Prabha Atre: The Hindustani vocalist who defied stereotype, followed no tradition

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New Delhi, Jan 13 (PTI) She wanted to sing till her last breath and she did. Almost. Prabha Atre, the woman who could have been lawyer, scientist or doctor but became a globally renowned Hindustani classical vocalist instead, died in her Pune home on Saturday hours before she was to leave for a concert in Mumbai. She was 92.


In an era when few women ventured into academia or public life, Atre studied two varying disciplines – she had a Bachelor of Science degree from Ferguson College in Pune and one from the Law College in the university there. And unlike many artistes born into families where music was a generations-old tradition or those who trained since they were children, Atre found melody somewhere along the way of life.

The internationally renowned Hindustani classical music vocalist from the Kirana Gharana defied many a stereotype, had no musical background and didn’t follow tradition blindly either. In fact, she would say quite simply that singing was better than dissecting frogs or defending criminals.

"I was studying science and then law and never thought in my wildest dream that I would be a musician. My parents were into academics and in fact my mother's illness brought music to our house. She used to learn the harmonium and I used to sit beside her. She left music but I continued," Atre told PTI in January 2022 after receiving the Padma Vibhushan, the nation’s second highest civilian honour.


It was the third in the series for the much feted singer who had received the Padma Shri in 1990 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002.

Music, said the artiste who was dubbed the ‘swara-yogini’, was her destiny. Right up till the end, as she had promised herself.

For aficionados in Mumbai waiting for her last concert that never will be, Atre left behind a treasure trove of work combining tradition, modernity and innovation that will long play on.


Atre was a pioneer in popularising Indian classical music in the west, giving her first performance in 1969. She displayed constant innovation and creative endeavour in treatment, design and presentation of the musical material. Whether ‘khyaal’, ‘tarana’, ‘thumri’, ‘dadra’, ‘ghazal’, or ‘bhajan’, her sincerity to her art and sensitivity to the times clearly surfaced in her thinking and her singing.

She also composed new ragas such as Apoorva Kalyan, Madhurkans, Patdeep, Tilang, Bhairav, Bhimkali and Ravi Bhairav.

At a young age, she played leading roles in Marathi stage musicals, including “Sangeet Sharda”, “Sangeet Vidyaharan”, “Sangeet Shakkallol”, “Sangeet Mrichchakatik”, “Biraj Bahu” and “Lilaw”.


Atre was closely associated with the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav in Pune, a significant event in the country’s cultural calendar initiated by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in memory of his guru. Until he retired in 2006, Joshi would close the festival. He then chose Atre, who carried the tradition forward even after his death in 2011.

She would perform her own ‘bandhish’ in her programmes. Some of her compositions -- "Jagu Main Sari Raina" in Raga Maru Bihag, "Tan Man Dhan" in Raga Kalavati and "Nand Nandan" in Raga Kirwani -- made her a favourite among those who appreciate classical music. And even those who do not. Atre, who is survived by her sister, didn’t get married.

In her book “Along The Path Of My Music”, Atre writes, “I had never given a thought to what I should be doing to ensure stability in life. For the majority of women, this problem of their life is solved through marriage… Aai and Aabaa did probably feel that the girl should get married but I did not marry…” Besides being an accomplished performer, Atre also excelled as a thinker, researcher, academician, reformer, author, composer and guru. She advocated changes in the education system so classical music could widen its reach.


"Everyone has to work for it right from the listeners to musicians and at the government level. Our education system has to be changed and there has to be compulsory education for music which is lacking. Listeners also have to put in some work to understand classical music," she told PTI.

Atre established the Swarmayee Gurukul to teach students all over the world in both traditions - 'guru-shishya parampara' and institutional. She strongly felt that it was important to bridge the gap between these two systems.

In the 'guru-shishya' tradition, the focus is on the performance aspect. Atre wanted a holistic education system where artistes could evolve their own singing style rather than just copying someone.


Ever the true connoisseur of music, she enjoyed listening to all kinds – fusion ghazals, film songs – and appreciated the current crop of musicians.

Despite achieving many milestones in her musical journey, she was not content and strived for more.

"As a ‘sadhak’, I am not satisfied because the learning never ends. I want to sing till the last breath but I also want to keep working in other aspects of music. I want to take classical music to the masses, to make it popular and to make it easy to learn. Until that happens, classical music will not survive," Atre said famously.

With her body of work, however, she ensured that classical music lives on, not just surviving but thriving.

The world of Hindustani classical music has lost two of its most precious voices this week – Atre and Ustad Rashid Khan, who died in Kolkata after a four-year battle with prostate cancer on Tuesday. PTI MJ MIN MIN MIN