniques of recording and editing, it also exposed her to Carnatic music. “I liked their use of gamakas and sargam and also the treatment of their musical materials like sahitya, alapana and taans,” she says revealing that she began composing during her years as an assistant producer at AIR and introduced the stylistic nuances of Carnatic music through her bandishes. “The words of the bandish, according to me, should pass the criteria of auchitya. They should be decent and dignified enough to be sung anywhere without any hesitation,” she says.

“My very first attempt at composing Kal na pare, the vilambit, and Jagun main sari rain, the drut khayal compositions in Maru Bihag became such a hit with the album being sold out that I was motivated to compose and sing my own compositions,” she says. Apart from khayals, she has composed thumri, dadra, geet, bhajan, and even Marathi ghazals. Though she grew during her radio stint, she eventually resigned from AIR in 1970 to take up music as a full-time career.

Atre points out that it is one thing to be gifted with a naturally sweet voice and quite another to be continuously conscious of tunefulness. An accomplished musician needs to be alert to sustain the exact pitch and should have such great control over their voice that they are able to produce only the desired movements of the note with the appropriate weight and expression. Every movement should be attractive, meaningful, and polished and should have a purpose in the overall design. A single note could be given a variety of expressions with swift and subtle touches of grace notes.

As a representative of the Kirana Gharana, what are her views about the relevance of the gharana system in the current scenario when there’s so much exposure? “There’s a lot to learn from the exposure to other styles as well. The base of my style is very much Kirana, but it has a modern context. My thinking has been enriched by every kind of music because of my strong academic background, training, and exposure. I look for tonal beauty and my notes are charged with emotion,” she says.

Acknowledging applause at a concert (Swaramayi Gurukul)
Acknowledging applause at a concert (Swaramayi Gurukul)

Unsurprisingly, Atre believes a good performer needs to study music from all angles and that academic studies stimulate thinking about different aspects of music and creativity in performance. “My interest in the academics of music led me to join the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai in 1979. I worked there as a professor and head of the postgraduate department of music and research until 1992.” There, she created a broad curriculum that was not limited to just grammar. In addition to classical and light classical music, it included folk, film, Carnatic classical, Western and World music, while also incorporating philosophy, psychology, sociology, physiology, acoustics, aesthetics, poetry and the technical knowledge of how to face a mike and balance sound. The musical forms dhrupad-dhamar, khayal, and tappa thumri, Carnatic kritis, jawali, and thillana were all prescribed. The Indo-American Fellowship program helped her take courses in ethnomusicology at the University of California. “The research helped me to look at music with open eyes,” she says.

Prabha Atre has established the Swarmayee Gurukul to bridge the prevailing gap between academic institutions and the traditional guru shishya parampara and nurtures talented students. She has authored several books on various aspects of music. Her doctoral thesis on Sargam, is a pioneering work on the subject, and her books, Svarangini, Swarmayee, Suswarali, Swaranjanee, Swararangee, Antahswar, Enlightening the Listeners, and Along the Path of Music have all been well received. During the COVID period, she began working with digital platforms. The Alok series, in association with the Lalit Kala Kendra, Pune University, captured her thoughts on various aspects of music.

“I have completed 90 years. With my guru’s blessings, I have never imitated anyone. I have always sung my own music with utmost conviction. When I look back, I realize that all my thinking, experiences, actions, and reactions are associated with music only. Music has been my life’s goal and a full-time profession. I worship music, the most precious gift given to me by God,” she concludes.

Manjari Sinha is a senior music critic.

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