Dr Prabha Atre’s Padma Vibhushan award this year- the second highest civilian award in India – was long due. Although Atre, without ever having worried about awards, always believed that dedication towards art must always be a priority. Atre has helped popularise Indian classical music on a global scale in the past few decades. Her career, which spans six decades, is marked by accomplishments attained through several years of dedication.
Prabha Atre, who turns 90 today, is currently one of the country’s senior vocalists, representing the Kirana Gharana. She began her career as a musician in Pune, and soon earned the nickname Gaan Prabha (The Sunrise of Music) among classical music followers. Atre was destined to embrace the world of music. We say destined because her entry into the world of classical music was accidental.
How Prabha Atre made classical music relatable to all
Born in 1932 to parents Abasaheb and Indirabai Atre, she started taking piano lessons when she was eight. In a lot of conversations over the years, Atre has always claimed that her entry into the world of Hindustani classical music was by chance. While her family had no musical experience, music entered her home for the benefit of her mother, who needed a distraction from her medical condition. Once Atre took a liking for music, there was no looking back. Shri Vijay Karandikar, a friend of her father’s, offered to teach her further. She soon studied under Pandit Sureshbabu Mane, son of Ustaad Abdul Karim Khan and inheritor of the Kirana Gharana tradition, mastering Raag Madhuwanti and Ka Karu Sajani (Bhairavi thumri).
Atre, who holds two bachelor’s degrees – one in science and one in legal studies – went on to earn her PhD in music while she was still a student, focusing on Sargam and the significance of the seven notes used in Indian classical music. Apart from music, Atre also pursued a career in theatre, working in Marathi Sangeet Nataks and mythical dramas like Saubhadra, Sangeet Sanshay Kallol, Maan-Apmaan, and Vidyaharan.
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Her first album showcasing Raag Maru Bihag exhibits influence from the history of the Kirana Gharana. She is skilled in various musical genres, including Thumri, Khayal, Ghazal, Dadra, Natya-sangeet, and bhajans. Apart from mastering traditional Raagas and she has also created several brand-new ones, such as Apurva Kalyan, Darbari Kauns, and Ravi Bhairav.
Atre, who later trained under maestro Vidushi Heerabai Barodekar for a while, forged her path in classical music and went on to become a guru to so many. She is known to have made classical music approachable to all, and rightly so. She joined All India Radio as a producer, where she worked for nearly a decade, and later became the Head of Post-Graduate Studies in Hindustani Music at SNDT Women’s University. The legendary vocalist has also undergone formal training in the Kathak dance style. She has also written and published multiple books and contributed to numerous journals associated with music.
Atre has one of the best-selling and most extensively heard recordings in Hindustani music (Raag Maru-Bihag, Kalavati, and Khamaj Thumri) to her name, and it is highly popular among listeners even today.
Atre, who founded Swaramayee Gurukul in Pune a few years ago, has always worked towards combining traditional guru-shishya music education with modern classroom instruction. As a beloved guru and a pioneer in several things musical, she has been honoured with several awards including the Sangeet Kalidas Samman, Natak Academy Award, and Tagore Academy Ratna Award to name a few.
Atre has often expressed how her true treasure lies in teaching students and witnessing them embrace music with all their hearts. She believes the audience is a huge part of artists and art, and that this relationship is significant for music as a whole. “I wanted to explain the idea behind this system, teach it to students, and explain it to the masses. If we want people to appreciate classical music, then we have to make it approachable,” she said in a conversation earlier this year.
Atre turns 90 today and her contribution to Hindustani classical music and the art and culture of the country is not only huge but also legendary.