Musical Odyssey – D’Amel
Musical Odyssey – D’Amel
YESTERDAY’S PEOPLE / MOHAN NADKARNI
Within the confines of near anonymity, members of the broadcasting organisation in India have produced some memorable work.
D Ame’l could easily have become rich and famous on the concert circuit, yet the talented musician chose to pursue excellence at All India Radio.
Mohan Nadkarni profiles the unassuming artiste who has just won the Sangeet Research Centre’s fellowship this year.
The Illustrated Weekly of India, April 4, 1987
Who is D Ame’l? How many connoisseurs today remember him as the man who, in 40 years of dedicated service to the broadcasting organisation, had rightly become synonymous with the music division of AIR, Bombay? Does anyone remember that he was the innovator of 500 odd musical compositions, vocal as well as instrumental, which were the rage of radio listeners of those days? And whoever cares to know that most of the signature tunes which are still being played in the scheduled weekly programmes are his creations?
To know more about his pioneering work, one has to trace the history of broadcasting itself right from its inception in the late twenties.
To me, the name D Ame’l – the acronym of his real name, Amembal Dinaker Rao – takes me back to those halcyon days in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. I was a teenager then and classical music had almost become an obsession with me. Those were the days when All India Radio was about the sole purveyor of wholesome music – be it classical, light classical or popular – to most listeners.
There were barely half-a-dozen broadcasting stations in the vast sub-continent and possibly, next only to the unit in Delhi, the Bombay unit catering to the western zone, deservedly enjoyed pride of place in the radio network for the high quality of its programmes.
It would indeed be hard to believe that it was a small group of talented, imaginative and dedicated staff that manned the music division of AIR Bombay. The Bombay station, it would seem, was singularly lucky to have a succession of cultured and perceptive station directors, like Zulfikar Bukhari, his brother, Ahmed Shah Bukhari, B.S. Mardhekar and Victor Paranjoti, to name a few, who associated themselves with the programme planners and producers in their day-to-day work. And D Ame’l was one of the most talented and innovative of producers.
I am one of the old-timers who never tired of listening to operative presentations like Karna or Badkanche Gupeet or Nata-Shreshtha, all written by Mardhekar who was, incidentally, one of the by Mardhekar who was, incidentally, one of the most celebrated names in modern Marathi poetry. And D Ame’l was the composer who scored the music for these presentations.
Dinaker Rao – as I always call him – turned 77 in September last. He leads a quiet retired life, at his modest flat near opera House in central Bombay. Soft-spoken, mild-mannered and deeply religious, he is a good listener. He has now turned deeply spiritual and remains immersed in contemplation, reading and music – in that order.
Time was when Rao looked every inch an artiste. He used to be meticulously clad in Western dress and go about his work silently and unobtrusively, without throwing his weight about among his subordinates and colleagues, unlike most bureaucrats in a government set-up. Tall, fair and handsome, he still retains his perfectly chiseled features, bright eyes and a sensitive mobile expression.
Dinaker Rao comes of a cultured and well-to-do Chitrapur Saraswat family from South Karana, in Karnataka. The Amembal family has been known for its love of music and the performing arts. Rao’s generation took to music as a joyous pursuit from their early childhood. Like him, his brothers are self-taught musicians. But it was left to Rao to take up music as a full-time career.
Rao decided to forsake his academic career in favour of music while he was studying for his final BSc examination at Fergusson College in Pune. While at college, he had already become popular as a singer who would regale his audiences at college functions and private baithaks with his songs. Endowed with an intensely musical and flexible voice, he excelled in singing devotional songs. He had modeled his style on that of the eminent vocalist, the late Master Krishna Rao, and had even cut discs for HMV in those days.
Side by side, Rao also acquired a thorough command over the harmonium. His urge to be a musician grew so compulsive that he left college to come to Bombay and joined what was then the privately-owned Indian Broadcasting Company, in 1927, first as a casual performing vocalist and harmonist and later as a member of its staff.
When, in 1937 the government assumed control of the broadcasting media, Rao was absorbed into the new set-up and made a programme executive in charge of Indian music. In the process, he completely merged his identity with AIR Bombay till his retirement in 1967.
Rao’s services received official recognition of sorts on the occasion of the golden jubilee of Indian broadcasting in 1977. The then prime minister, Morarji Desai, presented to him a small memento depicting AIR’s emblem. This was all he got as a token of appreciation for the work he has done towards building up an important music broadcasting unit almost from scratch!
Why Rao forsook a highly promising career as a vocalist and took to the harmonium is a mystery. He says that he evinced a keen interest in that instrument because of the influence of his eldest brother, A Sundar Rao, himself a superb harmonist and a retired wing-commander in the IAF.
Ironically, within a few years of his service with the AIR came the official ban on the instrument. This led him to try his hand at the metal flute and also the violin. But he concentrated on the flute for the rest of his life and worked wonders with that instrument in the years ahead.
Dinaker Rao says that the influence of another one of his brothers. A Bhaskar Rao, and his guru Master Krishna Rao, spurred him on in his creative work. While Bhaskar Rao, a former director in the Films Division, is a gifted exponent of light and devotional music, composer and tabla-player rolled into one, his guru had earned fame as a classical vocalist, stage-actor and was also a noted composer and music director of some celebrated Marathi films. In the final analysis however, I regard him as basically self-taught-like his two other brothers.
Significantly, Dinaker Rao’s association and close friendship with two or three of his contemporaries his quest. The names of B. R. Deodhar, G.N. Joshi and Walter Kaufmann come to mind in this context. Deodhar, now an octogenarian, is a noted scholar-musician and teacher.
A traditionalist by training but inventive by temperament and progressive in outlook, Deodhar had built an orchestral ensemble in order to popularize raga music. Impressed by this innovation, Dinaker Rao set up a similar unit for broadcasting purposes in 1935 under the name UVB Indian Orchestra and began putting out his programmes on the Bombay channel under the nickname D Ame’l. The name of the ensemble has changed several times over the years and now it is known as Bambai Akashvani Vadya Vrinda.
What put this orchestral unit in a class by itself was its composition as well as its manner of presentation. Orchestral pieces were rehearsed thoroughly and notations were dictated to the partnering instrumentalists by Dinaker Rao as the conductor. The artists took down the notations in their individual but widely varying ways, including staff notations. What is more, the conductor himself played on his flute in the orchestra while simultaneously conducting the ensemble. With his two hands engaged in playing his instrument, he simply could not perform as a conductor in the traditional way. All he could do was to memorise his chosen pieces with the help of written notations and yet present his numbers with uncanny accuracy and precision much to the delight of his many listeners.
Then odd instruments of different groups of string, wind and percussion made up the ensemble. It also included the Indianised version of the clarinet and the Carnatic gottuvadyam. The compositions presented group-playing, with the partners performing in unison. After each avartana (cycle) came a brief solo interlude, in which the flute, the violin and other instruments took part. The repertoire too, revealed a marvelious range and variety of ragas, besides tunes based on popular Marathi stage-songs, Urdu ghazals, naghmas and thumris. Fifteen minutes were earmarked every day for this item for several years without break.
It would be fair to mention here Dinaker Rao’s association with Walter Kaufmann. He was director in charge of the western music division at AIR Bombay. He would obtain some of Dinaker Rao’s compositions and present them using western technique, involving harmony and counter point. The idea behind such innovations was to introduce simply harmony in Indian music with out affecting its innate Indianness. The partnership between the two composers was total and complete. I still remember having heard the joint musical ventures broadcast from AIR Bombay. In point of content, treatment and approach, these held out exciting possibilities. More importantly, they spoke eloquently of the innovative acumen of the two composers.
I also have nostalgic memories of Dinaker Rao’s self-composed ragas like Ameli Todi and Ameleshwari. These were popularised through his orchestra. Professor Deodhar was so enchanted by Ameli Todi that he included it in his phenomenal repertoire and presented it in khayal, vilambit and drut at his radio concerts.
Dinaker Rao’s comradeship with another pioneer of his time, G.N. Joshi, must be regarded as very significant against the background of the musical scene of that period. Joshi, now also 77, worked as musical director with HMV for more than three decades. Like Dinaker Rao, he pledged himself to the task of enlisting old masters and encouraging new talent through his commercial network. It was thus natural that both the music directors came to supplement and complement the work of each other in various ways.
It is a known fact that old maestri were initially reluctant to sing for either HMV or AIR for reasons that ranged from superstition to remuneration. It was left to Dinaker Rao and Joshi to persuade them to become disc and radio artistes. But for these two music directors, much of the great music of several of our all-time greats would have been lost to posterity.
The audition tests held by Dinaker Rao for admitting young and upcoming artistes to AIR studios for purpose of broadcast, helped Joshi to use them for commercial recording as well. Most of today’s eminent performers were thus brought into the limelight by these two stalwarts through their respective channels of operation.
It is saddening to think that the last fifteen years of his service with AIR must have caused Rao deep frustration and despair due to the new policies introduced by the then minister, Dr. B.V. Keskar. It will be recalled that he initiated several measures that ranged from the good to the downright draconian, in an attempt to reorganise the set-up. While his so-called audition policy will remain a black chapter in the history of Indian broadcasting, his scheme of appointment of producers and assistant producers over the heads of senior and capable professional executives hardly brought credit to the organisation.
The result was that Rao, whose major work till 1952 lay in the field of creative music, had now to concern himself with administrative work, which was only incidental to his responsibilities in the past. To watch him preoccupied with finalising day-to-day schedules most of the time was, for me, a sad sight. It was an example of a crass waste of his exceptional creative talent. But I watched him do it with the kind of single-minded devotion so typical of him. It is equally typical of the man that he was none the worse for the fate that befell him. He has borne it all stoically. What has happened to his hundreds of musical compositions, I once asked him. A bland smile is what I got in reply.
Dinaker Rao’s involvement in matters spiritual dates back to 1936 when Zulfikar Bukhari joined AIR Bombay as its station director. It was he who introduced Dinaker Rao to Master Ashraf Khan, who had made his mark as one of the most renowned actors of the Urdu and Gujarati stage and in the film world as well. He was also a leading Sufi saint, and this spiritual aspect of Ashraf Khan’s personality made a lasting impact on younger Dinaker Rao. He adores Ashraf Khan as his spiritual guru.
A widower, Dinaker Rao is a man with no regrets. His three sons and two daughters are all happily married and comfortably settled in life. Although all of them share his interest in music, it is his youngest son Anant, who has taken up composing background music and tabla-playing. He has already to his credit many assignments from experimental Marathi plays and bids fair to emerge as a major talent in the field in the years ahead.