A musical career spanning 50 years.. a single-minded devotion to Hindustani Classical music and its science and art… an instrument called the violin… one of the most difficult instruments to master… and weaving with the bow and strings a magical power to induce both happiness and tears with the same notes. That is the virtuosity of Minoti Khaund, the veteran violinist from Assam who has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of Hindustani classic music and its promotion in the region.
A musician who has established her mettle as a specialist amongst her craft globally, she has been a staunch guide and supporter to hundreds of musicians who have come under her tutelage and who have carved a name of themselves in their own right. But she perhaps takes pride in the fact that she has managed to groom and lay a strong foundation for her own daughter Sunita Khaund Bhuyan, who is presently earning critical acclaim across the globe through her mastery with the bow and fiddle.
Born in 1940, Minoti started playing the violin at the tender age of 10 years. Born to a musically enriched family in the music loving town of Jorhat in Upper Assam, she first expressed her desire to play with the fiddle to her maternal grandfather, Mr. Biswa Sarma, a noted connoisseur of the fine arts himself. Her grandfather could sense the passion in the girl child’s eyes and bought her a violin. This is when Minoti’s ethereal journey started with the violin and classical music began to encompass a rich musical career which has spanned more than 50 years now.
Reminiscing about those early days, she recounts, “My grandfather was the President of All Assam Music Conference – Jorhat chapter. Everyone in my family had a huge inclination towards music. We were exposed to a lot of music shows where maestros used to come and perform. That atmosphere helped me a lot in my career. I must have been eight or nine years old when I started my career in music. There was a music school in Jorhat run by Late Lokanath Sarma where children from well-established families used to come to learn music. We learned under the guidance of Indreswar Sarma.”
Her family’s deep rooted interest in music also helped her develop as a musician. As she says, “My mother wasn’t a musician, though, but she stood by me through thick and thin, to become my source of inspiration to pursue music. At that time, learning music wasn’t easy as teachers were not available and there weren’t many institutions as well. But my sister, Pronoti Khaund is a singer. My brother (who is no more) used to play tabla, flawlessly. The All Assam Music conference played a pivotal role in our lives for giving us abundant opportunities of performing in different platforms, and at the same time meeting the experts and learning from them. I can recall many instances when in the December month’s chilly nights, people used to sit all night long clad with their blankets to listen to music, until 6 am in the morning, with a lot of patience. It was highly motivational for us. I was already performing before marriage, for I was the only lady violinist in the town, perhaps in the whole of Assam. I got married at the age of eighteen.”
The turning point in her life came when she was performing at the All Assam Music Conference in 1972 and violin maestro Pt. V.G.Jog heard her on stage and offered to impart his art to Minoti.
Minoti, already a mother of two and the daughter-in-law of then Deputy Commissioner Rabindra Ram Khaund, agreed to this god sent opportunity and started her apprenticeship under Pt. Jog. Her husband Kabindra Ram Khaund and her family supported her completely in her journey seeing her thirst for music and devotion towards the violin.
Fifty Glorious Years in Music
Thereafter started the traditional Gururshisya Parampara between Minoti and Padma Vibhusahan Pt Jog. Minoti bloomed as a musician under Jog’s able guidance and the exposure of performing on live shows besides him. For Indian Classical Music this is the best way that a student of music can imbibe the nuances and intricacies of the science and the art of classical music, accompanying the guru and simultaneously building a rapport with the audience.
Acknowledging the huge role of her guruji in her life, Minoti says, “Getting opportunities of seeing the performances of noted violinists, and also performing with them, has played an integral role in my learning. When I used to go to Calcutta to learn under my guruji, he used to take me to various music conferences, and to meet various other gurus, to see and learn from them. I met A T Kana, vocalist (a maestro). We played vocal music, not in words, but with our fingers. Pt. Budhadeb Dasgupta, another noted musician, also shared his knowledge, and I could learn a lot from him and his gharaana. He was a very liberal person. And, he is the one who inspired me to learn from everything. He said that I should grab a piece of learning from everyone and everywhere, wherever there is something good to learn.”
The Rising Talent Conference at Kalamandir Calcutta in 1978 introduced Minoti as a talented artiste in front of the knowledgeable gurus and music hungry audience of Kolkata. There has been no looking back since then. The Amir Khan Music Conference at Rabindra Sadan Calcutta, Benaras, Burdwan, Cuttack, Bhubaneshwar, Tatanagar, Rabindra Natya Mandir Mumbai, India International Center Delhi, Mehta Memorial Hall Allahabad, IIT Festival, Shankardev Kalakshetra Guwahati, National Gallery of Modern Art Mumbai, India Habitat Centre Delhi, Women’s International Forum Goa, Kala Ghoda Fest, Mumbai, Nehru Centre London, Glasgow, Nehru Centre Mumbai, Madhusudhan Manch Kolkatta, Kameshwari festival, SAWF Sri Lanka, Ganga Mahotsav Varanasi, Sangeet Natak Academi, ITC SRA series, etc were some of the platforms that Minoti performed in and enthralled the audience and press alike. She became the foremost violinist of Assam and did her motherland proud, earning accolades by blending the tantrakari style of Pt Jog with her own inherent melody.
Innovations and Awards Galore
Minoti continued her parallel studies in the field of music and attained Sangeet Nipune from Prayag Sangeet Samitti, Allahabad, in 1986, bagging a gold medal for her Sangeet Visharad. During this period, she also got associated with vocalist Pt. A.T, Kanan of the Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkatta and imbibed the “gayaki ang” in her style. She also underwent music studies in the field of raga improvisations and rhythmic patterns of “tala” from sarod maestro and musicologist Pt. Buddhadev Dasgupta. She became an empaneled Artist of ICCR, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India in 1990.
Minoti’s new composition on Durga Shakti with her daughter Sunita Khaund Bhuyan, “Invocation of Ma” has taken the mother daughter duo across the country and abroad. She was conferred the title of Sangeet Jyoti and was recently conferred the Shilpi Award by the Assam government for having completed 50 years as a violinist and music teacher. She also received the Lifetime Achievement in Music recently by the Paschim Guwahati Durga Mandir Trust recently. Besides, she brought glory to Assam when she received the Exceptional woman: Creating a Better World Award at the Women’s Economic Forum in 2018 and the R. G. Baruah Award for Excellence in her Craft in 2017.
Contribution to the Field of Music
All through her musical career, Minoti has been contributing towards society by propagating Classical Music amongst the youth and teaching the violin to the young and old alike. Her vast experience in the performing art and musical studies gives her the edge to impart music lessons on the violin with technically accurate systems and methods.
Pt Jog was so impressed with the way Minoti had groomed Sunita into the intricacies of the instrument that he also offered to train Sunita under him and thus carried on the “guru shisya parampara” across two generations of violinists. The mother and daughter have been currently performing jugalbandis together
Minoti currently is the visiting faculty of a reputed music college of Guwahati and is a panel examiner for music courses at the State College of Music and Art. She is currently focused on spreading the knowledge of music as a sublime recreation and frequently speaks in music forums and conducts workshops and seminars. She has also retained her penchant for writing and is a prolific writer of music columns and articles in journals and newspapers. Her endeavor has been to propagate music among today’s generation and make music a medium of achieving inner peace and harmony and thus spreading positive energy and harmony throughout the society.
When asked if she felt that her achievements in the field of music have not been acknowledged at par, Minoti Khaund, as a true musician, says that her inner satisfaction is paramount and that “no external titles” can deter her from her passion. “I have spent an entire lifetime in pursuit of music which has brought happiness to me from within. I am well aware of my own capabilities and I have crossed the stage when I have to look to others for approval.”
Encouraging Fusion, But a Purist at Heart
A purist at heart, Minoti Khaund has strived to keep the flag of classical music flying high. But she is also aware of the need for cultural evolution. She encourages today’s youth to experiment with different kinds of music as she believes that all melodies in the world centers around the 7 notes of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni. However, she maintains that mastery in any kind of music can be attained only through the pursuit of classical music. This has been the content of many of her speeches and columns, which has inspired a large number of young people to learn classical music.
As she says, “We all have to evolve with the changing times. During my jugalbandi performances along with my daughter, while I encourage her daughter to go ahead and experiment with other genres, I myself stop after a certain point,” she says.
