Competition in any form leading to outwitting others and securing a place of honour and envy has always remained a part of the development of the human mind. In the middle ages we know how even the great Moghul Durbar was not averse to the idea of music competitions and we have been handed down the story of famous duels between Tansen, the court musician of Akbar the great, and Baiju Bawra, known for his higher approach where, in place of the desire to outdo the other, he preferred to treat music as a vehicle to uplift one’s soul as well as that of the audience participating in the event.

Classical music, after the downfall of the Moghuls, was gradually becoming a subject of contempt, though in small pockets, it was still practised. During the early part of the present century, middle class society took upon itself the task for the propagation of Indian classical music which gradually led to music competitions.

Music competitions began to be held in many parts of India during the thirties but the ones held in Allahabad had a special attraction. These competitions were truly on an ‘all India’ basis. Allahabad University and the Prayag Sangit Samiti, Allahabad, held these competitions in their respective convocation halls that were beautifully decorated, and there was a healthy competition between the two organisations which were in control of true lovers of music. The period of 1930 to 1945 can be rightly called the golden era of music competitions in India and particularly Allahabad.

Students of the age of 5 to 25 years, both boys and girls, participated in these competitions on payment of a token fee which increased with age group. The competitions held age-wise were for boys and girls separately. In vocal music, competitions were held for Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khyal and Thumri. In instrumental sections, Sitar, Sarod, Violin and Flute were more popular then Israj or Sarangi. Kathak held the forte in dance. Later on, other forms of dance were also added. In percussion sections, Tabla held sway over Pakhawaj. There were separate sections for competitors of age below 10 years, 10 to 15 years and 15 to 20 years. The time allotted increased with age and ranged from 5 minutes to 15 minutes for each competitor.

Along with these regular competitions, a special competition for students, who were non-professionals and were not radio-singers, was held. The age limit was 25 years. There was no separate section for boys or girls. This was the most prestigious competition held in vocal music – Khyal, Instrumental, Tabla and Kathak style of dance. The duration for each candidate was 30 minutes. The competitor was also expected to sing, play or dance the lighter side of his or her subject for 10 minutes.

A few select number of Raags or Taals, generally not exceeding 3, were required to be prepared by the competitors and on the day of the competition lots were drawn by eminent artists and musicologists such as Prof. S N Ratanjankar, B R Deodhar, Rajabhaiyya Mohan Lai and Jia Lai. No accompaniment except Tabla was provided. All the participants were required to render the same Raag or Taal and, as it was held openly, there was no possibility of misjudgment. Audience reaction was also taken into account.

Generally, only competitors standing lst, 2nd and 3rd were given medals or cups and a certificate and in a special competition, only lst and 2nd prize-winners were awarded a cash prize.

But the most important attraction to all the prize-winners was a free pass to attend the music conference of 3 days that followed the competition. The prize-winners would witness the performances of artists from the nearest place to the dias. This was indeed a great incentive to them. Competitors from Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Patna, Jabalpur and many other places participated. Those were not hard times and musicians of rank used to come early to witness the competitions. There was great enthusiasm all through and the event was awaited upon by the whole city.

The winners of the special competition were also given a chance to participate in the music conference that followed the competition. They would be given the first item in one of the sittings. This was a great honour and was looked upon with ravish. It was natural for such a winner to get many invitations from various parts of the country.

Because of various reasons it is not possible to hold the competition every year but Prayag Sangit Samiti, Allahabad, holds it after a lapse of two or three years in its convocation hall. Competitors have to pay a nominal fee for each item of appearance.

But, in the meanwhile music competitions at state level are now being held on a yearly basis in various places in a particular state and the regional prize winners are called to the state Capital to appear for the final round. The regional competitions are held with the help of music institutions like Allahabad University. The finals are held in auditoriums owned by the State Governments. The prize winners, lst and 2nd, are awarded a handsome cash prize of Rs 1000/= and Rs. 500/= respectively and books on music.

Similarly such competitions are held by All India Radio to promote music and the prize winners are enlisted to sing on radio without appearing for audition tests.

Of late, important business houses have started taking a keen interest in such activities and the one that leads in such activities is the Indian Tobacco Company of India. This house runs a Research Academy in Calcutta which is doing laudable work in searching for new talent and one of the activities of this Organisation is to hold competitions all over the country in vocal music alone. The prize winners at all the Centres, about a dozen or so, gather in Calcutta for the final round and a select few are offered a 10 year apprenticeship under the guidance of a Guru. The student is provided with all the necessary requirements for this period and is assured a birth in the field of Classical Music.

Musicians had not become that professional then, way back in 1940, when I still remember how a small boy hailing from Calcutta with full Bengali attire of Dhoti, Kurta and pump shoes, stood bitterly weeping because his name had been announced and his teacher who was to accompany him on Tabla was missing. Suddenly we saw Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, the great Tabla-Maestro of his time, coming on the stage with the small boy to provide Tabla accompaniment. It was a sight still remembered by those like me who were also competitors. The Ustad played simple Teen Taal and he did not feel too small to play as he could not tolerate the sight of seeing a small boy weeping.

Competition provides scope to young talents to exhibit what they are worth and at the same time gives opportunity to them for introspection and one’s relevance in the context of the present day. It is this that keeps the flag of competitions flying and fluttering.


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