Festival of Classical Music – Delhi 1957

Jatinder Sethi


Jatinder Sethi was born in Lyallpur, now Faisalabad, in pre-Independence India. He finished his M.A. (English) from Delhi University in 1956, and went off to London to study Advertising in 1958. He passed his Membership Exam of The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (M.I.P.A) in1965, and joined Rallis India in Bombay. Later, for over 20 years, he worked for the advertising agency Ogilvy &amp\; Mather. Now retired, he helps his son in his ad agency in Delhi.

Ed. Note. Mr. Sethi’s article on Delhi in the 1950s is a complement to this article.

Kaun Jaye Dilli Kee Galiana Chode Kar कौन जाये दिल्ली की गलियां छोड़कर ?
Who wants to leave Delhi?

The old Urdu poet was right then, and it applied to Delhi of my time also - the late 1950s.

Delhi was the hub of cultural and intellectual activities, fired by the late Chacha Nehru, and politically aware Punjabis of Partitioned India. At that time, they gathered at the India Coffee House, Janpath, New Delhi. This was the crowd that produced well-known writers, photographers, journalists and even Prime Minister (Inder Kumar Gujral) of the country.

Delhi of that period had three very well-known and popular annual cultural events.

One of them was Phool wallon Kee Sair. The patron was Nehru himself. This festival was organized by all the flower sellers of Kutub for three days. It attracted a small crowd than other festival because, in those days, the Kutub was far away from Delhi city, and surrounded by jungle areas. And difficult to reach. (It is said that it used to take over 35 days for the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to reach Mehrauli (Kutub) from Red Fort).

Another festival was the Sir Shankerlal Annual Mushaira at the Chelmsford Club. This was one of most popular functions visited by Delhiwallas. (See Mushaira at indiaofthepast.org)

And the third was the Annual Classical Music Festival.

In those days, it was always held at the historical Constitution Club, housed at the (wartime) barracks at Curzon Road. It was meant for the Members of the Indian Constitution Assembly to foster social contact and provide amenities to discharge of Parliamentary and allied social obligations. It was inaugurated by Sarvapalli Radhakrishanan, (Vice President of India, who went on to become the President of India.)

And it is this third annual festival that I remember - of those three nights in 1956/57.

It was the Golden Age of Indian classical music. So many great masters of Indian classical music used to be on the stage on the grounds of Constitution Club, all at the same time. And all the three nights. In actual fact, the nightly programme, invariably, used to end not at night - but in the early hours of the dawn. (The Mushaira used to end after midnight.)

No one from the audience ever wanted to get up and leave while these Ustads of the Indian classical music were singing or playing their instruments. It seemed they were glued to their seats and did not want to leave either.

Another fact of this three night function was that ALL the great musicians were present every night, whether they were scheduled to perform or not. It is my great fortune that I was a member of the audience during the festival of 1956/57 of classical music for three nights.

I can proudly claim of having seen and listened to all those great artists, most of them no more in this world.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib singing Baju Band Khul Khiul Jaiy and Yaad Piya Kee Aaye.

The sheer personality and presence of people like Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Rasoolan Bai, Gangu Bai Hangal, Girija Devi and Bismillah Khan Sahib was awesome

And others like Pt. Ravi Shanker, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan,  Vilayat Khan sahib  with the great Sarangi player Bundu Khan and other sarangi players,  and  presence of table players like Ustad Allah Rakha, Ahmed Jan Thirakwa seemed as if the Chaar Chaand Aasmaan Say Utter Aiye Hain"


It was Shakespeare who wrote "If music be the food of loveplay on, give me excess of it\; that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die."

How true! If music be the food of loveplay on! That's exactly what used to happen every night. There was no restricted time-schedule to play or any Bandish on time.

Theses Ustads, once on the stage were themselves lost in their music as the listeners. No one ever wanted to stop the melodious voice of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahib.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, huge like a monarch, bewhiskered, sitting cross-legged, singing. He had a very melodious voice, interesting style that captivated the audience, asking for more and more, no matter what time of the night it was. Baju Bund Khul Jaiy and Yaad Piya Kee Aiye.

Many other classical singers have, later on sang Yaad Piya Kee Aaye (including Pakistani Ustads) but no one touches the height of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib.

Audience asked for Aaye Na Baalam Kaya Karun Sajni and Prem Ki Maar Katar, and Khan Sahib lovingly obliged.

Then there was the great Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, blessed with a thunderous voice at one time, and suddenly becoming a whisper/hum that used to hypnotize the listeners and move them to tears. Jogi Mat Ja and Maey Nahi Makhan Khayo.

