Monday, May 30, 2011

Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006)

Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006) was easily the single most popular Hindustani musician of the 20th century, while also enjoying stature on par with his greatest contemporaries. After performing for almost seven decades, he breathed his last as one of the most decorated musicians in the country. In 2001 the President of India honoured him with the “Bharat Ratna”, the nation’s highest civilian honor, conferred so far on only three other musicians before him -- MS Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar and Pandit Ravi Shankar.

The context

The Shehnai is an instrument of folk origins. But, having been an integral part of religious and court ceremonies for centuries, it had acquired considerable stature in classical music well before Bismillah Khan's arrival. The patronage of the princely states and the wealthy temples of the pre-independence era had cultivated a substantial base of musicianship. It is significant that recording companies had published at least eight Shehnai players between 1920 and 1940. Amongst them was, of course, Bismillah's uncle, Guru, and later father-in-law, Ali Bux. Most of the music on these 78 rpm discs was serious raga music, rather than semi-classical or folk music.

If an infant recording industry could find eight Shehnai players to record, there were probably at least 100 credible classical Shehnai artists in the country when Bismillah was growing up. It was this rich heritage of Shehnai music that Bismillah drew upon, to build his magnificent edifice of musicianship. His contribution was to take the Shehnai to the peak of popularity on the concert platform. He was thus a part of the group of outstanding instrumentalists -- such as Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan -- who enabled instrumental music to match, and even surpass, vocal music in terms of stature and popularity starting from the mid-1940s.

During his performing career, Bismillah Khan managed to keep the Shehnai and himself in the forefront of the concert platform. However, during the same period, the decline of patronage and various other factors were clouding the Shehnai's future. By the time of Bismillah's departure, the Shehnai was losing  its presence in the classical music market and had stopped replenishing its talent resource. At the time of writing, there are probably not more than five serious performers of classical music on the Shehnai. It appears that Bismillah will remain the last great exponent of the instrument, until another genius of his caliber restores it to its glory.

The making of a legend

Ustad Bismillah Khan was born at Dumraon in Bihar, the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan Bibi. His ancestors had been in the employ of the principality of Dumraon. He was named Quamaruddin, until his grandfather uttered “Bismillah” at the sight of the newborn. At the age of six, Bismillah was sent to Varanasi to study with his uncle, Ali Bux, who was engaged as a Shehnai player at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Ali Bux was later to become Bismillah’s father-in-law, and Varanasi to become the maestro’s home.

Varanasi was the principal centre of the Thumree and allied genres of vocal music, such as the Kajri, Chaiti, Fagun, Sawan etc. Under his uncle’s guidance, Bismillah mastered these genres, and also studied the Khayal, for which he plumbed the depths of many raga-s. It was at the All India Music Conference at Calcutta in 1937 (age 21) that Bismillah registered his presence on the national scene as a formidable classical musician, an Ustad. The All India Radio station opening at Lucknow in 1938 also turned out to be a powerful launching pad for him -- as it did for many other great musicians of that era. Thereafter, he rose so steadily in popularity and stature, that his Shehnai recital was the obvious choice for heralding the dawn of independence from the Red Fort in Delhi on August 15, 1947, and again at the launch of the Indian Republic of January 26, 1950.

By 1960, he was amongst the hottest selling recording artists in Hindustani music. By the mid-1960s, his long-playing records had made him an international celebrity. He had a fear of flying, which delayed the launch of his international concert career. It finally happened in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival in England, after which there was no looking back. He made immensely successful concert tours to the US, Canada, the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Far East. In addition to earning him acclaim and popularity, his musicianship also engaged the attention of trans-culturally sensitive and serious musicians in the West, such as John Coltrane, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley.

Repertoire and style

Bismillah Khan's repertoire was focussed almost entirely on popular raga-s, and the semi-classical genres of Eastern UP (see selected discography below). As was appropriate to a breath-driven wind instrument, he rendered his music in the vocalized idiom. However, he frequently deployed staccato intonation to create brief illusions of  the "tantkar" idiom -- the idiom of the plucked instruments. His raga-s were rendered in the Khayal style. But, they often featured expressions and ornamentations from the semi-classical and folk genres. Both these excursions beyond the territory of classicism added immensely to his popularity.

The architecture of his Khayal presentation was immaculate. The slow-tempo, medium-tempo, and brisk-tempo movements were distinct, and perfect order without any regression. In the Bada Khayal as well as the Chhota Khayal, he kept his tempo moderate, thus ensuring that his melodic intent was always transparent, and his music engaged audience attention. His raga-grammar was, however, occasionally controversial. The totality of his impact was such that his contemporaries do not appear to have made much of this minor blemish in his musicianship.

The duet artist

Bismillah Khan’s career as a duet artist began when he played a very successful three-minute duet with the sitarist, Haleem Jaffar Khan for the feature film “Goonj Uthi Shehnai”. Sensing the promise of the combination, efforts were made to persuade Haleem Jaffar to record a long-playing disc (22 minutes each side) with Bismillah. Haleem Jaffar was skeptical, and the Sitar-Shehnai duet remained untested as a concert-length format for some time. A few years later, in 1965, Bismillah was paired with the ace violinist, Prof. VJ Jog  with moderate success.

Bismillah’s breakthrough as a duet artist came when, after the Edinburgh Festival, the HMV office in London persuaded Ustad Vilayat Khan to team up with Bismillah Khan for their first LP, which was released in 1967. Thus was born one of the most celebrated and durable partnerships in the history of Hindustani music. In the ensuing four decades, Bismillah Khan was paired with several other musicians on stage. But, none of them has delivered the timeless quality of the music he created in unison with Ustad Vilayat Khan.

