Quite when Prabha Atre had last performed on British shores was the source of stage-whispered conjecture in the audience. One pundit assured everyone within earshot that it had been 1974. Her website – www.prabhaatre.com – suggests 1995. If so, sadly because she is one of the vocal titans, no imminent performance(s) ever registered with me. Still, as the US folklorist Carl Sandburg quipped, humankind is awfully good at ‘forgettery’. Festival director Sandeep Virdee’s choice of an octogenarian to close the ninth Darbar Festival was a masterstroke.
If Prabha Atre was physically striking with her mane of thick, tied-back white hair, her brain was more impressive still with its solutions and resolutions. As at the previous day’s Khayal Talk with Pulse’s Dharambir Singh, her hair colour coordinated with her stage attire. She wore a white blouse and pale cream sari with what, under the stage lighting, looked like maroon trimming. At her recital she oozed authority, as only Kishori Amonkar has in my recent first-hand experience and Girija Devi on commercially-released live recordings.
Accompanying Atre, panning left to right from the audience seats, were Sanju Sahai on tabla, then Bharat Bhushan Goswami on sarangi, Priya Parkash on tanpura, Gunwat Kaur on swarmandal (a kind of non-chord-producing Indian autoharp), second vocalist Chetna Banawat (also on tanpura) and Ajay Joglekar on harmonium. From the first three-composition repertoire item, she laid down the markers for what was to come. Khayal is a forte. Over the last century khayal became Hindustani art music’s pre-eminent song genre. The wellspring from which she draws, the Kirana gharana or school/style of performance, was vital in reshaping tastes and superannuating earlier forms such as dhrupad.
There is a fallback tendency to extol that gharana’s male exponents – the likes of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi – over its female vocalists. Yet there are two prime vocally very different grandes dames of the gharana that truly do it for me. They are Prabha Atre and the late Gangubai Hangal. The backgrounds of these sisters in music could not be more different. Atre is from a middle-class Marathi background – her parents were teachers – whereas Hangal, two decades her senior, came from a hereditary Marathi musician-entertainer caste. They are both required listening, Kirana or not.
Reflecting a career including ten years as an assistant producer at All India Radio and even more time in academe, Prabha Atre conjured images of tradition and modernity. It was plain that her balancing act involves intellect, artistry and stagecraft. Her wealth of performance experience was evident straight away. There was no shilly-shallying; no alap (opening movement) probings. It was straight into the song; however abstract, however khayal or other song form. The spontaneous ‘arrangements’ allowed plenty of space. At times either Goswami or Joglekar dropped out to allow the other to shine solo. In a cultural microclimate in which it appears as if every hick tablawallah wants to show off their hot licks and ego, Sanju Sahai, of rather fine Benares tabla gharana lineage, accompanied – accompanied economically and tastefully. A typical instrumental ‘building-brick’ progression – a sarangi solo, a harmonium flourish, a tabla burst – lasted maybe 60, maybe 90, maybe 180 seconds. Everything added to the cumulative narrative because, with Prabha Atre, the song is the thing.
What she delivered – with consummate vocal support and/or double-vocals from the remarkable Chetna Banawat (a disciple of hers since 1999) – was a concert that fulfilled dreams. It was one that nobody will forget. Yet the concert summoned an insightful remark that her guru, Sureshbabu Mane, was given to making: “Sing in such a way that after the concert, your music eludes the memory of the audience. They should just be filled with the aura of the concert that lingers on.”