In conversation with eminent Assamese Tokari and Dehabisar Geet exponent Umakanta Bairagi
By Aiyushman Dutta
(First published in melange, Nov 27, 2017)
Whenever we talk of Tokari Geet or Dehabisar Geet, the first name which comes to mind is none other than Umakanta Bairagi. In a career that spans around fifty long years, Umakanta Bairagi has achieved eminence as the foremost performer of Tokari and Dehabichar Geet. A man who has performed throughout the country, he has spent an entire lifetime striving to popularise this ancient oral folk tradition of Assam through his performances, books and recordings.
Umakanta Bairagi was groomed in the traditional Tokari Geet and Dehabichar Geet tradition of Assam by his father Kanakeswar Gogoi. He began presenting the art initially on religious occasions and then on public stages. An institution in himself, he has been performing on All India Radio, Dibrugarh station regularly since 1969, and has later sung from the Dibrugarh and Guwahati stations of Doordarshan.
Not just performances, Umakanta Bairagi has also taken on the responsibility of documenting this centuries-old tradition for posterity. He has to his credit a large number of audio recordings of Tokari and Dehabichar Geet besides compiling two books on the same. He has also trained a number of students over the years and has established an institution for that purpose in Guwahati, ‘Kanakeswar Gogoi Memorial Dehabichar/Tokari Geet Prashikshan Kendra’, which has been named after his father.
Shri Umakanta Bairagi has been honoured for his work by various institutions in Assam. He was bestowed the title Bairagi by All India Radio, Dibrugarh, in 1971. But the foremost honour was when he received the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to the Tokari and Dehabichar Geet of Assam.
I recently met the veteran artist in his residence at Guwahati to talk about his journey with Tokari Geet/ Dehabichar Geet. Following are excerpts.
Q. Please tell us a bit about your childhood.
Ans: I was born in Chaulkhora village of Khowang subdivision in Dibrugarh district in 1954. Our house was in a deeply forested area and I was born and brought up there. My father Kanekeswar Gogoi used to do odd businesses for our livelihood. I grew up along with five other brothers and sisters.
Since we stayed in a very remote area, it was difficult for us to go to school. Somehow, with a lot of difficulty, we managed to complete our Lower Primary schooling and also two classes of MP School. That however was the end of my formal education.
Q. How did you get interested in Tokari and Dehabichar Geet?
Ans: I have always been fascinated by the Tokari as an instrument. When I was a child, my father used to play the instrument but only after we slept. So on the pretext of sleeping, I used to listen to him play the Tokari instrument and sing Dehabichar geets. Dehabichar geet is a form of spiritual discourse carried out in the form of songs and which is accompanied by the Tokari. I used to love listening to these songs and also to the sound of the Tokari. I have never had a guru in life and I am an entirely self-taught artist.
When I was very young, a local MLA had come to visit our village and my grandfather had taught me two songs to sing in front of him. That was the first time I sang in public. But after that, nothing much happened as far as my singing career was concerned.
when I got married, I decided to learn the Tokari instrument on the sly. Once when my father left for a business trip, I used to play his instrument on the sly. You can say that just like Eklavya, I learnt the Tokari by stealing. So once, during a 6 day stretch when I continuously played the Tokari, I learnt how to play the instrument.
After learning how to play the Tokari, I and my friends would roam around the villages in the evening, visiting different households and playing in front of them for some tea and til or tekeli pitha.
Q. How did your tryst with the radio start?
Ans: In the year 1968, the Dibrugarh station of All India Radio had announced an audition for Tokari artists. One of my friends had applied for the audition and I had gone along with him. When his turn came, he could not play even a single song, out of the 15 songs that were asked to him, in front of the interview panel. I felt very bad because he should have been able to play at least one song.
I approached the station director and asked him if I could participate too. He made me fill up a form and accordingly after three months, a call letter came to my house. When I went for my audition, the interviewers did not let me finish even the first song, and said that I would definitely be hearing from them.
I did hear from them and they called me to record four songs. I cannot express my happiness at that moment. The four songs were aired at 4 pm in the month of January and I felt fortunate that I was able to sing my own composed songs in front of the people of the entire State. I counted my blessings and thanked god for making me, a person who sang for pithas, capable enough to sing in the radio.
From 1971 onwards, I become a regular artist of All India Radio and I continue to perform even today.