Bismillah Khan and feature films

In 1959, Ustad Bismillah Khan got involved with the music of the film “Goonj Uthi Shehnai” (Echoes of the shehnai) to create the songs for the film, and also to play for them. The music of the film was a tremendous success. But, Bsimillah Khan found it difficult to take orders from the music director, and thereafter avoided the Hindi film industry.

In 1976, Bismillah Khan did, however, warm up to involvement with a Kannada feature film, “Sanadi Appanna” (Sanadi is Kannada for Shehnai), a thinly disguised biography of the Ustad himself. The Kannada icon, Dr. Rajkumar played the title role, with Jayaprada as his heroine. GK Venkatesh was the music director, who roped in Bismillah Khan, and had him spend nine days at the Prasad Studios in Madras working with him on the songs and the music. During this sojourn, he developed very warm and harmonious relationships with the team. The film, released in 1977, celebrated a 100-day run.

Bismillah Khan, the man

Ustad Bismillah Khan is remembered as much for his qualities as a human being, as for his stature as a musician. He made money, but led a very frugal life himself because of the support needs of an extended family of about 60 persons. Cigarettes were his only personal indulgence. Within Varanasi, he always traveled by cycle-rikshaw. Outstation travel was always by second class rail. Even after his health started failing, and well past his 80th year, he continued to perform because he needed the money.

He is reported to have appealed to the government to give a cooking-gas dealership to his grandson in order to help his family survive. Several leading musicians criticized him on the grounds that this appeal was below the dignity of a musician of his stature. In any event, the request was never granted. In 2003, Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Bajpayi sanctioned an ad-hoc grant of Rs. 500,000 to him by way of medical help.

Bismillah Khan was a deeply religious man, without a trace of religious bigotry, who found it impossible to separate his pursuit of music from his devotion to Allah and the Goddess Saraswati. He loved the city of Varanasi as much for its religious fervour, as for the fact that the sacred Ganga flows through the city. Even on his death bed, he refused to move to Delhi for treatment. His logic was – millions of Hindus would do anything to able to die in Varanasi; why should he then leave the city to die somewhere else?

During an interview with Indrajit Badhwar of India Today (July 15,1986), Bismillah Khan told him:

"When maulvis and maulanas ask me about this (my commitment to music despite Islam's aversion to it), I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can't explain it. I feel it. I feel it. If music is haraam then why has it reached such heights? Why does it make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one. All others are different. I tell the maulanas, this is the only haqeeqat (reality). This is the world. My namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal swaras. And if this is haraam, then I say: aur haraam karo, aur haraam karo (if music be a thing of sin, sin on)." 

© Deepak S. Raja 2011

EALP 1272: Bismillah Khan, Film music
EALP 1279 Bismillah Khan &V.G. Jog: Kedara, Dadra, Chandrakauns, Light-Dhun.1963
EALP 1285 Shehnai Gat 1964
EALP 1289 Shehnai Nawaz 1964 Odeon
EALP 1294 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz : Gujari Todi, Shankara, Piloo
EASD 1299 Ustad Bismillah Khan / Prof. V. G.Jog. Jugalbandi
EALP 1315 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz 1967
EASD 1329 Raga Behag, Kalavathi,Dhun. 1969
EASD 1351 Yaman, Brindaban sarang.1970
EASD 1413 Desi Todi, Raga Madhuvanti 1975
EASD 1424 Madhmat Sarang, Bhairavi .1984
EASD 1483 Puria, Hamsadhwani 1990
EASD 1512 Bhupal todi,Bageshree 1973
EASD 1518 Gunkali / Raga Shudh Kalyan /Pahadi Dhun 1973
ECSD 2625 Bismillah Khan Shenai-Nawaz
ECSD 2797 The Magnificence of Stereo. Lalit: Dhun: Raga Multani: Dhun. Ghazal.1978
D/ELRZ 4 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz 1969
MOAE 113 Lalat, Madmat-Sarang
MOAE 120 Bismillah Khan
MOAE 122 The Magic Shehnai of Bismillah Khan
MOAE 128 Bageshri, Sohoni
MOAE 152 Malkauns, Des-Tilak Kamod. 1964
MOAE 170 Bismillah Khan Shenai Nawaz
MOAE 172 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz 1967
S/MOAE 178 Bismillah Khan /V. G. Jog Shehnai & Violin 1968
PSLP 3095 Vilayat Khan & Bismillah Khan Sitar & Shehnai 1989

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Raga Enayet Khani Kanada: Vilayat Khan’s tribute to his father

Enayet Khani Kanada is Ustad Vilayat Khan's tribute to his legendary father, Ustad Enayet Khan. It is not known whether Ustad Eanyet Khan had anything to do with the creation of this melodic entity. The possibility of this is remote considering that, sometime on 1989-90, this Raga, then called Vilayat Khani Kanada, was described by Ustad Vilayat Khan, to his sitarist son, Shujaat Khan. The concept he described was Darbari with the addition of two alien swaras in the ascent – Shuddha [natural] Ga, and shuddha Ni. The raga retains its Darbari Kanada descent [N P g M R S].

The Kanada family consists of over 35 ragas, which bear a family rsemblance to Darbari Kanada, the original Kanada, probably adopted from Carnatic [South Indian] music. A majority of the Kanadas define themselves by attaching the ascent of a different raga to the Darbari Kanada descent [n P g M R S].

Although a Kanada by its tonal structure and phraseological structure, Enayet Khani Kanada is a little different from most others. It does not substitute the ascent of an alien raga for the Darbari ascent, but gives to Darbari two parallel ascents, one being the original Darbari ascent, and another, which substitutes the flat [komal] Ga and Ni swaras of Darbari with natural [shuddha] Ga and Ni swaras. Both the ascents are used alternately in characteristic Darbari phraseology, but without the characteristic oscillation at Ga, when the shuddha Ga is used.  To this extent, Enayet Khani Kanada is an enhanced Darbari Kanada rather than a typical Kanada family offspring of Darbari Kanada.

