Ashwini spoke to Deepak Raja on September 9, 2000, and August 13, 2001
In my family, we studied music just as we studied mathematics, grammar, science, history and geography. Only the schools were different. Ever since I can recall, Narayanrao Datar, a vocalist of the Vishnu Digambar [Gwalior] tradition came home three times a week. My grandmother would take the first lesson from him; thereafter, my mother would take hers, and I would sit last. That was the routine. Over and above this, all family members, my parents included, were enrolled at the Maharashtra Music School where we attended classes thrice a week.
With this training, I passed the Sangeet Visharad when I was 16. At that stage, I had no idea about the depth of our music, or what “gharanedar music” [music as performed by vocalists of the established stylistic lineages] was, or about the journey upon which I had embarked. Had the world of music not encouraged me as generously as it did in later years, I might never have become a professional musician.
Around that time, we also shifted to a different part of Bombay. Datar’s home tuitions ceased, and my mother, Manik Bhide, started guiding me. By that time, she had been a disciple of Kishori Amonkar for over a decade, and had pursued intensive training with her, with several hours of training every day of the year.
After I completed my high school at the age of 16, I was encouraged to enter the All India Radio Competition. A few months before the contest, I had a serious illness, and feared not being able to compete. At that stage, my mother took charge of the situation. For the next two months, she hammered my music, and my confidence, into shape for the competition. I topped the competition; but in retrospect, that was a minor pay-off. Those two months transformed me totally – as a person and as a musician. For the first time, I sensed the majesty of stylised vocalism, and realised that what I knew was not even a tip of the iceberg. From then onwards, music became an important direction.
Until my marriage, my mother trained me with ruthless discipline. Along with this, I was pursuing my academic career, going through postgraduate studies in Microbiology, and working towards my doctorate at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. After marriage, I have continued to train with my mother, albeit with a declining frequency as my family and career have begun to claim an increasing proportion of my time.
In 1995, my mother wanted me to deepen my understanding of ragas as performed in our gharana. She persuaded Ratnakar Pai, a senior musician of the Jaipur-Atrauli tradition, to guide me. Pai Buwa [a term of respect for the elderly] is an exceptional musical mind, with amazing clarity about the melodic contours of ragas and the subtle distinctions between them. Being advanced in years, he cannot provide intensive training. He therefore teaches me compositions in different ragas, and I imbibe their melodic subtleties through them.
The use of pre-composed material as the main teaching device is well established [in Hindustani music]. It is especially important in our gharana because it is Dhrupad-based. Its musical wisdom is built into our compositions. But, as I found out after beginning training with Pai Buwa, our view of the composition as a repository of the raga form goes well beyond the Dhrupad notion. The Dhrupad view is that a composition is a comprehensive melodic map of the raga form, and of the literary content. In the Jaipur-Atrauli tradition, each composition is treated almost like a raga. Conceptually, we do not perform a raga; we perform a composition. The pre-composed shell of each composition emphasises a particular facet of the raga. That facet must also dominate the improvisations undertaken in its presentation. This is why different Khayals of our gharana in the same raga, when performed, can create the illusion of being in different ragas.
This approach to transmitting the tradition also has another advantage. Khayal permits us certain freedoms, which are inconceivable in Dhrupad. And, Alladiya Khan utilised these freedoms to make the transition from Dagarvani Dhrupad to our style of Khayal singing. According to Pai Buwa, our Khayals are not intended, specifically, for performance in any particular tala or even at a particular tempo. They can be sung in any tala, and at any tempo. Mastering the Khayals in their excruciating detail is sufficient training for us to adapt them to different rhythmic formats.
Considering the present stage in my life, and his, Pai Buwa’s training does occasionally throw up unresolved aesthetic conflicts. There are, indeed, several ragas on which Pai Buwa and my mother differ. This is natural because Pai Buwa and my mother were taught by different Gurus, though from the same gharana. On account of such differences, I have dropped certain ragas from my repertoire. I will let my aesthetic convictions decide when, if ever, I should start performing them again.
Other influences on my music have been Pandit Ravi Shankar and Kumar Gandharva. As a young girl, I was involved with a couple of projects of Panditji. During that period, his approach to music, with its explicit rhythmicality, made a deep impact on me. Amongst vocalists, Kumarji was a hot favourite in my father’s home. Every recording of his was actively discussed by the family. From this influence, I probably acquired a special feel for the poetry as a musical element, and the variations of timbre, which discerning listeners have observed in my singing.
The overwhelming influence on my singing has undoubtedly been my mother. Contrary to popular belief, I have never studied directly with Kishori Tai [term of respect, meaning elder sister]. I have always been my mother’s disciple, and have acquired Kishori Amonkar’s training through her. The most important value I have acquired from it is the insight into the systematic unfolding of the raga, of revealing every single strand in the warp and weft of its fabric. This, I believe, is Kishori Tai’s most significant contribution.
It does not bother me if my music is compared to Kishori Tai’s in minor respects too. For one, I am proud to belong to this distinguished lineage. Secondly, neither originality, nor gharana purity, can possibly have the same meaning today as they did half a century ago. We no longer live in a world where we can insulate ourselves totally from the dominant influences of our times emanating outside our gharana. It is no longer possible to be either your Guru’s replica, or a totally original musician. We start with something we inherit, keep absorbing other influences, and shape our individuality as we go along. What matters ultimately is how we put it all together.
I don’t know if I am the most successful, or the finest, vocalist of my generation. Success is like the morning dew. It lasts only as long as it lasts. You realise this even more acutely when you are a woman. A woman goes through so many physical and emotional changes through her life, that she can never really take her grip over her voice and her music for granted. Life for us is a constant struggle against these changes. But, there’s no reliable method for controlling their impact, and also no way of predicting how each transition will affect our performing capability.
As a professional musician, you cannot get attached to success in any case. Competition is a reality, and good for us. At least four or five of us [female vocalists in the plus/minus forty age-group] have a reasonable following; we are all working hard at our music; and none of us is complacent. In today’s environment, there is, of course, much more to being a successful musician than just being an excellent musician. But, I am not too concerned about what that “much more” might be, because I don’t need success that desperately. I am happy with being just a good musician.
© Deepak S. Raja. 2001
Read a detailed profile of the artist in: "Khayal Vocalism: Continuity within Change" . The finest recordings of Ashwini Bhide Deshpande have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.