On Bholanath Bhatt by B.R. Deodhar

In 1944, I saw vocalist Pandit Bholanath Bhatt for the first time at the Music Conference held at Allahabad. Smt. Karwal was his favourite disciple and he came to the conference with her. I could not get acquainted with him on that particular occasion. When I made specific enquiries, I learnt that Panditji was a sort of recluse, stayed away from strangers and chose to pass on his knowledge of music only to a selected few. But everybody said that he was a very competent singer. When I saw him he was dressed in a lungi and a silk kurta. He looked grave and did not seem keen on talking to others. It was for all these forbidding reasons that I decided not to strike up an acquaintance with him at the time.

In 1946, I happened to revisit Allahabad. One of my disciples lived there. One day I overheard him humming some _cheejs_ to himself. As they sounded unfamiliar to me, but rather beautiful, I asked him where he had picked them up. He was visibly uncomfortable but finally blurted out, "Sir, please forgive me. There is a musician called Pandit Bholanath Bhatt here who taught them to me. He does not teach anyone unless he agrees to become a black-thread pupil. So, I am afraid, I had to go through that ceremony." On hearing his reply I reassured him. I said he had not done anything wrong in becoming a black­ thread pupil of Pandit Bhatt. In fact, he should learn whatever Panditji had to offer with great care because what he was humming seemed to be of top quality. "Get all you can", I said, "and when your vacation is over come back to me." He was greatly relieved to find that I had not taken the whole thing amiss. Then I said to him, "You might go and see Panditji now and tell him that I should very much like to call on him if he did not mind. Ask him what time would suit him." He took me to see Panditji that afternoon at the latter's residence in Alopi Bagh. Panditji lived at a sort of hermitage called 'Ramagumfa' where he had a room to himself. I went in and took a seat. Panditji had heard my name and after some preliminaries, conversation turned to music. He sang a number of cheejs for me including a few varieties of raga Malhar and told me which ragas seemed appropriate to him for various seasons. Sweets were brought and I was urged to sample them.

The cheejs he sang were both catchy and of noble lineage. The words of the cheejs were pure and unmutilated. He sang for me a few dhamars, some tappas, khayals (big and small) and several thumaris. I formed a high impression of the man and his knowledge and he too seemed perfectly at ease in talking to me. On the earlier occasion he had appeared to me rather grave and reserved but that impression was now completely wiped out. I found him rather kind-hearted and very straightforward. He appeared rather suspicious of human nature and had to be sure of a man before he opened his heart out to him.

Panditji came to know that my hobby was collecting cheejs of different gharanas. It took me time to establish a close relationship with him, but once I did, he was completely open-hearted and started calling on me at the house of Pandit V.A. Kashalkar where I stayed. I was in Allahabad for a week on that occasion and went to his place every morning when he would freely sing for me whatever cheejs I requested. He admired my speed in taking down the notation of any cheej. He would repeat each line of a cheej four or five times. I would take down its notation and after a few minutes sing it for him from the notation. In this manner, I picked up some 25-30 cheejs from him during my stay.

Pandit Bholanath was living at Allahabad from 1935. As enjoined by the head of the religious order to which he belonged Panditji would first feed any saintly persons who came to the hermitage each morning and then take his own midday meal around 1 or 2 p.m. He lived the life of a religious recluse. Many holy persons visited him and he would do whatever he could to help them. Whenever I visited him, I invariably found an old mendicant in saffron robes sleeping on a charpoy in the hermitage. Enquiries revealed that the holy man was ill and lying in the same condition for some years and would probably remain there until he died. Pandit Bholanath looked after the man's medical and other needs. Panditji was up at dawn to read the Ramayan. The place, 'Ramagumfa,' where he lived, is some two miles away from Allahabad on the way to the river Ganga. It was built by one of his disciples, a Muslim woman, who had made a name for herself as a singer at one time. She owned considerable property in Allahabad. She became a devotee of the late Swami Avadh Bihari Das and subsequently became an initiated disciple of the holy man. In accordance with the command of her guru she built the hermitage (Ramagumfa) and spent her time there in religious rituals. She discarded her original name and took the name 'Rama'. Because the hermitage ('gumaha') was built by her it came to be known as 'Ramagumfa.'

Ramabai and Pandit Bholanath cared for all visiting holy men with great dedication. After 1946, I must have made nearly half a dozen trips to Allahabad. On every occasion he was most gener­ ous in letting me pick from his storehouse of cheejs, whatever appealed to me. Every time we discussed musical matters and I asked him all manner of questions pertaining to his early life. He responded to my questions without any reservations. The biogra­ phical details which follow have been put together from what I can recall of my questions and his replies.