Darbari Kanada
Ascent: S R g M P d n S’
Descent: n P M P g M R S

Enayet Khani Kanada
S R g M P d n S’ [or] S R G M P d N S’
n P M P g M R S

The parallel ascents are handled in such a manner that the Darbari dominance of the melodic entity is never out of focus. Phrases with the alien swaras are always sandwitched between typical Darbari phrases, and blend almost imperceptibly into the new melodic entity with a distinctive emotional flavour.  The solemn Darbari character of the new melodic entity is preserved also by keeping the raga firmly anchored in the lower half of the melodic canvas, with very sparing melodic development in the upper tetrachord or the higher octave.

The shuddha Ga in the lower tetrrachord brings in a hint of Malgunji [R n S R G] into this raga, and therefore of Gunji Kanada [Malgunji + Darbari]. This danger is averted by avoiding the pause on Ma [R n S R G M] typical of Malgunji, and turning the phrase around quickly in Darbari mode [M g M R S]. The addition of shuddha Ni in the upper tetrachord risks a suggestion of Chandramukhi Kanada [Chandrakauns + Darbari] with the possibility of phrases like N S d N S. Such possibilities are avoided by using the shuddha Ni primarily in phrases ascending from the mid-octave region, such as M P d N S.

This raga was recorded by Ustad Vilayat Khan, first as Vilayat Khani Kanada [HMV:STCS: 048:7437], and later as Enayet Khani Kanada [India Archive Music, New York, CD-1045].

Ustad Vilayat Khan has so far been the first, and perhaps the last, performer of this raga. This is understandable because only a musician of his caliber can save this raga from even a momentary illusion of Gunji Kanada or Chandramukhi Kanada.

Critics often question the value of creating such raga-s, which are no more than minor variants of the major raga-s, and which are not likely to acquire a following. We need to look at this from the artists’ point of view. In reality, they may not be intending to create new raga-s at all. They build their careers performing the same set of 15-20 raga-s, which their audiences also want them to perform. A sort of unstated agenda gets established between artists and their audiences. Even if audiences do not get bored with same mature raga being performed repeatedly in the same manner by the same artist time after time, the artists themselves can indeed get bored.

In their desire to create a slightly unfamiliar experience with familiar raga-s, artists introduce minor variations . Once in a while something of lasting value comes out of these experiments. But, that is an accident of history. Most of the time, the variant is intended  to be relished merely for its transient novelty and charm – by those are comfortable with it – and forgotten.

Enayet Khani Kanada probably started in this spirit. The Ustad developed some fondness for it, and performed it several times over the years. A similar creation of his was Sanjh Saravali, a variant of Yaman Kalyan, with a touch of Bihag. For some reason, Sanjh Saravali sustained the Ustad’s interest much longer, and gained some acceptance even with musicians outside the Ustad’s gharana, while Enayet Khani Kanada did not.

Deepak Raja
© India Archive Music Ltd., New York 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pandit Jasraj: the romanticist crusader

Pandit Jasraj (Born: 1930) could well be the most popular male vocalist in Hindustani music today. In a career spanning half a century, he has emerged as a major force in the romanticist movement sweeping khayal vocalism since the 1970s. He also enjoys a substantial international following, having established several teaching establishments in the US, where over 300 students are studying his style of vocalism.

His musicianship has, expectedly, attracted commensurate honors and decorations. Besides the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honor in the country, Jasraj is the recipient of a host of other honors, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar, the Dinanath Mangeshkar Award, and the Rajiv Gandhi Award.

Jasraj belongs to the Mewati gharana, whose fountainhead, Ustad Ghaghe Nazir Khan (late 19th century), hailed from Jodhpur in the Mewat region of Rajasthan.The gharana founder had three principal disciples – Ustad Munawwar Ali Khan (no relation of Bade Gulam Ali Khan), Pandit Chimanlal, and Pandit Nathulal. The third named, Pandit Nathulal, was the grandfather of Pandit Jasraj.

Neither the gharana, nor its distinguishing features have been documented yet in authoritative musicological literature on the subject of gharana-s (VH Deshpande and Bonnie Wade). However, according to Pandit Jasraj, the gharana specializes in elaborate and comprehensive exposition of the melodic personalities of raga-s through all four sections – sthayi, antara, sanchari, and abhog. Jasraj has imparted a lyrical quality to this elaborate raga exposition through opulent ornamentation of phrasing, thus making his music explicitly communicative of emotional values.

Romanticism in Hindustani vocalism

The first half of the 20th century saw the beginnings of romanticism, especially with Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967), whose romanticism was not categorical. But, as a significant movement in Hindustani music, romanticism is essentially a post-independence phenomenon. It signifies a preference for emotionally charged expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music. While romanticism is happy to function within the limitations of the subject, classicism attempts to transcend it. Classicism is characterized by an aloofness which “passively” elicits a response from audiences, while romanticism adopts an intimacy which actively solicits it.

The emergence of romanticism in khayal vocalism was “logical” when it happened. By the 1950s, the specialist singers of the Benares thumree – the original romanticist genre – had almost disappeared from the scene. Khayal singers tried to satisfy the audience need for emotionally rich music by adding thumrees to their repertoire. At the same time, ghazal singers also began enriching the melodic content of their poetry-dominant romanticist genre in an effort to fill the vacuum. These trends shaped sterling individual contributions to the art of the thumree by khayal singers like Bade Gulam Ali Khan, and to the art of the ghazal by the likes of Mehdi Hassan. But, as a category, neither the khayal-style thumree, nor the thumree-style ghazal could fill the void created by the disappearance of the authentic Benares thumree.

The cultural environment was apparently ready for vocalists with the courage to attempt something bolder. At such a time, the movement pushing the khayal into the thumree territory was triggered off by musicians who had the romanticist temperament, and the courage to carve out a new artistic path. Pandit Jasraj is amongst the rebels against the formal aloofness of the khayal, who gave romanticism a respectable place in Hindustani music. The other two, who did so at about the same time (1970s) were Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), and Kishori Amonkar (Born: 1931). Interestingly, all these pioneers of the romanticist khayal have also been deeply involved with devotional music – an explicitly emotional genre – and none of them has shown any particular interest in the thumree, whose methods of musical expression they have already incorporated into the khayal.

Childhood and grooming

In early childhood, Jasraj was trained in vocal music by his father, Pandit Motiram and, after his demise, by his elder brother, Pandit Maniram. As an additional accomplishment, Jasraj was trained as a Tabla player by his uncle, Pandit Pratap Narayan. Jasraj had, in fact, become a very proficient Tabla player, and could have made a career as a percussionist. Once, while still a teenager, he was insulted publicly by the vocalist he was accompanying. Revolted by the way accompanists were treated, he swore never to play the Tabla again, and committed himself to singing.

His early years were full of struggle. The family was in Hyderabad when he was born. When Hyderabad was engulfed in communal riots, the family moved to Ahmadabad. There, his family established strong bonds with Maharaja Jaywant Sinh Gohel of Sanand in North Gujarat, a distinguished disciple of the Mewati gharana, who became mentor as well as patron to Maniram, along with his brother, Jasraj.  Then came the merger of the princely states with the Indian Union, when the Maharajas lost their capacity for patronage of the arts. Jasraj’s family then moved to Calcutta in search of a career. Jasraj’s own career was, however, destined to take off only after he moved to Bombay, and married Madhura, the daughter of the legendary film maker, V Shantaram. Despite this proximity, the film industry did not attract him.

Jasraj’s exceptional musicianship was first noticed in the late 1950s, as a supporting vocalist to his elder brother Pandit Maniram. Their duets were rich in melodic content and depth of raga exploration, and a model of perfect understanding and collaborative effort. Gradually, Jasraj acquired a following of his own, and started performing independently. In his early days as a soloist, by his own admission, his style was greatly influenced by Ustad Amir Khan. But, as he grew in maturity, and responded to audience preferences, he evolved an original style.


In the classical segment, Jasraj’s repertoire features a wider variety of raga-s than most leading vocalists of his generation. His repertoire features common raga-s like Purvi, Bihag, Darbari, and Bageshri, moderately rare ragas like Bihagda, Gorakh Kalyan, and Suha Kanada, and also rare raga-s like Gauri, Abiri Todi, and Gaudgiri Malhar. Like the other major romanticists, Jasraj presents a substantial repertoire of devotional music. In the devotional segment, his erudition has enabled him to cover a vast range of literature starting from Meera Bhajans at the more popular end, to mediaeval Padas performed in the Vaishnava temples (Haveli Sangeet) and Jaideva’s Geeta Govindam at the intermediate level of literary abstraction, to Vedic chants and recitations of Upnishadic texts at the esoteric end.

The devotional aspect of Pandit Jasraj’s musical personality is central to his musicianship. As he told the American composer, Michael Robinson, in an interview on 31 October 1999.

… music is not for only enjoyment. The enjoyment is there every time, but it is a prayer to God. So, I always, when start my disciples, start to teach them: First, I explain to them, think of your mother, father. Think of your guru. Think of your Almighty. We have plenty of gods, so you can think of whatever which god you love, and offer, this is my service. Please accept it, and forgive my mistakes. And accept it, and please come. Please come in my... wherever you are singing, wherever you are making music. Wherever. You invite him, because God loves music. He loves music.

“You know Narada? He is a saint of Lords. Once Narada asked Lord Vishnu, "Where do you live?" Then he said, he laughed, and said, "Why you are asking me?" "You should know where am I, where I be." Narada said, "No, you tell me." Vishnu replied, "I am not in heaven, I am not living in heaven." Yogi means saintly people who do penance, prayer, and think of God only. "I don't live in their hearts too." "Wherever my devotees sing, I am there." So it’s my strong belief that God loves music. If you offer him, and invite him. Please come. I am making music, or I am singing for you. Now don't sing for any XYZ. Let them listen to your music, but think you are singing for God”

While being steeped in the other-worldly aspect of music, Jasraj is also a master of stagecraft. A significant aspect of his musicianship is his view of music as a theatrical art. In this sense, he takes after Pandit Omkarnath Thakur. His music is not only a feast for the ears but also for the eyes. His charming persona, the Swaramandala in his lap, his exceptionally large ensemble often consisting of three or four tanpura-s and two melodic accompaniments, his body language full of dramatic gestures – all contribute to building a majestic aura that enhances the appeal of his music.

© Deepak S. Raja 2011

ECLP 2325 Raga Nat Bhairav 1966
ECSD 2705 Shree Kameshwari, Raga Bilaskhani Todi 1971 
ECSD 2739 Musical homage to a guru 1974 
ECSD 2798 Jab Se Chhab Dekhi 1977
ECSD 2832 Raga Shudh Sarang, Raga Bhimpalasi 1980

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Raga Khambavati: A Jhinjhoti sibling

Khambavati causes occasional confusion by its name. In the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana of khayal vocalism, and only in that gharana, the raga commonly recognised as Rageshri is called Khambavati. Khambavati, as documented in authoritative texts, is a rare raga, which bears an affinity to the more popular raga Jhinjhoti. Khambavati belongs to the Khamaj Thaat, one of the parent scales used for the classification of ragas in the Hindustani tradition.

By way of tone material, and as a rare occurrence, Khambavati has two ascents, both intended to be used alternately.

Ascent: S R M P D S [or] S R M P N S. 
Descent: S n D P M G S. 

Chalan: [Skeletal phraseology]
1. S R n. D. S
2. D. S R M 
3. R M P 
4. D M P D S' [or] M P N S' 
5. D S' R' G' S'
6. R' n D P
7. D M 
8. G M S

The Vadi Swara [Primary dominant] of Khambavati is Sa, and the Samvadi is Pa.

Except for a couple of phrases in the phraseology given above (No.2, No. 4 option, and No. 8), all other phrases of Khambavati may be encountered in Jhinjhoti. Although the two ragas are differentiated by several other features, an instant identification of Khambavati, as distinct from Jhinjhoti, requires consummate musicianship. This identification depends largely on the early use of the Khambavati signature phrase, G-M-S, executed with a leisurely meend from Ma to Sa.

Other ragas, allied to Khambavati, are Mand and Sindhura, both considered to be songs, more than ragas. By virtue of its lyricism and limited phraseology, Khambavati does, indeed, share with these ragas, the characteristics of a song. It is therefore normally performed in slow or medium tempo, with low to medium melodic density. As in the case of Mand or Sindhura, high-density melody, especially tans, are considered aesthetically inappropriate in Khambavati.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York, producers of the finest Khambavati recordings. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Raga Jaitashree: A primary raga or a compound?

Jaitashree an averagely well-known raga performed around sunset, and popularised primarily by vocalists of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana in the latter half of the 20th century. In pre-20th century texts, it has also been called Jaishree or Jayantashree, and described as a variant of Shree. Authoritative texts on raga grammar differ on whether this raga is an independent primary raga, or a compound of raga-s Jait and Shree. Bhatkhande, however, recognises that there exists a practice of using Shuddha Dh (instead of komal) in the raga, which suggests the influence of raga Jait.

On the authority of Bhatkhande and Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, the raga’s scale may be documented as follows:

Ascent: S G P N S’ 
Descent: r’ N d P M^ G r S. 

Predominant contemporary practice would suggest:

Ascent: S G P S’ 
Descent: r’ N d P M^ G r S. 

According to Bhatkhande, either Ga or Pa could qualify for the status of the vadi (primary dominant) in the raga. There is no reference in major texts to the probable Samvadi (secondary dominant).

On the same authority, the chalan (skeletal phraseology)is documented here:  

S G G P or G r S G/ P d M^ G/ M P N S’ or d P S/ S’ G’ r’ S’/ N r N d P/ P M^ d M^ G/ M^ G r S. 

The contemporary treatment of Jaitashree suggests two distinct approaches. One is a formalistic blend of Jait in the ascent, with Shree in the descent. This is evident in the rendition of Ulhas Kashalkar (EMI/HMV: STCS-850267), and an unpublished recording of his Guru, Gajanan Rao Joshi. In this formal approach, the stark Jait ascent (S-G-P-S) is meticulously preserved, allowing the heptatonic phrasing of Shree to surface only in the descent.

The other is a less formal blend of the two ragas, evident in renditions of Kishori Amonkar (BMG-Crescendo:50578) and Vijaya Jadhav-Gatlewar (Music Today: A-92064). In this version, phrases from Shree are also used occasionally in the ascent, and phrasing typical of Puriya Dhanashree is allowed to occur in the mid-octave region. This latter blend also features certain phrases like S-M^-P and S-G-M^-P, which are neither clearly Jait, nor clearly Shree.

While musicological texts may be reluctant to acknowledge the compound character of this raga, the aural experience of the raga, as currently performed, has unmistakable features of Jait as well as Shree.And, it is fair that devices used for blending the two raga-s be examined.

In this context, the recordings of Kishori and Vijaya do raise issues about the universal applicability of the Jaipur-Atrauli method of structuring compound ragas. In this method, alternating phrases from the component  ragas are rendered sequentially and often in a dovetailed manner, in order to shape the melodic personality of the compound raga. This is, indeed, very cerebral and produces very enigmatic melodic entities most of the time. However, in rare cases -- such as Jaitashree -- this approach can lead to the unintended entry of alien phrasing, even if only momentarily. Such apparitions would seem to compromise the melodic integrity and individuality of the resulting melodic experience.

In comparison to the Jaipur-Atrauli style complex blend, the formalistic blend evident in the recordings of Ulhas and Gajanan Buwa sounds far more coherent, distinctive, and convincing. Besides, the resulting melodic entity has a far clearer identity of its own, independent of Jait as well as Shree.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York, the finest producers of Hindustani music recordings. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur (1910-1992)

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur was amongst leading Khayal vocalists of the post-independence period, and the only significant male vocalist to have been trained by the founding family of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana.


The lineage regards Ustad Alladiya Khan, belonging to a family of Dhrupad vocalists practicing the Dagar Bani style, as the founder of its khayal vocalism. He was trained by his uncles, Daulat Khan, and Jehangir Khan. Alladiya Khan also admitted the profound influence of Mubarak Ali Khan, a vocalist of the Gwalior gharana who once served the Jaipur court.

The spread of the gharana’s style was greatly helped by his brother, Hyder Khan, who was also trained by their uncles. Both the brothers had gifted sons, who also disseminated the style of the gharana. Outside the founding family, the two most distinguished exponents of the Alladiya/ Jaipur-Atrauli gharana were Kesarbai Kerkar [1892-1977], trained by Alladiya himself, and Mogubai Kurdikar [1904-2001], trained by Alladiya Khan, and probably also by Hyder Khan. In the same generation, was also a great, but forgotten, vocalist, Lakshmibai Jadhav, who was trained by Hyder Khan. In the following generation, the most famous exponent of the gharana was a migrant from the Gwalior tradition, Mallikarjun Mansoor [1910-1992]. In the succeeding generation, Mogubai’s daughter, Kishori Amonkar, gave a new direction to Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism to emerge as the queen of Khayal vocalism.

