a rare collection of  alaaps from Agra gharana

A Musical Journey

Moni Babu was a very reserved and private person –very reluctant to talk about himself. Except in the last days of his life, the source of information about him were his life-long associates and family members. At the most he would confirm or deny when asked about a particular incident. He opened up a bit towards the end of his life. His son, who knew his father to be an unusual man with extraordinary experiences, requested him to write down his memoirs. Not surprisingly, he wrote mostly about the part that concerned his music, heaping praise on his gurus and blaming only himself for what he considered to be his failures. True to his character --- no complaints, no rancour, no tall claims.

  The following account of his tryst with music is based on his memoirs, supplemented by some documents that were either discovered from old family papers after his death and personal knowledge of those close to him. Some of these documents were collected by us from various sources after his death.

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          Moni Babu’s musical journey started accidentally on a football field. One of the senior players, Kedareswar Chakraborty, who was also a practising vocalist, was impressed when he heard him humming. He encouraged him to take up music and gave him the first lessons. This was the start of an unusual life-long association, full of mutual respect and affection. While the one-time guru took immense pride in his discovery, he frequently and unhesitatingly took lessons from his pupil in later years. When Moni Babu was in his last days and could not afford to arrange for accompaniments, the ailing old man would walk a couple of  miles to play the tabla with him, though he was not really a tabla player. The tabla in the Megh Malhar khayal and Lalit are played by him. It was on his insistence that Moni Babu’s songs were recorded because, in his opinion, none could match his Moni where alaap was concerned and it would be a disservice to music if such an art were to go unnoticed. In that sense, this site owes a lot to him. Without a shred of doubt, he would have been the happiest at this effort.

          After a few months, Kedar Babu handed over his pupil to his own guru Suren Dasgupta, who taught him for a few more months. Then came the event that changed the course of Moni Babu’s life. After Suren Babu’s guru Bipin Chatterjee ( known as Joydeb in Calcutta's musical circle in those days ) came back  from Benaras to Barisal after his retirement from Postal Services, Suren Babu handed over his ward to him. After a few days, the guru issued strict instructions that Moni should come for lessons only when no other student was there. These private lessons continued for several years. The voice training was done when standing in neck-deep water in a pond around 4:30 am, before others woke up. Practice was done in the hours spent with Bipin Babu. Practising at home was out of question because of his father’s strong disapproval of music.

          Much as he tried , his activities could not be kept a secret from his father. He was well known as a sportsman and wrestler. It did not take much time for his reputation as a singer to spread in the small town of Barisal. Gradually, it reached his father, who conveyed his strong disapproval and made him promise that, if he could not give it up, at least he would never take it up as a profession.

          The unexpected and violent death of his promising eldest brother, immediately after his father’s retirement jolted the entire family. Having completed his graduation, Moni Babu was expected to take up a job and look after family responsibilities. A career in music was unthinkable for an educated middle class young man in those days.

          Demands of family and middle class morality are strong forces, whose shackles are difficult to shake-off. Reluctantly, Moni Babu agreed to leave Barisal for Calcutta to take up a promising government job that was offered to him. His dilemma was known to a few close friends, who had no way to help him. Secretly, he had resolved that, once in Calcutta, he would leave Bengal and pursue music.

          Like on many occasions in his life, support came from the most unexpected of places. On the eve of his journey, his mother, who hardly had a say in such matters, came to his room and gave him her life’s savings of Rs 24. “I know what you want. Even if you have to beg for a living, do not give up and waste your life in employment. This is all I have. Go away and pursue what you want. Nobody needs to know where you are. I will know my son is well. Don’t think about the family. God will take care of us.”

          Another incident that took place, just as he was about to leave, was also to haunt him for the rest of his life. His eighty year old guru, whom he had already met that morning, for the first and last time, came to his house to bid him farewell.”Perhaps I will not see you again. Take these letters to Gopal (Kute Gopal, a legendary Dhrupad singer of Calcutta) and Biren Babu (Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, a highly respected personality in Bengal music circles), listen to their advice. You are made for music. Promise me, you will never give it up”. As he bent to do pranam, he felt the old man’s tears on his head.


          I was too young to appreciate the import of this incident. Perhaps, scared that my father would find out, I did not show him the respect that I should have. But later, this incident was to haunt me forever.

          By his own admission, it was much later in his life that Moni Babu realised the value of these two sacrifices and never forgave himself for having failed them.

          He realized the value of Bipin Babu’s teachings several years later when after the traditional in the ganda bandh ceremony Ustad Tassaddaq Hussain Khan formally accepted him as a disciple. It was customary to show the ustad what one had already learned. In Moni Babu’s own words.I hardly knew anything at that time and had barely eaten for two days. Naturally, my voice was almost out of tune. I tried to sing Darbari Todi as well as I could under the circumstances. Ustadji was clearly surprised. He asked,’Son , tell me the truth. Where did you learn this and what do you want from me ?’ I told him about Bipin Babu. He said, ‘I have not heard of him but he must be a very gifted man."

          All my three gurus showered boundless affection on me and my debt to them is infinite . But ,if there is anything special in my singing , the credit must go to Bipin Babu. The greatness of my other gurus was that they showered their affection on me and helped me to enhance my skill and ability, without in any way trying to tamper with what I had learned from him.

          Calcutta in those days was a seat of classical music with great stalwarts like Gyanendra Prasad Goswami, Kute Gopal, Dani Babu in their prime. His search for a guru took him to all these great musicians and for some time at least he had learned from many of them. But none met his expectations. Probably, it was impractical on his part to expect the kind of personal equation that he enjoyed with Bipin Babu. By his own admission,probably I was sub-consciously expecting them to treat me the way  Bipin Babu  did . In fact, in a way, he was responsible for my inability to learn from these great singers. He had set a standard which, as far as I was concerned, none could match. With him, writing down notations was expressly prohibited. He sang himself and I was to follow him till he was satisfied that I was able to do it properly. After that, he wrote down the notations himself.”

          But more than the technique, it was that Bipin Babu’s approach to music matched his own. He gave him what he wanted and in a manner he appreciated. This was too much to expect from busy and popular musicians in a place like Calcutta. He was warned by Kute Gopal, ”Lad, I understand from Joydeb’s letter that you want to learn sur. This is not the place to learn what you are looking for. Go back to Joydeb in Barisal”. But that was not possible any more.

          He drifted from one master to another till he accidentally came in contact with Pandit Keshav Ganesh Dhekne. After the first few days the poor Marathi Brahmin, who was hardly able to meet his own needs, assumed complete responsibility of his disciple. Not only was no payment accepted, his food, stay was frequently  in his care , though this was not  really necessary  as Moni Babu had no derth of support in Calcutta at that stage . The lessons were imparted after dinner up to midnight in the solitude of Calcutta’s famous maidan, away from everybody’s eyes. The appointment letter for the government job was wasted as he never took up the job .

          Then one day, after only a month of their acquaintance, Dhekneji suddenly informed Moni Babu that he was to participate in the All Bengal Music Conference. He also warned him to stay away from Niren Chakraborty (name changed), another of his students who was also to compete in the alaap and dhrupad sections. Moni Babu was not prepared for all this and pleaded to be spared the humiliation. Dhekneji seemed unconcerned.  Let’s see what happens. Moni Babu reluctantly agreed only because he could not defy his guru.

          On the day of the competition, one of Dhekneji’s disciples, Basant, appeared to be constantly guarding Moni Babu. Just before the competition was to start, Moni Babu was invited by Niren Chakraborty to share a soft drink at a nearby restaurant. Feeling somewhat hungry , he accepted  By the time his turn came, the drink had had its desired effect – Moni Babu’s eyes were bloodshot red, he was hardly able to talk. Dhekneji’s expert eyes realized what had happened. This was what he had warned about. But now it was too late to do anything.

          The competition started. Moni babu was on the dias with Basant on the Tanpura. Minutes passed by. Much as he tried, his voice did not respond - it was a dumb man making contorted efforts with closed eyes. Public was getting restive and uncomplimentary remarks started to flow in. With no other way out, Basant picked up a sharp needle lying on the dias and pricked it on his thigh. Moni babu cried out in pain and the voice opened – though with a wrong note. Gradually, the notes started flowing in. So did tears from the closed eyes. Soon the bell rang to indicate the end of time. Now the same public exhorted him to continue and the organizers did not object. Another 15 minutes passed before he completed and walked out, almost oblivious of the goings around. Some people tried to stop me but I almost pushed them away. I walked away without even meeting Dhekneji. I just did not know what was happening around me. I was simply not in this world anymore. Niren Chakraborty had by then left the hall.


          The results were announced, the judges headed by the renowned Ustad Dabir Khan Saheb had decided in his favour. Later , probably next day , he topped the Dhrupad section also .

          The event and some remarks he had overheard opened up new dreams for him. The huge respect for Bipin Babu and Dhekneji not withstanding, he had always dreamt of learning from his idol, the greatest star of those times, Aftab-e-Mousiki Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. What was till now a distant dream now crystalised into a possibility because of his new found confidence. A chance remark from Birendra Kishore Roy Choudhury, that Faiyyaz Khan would be the right person for the promising young man, added fuel to the fire.

          He expressed his desire to Dhekneji. Weary of losing his favourite disciple, Dhekneji poured all his love and knowledge on Moni Babu. The Marathi Brahmin wrote page after page of alaap notations of rare ragas in Bengali and ensured that his student mastered them. 

          When this failed, he took him along to Indore and arranged for a solo performance for the Maharaja Holkar, reputed to be one of the biggest and most generous of patrons. In Moni Babu's words, “It was one of those days when everything was right. The incredible atmosphere of the palace, complete silence, a few connoisseurs, a huge open ground at the end of the palace, the soft silvery rays of the full moon on the hills at a distance -- everything was perfect. To top it all were Shajahan Khan, a famous tabla player of those days and a great sarangi player whose name I have forgotten. In the great tradition of those days, the Holkar enquired about my mood and well being and politely enquired whether I would be pleased to sing a Darbari. As the sarangi softly touched komal dha , the lights went off, creating a heavenly environment. For the first time I appreciated the importance of proper accompaniments and realized what a sarangi player can do for a singer. It would be wrong to say I sang well -- the truth is, they made me sing. The sarangi led the way. I just followed. For about 45 minutes I sang Darbari alaap to my heart's  content . Holkar was the first to speak quite a few minutes after the performance. He softly told something to Dhekneji who informed me that His Excellency was pleased and, in the tradition of those days, asked me what gifts I  desired . I could have asked for the moon, in fact I was expected to, but my nature never allowed me to accept favours. I politely told him to give whatever he thought fit to my guru and sought his permission to leave. I do not know whether he gave anything . I never enquired  from Dhekneji."

          His stay at Indore brought him in touch with the great cricketer C.K.Nayudu and his brother C.S.Nayudu. His cricketing abilities brought them closer. He also became acquainted with two other great souls, the Principal and Vice-Principal of Indore Raj College Dr.A.Ghosh and Dr.Padmanabhan. These gentlemen took a liking to him and decided that Ustad Rahimuddin Khan of Jaipur would be the right person for him. On his own, C.K.Nayudu wrote two long letters of introduction to the Maharaja of Jaipur and Ustad Rahimuddin Khan and advised Moni Babu “If you have to leave Indore, go to Jaipur . All arrangements will be made”.

          But nothing could lure him away from his fascination with Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. “Even before I started to learn under Bipin Babu, this name rang a bell in my mind. Everybody used to speak of him. His alaaps had an unearthly quality that nobody else could match. Much before I started understanding music, in the deep corners of my mind, there was an unusual fascination about this person about whom I knew nothing except that he was the Court Musician of Baroda.

          Surprisingly, in all my years of vagabond life, when none in my family knew my whereabouts, my mother’s words came true. God took care of me. Honestly, I never had to bother about food or shelter, neither did  I  have to ask any favours from anybody. Magically, help arrived from somewhere without asking. Many people, even complete strangers, helped me during this period, without any reason whatsoever. Money was never a problem for long. From somewhere, somehow, it arrived when I needed it. I did several small jobs during this period and all of these had come at my doorstep, I had not asked for any of them.


          One day  I just made some excuse and took leave from  Dhekneji  stating that  I would be back in a few days and , without telling him the truth,  boarded the train to Baroda. This was an act of  betrayal  and I  have always hated myself for this. But at that age and under the circumstances , this seemed the only way out .

           In Baroda , one day as I was collecting information about Ustad Faiyyaz Khan’s whereabouts from the cigarette shop near his house, Khan Saheb’s nephew Ghulam Rasool came out of the house. I offered a cigar costing one paisa and that opened up the conversation. He asked me to come next morning. What happened next morning was much beyond my wildest dreams.

          As I reached, a carriage was waiting outside the gate. I was told Khan Saheb was about to leave for the court. Rasool did the unimaginable. He dragged me by my hand straight to the house into the room where Khan Saheb was standing in front of a mirror and tying his pagri. I was not only embarrassed, I was scared. A complete stranger inside the private portions of a conservative muslim family’s house was unthinkable. Khan Saheb was visibly disturbed but Rasool was in no mood to listen. He demanded that Khan Saheb must teach his Bangali friend himself. Khan Saheb tried to reason it out but Rasool was adamant. Finally the great man gave up and agreed. The  carriage was asked to  come back after sometime.

          The next two hours he was a transformed man. There was no indication of his position or fame. No sign of the ego which he was supposed to have. I found him to be a very simple man with a golden heart. For two long hours he discussed many things with me and explained “Teaching and singing are different things. I am a performer not a teacher – you will realize this later. If you want to learn, go to Agra. You will get everything you want. I will give you a letter. Tell Prof. Talukdar that I have asked you to meet him. He will make all arrangements. He gave me a several page long letter addressed to Ustad Tasaddaq Hussain Khan Saheb”. 

          My first thought was that he had managed to shake me off. I realized my mistake when Tasaddaq Hussain Saheb read that letter and asked me, “How did you manage this letter from him ?

          In Agra I received extraordinary help from Prof. Jiban Talukdar, father of Dipali Nag Choudhury. Dipali Nag Choudhury herself was a disciple of Tasaddaq Hussain Saheb. It was in their house that I had my Ganda Bandh ceremony. I knew nothing of these things. It was Prof. Talukdar who took care of everything. As long as I was in Agra, he was my guardian and showered affection  as if  I was his own son“.

          To start with, the lessons were imparted once everyday evening, which shortly increased to 3-4 hours in the morning and again 3-4 hours in the evening. Within 4-5 months I became a member of the family. It was said that Muslim Ustads never shared their family’s musical traditions but my experience did not bear this. Bashir, Latafat, Asad, Aqeel all were there along with some Hindu disciples who had been there for many years. There was no discrimination.

          Ustadji was a very kind and affectionate man and was immensely respected within his family. Many times we have seen Ustad Faiyyaz Khan himself standing in front of him like an obedient student. Two incidents come to my mind that reflect his wonderful personality.

          Ustadji had a South Indian disciple named Chandrasekhar. He was there for  7-8 years before me. In all these years he had never even gone home and had single-mindedly served the Ustad. Once he received a letter informing that his father was on deathbed. On Ustadji’s advice he left for home to see his ailing father. After a few days we received the information that he himself had died  unexpectedly. We have seen Ustadji break down on hearing this news. He cried like a child. Asad, Latafat all confirmed that Ustad had always treated him like his own son.

          Ustadji’s nephew Asad Ali was a wonderful singer. He moved to Karachi after partition. Till then we thought that in Ustad’s absence Asad was the one who would bear the mantle. Once in a programme from Delhi Radio he gave a recital of Sayaji Kanada. It was an unbelievable performance that haunted me for many days. When Asad returned to Agra, I pleaded with him to show me the nuances of the raga. Ustadji was not at home when we started but suddenly returned from somewhere. Asad received the scolding of his life and literally fell at his feet. I was speechless at the developments and vanished from the scene. Later Ustadji called me the same day and taught me till I was able to sing it myself. The fact was , none except him was allowed to teach. I was clearly told not to depend on anybody else and ask him whatever I wanted to know. I had seen similar things to happen to others also.

          He affectionately called me Maharaj and treated me like one. On Sundays his own tonga would pick me up and drop me back. Money was never an issue. Whenever and whatever I could afford to give was fine. Agra was witness to the most terrible riots during partition time. Ustadji’s house was at the end of a lane  through a red-light area , lined on both sides with beef-shops on the ground floor  . No Hindu would even think of going there those days, particularly during the nights. I had never told anything to him but was naturally a bit concerned because it was quite late in the night by the time I returned from Ustadji’s house. One day Ustadji called a man named Abdul and told him “Abdul, he is my son. Nothing should happen to him”. From that day onwards, two persons would escort me every day till I reached the safe Hindu locality. So much for discrimination”.

          After 5-6 years Moni Babu returned home. His family had by then shifted to Calcutta . His father had lost his sight. His two younger sisters, though highly educated, were yet to get married. His mother still did not ask him to come back. “Do what you like best. You are seeing our condition. Look after your sisters.”

          He went back to Agra to pursue his passion. Happy days were back for him. Months and years passed but somewhere it rankled. For the first time in his life he felt a sense of responsibility towards his family. By this time Ustadji also had started telling others about him. He was accepted as part of the Gharana. The affectionate Ustad gave his final stamp of approval by arranging for an appointment as court musician of Jaipur. He did this to ensure that Moni Babu did not take up some other job and drift away from music. Normally, this would have been considered a huge honour because it would have been a formal acceptance as a representative of Agra Gharana. And Jaipur being a leading State with a huge musical tradition, it would have earned him instant acceptance. But , this was not to Moni Babu’s liking.

          My pride of English education and my exaggerated sense of self-respect could not accept a situation where I would be required to sing at somebody else’s command. Today, at the fag-end of my life, I feel I should have accepted it. Had I done so, perhaps I could have lived the way I wanted to. By declining it, I opted for a despicable existence. I could neither accept the life like other normal people nor could I sing as I wanted to. My father’s words came true. I miserably let down my mother and Bipin Babu.

          While this dilemma persisted, destiny played another twist. He unexpectedly received a money order from an old American acquaintance, asking him to join a job in Bombay. It was a difficult choice in the circumstances. Family situation demanded that he accept it, but his mind was not prepared to leave the wonderful environment of his Ustadji’s shelter. But passion lost out to responsibility. He left for Bombay. After a few years, he came back to Calcutta. Had I  explained my situation to Ustadji , I am sure he would have made some arrangement that suited me . I made the mistake of my life and quietly left for Bombay . Never again I had the face to return to Agra. I did something that was worse than suicide.

          The next two decades were spent in the humdrum of middle class existence. Music took a back seat, though he never really gave it up. His search for sur continued though he never again found a guru. The tragedy was that he could have gone back to Dhekneji but did not. Possibly, his sense of guilt prevented him, though there was enough evidence that Dhekneji would have welcomed him. He loved him too much not to pardon him. (It is unbelievable but true that Dhekneji used to write to him and send him notations even when he was in Agra.)

          He hated his own existence but, having entered the family life, could not come out of it. Two-three instances during this time deserves mention because they left a deep impression on him and his family and also reflect the darker side of the divine world of music.

          Through a common acquaintance, he approached one of Bengal’s post–independence stalwarts . After listening to him, the stalwart asked him to come back the next day with a note book so that he could take down some basic  practice notations( paltas ) and start from scratch like his other disciples.

          In  1973 , on insistence of some of his friends and family members, he applied for an audition in All India Radio. Needless to say, he was rejected at the preliminary stage itself.

          These two instances hurt him deeply and ,for quite sometime after that ,he would not entertain any talk of public performance. Finally, towards the end of  1974, his friends booked a hall and made all arrangements for a public performance without telling him anything. They were convinced that once he gave a public performance, recognition would automatically come. He had no option but to agree.

          Things were going as planned . Then , just a few days before the programme, the same acquaintance mentioned before suddenly called on him. It’s nice that you have decided to give a public performance. But, in today’s world who will appreciate your style of music? Besides, you are never going to become a professional, why do you get into all this trouble ?

          The message was loud and clear. Moni Babu decided not to sing, You need not worry. I will not sing  in public. That was the end of the effort. He never again agreed to any plans  for a  public performance.

          In 1975, unable to contain his accumulated frustrations any longer , he suddenly voluntarily retired from his  job and immersed himself completely in music. During this time, he practised sometimes for 10-12 hours a day. A stream of unfortunate incidents around this time severely compromised the family’s comfortable financial position. This had an impact on his health. His habit of smoking also added to his troubles. By 1979-80, his voice had started deteriorating.

          Realizing that the end was probably not far off, he explained to his son why he had forbidden him to learn music.  I know your taste in music. You have my genes. If you allow the fire to burn, it will consume you. I do not want you to suffer a frustrating existence like I did. I suffered and I made everybody else suffer. I did not want that to happen to you”.

          His son, realising that the dam of silence had finally given way, presented him a note book to write down his memoirs and also purchased a cheap tape recorder to record whatever was possible.

          It was in 81-82, in his last stages that the songs featured in this website were recorded. By that time his lungs were affected by cancer and his voice  and ability had deteriorated considerably. Holding breath and controlling the persistent cough had become serious problems . Neither was it possible for him to arrange for proper accompaniments. At times it was difficult even to replace the strings of the tanpura. Still, he recorded whatever he could. These are the songs we have presented here.

          He breathed his last in a nursing home in Calcutta, on 27 July 1982. 

          His son discovered his father’s memoirs from a small suitcase containing his belongings, the night he cremated him.