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The Power of Bilaskhani Story

The power of bilaskhani story
By:  Ahitagni Chakraborty

On a chilly Bangalore afternoon, a lovely kick-and-slash Korean series was my target on Netflix. The favorite kantha – pummeled over decades into tissue-like softness – was conveniently at hand. Black coffee: check; Smirnoff Espresso: check; Agra dalmoth: check!

This was going to be a delightful Sunday.

Then the Blue Lady (she of the streaked hair who shall remain nameless forever!) screwed it all.

The phone conversation started with a super-extended “Plee…eez!” 

Then the details: there’s a Monday morning presentation scheduled for the new recruits. I needed to talk about ‘offbeat creative.’ Like what? “Y’know, like… something offbeat and creative.” Right!

I accepted the invitation with alacrity. Tall 26-year olds with perfect teeth, obsidian eyes, and Neon Blue highlights in black hair can make senior citizens do pretty much anything.

Anyhoo, there was work to be done. PowerPoints to be made. Cue sheets to be scribbled. So I deep-dived into Smirnoff, Netflix, and coffee. 

Driving to work on Monday morning, I had nothing. This was a park-car-and-walk-into-conference-room setup. No prep-time! 

Pt. Nikhil Banerjee’s Bilaskhani Todi on the car stereo calmed things down. It also got me thinking (yes, a dangerous pastime). 

Bilaskhani Todi – a raag of conflicts. A requiem for Miyan Tansen. Born of pain, yet always a salve for my frayed nerves. 

A sibling of Bhairavi by swara assembly, and yet chalk to Bhairavi’s cheese – allowing any Bhairavi-like phrases destroys the raag. In fact, many cite this as an example of a flaw in the Bhatkhande thaat system: classified under the Bhairavi thaat, Bilaskhani is a type of Todi that bears a resemblance to Komal Rishabh Asavari1

Bilaskhani is the outcome of a conflict as well! My thoughts wandered off towards the stories (not one, but two) of how the raag was created. Stories as deeply poignant as the raag itself.

As if on cue, the car cabin light above my head came on. And I had my material for the presentation – just like that! (Of course, naysayers like that service station bloke claimed it was only a loose connection and that I had hit a pothole.)

There were eighteen young, eager faces in the large conference room, pens poised over notepads, no idea about what was coming. “First off, put away all that stuff. This is the story-telling session.”

“How many are into North Indian classical music?” I could see a few raised hands. “Ok, let’s listen to something.”

On YouTube, I located the NB Bilaskhani, and played about a minute of the jod. “How did that make you feel?” I asked. The replies, clearly cautious, ranged from “Sweet.” to “Nice.” to “Peaceful.” I could also sense some uneasiness – like, “Is there going to be a test on this, holy crap!” kinda uneasiness.

I told them there’s no test, gave them the name of the raag, and who it was named after. Tansen was a known name; Bilas Khan, not so much. “Let me tell you how this raag was created.” I ventured. The audience, now relaxed, sat up. Everyone loves a good yarn.

As we know, there are two apocryphal stories. 

I’m not fond of the khalifa version. That’s the one where Tansen is dying and says that the next khalifa would be the son (he had four) who best sings Todi (Miyan’s fav) using the Bhairavi swara cluster. Bilas Khan’s rendition is the best and a dying (or dead!) Tansen blesses him with a raised palm/finger. 

There are too many things wrong with that script: storyline’s too contrived, heir clichés, tonal confusion, – like a sad sequence from a shitty soap opera. Mainly, it’s not real enough. 

Plus, as experts point out2, there’s a technical as well as a logical flaw in the very premise of the screenplay: during BK’s time, Bhairavi corresponded to the contemporary Kafi (totally different parent scale), so the Bhairavi-Bilaskhani connection doesn’t check out. Also, today’s version of Bilaskhani is so sophisticated that it must have evolved substantially over these 400+ years – so who knows what the original sounded like.

I prefer the other sad-but-real version – a story of complicated human relationships. But you gotta tell it right. With visual and audio cues, and drama – like presenting an ad script to a cranky old client. Also, this was a session on ‘offbeat creative’, related to work. So maybe the audience will subtly grasp the power of storytelling. 

I let the NB recording run in the background. And since much of Tansen’s life (and death) is cloaked in uncertainty, I gave the freshers my version with my embellishments of the Bilaskhani Todi how & why:

Legend has it that Tansen didn’t think very highly of Bilas Khan’s musical talent. There was friction between father and son. After a particularly bitter altercation, Tansen disowned BK, who left home in anger. The upshot was that when a broken Tansen passed away, Bilas Khan was not there by his dying father. He heard the news, rushed home but it was too late. Tansen was gone. The family let a distraught BK join the mourning. But as expected, some fringe family members, did think aloud about whether the disowned BK was welcome at all.

So imagine, an estranged son – who didn’t have an opportunity to make up with his dad, and couldn’t be there by his deathbed – trying to sing Todi, his dad’s favorite raga, at the wake. 

On a cold, bleak morning, tears streaming down his face, his music driven by an emotional overload of anguish, disappointment, anger, frustration, the grief-stricken Bilas Khan mixed up his notes. This was no ordinary raag; this was an outpouring of a tormented soul. listen to Bilaskhani Todi By Pt Nikhil Banerjee in the video below .

Thus was born Bilaskhani Todi.

I switched off the lights, cranked up the volume, and told the audience to close their eyes. “Now you have the context. Imagine Bilas Khan singing what you now hear.”  I guess there were three or four minutes left of NB’s jod portion. 

The mood had changed. As I walked out after quickly touching upon the power of storytelling, there were a few hushed thank you-s. A sadness seemed to linger in the air.

Later that afternoon, in the cafeteria, the Blue Lady arrived with some of the new recruits. They shuffled up to the table and asked for the details and YT link of what they’d heard. Bilaskhani Todi had touched some hearts! Then, over coffee, followed a lengthy discourse on Indian Classical music, favorites, details of why they should listen to NB’s Baroda Bilaskhani, and more… but that’s another story.

(Ahitagni Chakraborty is a creative consultant for digital media based in Bangalore)

Bhairavi, Todi, and Asavari are all thaats as well as raags

Ref. ‘The Raga-ness of Ragas’ by Deepak S. Raja


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