The Bhatt family originally came from Fatehpur Sikri near Agra. The surname suggests that Panditji's ancestors were bhaats (minstrels) whose job was to write poems glorifying princes and nobility and sing them before their patrons. But during Aurang­ zeb's reign, temples were destroyed and Hindus began to be persecuted. So the family migrated to Allahabad and settled down there. Panditji's father, Pandit Munshilal, was a renowned singer and had served at the Court of the Maharaja of Darbhanga for eighteen years. Pandit Bholanath was born at Darbhanga (Bihar) in 1894. The family produced many good poets and musicians besides Pandit Munshilal. He died at Allahabad in 1913. As he was greatly respected by both Muslim and Hindu musicians, there was a constant stream of vocalists and instrument players at his house. Pandit Munshilal was an exponent of dhrupad and tappa, which is how some of that gayaki came to Pandit Bholanath. The son was attracted to khayal from a very early age and learned almost all the khayals his father could teach him, except that his education was incomplete because his father died prematurely.

Pandit Bholanath was nineteen when his father died. His uncle, i.e. father's brother, was an exponent of dhrupad-dhamar and also learnt to play mridanga from Pandit Ayodhya Prasad Bandewale. Hoping to complete his musical training which came to an abrupt end because of his father's death he requested his uncle to take him on as a pupil. But the uncle rudely declined to teach him and threw him out of his house. Bholanath felt very unhappy at this summary rejection. He vowed there and then to become a more accomplished musician than his uncle. He was determined to leave Allahabad and never to return unless he became a greater musician than his uncle.

Whatever money Bholanath had, had been spent up during his father's last illness. He had a young sister and two brothers as well as his own baby daughter to support. No relatives volun­ teered to come to his assistance. As for his uncle, he was not even prepared to teach him music. Bholanath became almost demented by the weight of his worries. With whatever meagre resources he had, he arranged for his brothers and sister to be looked after and made ready to leave Allahabad in order to become a musician. But penniless as he was, where could he go? In a fit of dejection he decided to end his life by jumping into the river Yamuna. He walked along the bank of the river till he came to a point where the water was deep and no one seemed to be around. He undressed and was about to jump into the river when he heard someone calling. He turned around to find a Muslim zamindar friend of his father who asked him, "What do you think you are doing?" Bholanath said, "I am going to see the Raja of Raibarely who has donned holy robes and lives in a boat on the other of side of the river." The zaminder said, "My dear boy, the river is very deep and broad here. It would be madness to try to cross the river here. You will certainly drown. I shall give you money for the boat fare. Take it and go by boat." Bholanath took the money. By this time, committing suicide also did not seem to be such a good idea. He crossed the river in a boat and went to call on the Raja turned ascetic who chose to live in a boat. The ex-Raja used to receive stray visitors, mendicants and musicians in the boat and help them. Bholanath sang for the Raja for which he received a reward of Rs. 20/-. He kept some of the money for the main­ tenance of his family and left Allahabad to become a musician.

Bholanath went to his distant maternal uncle, Pandit Shyam­ sundar Bhatt who lived at Azamgarh. He was actually a sarangi player, but having spent, a long time in the company of talented musicians, he had picked up a great many vintage cheejs. Shyam­ sundar made his nephew feel at home and gave shelter to him for two years. He taught Bholanath whatever he could and personally looked after his training.

On the strength of what he learned from his father and what Pandit Shyarnsundar taught him, Bholanath felt confident enough to undertake concert tours. Having given several concerts on the way, he finally reached Calcutta. He was practically penniless by this time and had to subsist occasionally on four paise worth of grams. He had hardly anything decent to wear and had to wash the single set of clothes he had and wear it over and over again. During his wanderings he chanced upon the celebrated sarod player of the time, Khansaheb Karamatullah. Khansaheb was a friend of Bholanath's father and used to visit Allahabad and stay at his friend's house for long periods. He recognized Bholanath at once and began to ask him searching questions. Seeing Bholanath reduced to such straits he told him that there was going to be a big concert at the house of a zaminder called Bechababu and that Bholanath should present himself there. He might be able to earn some money. But he warned Bholanath not to appear in the drab clothes he was wearing. He offered to lend his own clothes to Bholanath which the latter declined but he agreed to be present at the concert.

