How India's longest living festival of Hindustani classical music, Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan, came to be

The notes of dissent from women seeking entry to Sabarimala today, resonated through Jalandhar, Punjab, in the early 20th century.

Women were not allowed to enter the pandal and samadhi of Baba Harivallabh in Jalandhar, where the late saint’s love for music was commemorated through a festival at Shri Devi Talab. Not wanting to be left out, a few women “…decided to dress as men, covered their heads with caps, wrapped themselves in blankets, and started attending the night sessions” of the Shri Baba Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan. Their disguise worked since electricity had not yet reached the masses, back in 1917.

This act of subversion was headed by the wife of one of the artists performing at the festival; she didn’t want to miss out on witnessing the genius of Pandit Bhaskar Buwa Bakhale, while her husband accompanied the maestro on the pakhawaj.

While women may have fought to be part of the audience, no female vocalists were allowed to perform on stage at the Shri Baba Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan till 1946, when Hira Bai Barodekar became the first female artiste to ever perform at the festival.

The Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan is now 142 years old. Few music events can claim to reflect the changes in India through the 20th century the way this one festival — which began as a musical tribute to a saint in 1875, complete with a yagna and havan — can. The festival can still be witnessed in the last week of December at Devi Talab — albeit in an altered form. Men and women wrapped up in blankets and quilts sit in the pandal, swaying to music that lasts until the wee hours of the morning. They carry a century-old tradition of informed listening to classical music, in a land whose musical identity has come to be restricted to bhangra-pop.

Press coverage of the Shri Baba Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan

Press coverage of the Shri Baba Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan

(L) Hirabai Barodekar and (R) Ustad Bismillah Khan are among the luminaries to have performed at the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan

(L) Hirabai Barodekar and (R) Ustad Bismillah Khan are among the luminaries to have performed at the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan

The history of the music festival has been compiled in a coffee table book — Harivallabh: A Rich Tradition of Musical Geniuses — that was launched this January. Authored by Rakesh Dada, the book traces the roots of north India’s oldest music festival through the eyes of an orphaned child, who loved music and found his nirvana in the notes of devotional Dhrupad gayaki. The book also documents the role of a community that kept the tradition alive against odds that included the upheaval of Partition and the decade-long militancy in Punjab.

The Sangeet Sammelan was started by Baba Harivallabh, in memory of his guru Swami Tula Giriji. The long lineage of saints sang devotional songs but Baba Harivallabh went on to take formal training under the tutelage of Pandit Duni Chand of Ujahan (now in Sialkot dist.) and maintained the guru-shishya parampara at Devi Talab, where scores of disciples learnt the art under him and other masters. Baba Harivallabh had also authored a book (Sangeet Darpan) and translated Raag Darpan.

Despite such a rich repository of knowledge, the festival, in its initial years, was mainly a congregation of holy men — sadhus and fakirs who would render devotional compositions at the havan-yagna, like bhajans, shabads, bhaint, qawwali, dhad etc. Over time, the purely religious congregation took on the shape of a Sangeet Mela. Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar’s visit to the Sangeet Mela in 1896, showed the organisers the possibilities for the festival’s growth and improvement, in terms of roping in musicians of national repute. As more classical artistes began performing at the festival, it came to be known as the Raag Mela, and finally the Shri Baba Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan, as it is still called today. In 1929, instrumentalists were invited to perform for the first time, breaking over 50 years of monopoly of vocal recitals. Stalwarts of classical music considered it to be a recognition of their talent and dedication, if the Mahantji of the Baba Harivallabh Mahasabha invited an artist to the festival. Performing at the Sammelan was considered approval of an artist’s training and talent.

Pandit Jasraj performs

Pandit Jasraj performs

(L) Ustad Zakir Hussain; (R) Kumar Gandharva

(L) Ustad Zakir Hussain; (R) Kumar Gandharva

Rakesh Dada’s book chronicles how Pt Bhimsen Joshi, who ran away from home at the age of 11 and found his guru in Bhagat Mangat Ram in Jalandhar, was told for several years by Mahant Dwarka Dass to do more riyaz, every time he approached the Mahant to let him perform at the Sammelan. Once he was found to be mature enough to perform, there was no looking back. Balakrishna Buwa Ichalkaranjikar, Ustad Maula Baksh, Ustad Kale Khan, Ustad Chand Khan, Pandit Krishna Rao, Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas, Pandit Vinayak Rao Patvardhan, Gangu Bai Hangal, Pt D V Paluskar, Pt Mallikarjun Mansoor, Ustad Faiyyaz Khan, Pandit Onkar Nath Thakur — the list of illustrious artists to have graced the Sammelan’s sage is long.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes about the humility, simplicity as also the idiosyncrasies of the stalwarts of the times. In 1919, when Mahatma Gandhi came to the festival, three stars were supposed to perform for him: Pandit Bhaskar Rao, Pandit Krishna Rao and Pandit Ram Krishna Buwa. Since Gandhi’s arrival was delayed and sensing he paucity of time, all three stalwarts sang a bhajan in Raga Khamaj, dear to Bapu: ‘Ram Bhajan Ko Diya Kamal Mukh’.

Towards the 1930s, the festival that had started on devotional lines acquired a new tradition – it always concluded with the rendering of ‘Vande Mataram’. The artist community was not untouched by political developments, and the Sammelan was a people’s festival — supported by devotees, artists and the audience. In 1947, many Muslim artists, patrons and a large section of the audience disappeared due to Partition. The Hindus and Sikhs who came from the other side were traumatised, while the Muslims were leaving. It deeply affected the quality of performances and the audience attendance. Mostly dominated by Muslim artists, all the five gharanas of Punjab disappeared. At the time, the Sammelan ensured regional artists were provided a stage, which promoted the skills of the Punjab gharana artists. With the mass migration of Muslim artists to Pakistan, a vacuum was left behind in the region.

This was a turning point in the festival’s history. In 1948, Padma Vibhushan Ashwini Kumar, IPS, took on the responsibility of reviving the festival; he involved the community in the effort, introducing several new schemes like collecting one-rupee donations from people to boost the Sameelan’s flagging fortunes. He served the Baba Harivallabh Mahasabha for 50 years. Many of the Muslim artists who had left for Pakistan, returned to perform at the festival. Generations of artists from the same lineage continue to come pay their respects to the stage at the Sammelan. Over the years, hundreds of local businessmen, industrialists and professionals have helped maintain the high standards of the festival.

Much of the archival material used in Rakesh Dada’s book comes from Ashwini Kumar’s personal collection. Rare pictures, interviews and documents bring the story of the Sammelan alive. It took Dada five years to source this material. The Tribune, published from Lahore till 1947, reported on the Sammelan — showcasing the relevance of the festival and the manner in which cultural activities were reported by the press then. A copy of the book was unveiled in December 2018 — at the Sammelan’s 143rd edition. How the festival changes by the time its 150th year rolls around is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for certain — its music will remain as inextricably linked with India’s story as ever.

Harivallabh: A Rich Tradition of Musical Geniuses by Rakesh Dada | Published by Wisdom Collections | Pages: 396 | Price: Rs 2,495.

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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2019 09:25:57 IST

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