Doing Justice To Artists: Who Truly Deserves The Bharat Ratna?

Doing Justice To Artists: Who Truly Deserves The Bharat Ratna?
Some Indian friends are down in the dumps: they are the true music lovers and want the distinction between ‘awards’ and ‘alms’ to stay visible.

Freedom of speech is now ‘treason’ in Modi-regime. Whisper something innocuous against it in Mumbai, the CBI will be your ‘guest’ within hours and the Delhi police will be your ‘host’ for a criminal case that was registered against you – years ago in Delhi! But Pakistan is a paradise of freedom. You are free to say anything: as long as it is against the ‘neighbours’ of the deep state.

A group is lobbying for the Bharat Ratna, the top civil honour in India, for the deceased vocalist Pandit Jasraj. The group is widely known as ‘minions’ of his daughter Durga Jasraj. As long as Jasraj lived, he knocked every politician’s door for a Padma Shri for Durga, who ironically failed to prosper as classical vocalist, actress or TV hostess despite her talent.

Awards ought to be merit-based. When they are distributed as ‘goodies’ among loyalists or cronies, the worst victim is the art itself, which the artists are supposed to keep alive through lifelong hard work. Injustice demoralises the genuine artists. They give up, the art dies and ignorance flourishes simultaneously – to no limits.

This is precisely the reason Pandit Anindo Chatterjee refused the Padma Shri. And in the past, Ustad Vilayat Khan refused the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. His brother Ustad Imrat Khan refused the Padma Shri, and in 2011, Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta (sarod maestro) refused the same honour. Offering any artist an award at the wrong time is a far greater sin than ignoring them: for the injustice is then coupled with insult.

Music-lovers were disappointed when Anindo Chatterjee was ignored and a novice like Vijay Ghattay was favoured with the Padma Shri. The disappointment became shock when the Modi regime threw the Padma Shri in the sycophantic bowl of Adnan Sami Khan, whose contribution to Indian music has yet to take birth.

The legendary sitar maestro Ustad Rais Khan became a Pakistani citizen in 1986. He was not a fake asylum seeker like Adnan. He married Bilquis Khanam in 1979 and moved to Karachi seven years later. Nobody would have raised eyebrows if the Pakistani government would have given him the Pride of Performance in the same year. He got it two decades later. On the day when Adnan Sami was given the Padma Shri, Imrat Khan and Anindo Chatterjee had given more than 60 years of their lives to Indian music, without being even considered for such an honour.  But Modi, like our Imran Khan, can do any clownery and feel proud of it!

I conducted a long interview with Jasraj in the late 1990s, when he was in Islamabad as a guest of the Indian High Commission. He began his career as a tabla player but left it – for the social status of a vocalist in the world of classical music was superior to that of a tablist. “Jasraj tum chamra peet-tay ho (you beat a piece of leather)” was the taunt that he would face while accompanying his brother Pandit Maniram on the tabla.

Jasraj had a sweet voice, but his overall music had a number of limitations which a serious listener would not tolerate. He would lose control in the drut (fast tempo). His voice range was not wide and deep like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. His badhat (improvisation) was not as rich, intricate and sophisticated as that of Ustad Amir Khan. He would render ragas in the bhajan style, which made him a refined version of Anoop Jalota. In a nutshell, Jasraj was simply an average vocalist!

One felt a great deal of dismay when Jasraj was given the Padma Vibhushan. We thought his music did not justify even the Padma Shri. And We had the same feeling when Budhayditya Mukerjee was awarded the Padma Bhushan. He mimics Ustad Vilayat Khan. On the other hand, if there is a sitar-player who has surpassed everyone including Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan, that can be nobody except Shahid Parvez (Vilayat’s nephew). Ravi Shaknar was known for his alaap and laikaari and Vilayat Khan for his spontaneous and endless taans. Shahid is gifted with both the virtues, and he has a lot of other things of his own. He has a Padma Shri to his credit besides Sangeet Natak Academy Award. Awarding Mukerjee a Padma Bhushan while ignoring Shahid Parvez was certainly a great injustice to the music and the musician.

Only two artists deserve a Bharat Ratna posthumously in the world of classical vocal music: Ustad Amir Khan and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Only one playback singer deserves a Bharat Ratna posthumously in the world of playback singing, i.e. the great Mohammad Rafi.

If wisdom were to prevail among the Modi sarkar – which is unlikely – one Bharat Ratna should go to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, the father of Santoor.  Another to the living sarod legend Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who is also cajoling every politician these days for a Padma Shri for his two sons Amaan and Ayaan. A Padma Vibhushan would be in order for Zakir Bhai (tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain) and Ustad Shahid Parvez. And the last Padma Vibhushan ought to be to Pandit Anindo Chatterjee.

If it does not happen, then Pakistan and India are just like each other in bringing insult to music and to the great artists!

Mohammad Shehzad is based in Islamabad. He has been writing for national and foreign publications since 1992. He is the author of The State of Islamic Radicalism in Pakistan (Routledge Taylor & Francis) and Love and Fear: Poems Beyond Time ( He learns tabla and classical vocal music. He is a passionate cook and shares his recipes at Email: