Purnima Sen – “I could easily have become a knowledgeable musician nobody wanted to hear”
Introduction: Groomed by three Ustads of the Agra tradition, Purnima Sen (born: 1937) is a rare female exponent of the avowedly masculine style. She holds a first degree in Anthropology from Hunter College, New York, occupies the top grade rating on All India Radio, enjoys a respected presence on the concert platform, has released four CDs, and divides her time between music, and caring for a family of successful legal professionals.
Purnima Sen spoke to Deepak Raja on January 6, 2003.
My father was an Economist, and headed the Economics faculty at the Baroda University from 1939 to 1944. That was towards the end of Ustad Faiyyaz Khan’s life. During that period, he heard the great Ustad on several occasions, and no wonder, developed a love for the Agra style. From my childhood, I was very keen on learning music, and my parents were most encouraging. But, when I was very young, my family moved to New York. During our stay abroad, my father made it a point -- whenever we came to India – to send me to a music teacher to learn music. When I graduated from Hunter College, New York, I had scholarships to study further. But, instead, I decided to return to India with my parents and study music. That was 1957, and I was 19 then.
My father took me to Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan, and requested him to teach me. The Ustad was a towering figure in the music world. He was the seniormost vocalist of the Agra gharana, and an adviser to All India Radio. He could boast of a galaxy of distinguished disciples. Teaching a near-beginner could not have been an easy proposition for him. But, my father persisted. Khansaheb auditioned me, and despite his reservations, agreed to teach. My father wanted the best available teacher, but also had apprehensions about the suitability of the masculine Agra style for me. Though the issue was not immediate – I knew so little then! -- Khansaheb was sensitive to it. He assured my father that I would learn to sing like myself, and not like him. Thus, I became a Ganda-bandh shagird (a ceremonially initiated disciple) of Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan.
He was very enthusiastic about teaching me. One day he landed up at our house, without notice, at three in the afternoon, and asked me to sing Multani. I was stumped by the suddenness of this test. But, I sang. He was very pleased, and asked me what I would like to learn next. This was an unusual situation. A disciple dare not suggest what should be taught next; the Ustad always knows best what to teach at each stage of progress. I had just heard Kesarbai Kerkar’s Lalit recording at that time, and loved it. I wanted to learn the raga. So, very hesitantly, I suggested Lalit. He hummed and hawed for a while, and said: “Lalit is very complicated. But, you can manage”. So, he taught me Lalit. Thereafter, he also taught me Desh and Basant. I learnt six ragas with him in about 18 months, before I got married, and moved to Calcutta in 1958. I did not realize how much he had taught me in so short a time. But, by the time I moved, I could perform a raga passably for 30 to 45 minutes.
Vilayat Hussain gave me a letter of recommendation to his cousin, Ata Hussain Khan, who lived in Calcutta. Ata Hussain was reserved initially – I was only 21 then. After auditioning me, he accepted me as a disciple. On the very first day, he took up Desi Todi – a raga I did not know – and asked me to follow him – to merely reproduce what he sang. He unleashed his sparkling tans, which left me stunned. He said: “Never mind; try whatever you can manage”. He was testing my grasping power. By the fourth session, I could reproduce his tans. Thereafter, my training settled down to an even keel. He was a very good teacher, who never lost his temper. He taught me most of the ragas I know. I studied with him for twenty years – from 1960 to 1980.
While Ata Hussain Khan was teaching me, his nephew (and Vilayat Hussain’s son-in-law), Sharafat Hussain started accompanying him to our house, whenever he visited Calcutta. On those occasions, Ata Hussain would ask Sharafat to teach me. Gradually, Ata Hussain encouraged Sharafat to initiate me into the more advanced aspects of Agra vocalism as, by now, his own health had started failing. From 1974-75, Sharafat Hussain started staying with us on his visits, and got more intensely involved with my progress. This association continued for almost ten years -- until he succumbed to a cancer. That brought to an end almost 30 years of my apprenticeship with Ustads of Agra-Atrauli gharana.
I have never looked at music as a career. It is as much a part of my life as is my family. I was empanelled with All India Radio in 1976, and am now a top-grade artiste. My concert appearances have been limited largely to Calcutta and Delhi, the two cities where we have homes, with an occasional concert in Bangalore. I have not promoted myself actively. I have made four CDs abroad, and they have happened on their own. I do teach music in Calcutta. This, too, is very limited because I and my husband divide our time between two cities. This can make unreasonable demands on my students.
All my Ustads, starting from Vilayat Hussain, were sensitive to the masculinity of the Agra style. This was important because the forcefulness of vocalization and intonation determines everything else. Ata Hussain, who taught me for the longest period, accepted that just as a woman speaks differently, and walks differently, she would also sing differently. If she did otherwise, she would sound ridiculous. So, they allowed me to interpret Agra vocalism in a way that suited my voice and personality. The issue became more pronounced in the tans department where the typical four-stroke tans of Agra-Atrauli style exposed me to the risk of harsher expressions. Sharafat Hussain worked very hard with me on this, and made it possible for me to sing them without sounding unmusical.
The same was true of Dhrupad-Dhamar. According to the convention in the Agra gharana, the Nom-tom alap and Dhrupad-Dhamar compositions were an essential part of my training. But, I was instructed not to perform them because they were too aggressive for me. I was fortunate in having this sensitivity amongst my Ustads. Without it, I could easily have become a knowledgeable musician, whom nobody wanted to hear.