And what can one say about Girija Devi? Listening to the thumri Ras ke Bhare tore Nain, one got lost in the gushing sound of Ganga at Banaras.

Read what she has to say in her biography:

I thought of Thumri as a medium through which to express myself. The emotions of love, longing, and devotion are an integral part of Thumri, and I thought that with the right kind of music, I could make the lyrics come alive.

Now, one can go to Youtube or "google" the name of old masters, and then hear their recordings. But  the recorded music, even  on expensive speakers is not an iota of experience we, the old timers, had listening "LIVE" on those three nights during 1956/57.

Difference between mushaira and classical music concert

The Annual Mushaira had hardly any female poets participating. However, on this stage of Indian Classical Music, there were many female artists and all great performers.

Another difference between this function and the Mushaira was the behavior of the audience. Mind you, the audience in both functions used to be the same elite of Delhi, but the response and behaviour was completely different.

Here the audience, sober, appreciative of classical music, either just kept nodding their heads, or clapping their hands with the taal. And sometimes "Wah Wah" would be heard. Most of this audience used to sit on the ground.

The Two great Annual Festivals of Delhi, now lost, and two different behaviors.

Some memorable moments lost forever...Pity

Jugal Bandi

Listening to the Jugal Bandi of Pt. Ravi Shanker on Sitar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on Sarod with the third great Ustad Allah Rakha on Tabla was an experience to die for.

These three were the inseparable partners and pillars of Indian Classical Music.

Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad  Ali Akbar Khan, both disciples of Baba Allauddin Khan, broke up after Pt. Ravi Shankar left his wife-daughter of his guru Allauddin Khan, and sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Jugal Bandi of Ustad Vilayat Khan, a sitar maestro, and Ustad Bismillah Khan, shehnai wizard.

Their duet continued to enthrall audiences of Bombay in the 1990s. (Vilayat Khan later away to America)

There was a rivalry between two great sitar players - Pt. Ravi Shanker and Ustad Vilayat Khan. Most of the audience favored and loved both the Sitar players but it seems that both the players got more interested in experimenting with Western musicians, both pop and classical instrumentalists, including the Beatles and  Yehudi Menuhin

Other gems of this festival

Ustad Bundu Khan, Sarangi Player, was the man who brought the Sarangi out of the Kothas, where this instrument was primarily an accompanist to Bais (women) doing Mujras (dances). (Incidentally, I believe even Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib started as a Sarangi Player at a Kotha)

Bundu Khan's sarangi almost talked to you. You could almost hear each and every word being played. And when two Ustads-Bundu Khan on Sarangi and Ahmed Jan Thirakwa on Tabla, the stage used to get fired. Ustad Bundu Khan Sahib took this instrument to the heights of Everest.

Like Bundu Khan Sahib, Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib was a most welcomed Instrumentalist. This Banaras walla Shehnai Player, took this instrument out of the Shadi-Barat Tamasha to be the most loved instrument by millions.

While these two greats were playing on the stage of Constitution Club, not a soul moved. It invariably ended early morning after playing hundreds of requests.

And what a treat it used to be, at the break of a dawn, listening to Ustad Bismillah Khan playing Piloor and Kajri

To enjoy this instrument, imagine yourself at the Khan Sahib's Holy City of Banaras sitting on the banks of Ganga, and listening to young Bismillah.

It seems like an Indian tradition that almost great Indian Musicians started their godly gift very early in life. Bismillah was no different. Bismillah also started playing Shehnai at the age six, right on the banks of Holy Ganga.

To end my visit to the 1950s of my Delhi, here is a quote about Bismillah from one of the articles in the Hindustan Times:

In a Shiva-fixated city, shehnai maestro, Bismillah Khan, then 12 years old, first caught a glimpse of the boss. Little Bismillah was practising on the stone balcony of the Balaji temple when Shiva - the god, who locals say will never leave the city - visited him doused in ittar.

And Shivji told him: Son, play. Your name is joined with mine... Ishwar, Allah, Bismillah," says Ustad Nazim Khan, Bismillah's son.

A look back

I came to Delhi in early 1947, at the age of 16, after the division of the country. I was a witness to the First Independence Day flag hoisting by our then very popular Prime Minister Nehru at the historic Red Fort. And it was there that I heard the Shehnai of Bismillah for the first time,

Later on I was, like millions moved by the death of Mahatma Gandhi. And I remember walking along with the Hajoom from the Birla House to the Rajghat for the funeral of the Father of the Nation.

It was this emotional bond of that time for young people that made my heart later on enjoy the Indian cultural heritage of music and poetry.

Though I am tone deaf to the intricacy of music, I still enjoy it on my own!


© Jatinder Sethi 2017

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Thsnk you for the picturesque memories

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