Beyond the second generation, disciples, rather than descendants of the founding family, have kept the tradition alive. Alladiya Khan, his brother, sons and nephew became highly sought-after as teachers because of their sophisticated style, and the rarity and complexity of their raga-s. An aura of elitism developed around the Alladiya Khan style, and attracted mature musicians trained in other gharana-s. It is remarkable that, despite permitting migration from other gharana-s into its fold, the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana managed to maintain its distinctive flavour for at least three generations. Another interesting feature of the gharana is that, though founded by male vocalists, it has remained overwhelmingly dominated by female vocalists.


According to Vamanrao Deshpande, the principal features of the Jaipur-Atrauli style are subtlety and complexity in all departments. The gharana has perfected the technique of linking swaras in a manner that reveals their individual beauty along with their role in phrasing appropriate to a raga. The melodic contours are distinctive for their curvilinear form, moving in loops. The tempo is moderate, and the melody is accompanied by a rhythmic swing. The melody and the rhythm are constantly in state of play with each other, though in fractions of beats. In its totality, Deshpande considers the orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli style high brow, and akin to a  musical bank for musicians.


Mansur’s music represented a confluence of three influential musical traditions. In childhood, he was trained in Carnatic music. In his youth, he studied under one of the stalwarts of the Gwalior tradition. And, finally, he migrated to the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, to achieve great success and distinction as an exponent of its unique style.

He did not have either an authoritative voice, or an imposing stage personality. He was a picture of simplicity, and humility, totally focused on his music. A man of deep spirituality, and spartan lifestyle, he made his impact by the mastery of his art, and seriousness of purpose. He had spent so large a part of his life as a virtual nobody that, when he finally became somebody, it no longer mattered to him.

By some conspiracy of circumstance, Mallikarjun had to wait till 60 to convert his musicianship into a career. Late though recognition was in coming, it was generous. Mallikarjun was decorated by the President of India with a Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan, and the Padma Vibhushan. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, an Honorary Doctorate of the Karnataka University, the Kalidas Samman of the MP government, and a nomination to the Karnataka State Legislative Council.

Childhood and grooming

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur was born in a family of musicians at Mansur in Dharwad district of Karnataka state. His father was deeply involved with Kannada musical drama, and his brother was a member of a theatre troupe. At the age of eight, Mallikarjun quit school, and joined his brother’s troupe as a singer-actor. He became extremely popular in juvenile mythological roles as Dhruva, and Pralhad.

His first music teacher was Appayya Swamy, a vocalist, violinist and playwright in the service of the theatre company. Swamy taught Mallikarjun the basics of Carnatic music. Later, while touring with his theatre company, Mallikarjun had the opportunity of performing on stage before the Gwalior gharana stalwart, Nilkanthbuwa Alurmath. Alurmath was impressed by young Mallikarjun, and persuaded him to concentrate on serious music. Mallikarjun’s employers volunteered to pay Alurmath’s fees of Rs. 100 per month – a princely sum in those days -- for training Mallikarjun. After six years of rigorous training under Alurmath (age 12-18), Mallikarjun left the theatre company and moved to Bombay in search of a career and a Guru who would illuminate the path ahead.

During his early travels with theatre groups, Mallikarjun had heard the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana founder, Ustad Alladiya Khan, and wanted desperately to learn from him. Lacking in confidence to approach the great man, he obtained an introduction to his son, Manji Khan. After hearing the two 78 rpm discs Mallikarjun had released, Manji Khan accepted him as a disciple.However, Mallikarjun’s apprenticeship with Manji Khan ended within two years due to the mentor’s untimely demise in 1937.

The logical step thereafter was for him to continue studies with Manji Khan’s brother, Bhurji Khan, who was a classicist and an outstanding teacher. This apprenticeship lasted almost 10 years, during which Mallikarjun mastered the Dhrupad-based style of Alladiya Khan, and his repertoire of rare, complex, and esoteric raga-s along with the familiar ones. By his own claim, Mallikarjun had mastered 125 raga-s by the time he completed his tutelage with Bhurji Khan.

Towards the end of his life, he wrote a transparently candid autobiography in Kannada “Nanna Rasa Yatre” (My emotional journey). The work was written, according to him, as an expression of gratitude to his Gurus, and later translated into English by his son, Rajshekhar as "Rasa Yatra".

In the profession 

Mallikarjun spent the prime of his life unable to convert his musicianship into a viable performing career. According to some accounts, his mother and wife managed the household with considerable ingenuity. He continued to broadcast over All India Radio, worked with the recording company, HMV, for a few years as a producer, and spent almost ten years as Music Advisor to the Dharwad station of All India Radio. These commitments kept him geographically grounded, and unable to create a following through concert appearances in different parts of the country until he was almost 60. Fortunately, his austere and disciplined lifestyle had kept him sufficiently fit and musically active to reap the rewards of late success.

In March 1969, Kamal Singh, the thumree and ghazal singer, invited Mansur to perform at a Sangeet Mehfil in Bombay. At this concert, the music world almost re-discovered Mallikarjun Mansur, after which he did not look back. He soon acquired national stature and popularity, which he retained until he could sing no more.

In addition to his redoubtable musicianship, the rediscovery of Mallikarjun at the age of 60 was probably aided by several environmental factors. In the 1970s, the stage was being taken over by the romanticists who were busy shedding the formal aloofness of khayal vocalism, and reaching out to larger audiences  – Kumar Gandharva, Kishori Amonkar, and Jasraj.  The towering male vocalists from the pre-independence era, steeped in orthodoxy, had mostly either retired or departed by 1970. Of the two remaining stalwarts, Ameer Khan departed in 1974, leaving Bhimsen Joshi as the sole significant orthodox survivor from that era. The post-independence generation of vocalists had yet to make a mark on the music scene.