Q. You have been performing in different stages across the country. Do you remember how many songs you have composed and performed till now?
Ans: I have lost count of the number of performances but till now, I have composed around 775 Dehabichar Geets. All the songs are spiritual in nature or based on the story of Krishna or the Ram-Leela. In some of the songs, I question our own spiritual existence – why we were born, what is the purpose of our existence, and the like. They are sort of self-introspective in nature.
Q. Dehabichar Geet is an oral tradition which existed even before the time of Srimanta Sankardev. Please tell us about your efforts in documenting this centuries-old oral tradition.
Ans: Like you said, Dehabichar Geet is an oral tradition which existed even before the time of Sankardev. It did not exist in written form and the earlier practitioners did not think about writing it down. But although an oral tradition, a lot of changes has creeped into this tradition once we entered the Xankari era. In the songs of yesteryears, there used to be no mention of God but nowadays, it is mandatory to at least mention the name of one single God out of all the different gods we have.
I have taken the initiative to document and compile around 150-200 age-old songs and their meanings in the form of two books which I wrote in 2008. I was fortunate enough to receive the support of the central government under their “documentation/ preservation of cultural and traditional heritage” scheme. The government official was very supportive in my endeavour and I was able to record many ancient songs – right from my grandfathers’ times. Now there are around 400-500 songs of the present day period which I have not been able to record till now.
Q. Please tell us about your first audio cassette recording.
Ans: In 1985, I recorded an audio cassette, ‘Brindrabon’, in Jyoti Chitrabon. The recording was made possible with the support of Suresh Phukan, who was a folklorist and professor of Assamese in Joysagar College. ‘Brindabon’ was the first audio cassette of Tokari geets to be released in Assam. After ‘Brindabon’, I released another audio casette on Tokari geet, ‘Mathura’, and that was also produced by Suresh Phukan. Later on, Rubul Bora produced two of my other audio cassettes on Tokari geet like ‘Amiya Madhuri’ and ‘Porom Guru’.
Q. How many cassettes and recordings have you made till now?
Ans: Till now, I have produced around 6 audio cassettes and one audio CD. But I still have a lot of my songs which are yet to be recorded.
Q. Nowadays a lot of artistes are using the Tokari to create fusion songs. What are your views on this issue?
Ans: Nowadays, a lot of people are doing fusion music with the Tokari and Dehabisar geet. I personally believe that they should not do such kinds of fusion. Dehabichar geet is not for entertainment, it is not some kind of Bihugeet; it is more of a spiritual discourse that is needed for the wellbeing of the mind and body.
I feel this kind of fusion should stop because if it continues, the future generations will not be able to comprehend the real or true nature of Tokari and Dehabisar Geet. Many people are approaching me to accompany them on fusion tracks. But I have been refusing them all. I will not leave the Tokari to sing or play any other instrument or song.
Q. You have performed in a lot of places outside the Sate. How do people outside receive your songs and music?
Ans: Besides Assam and the Northeast, I have performed in various parts of the country, like Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Kolkata, etc. I have felt that people outside really appreciate our songs and performances. I remember one show in Haryana, especially, where young women and girls broke out in dance after hearing our songs. They later came and felicitated us on stage. That was one memorable performance we did.
Q. Do you feel that the upcoming generations will continue to embrace the tradition of Tukari Geets?
Ans: From whatever I have learnt after years of teaching, I feel that the Tokari and Dehabisari tradition will continue in the days to come. I say this because nowadays I find a lot of young people interested in this tradition. In our days, only old people used to sing Dehabisar Geets but nowadays, I find even bachelors coming forward to learn and perform these songs. The Tokari and Dehabichar geets are presently being performed on stage as well as aired on the radio and television. As such, I feel that the new generation will indeed embrace Tokari geets in the days to come.
Q. You have been bestowed with one of India’s highest honours in the form of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. How do you feel at receiving such a big honour?
Ans: I received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2013. It was like a surreal feeling for me. There is an interesting story as to how I received the news of the award. When they announced my name on the TV, I was in a nursing home in Guwahati for some minor illness. The nurse was about to serve me food when the news broke out on TV. I did not know whether the news was true or not. Only later on when my family also verified the news, I realised that it was true. I feel thankful for receiving such a big honour and it has given me the much-needed impetus to carry on with my work.