Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Manjiri Asnare Kelkar – “The concert is still the real thing”

Introduction: Manjiri Asnare-Kelkar (born: 1971) was selected by the Sangeet Natak Akademi for the first Bismillah Khan Memorial Award for Young Musicians in early 2007. A few years earlier, India Today hailed hers as the “voice that spans not merely two octaves, but two centuries”. She became a broadcaster on All India Radio at the age of 16, after topping its nationwide talent-search, and currently occupies the “A” grade. She holds post-graduate degrees in English Literature and Music. In less than a decade, she has established a significant presence on the Indian concert platform, acquired a following abroad, and released five commercial recordings.

Manjiri spoke to Deepak Raja on June 3, 2003

My family is deeply involved with music. My grandfather was an Attorney in Amravati (a town in north-eastern Maharashtra state), and an excellent tabla player. He belonged to the Gyan Prakash Ghosh lineage. The family home was never without music and musicians. Because of my grandfather’s love for music, my father also got involved. He trained as a Tabla player and, in his youth, stood first in the All India Radio national talent search competition.

I was brought up in Sangli (southern Maharashtra), where my father served as a professor. He still performs regularly on All India Radio and, of course, accompanies me whenever he can. He was keen that I should study music. When I was five, I was sent to a music school to learn singing. Simultaneously, I was sent to a dancing school to study Kathak. By the age of eight, I was admitted to the best music school in Sangli run by Chintubuwa Mhaiskar, a Gwalior trained vocalist.

I did well in both. By the age of ten, I could hold the dance floor comfortably for upto 90 minutes, and was winning dance competitions all over the state. At the music school, I was identified for personalised attention and guidance from Chintubuwa. By then, I was also teaching myself a little bit. I had become a fan of Malini Rajurkar, especially her Tappa renderings. So, I bought her cassettes, painstakingly took down the notations, and perfected them by rote. By the time I was fifteen, I could present a decent 30-minte Khayal, started winning competitions and being invited to perform. The time had come to choose between music and dance. Quality dance training was available only in Bombay or Pune. Pursuing dance after marriage and children is always a big uncertainty in our society. So, I dropped dance, and stuck to music.

I hit the crossroads again at the age of 17, when I graduated from high school, and secured admission to engineering college. That would have ruled out any significant achievement in music. But the path to music, too, was uncertain, as there was no top class mentor within reach. Hoping that this problem would get solved, I abandoned engineering in favour of music. The problem did get solved soon when Madhusudan Kanetkar (affectionately called Appa) retired from All India Radio and returned home to Sangli. Like all Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists, he was known to be very selective about accepting students, and had so far accepted none. He heard me and agreed to a trial period of six months. That was 15 years ago. Five years ago he moved to Pune, and, around the same time, I moved to Nashik after my marriage. But, my training continues. While we were in Sangli, I trained with him twice a day for two to three hours in each session. After relocation, either he visits us for a month at a time, or I visit him for three or four days at a time.

Learning with Appa was a major transition. I had, by then, studied music for almost 13 years. My basics were sound, but I had no clue about stylised singing with a stamp of gharana pedigree. Within a month of starting lessons, I was totally lost. I had unlearnt what I knew earlier, and was struggling for a grip over what I was now being taught. One day, I broke down before Appa. He said that my learning would now begin since I realised I knew nothing. He was right. After that, my music sorted itself out quite fast.

Appa is an unorthodox teacher. He believes that I have to sing my own music in my own voice. He merely wishes to give me an approach, which must inevitably wither away as my musical vision takes over. He never insists that my music be exactly like his, or even conform to the orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli style. He insists I study the great vocalists of all gharanas, observe their special features, and adopt what I like. He encourages me to sing many raga-s, which are not sung in our gharana, but are popular today. He locates good bandish-es in them, sets them to our style, and teaches me how to handle them. He does the same for raga-s performed in our gharana, but for which drut bandish-es were not composed in his time. He does not give any importance to a musician being able to sing a hundred raga-s. What is important is that a raga’s boundaries, and the frame of a bandish, be treated as sacred. His training emphasises the spirit of the raga-s, and of bandish-es, so that I may capture their musical potential in rendition.

Even my semi-classical repertoire has been developed under Appa’s guidance. He believes that I should remain actively involved with light music because that will add to the emotional richness to my classical renditions. I was interested in Tappa-s. So, he compiled a repertoire for me, and taught me how to handle each bandish. I loved Natya-sangeet. So, he studied that genre, and guides me on rendition. He has also studied and taught me Thumrees. But, I have performed them only on a limited scale because I am not yet entirely comfortable with the genre. Holding audience interest with unstructured melody, without the support of raga grammar, and at ultra slow tempo, is tougher than it seems. But, I am working on it.

I have never felt that Appa’s lack of performing experience is a handicap for me. For one, although he never sings in public, his music in private gatherings is charismatic. Secondly, in his career as a broadcaster, he has interacted closely enough with the greatest musicians of all gharanas to understand the niceties of relating to audiences and building a career. Yes, I do make occasional mistakes in judging audiences, and deciding what to sing. This cannot be blamed on my Guru. This risk is a part of a musician’s life, and each musician has to manage it in his own unique way.

In addition to the obvious aspects of professional risk, there are some inscrutable risks, too. There are some venues where I seem to repeatedly perform well, and others where I feel consistently uninspired. This has nothing to do with the acoustics, or audience profiles, or with anything one can explain. Isn’t it the same with temples? Some nondescript temples transport you instantly into a different world, while some magnificent ones leave you cold! Some concert halls seem vibrant with musical energy, while others seem sterile.

When I observe such patterns, I sympathise with our traditional belief that the performing arts have their own presiding deity (Ranga-devata), which has blessed some concert platforms, and frowned upon others – why this should be so, nobody has ever told me, and I have not asked. The notion of Ranga-devata helps us to come to terms with every risk to the success of a performance that we cannot understand. Once you are in the profession, you perform wherever you are invited, say your prayers to Ranga-devata, calm your nerves, and begin.

I am often asked how my training in dance helps my career as a vocalist. The obvious aspect of this is my command over the rhythmic element in music. My music Gurus have been saved a lot of effort because of this. The less obvious advantage is my understanding of body language, and what it does for my stage presence. It is not knowledge I can consciously use; but it is there, and it is working. Even though we reach more people today through recordings than concerts, the concert is still the real thing.

(c) Deepak S. Raja. 2003
Read a detailed profile of the artist in: "Khayal Vocalism: Continuity within Change".
The finest recordings of Manjiri Asnare Kelkar have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd. New York.

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