In one of the inner lanes near Goshamahal floats the raga of bygone era. An 85-year-old ghazal maestro continues with his riyaaz in the early morning hours on the terrace that faces out to the Golconda Fort. This is the house of Pandit Vithal Rao Shivpurakar, the last court singer of the Nizams. Vithal Rao remembers the anecdotes from the durbars of Mir Osman Ali Khan and later his son Moazzam Jah for whom he sang ghazals and bhajans.
Tryst with Nizams
Clad in a cream-colour sherwani and churidaar, he raises his hand to the forehead and greets us with salaam. The jasmine attar on his dress wafts in his room. The walls are covered with photographs of Mohammed Rafi, Bade Ghulam Ali and a handsome young Moazzam Jah in royal finery. Vithal Rao sits on the carpet straight without leaning against the bolsters. He plays a dhun on his harmonium that he once played for Osman Ali Khan. His eyes shine as he says, "The Nizam was very fond of me. I was a small child. He had heard me singing a ghazal of Siraj Aurangabaadi on radio in a children's programme. And I was called to sing for him as he was amazed how a young child can sing a ghazal so well. He'd sit in his chair and get engrossed in the ghazal. Whenever the notes would touch his heart he would raise his hands as dua and would say Subhan Allah."
A four-horse buggy with silk curtains would be sent to young Vithal Rao's house. He would be then taken to the Nizam's palace: King Kothi. "Those things I remember very clearly though my memory is fading," says the pandit of ghazals. Nizam would reward him with pouches of asharfis (gold coins). "Sometimes, when I would spill sherbet on my dress which used to be spotless sherwani and pyjama, the Nizam would say, 'Naye kapde lao bachhe ke liye (get the boy new clothes)'. And I'd be let off after that." He'd sing ghazals of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Ghalib, Mir and Zauq for the Nizam.
His bonds with royalty grew in the lavish mehfils at Hill Fort Palace thrown by Moazzam Jah, who was a poet and an aficionado of poetry. The nobility of the city would be invited, lawns and halls would be decorated and Vithal Rao would sing ghazals written by the Prince himself. "His takhhalus (pen name) was 'Shajee'. The Prince would write ghazals and I'd compose and sing it then and there."
Vithal Rao hums a couplet from Moazzam Jah's ghazal, "gham ne dekha muskura kar aap ko, aap hii se dur jaa kar aap ko..." After an evening of ghazals would be the sumptuous dinner. "I would often accompany him to shikar and when he would rest he would do a farmaish (request) for a ghazal," Vithal Rao recollects. Whenever guests from abroad visited Vithal Rao would be called to sing for them. Western music was always a part of Moazzam Jah's mehfils, but soon he became so fond of Vithal Rao, that ghazals became the prime focus of his evening mehfils.
On movies and more
Born in a Maharashtrian family of Hyderabad in 1930, the five-year-old Vithal Rao would repeat the bhajans that his father sang in mornings. His father put him under the tutelage of sangeet guru Laxman Rao Panchpoti after noticing his talent. Later, as a court singer of Nizams, when his fame reached Bollywood, he was asked by Naushad and Mohammed Rafi to relocate to Bombay and sing for movies. But he declined the offer, "I didn't want to leave my watan, my mitti. Hyderabad is my home." Pointing to a framed picture of him being hugged by Sunil Dutt at an awards ceremony in Bombay, he says, "Nargis once said, 'He is a Marathi. How can he bring nazaakat in ghazals?', but when I sang teri ruswaiyon se darta hun, jab terey shahr se guzrta hun, she was in tears."
He composed music for a Hindi movie Sukh Dukh and two Telugu movies, but discontinued later.
Vithal Rao is a globe trotter in the course of entertaining and receiving awards. "I live with my music and my memories," he says. None of his five children have picked up his lead in music.
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