The concert was attended by numerous singers of both sexes and instrument players. After several people had taken the stage it was Bholanath's turn. Nobody paid much attention to him at first, dressed simply as he was. Bholanath started singing an uncommon raga which set off a discussion among listeners - no one could identify the raga. But the raga was so obviously sweet and attractive that the audience was all attention. Finally, Bechababu asked Khansaheb Karamatullah what the raga was called. Karamatullah made some wild guess. Bholanath overheard what was being discussed and said that he was not singing the raga named by Khansaheb. However, he wanted to spare possible embarrassment to Khansaheb and added that vocalists and instru­ ment players often had different names for the same raga. In any case, no musician knew the names of all ragas. Karamatullah was relieved to hear Bholanath's explanation. Bholanath was in great form at the time and because of his presentation of a little known raga the entire Bengali audience was greatly impressed by his performance. Bechababu, the host himself, was so pleased that he took him to his special chamber and gave him refreshments. While Bholanath had his repast Bechababu went to a cupboard in the room and took out wads of currency notes. He made three piles, one of fives, another of ten-rupee notes and a big one of four hundred rupees which he kept to one side. Bholanath seeing that small fortune wondered whether he would merit even as much as ten rupees. Bechababu started calling out each artiste by name and paying out the cash, according to the quality of each one's performance. Finally he handed over the big wad of four hundred rupees to Bholanath. Bholanath could hardly believe his eyes. Even Khansaheb Karamatullah's cash award was smaller. Bhola­ nath's joy knew no bounds. He ran out of the place, got into a taxi and went home. Subsequently he sent for his family and they lived together at Calcutta.

After the concert incident, recognition and fame came to Bholanath. A number of rich people came to him for music lessons and he became well established in Calcutta. His brothers were also able to secure teaching assignments. Professionally, Bholanath was doing well but peace of mind still eluded him. He had a nagging suspicion that his education as a musician was not yet complete and he set about trying to remove the deficiency.

In those days, there lived in Calcutta a very old but very proficient singer called Mitthu Khan. He was an opium-addict and refused to teach anyone. He lived by himself on the third floor of a building. He always kept a pile of broken bricks and a heap of bones by his side and if anyone dared to approach him for a tuition, he habitually pelted him with pieces of bricks or bones and drove him away. Pandit Bholanath started visiting him. On the first few occasions, he too was greeted with showers of bricks but he refused to be daunted. He would take half a pound of jelebi and a quantity of opium for Mitthu Khan every morning and spend some time with the man despite the shower of bricks. After a few days, pleased with Bholanath's dedication, Mitthu Khan started teaching him. He taught Bholanath a number of cheejs of great value.

Pandit Bholanath was mainly a dhrupad and tappa singer in those days. He knew khayal music but his tana was not of top quality as he had not practised it enough. On one occasion, he happened to visit the Maharaja of Burdwan. His fellow-guest there, Rustam Khan of Datiya, used to do regular riyaz and after some time Bholanath started doing riyaz along with Rustam Khan. But Rustam Khan being far more proficient than Bholanath in tana the joint practice could not continue for long - it was a drag on the fast-moving Rustam Khan. He said to Bholanath, "If your voice can move at the same pace as mine sing with me. Otherwise keep quiet. Do not come in the way of my riyaz." Panditji tried his best to keep up with Rustam Khan but he could not and finally had no alternative but to shamefully accept defeat and give up. The incident badly jolted him and he resolved to work on his tana. The celebrated musician of Rampur, Khansaheb Vazir Khan, used to live in Calcutta. He had a great deal of respect for Panditji's father Munshiram. Accordingly, Panditji went to Vazir Khan and narrated the whole Burdwan incident to him. Vazir Khan agreed to teach him voice training and also taught him a number of cheejs. For the next five years he worked on his voice in the manner taught by Vazir Khan and subsequently came to be considered a proficient, all-round vocalist.

Around the same time, Panditji came in contact with the famous harmonium player Ganpatrao Bhaiyya. Gangpatrao was regarded as the veritable king of thumari singers. Thumari singers of the calibre of Maujuddin were frequent visitors at Ganpatrao's house. That is how Pandit Bholanath came to develop a liking for this genre of music. He picked up several varieties of thumaris from numerous thumari singers and became an expert thumari singer. He had an extraordinarily large repertoire of thumaris and was a competent exponent of the highly regarded Eastern variety of thumari. During one of my visits to Allahabad he took me to the house of Prof. Karwal. An expert sarangi player was expected to visit Prof. Karwal and play for him. When he turned up, he tuned his sarangi in the same key as Panditji's tanpura. Panditji started singing. It was the first time I learnt from him that in the East, thumari is initially sung in slow tempo followed by another thumari sung in medium tempo. He sang for me thumaris from a number of different ragas and furnished background information about each piece such as the name of the composer, the place and period of composition etc. He also explained the special charac­ teristics of each composer and finally tried to persuade me to pick up not only his cheejs but some thumaris as well. I told him I was a khayal singer and had taken up the collection of cheejs of different gharanas as a hobby. Thumari singing was quite different from khayal gayaki and I had no systematic training in that department. If I had to learn thumaris from him I would have to spend many days in Allahabad. I could not afford to do that, and hence, I was not keen on thumari singing.

Pandit Bholanath said that during his Calcutta stay he took part in many a jugalbandi and won laurels. At times, things were not entirely peaceful or cordial. But even if there was bitter wrangling in the concert hall, once the singer left it, quarrels would be forgotten and relations become cordial once more. Vocalists of different gharanas felt free to call at each other's house and privately exchanged cheejs of their own gharanas for those of others. That is how Panditji came to have in his possession cheejs of other gharanas. Panditji had many gurus - one of them was Bilas Khan from Datia state.

Panditji spent altogether seventeen years away from Allaha­ bad. He visited a number of places during this period and added to his knowledge of music and earned both fame and money. In 1935 he began to suffer from dysentery and so decided to return to Allahabad. Swami Avadh Bihari Dasji, a saintly person, lived on the bank of Ganga, in the Ramayani area of Allahabad at the time. As the holy man had discarded all clothing he was frequent­ ly referred to as Nangababa (naked sadhu). Avadh Bihari Das had a large number of disciples including several educated persons. Pandit Bholanath took this man's discipleship and began to obey his every command. Panditji's fame as a musician reached profes­ sional women singers of Allahabad many of whom started coming to him for music lessons. One of them was a wealthy Muslim woman who developed a very high regard for Panditji and started accompanying Panditji, when the latter attended Avadh Bihari Das's religious discourses. The devotional atmosphere surround­ ing the sadhu had such a deep influence on her that she decided to discard all material things in favour of a life devoted to God. She converted her city residence into a temple, discarded her Muslim name and began to call herself 'Ramaa' and spend her money for the benefit of ascetics and other religious persons. Swami Avadh Bihari Das, alias Nangababa, loved Pandit Bhola­ nath's music. So, when the time came for him to leave this world, he turned over all his estate to him. Under his guru's orders he was never to go out of Allahabad. All his material needs had been met now and he did not have to work for his living. When we two became acquainted he already had a few disciples. But, when I realized his true worth, I lost no time in spreading the word among music lovers. Here was a really talented musician who was a virtual storehouse of rare compositions and was now inclined to teach others. Why not take advantage of this? What I said had the desired effect and numerous musically inclined people began to take instruction from Panditji. Prayag Sangeet Samiti also appointed him a professor for higher musical studies. He became a greatly respected person in Allahabad which made him feel happy and contented.

Pandit Bholanath was an uncomplicated and straightforward person. As a descendant of a family of minstrels he inherited poetical faculties. Even in ordinary conversation what he said had often a poetic quality. He knew Tulasidas's Ramayana by heart; besides, his guru told him to make it a habit to sing excerpts from the historic work in (different) ragas. He had a weakness for sweets and always had supplies of his favourite sweetmeats in his room. Whenever I called on him he would open a canister of sweets and place it before me: "Deodharji, sing and partake of this from time to time", he would tell me. He owned a man-drawn rickshaw and had a full-time servant to draw it. On getting up every morning he would have his bath and proceed to a village called Phaphamau - across the Ganga - to buy fresh vegetables. He would then ask the cook to prepare a savoury meal. From 11 a.m. onwards there was a stream of visiting sadhus and sanyasins (ascetics) whom he and Ramaabai would serve food. It was only after these People had been fed that Panditji would have his own lunch after 1 p.m. In the evening, he would take a rickshaw-ride in the town, then return home and read portions of the Ramayana. Not having received much formal education he had picked up some quirks of character from musicians of old. One of these unfortunate habits was self-praise. Sycophants would play on his simplicity and praise him to the skies. Then for a couple of days he would repeat what he had heard to anyone who was around to hear it.

In course of time, Ramaabai passed away and some of Panditji's relatives came to live with him. Trouble developed in his ears and his hearing became defective. He discontinued his radio broad­ casts. Finally the end came on May 16,1970. He was little known in Maharashtra until the appearance of my article in Sangect Kala Vihar. Manik Varma came to Allahabad to see him and pickcd up a number of cheejs from him. The sons of my guru-bandhu - Vamanrao Thakar - some two or three of them - also received a modicum of instruction from him.

Panditji was seventy-six at the time of his death.