Something of a vacuum appeared to exist in the orthodox segment of khayal vocalism, as also in male vocalism. In this environment, Mallikarjun had the additional advantage of being an exponent of Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, which still had a following nostalgic with memories of Kesarbai Kerkar, Mogubai Kurdikar and Lakshmibai Jadhav. The emergence of an outstanding male singer from this hitherto female dominated gharana in that environment was bound to be received with the enthusiasm that it did.


Mallikarjun Mansur had a high-pitched tenor voice, which lacked the depth of Ameer Khan and the authority of Bhimsen Joshi, but impressed with its charming vibrancy and sincerity. It had withstood the ravages of time well, and he could use it effectively in two octaves without loss of musical value almost till the end of his performing career.

He was justifiably admired for his vast repertoire of raga-s in khayal vocalism, as well as Nayasangeet and devotional songs in Kannada as well as Marathi. His khayal repertoire featured a judicious mix of rare raga-s like Basanti Kedar, Nat Bihag, or Khat, moderately uncommon raga-s like Sughrai, Kukup Bilawal, or Kamod, and popular raga-s like Yaman Kalyan, Deshkar, and Adana. His vilambit and madhyalaya khayal bandish-es were mostly drawn from the Jaipur-Atrauli tradition, while his drut khayal bandish-es were often from other gharana-s.

The most striking feature of Mansur’s music is immediacy with which it grips the audience. Mansur required no gradual build-up of the raga mood with a prelude alap before he launched the bandish-es. He could jump straight into percussion-accompanied music at almost any tempo, and establish an instant rapport with the audience. This direct, even dramatic, feature of his music perhaps went back to his childhood and youth as a singer-actor in the theatre. It was, incidentally, also suited to the orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli style of compact khayal rendition.

Mansur believed that his short, two-year training with Manji Khan of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana had left the deepest impact on his style. It is debatable whether this exposure overshadowed his later and longer training with Bhurji Khan of the same gharana, or even erased all traces of Gwalior vocalism he had absorbed during his formative years. In its totality, however, he remained close enough to orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli stylistics for other members of the gharana to acknowledge him as one of their own.

© Deepak S. Raja 2011

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Raga Kedar: abandoning the austere form

Kedar is amongst the most popular post-sunset ragas. The raga belongs to the Kalyan thaat, and within it, to the sub-group that permits twin-Ma usage - shuddh and tivra (sharp). Other popular ragas in this sub-group are Hameer, Chhayanat, Kamod, Nand and Behag. Although the contemporary raga is relatively non-controversial, it has an interesting history which impinges upon its contemporary performance.

Scholarly literature suggests that, not long ago, the raga was probably pentatonic (S R M P D) in the Bilawal that (parent scale). Subsequent melodic enhancements have made the raga hyper-heptatonic (S R G M M^ P D n N S’) in the Kalyan thaat.

Chalan (Contemporary):
S R S / S M / M G P / M^ P D P M / M^ P S' (or) DD P S' (or) M^ P D N S' / N S' D N D P (or) S' DD P / D M^ P M / M S R S (or) G M R S (or) M R R S 

The raga revolves around the Sa-Ma axis. A mature musician can bring Kedar to life, with just three sweeping intonations: S-M, M-P, P-S'. I have heard the late Sarangi maestro, Abdul Lateef Khan do this with stunning impact.

Writing in the first quarter of the 20th century, Bhatkhande provides detailed guidelines for the skilful handling of the swara enhancements that Kedar has "recently" accepted. The purpose of these guidelines would appear to be to subject the austere (probably pentatonic) image of the traditional raga form to as small a compromise as possible. The Bhatkande guidelines suggest that the recent enhancements have probably regularised the involuntary intonations that crept into the rendition of the raga in the process of seeking the convenience of easier rendition. As in the case of many other ragas, these conveniences relate to eliminating the repetitions of some swaras, and narrowing the intervals between adjacent swaras as represented in the traditional, austere, form.

Thus, at the lower end of the ascent, S-M-M-P, became S-M-G-P; and PP-D-P-M gave way to M^-P-D-P-M. The traditional antara ascent P-P-S' was replaced by M^-P-S' or M^-P-D-N-S'. In the descent, S'-D-D-P yielded to S'-D-N-D-P, and M-S-R-S was replaced by M-G-M-R-S or M-R-S.

By its very name, raga Kedar is associated with Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, a formidable deity of ascetic temperament. As such, the raga is considered to be amongst the more profound ragas of the Hindustani system. In order to preserve its profundity, the musician is required to present it with a certain reverence and deliberateness. This prescription is confirmed by the raga's complex vakra [zigzag] phraseology, which would suffer a degree of "flattening out" at higher levels of swara-density.

The contemporary Kedar would be unconvincing as a representation of the daunting Lord Shiva. Apparently, the melodic enhancements have progressively diluted the raga's austere aural image, and allowed it to drift towards prodnounced Lalitya --a romantic/sensual experience.

Deepak S. Raja 
(c) India Archive Music, New York, producers of the finest recordings of Raga Kedar. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Indra Kishore Mishra: The vintage flavour of Dhrupad

How much Dhrupad is there in contemporary Dhrupad? Connoisseurs with a taste for such conundrums will find plenty of grist for their mill in the music of Indra Kishore Mishra. While the established Dhrupad lineages re-engineer the medieval genre as a global brand, Indra Kishore (Born: 1957) struggles for acceptance of a style zealously insulated against change for over three centuries in a remote corner of India. Combating geographic isolation and generations of oblivion, Indra Kishore has established himself, and his Bettiah gharana (stylistic lineage) of Dhrupad, on India’s musical map. The Indian Dhrupad “establishment” treats him with respect. But, the recent revival in the fortunes of the genre has, so far, left him relatively untouched. With the visibility gains from CDs published in the West, he may yet ensure the durability of his unique style.

