Sunday, May 11, 2008

Firoz Dastur

Pandit Firoz Dastur, veteran Kirana gharana vocalist, passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

As I write this blog, on a Sunday morning, I'm listening to his rendition of Raga Bhairav recorded many years ago at the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune. I've always loved his recordings (I have roughly six hours worth, three from Sawai Gandharva performances: Darbari, Lalit, Bhairav, and three released by Rhythm House in their own cassette series). As per my usual practice I've digitised most of this onto the hard disk of my desktop in MP3 format, and I use the desktop as a music source, its output going into my amplifier and a gigantic set of JBL speakers.

As is apparent from his name, Firoz Dastur was a Parsi, albeit a somewhat unusual one. In addition to his deep involvement with the world of Indian classical music, I note that he was cremated at Chandan Wadi rather than taken to the Tower of Silence, and the Times of India mentions that "his last rites were conducted as per Hindu rituals by his disciple Girish Sanzgiri".

Dasturji's voice did not have the power for which Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal, his fellow-disciples under Sawai Gandharva, are famous. That is intriguing because the Kirana Gharana is noted for the purity of its "swar" or "note", which is sometimes interpreted to mean that singers should have the ability to shout a very clean and piercing note. Bhimsen and Gangubai have been justly famed for this sort of lung-power (I recall how Gangubai would cup one ear with her hand, emit one of these pristine shouts, and then raise her eyebrows in surprise at what she had just done!).

On the other hand the founder of the Kirana gharana, Abdul Karim Khan, had a nasal, pinched voice. And Dastur's style is in fact most reminiscent of Abdul Karim's - a thin, pleading, reedy voice that conveys emotion through subtle resonance rather than a booming attack. Despite this, in the heat of a performance he could boom with the best and like all Kirana exponents he took his breath control very seriously.

It is Dastur, not Bhimsen, who replicated Abdul Karim's famous "light" pieces most movingly: the Kirwani Thumri "soch samajha naadaan" and the bhajan in Raga Sarparda, "gopala mori karunaa kyon nahin aave". which you can watch here. It's a very happy indication of the pluralistic nature of our society that the prime exponents of the latter, traditionally Hindu, devotional piece were a Muslim and a Parsi. It is even said that Abdul Karim Khan's last act before he died was to sing a bhajan (on the platform of a railway station) and if this is true, I'm certain the bhajan was "gopala mori".

Late last light I listened to Firoz Dastur performing the Kirwani Thumri, and felt a deep involvement with his soul. I never met him or heard him live (stupid of me, he lived in Grant Road all his life and that's hardly 8 km from where I've lived all my life. Moreover, not being a "famous diva" type, he would certainly have welcomed visitors to his home. I should have just gone one fine day).

Dasturji's passing will not make the kind of headlines that are reserved for a very few "media star" Hindustani musicians. Many in the press and the chattering classes will not have heard of him. That is a pity and a sad comment on the state of popular awareness of Indian classical music - possibly the most authentic and unique Indian classical art surviving today. He represented the type of artist whose sole interest is art. As he did not seek publicity, publicity did not follow him. There is a lesson here - if you are looking for great achievers in any field, go beyond the most famous (who are sometimes but not always genuine achievers) and you will find many many more.

The drut bandish (composition in a fast tempo) in Raga Bhairav is "जो भजे हरी नाम, सो परम सुख पाए" (whoever repeats the name of God gains eternal happiness). Dasturji has certainly earned his happiness, and I thank him for sharing some of it with us.


Anonymous said...

I want to thank you for the wonderful and kind words you wrote about my "freddy kaka". I am his grand niece and was terribly saddened by his passing, but delighted to hear how his voice and simple beliefs about life touched you-- despite you never visiting him at his apartment (which he surely would have welcomed) you seem to have understood much about him and his life. I have forwarded your blog to all my family, as it means to so much to us that he touched so many with his music.

Shana Dastur

alobela said...

Thank you for the blog. I have listened to some pieces of Firoz Dastur before. This one was wonderful.

I strongly concur with what you noted that the best in a field are not often the most popular ones. But often most of us don't have the ability to appreciate their work. Someday you come across their work and if you really feel about the field (music in this case) you become a fan of him/her. Thus, in a sense they are fortunate to have a 'true' fan following, not a media hyped one.

Lawyers Club said...

i read this blog much late and after hearing a thumri in kafi. simple rendition of intricate bols fascinated me to look for some more on him. we do not have much resource so far as Artiste like Pandit Dasturji is concerned. and then it feels how deprived we are. it would be a copyright violation otherwise i would have shamelessly requeted you to upload some of his works. Anyways thanks a lot for sharing your experience.