Parsis and Indian Classical Music: The secret history


April 10, 2017

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The Parsis are associated today solely with Western classical music. The Swar Sadhana Samiti’s annual festival this week reminds us that this tiny community also led the way in promoting Hindustani music in Mumbai.


Article by Sumana Ramanan | Mumbai Mirror

In a small room in Jer Annex, a building around the corner from Kyani, one of the city’s oldest Irani cafés, in Dhobi Talao, stands a long table with a marble top. It is an altar to the Hindu goddess Saraswati, whose two-feet tall idol sits on one end. Next to it stands a portrait of the Parsi prophet Zarathustra, followed by photographs of Keki Jijina and his protégé, Aban Mistry.

This is the 400-square-foot office of the Swar Sadhana Samiti, a non-profit organisation co-founded in 1961 by the late Jijina and late Mistry to promote Hindustani music in the city. Jijina, who passed away in 2003, was primarily a sitar player who had learnt from Ravi Shankar among others, but had also gained some expertise in playing the tabla and violin. Mistry, who passed away in 2012, was one of post-Independence India’s first professional female tabla players, having learnt from the great maestro Amir Hussain Khan.

“Our twin aims are to ensure that unsung talents in Indian classical music and dance get an opportunity to perform, while also inviting established artistes,” said Rupa Sethna, 68, who is part of the managing committee, which consists of a second generation that is carrying forward the founders’ mission.

The Samiti, which holds its 52nd annual festival on Saturday (see box), is a product of a time when Parsis, today associated largely with Western classical music, were equally involved with Indian classical music in the city. The Samiti also symbolises the deeply syncretic culture of Hindustani music, which is a melting pot of different linguistic and religious communities, both among the artiste and listening communities. As the altar in the Samiti’s office shows, many musicians identified with and incorporated cultural practices of religions other than the one into which they were born, with no sense of contradiction.

In her book, The Parsis and Indian Classical Music, Aban Mistry lists several accomplished artistes from her community who were active in the 20th century. The better known among them were the Gwalior gharana singer Jal Balaporia (1917-2013), the Kirana gharana vocalist Firoz Dastur (1919-2008) and sarod player Zarin Sharma (born Daruwala) (1946-2014), besides Mistry and Jijina themselves. Mistry also mentions the less-known singers Khorshed Minocherhomji, who was called ‘Saraswati Devi’ and learnt from the Agra gharana’s SN Ratanjankar in Lucknow, and Shirin Ratnagar, who learnt dhrupad from Zahiruddin Dagar.

Parsis’ involvement with Indian classical music can be traced back to the heyday of Parsi opera in the latter half of the 19th century, which used Urdu or Gujarati, and whose music was based on classical ragas. Even before their Marathi counterparts, Parsi musical troupes hired famous classical musicians to train their actors to sing.

This connection spawned the Gayan Uttejak Mandali, perhaps the city’s first music club, founded in 1870 by the journalist and writer Kaikhushro Kabrajee (1842-1904). An idea mooted by the musicologist VN Bhatkhande, these clubs were to include teaching, research, performances and publishing. The Mandali celebrated its centenary but its most active years were until 1920. Its aim was “to propagate among the Parsis a liking for indigenous music and promote songs and music which are moral and also with proper sur and tal.”

The Samiti inherited this ethos. “Aban Mistry was respected by everyone in the field, and she and the Samiti enjoyed tremendous goodwill,” said the Mumbai-based tabla player Aneesh Pradhan, who has performed several times for the organisation. “People were aware that her work was selfless.”

Moreover, Jijina and Mistry inspired a new generation to continue their work after they were gone. The committee members all work on a voluntary basis. “The Samiti and similar organisations work tirelessly, and are vital to the overall Hindustani music environment as they work through the year and over several decades, and provide a platform for young and senior musicians,” Pradhan said.

The Samiti’s annual all-India competitions in January for young musicians of different age groups also fosters a sense of loyalty for the organisation among musicians because many have won prizes there when they were younger and got a crucial early platform at a the concerts of prize-winners.

One of the highlights of the Samiti’s year is its annual festival, Swarsadhanotsav, which will also be its 666th monthly programme. Sethna is proud of the fact that all key committee members are always present at these events. “Apart from ill health, no excuses are valid,” she said.

The Samiti has a third generation that is invested in keeping it going: Sethna’s children as well as those of Feroze and Nazneen Katila, a couple in the early 50s who are also on the managing committee, and those of the president, Jiten Zaveri, are closely involved with the institution. “Our children know all the artistes and the artistes know them,” said Sethna.

What the Samiti could use is a healthy infusion of funds. So far, it has run on a corpus of donations and membership fees, but costs, of renting premises and paying artistes, are rising. “It is never easy,” Sethna said. “But we feel blessed to be able to do such noble work, and hope that Ma Saraswati allows us to continue.”

Image: From top: The Swar Sadhana Samiti’s first monthly programme in 1961: Keki Jijina on the sitar, accompanied by his son, Sapal Jijina; The Swar Sadhana Samiti’s 665th monthly programme in March 2017: Shivani Marulkar Dasakkar was one of the artistes who performed; A book in a series written by Firoze Framjee, a sitar player and musicologist active in the early 20th century