Asian Music and Dance

Remembering Abba

To mark the tenth anniversary of Vilayat Khan’s death, Dharambir Singh will be sharing some of his teacher’s musical compositions through a series of performances in April 2014, starting at the Bhavan Centre in London on Friday 4 April. He will be accompanied on tabla by Yogesh Shamsi, who has also played with Vilayat Khan; Dharambir’s son Kaviraj will be singing the compositions.

Dharambir here shares personal memories of the sitar legend called Abba, ‘father’, by his students.

I became Abba’s disciple in 1976 in Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh, India, where he was living at the time. The ceremony was a private and a special one as my then spiritual mentor Sri Satguru Jagjit Singhji, the head of the Namdhari Sikh faith, was present along with my beloved Chachaji (father’s younger brother) and some other disciples of Satguruji. I had been taught by Professor Narinder Nirula, another student of Abba, and as is customary I played before Abba whatever I could then. After that Abba gave me my first lesson, correcting my hand and starting me off playing the basic sargam (scale). The ceremony was concluded with a Sikh prayer Ardaas, seeking blessings for my musical progress and continued relationship with Abba as my Guru/Ustad.

“He would start practising a week before the concert and ensure that his callouses were back…”

Abba had a charismatic personality; all the students were in awe of him and dared not speak with him, out of respect. Such reverence was a customary part of the Ustadi-Shagirdi (master-student) tradition. In the early days in Dehradun, Abba loved to sit on the roof of his kothi (bungalow) which was set in a beautiful valley surrounded by the Shivalik mountains, with family members and students attending to him, sharing many tales of bygone musicians. Abba by then had done enough penance in practising sitar for up to twelve hours daily. Dehradun days were the days of deep thinking for him, sitting quietly, counting on his fingers, composing, strategising and always coming up with new tricks during the concert season. He would start practising a week before the concert and ensure that his callouses were back to support the amazing meends (pulls) he would perform in making his instrument sing.

“No one would believe that he could hardly write. He had an amazing capacity to learn spoken languages…”

Abba only went to school in Saharanpur, his mother’s home town in Uttar Pradesh, for four years of his life. No one would believe that he could hardly write. He had an amazing capacity to learn spoken languages and spoke Urdu, Bengali and English. His knowledge of diamonds, carpets, horses and billiards was astonishing. His admirers included royalty – the Patshah of Afghanistan and maharajas – and zamindars (landowners). He was the billiards champion of Simla before moving to Dehradun. He could dance elegantly and was well-known for his ballroom dancing. He was an admirer of cars, French suits, shoes; a designer of kurtas and a keen gardener.

“He was the billiards champion of Simla…”

Just as Abba’s sitar is remembered because of his gayaki (vocal) style, he also sang. He composed vocal khayal compositions in various ragas. His compositions have a distinct character, as they suit being played on the sitar. 

Abba acquired a wealth of repertoire from many maestros of his time. He always said that a student should acquire ideas and compositions from many sources but make sure they are presented in his or her own colour (expression).

“…small but profound conversations flash by my memory”

The company of Abba was contagious. His musical vibrations were so strong that his company was enough to infuse a passion and love for music. He had a strong Sufi sensibility and music was Ibadat (Sadhana, spiritual path) for him. My visit to him in Kolkata towards the end of his earth journey will remain a memorable one. He suddenly became serious, looked at me and in his strong, deep voice said: “Always remember, the sitar is in front of you; never dare think that the sitar is because of you. You are behind; your whole identity is because of sitar.” I was left baffled, pondering on it. I was not ready to understand him and his music then. As I mature, I am still trying to understand what he said. As the days pass, small but profound conversations flash by my memory and the profundity of his message becomes a little clearer. 



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