Looking for traces of classical music in the crowded bylanes of Bhendi Bazar is a futile exercise. The busy commercial hub is developing a vibrant culture of Urdu literature today, but for most of its residents, the phrase ‘Bhendi Bazar gharana’ does not ring a bell.
Yet, the only Hindustani classical gharana (musical style) to have originated in Mumbai came from Bhendi Bazar, courtesy three singer-brothers from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh — Ustad Chhajju Khan, Nazir Khan and Khadim Hussain Khan — who settled here in the 1870s.
Today, most practitioners of the music style live and teach outside Mumbai. But on May 26 and 27, the city will host the Bhendi Bazar Gharana Sangeet Sammelan, a conference of music concerts and lectures by a group of 16 vocalists and musicians of the gharana from across the country.
The last time Mumbai saw a conference of its native gharana was two decades ago, in 1992.
“In the 1970s, the Bhendi Bazar style of music was hardly being performed on stage and people thought it had died out,” says Suhasini Koratkar, 68, a Pune-based vocalist and one of the main organisers of the Mumbai conference.
Koratkar’s guru, TD Janorikar, then began organising gharana conferences to rekindle public interest in the Bhendi Bazar style. “I now consider it my life’s mission to promote my gharana,” says Koratkar.
The Bhendi Bazar style is known for its focus on expressing beauty and for its unique bandishes, or raga-based lyrical compositions, many of which were composed by Chhajju Khan’s son Ustad Aman Ali Khan, the most prominent artiste of the gharana.
“But the founders and second-generation singers of this gharana were not fond of commercial performances or promoting themselves,” says Meenaxi Mukherji, one of the few Mumbai-based singers of the Bhendi Bazar gharana, who will also be performing at the conference.
Later, several disciples of third-generation singers —including Kishori Amonkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Kumar Gandharva — moved away from the gharana to pursue other streams of classical or light-classical singing.
Over the past three decades, however, through the efforts of a new generation of singers and enthusiasts, the Bhendi Bazar gharana has seen a comeback on the concert circuits. Koratkar, for instance, has been writing magazine articles and giving lectures about the gharana in music institutes across the country, and has also archived several recordings of the gharana’s ragas and bandishes.
Five years ago, Pune-based Sudhir Gadre, a retired engineer, started swaramandakini.com, a website dedicated to researching the Bhendi Bazar gharana and archiving its 270 bandishes.
Among the youngest performers at the Mumbai conference is Bhoomika Dwivedi, a 22-year-old vocalist and sitar player from Udaipur who has just begun a PhD on the history of the Bhendi Bazar gharana.
“Today, many people associate Bhendi Bazar with the flesh trade,” says Dwivedi, who wants to dispel this myth through her PhD. “This gharana has produced so many eminent singers. I want to do my best to ensure that its legacy does not fade away.”