Indra Kishore’s ancestors migrated from the Mughal court, in the 17th century, to the patronage of Bettiah (District Champaran in Bihar) on the India-Nepal border. The Bettiah aristocracy was committed to preserving traditional musical forms and modes of rendition. According to a leading scholar, the Bettiah Dhrupad lineage was originally the fountainhead of the Dhrupad tradition in the entire Eastern region of India, including Bengal.

When the princely family was dispossessed, Bettiah musicians had to pitch their art in the emerging marketplace against the more visible lineages – the Dagars and the Malliks/ Tiwaris of Darbhanga. Indra Kishore took up the challenge after his father, Mahant Mishra, waged only a half-hearted battle for recognition. While ascending the ladder of the profession, Indra Kishore also confronts the daunting task of making his anachronistic style acceptable to contemporary audiences.

The music of Indra Kishore Mishra 

The observations here are based on attendance at concerts and a study of two CDs recorded by Indra Kishore for foreign recording companies. In 1994, Makar Records, a Paris-based recording company released his CD with raga Bageshri (Alap, Dhrupads in Chautal and Jhaptal, a Sulatal bandish and a Tarana in Adi tala) and raga Pancham (Alap and Chaturang in Tivratala). The other CD under review was recorded for India Archive Music, New York and features raga Chandrakauns (Alap, Dhrupad in Chautal, a Sulatal bandish, and a Tillana in Teental and raga Megh (Alap and Sulatal bandish).

The two CDs emphasise the centrality of the bandish-es to the musical ideology of the gharana. Each CD features the main raga with three and even four bandish-es. The variety in bandish-es deserves a remark. The two CDs feature bandish-es in Chautal, Jhaptal, Sulatal, Tivratal and even Teental. The repertoire includes a Tillana (Tarana), generally scoffed at by rival Dhrupad gharana-s because of its alleged association with dance, which was once considered an "inferior" art. Indra Kishore’s repertoire also includes a Chaturang, a rare compositional form, which combines four forms of articulation – poetry, percussion sound symbols, sargam, and meaningless consonants. The repertoire of the rival dhrupad gharanas seems, in comparison, restricted.

To have been the mainstream genre, Dhrupad would have needed, in its heyday, to be much richer in terms of variety than it now is. Like Khayal today, it could have embraced several minor genres, which shared its stylistic predilections, but differed in other ways. A good example of such genres is the Tillana/ Tarana, which has evidently remained a satellite to the mainstream genre through the Dhrupad as well as Khayal eras. It is therefore possible that Indra Kishore’s lineage preserved the variety, while others did not.

Where Dhrupad begins and where it ends is an  irrelevant debate for the music lover. Indra Kishore need not be considered a specialist performer of the Dhrupad genre as currently understood by most people. He is a performer of medieval music. He sings several of the genres that his family has preserved for over three centuries. It just so happens that the currently identifiable Dhrupad was the mainstream genre three centuries ago, and is also the mainstay of his repertoire.

True to his medieval moorings, Indra Kishore’s treatment of raga -s is often archaic. His Megh is rendered to the Vrindavani Sarang scale, with twin-Ni usage, rather than the contemporary Madhmat Sarang scale with only Komal Ni. In Bageshri, he makes explicit use of the R-g-M phrase considered highly questionable in contemporary music. His use of Pa in Bageshri is more explicit than is currently advised. For the discerning listener, the dissonance caused by these issues is transient because of his firm grip over raga grammar. The average listener may, however, be confused by unfamiliar melodic contours. In some cases, the nomenclature of raga-s can also cause discomfort. The raga Indra Kishore calls Pancham is today better known as Bhinna Shadja or Kaushik Dhwani. The name “Pancham”, on the other hand, is today recognised either as the old name for the modern raga Hemant, or a rare and entirely dissimilar raga of the Marwa parent scale.

As a musical experience, Indra Kishore’s alap is radically different from Dagar and Darbhanga renditions. His alap conforms to the principle of steady escalation of melodic density and pulsation. But, unlike the popular Dhrupad styles, Indra Kishore’s alap does not follow the three-tier structure of vilambit, madhyalaya and drut alaps. His alap does not have a strictly anarhythmic prelude in vilambit laya. A subtle pulsation of melody is evident from the very beginning. As the alap progresses, the pulsation becomes more categorical and more brisk through several stages of escalation. Even at the highest level of swara-density, however, it does not match the density of the drut alap encountered in the Dagar tradition.

His alap is, in effect, a single piece of seamless pulsating melody, with a sthayi and an antara incorporated into each stage of escalation. The seamless quality is enhanced by the omission of the Mohra, a signatory phrase of the raga conventionally rendered as a separator between the various stages of alap presentation in the Dhrupad tradition.

The melodic treatment of his alap is also interestingly unfamiliar. Although it features the “nom -tom” articulation commonly found in Dhrupad alaps, the melodic contours he defines have a lyrical quality strongly suggestive of a song being sung, but with the poetic element missing. This seems to impart to his alap a story-telling intimacy, rich in emotional meaning. This feature suggests a possibility that the melodic component of the alap is actually assembled from fragments of bandish-es. Indra Kishore’s alap possibly harks back to the early days of Dhrupad as an art form. At that stage, before the alap evolved as an independently conceived solo movement, it may have relied on fragments of pre-composed Pada-s to satisfy the need for an abstract (improvised, tala-neutral and poetry-free) exposition of the raga form.

While the rival Dhrupad gharana-s frequently perform only two stanzas of traditional Dhrupad bandish-es, Indra Kishore’s bandish -es, in Chautal as well as Jhaptal, feature four stanzas – sthayi, antara, sanchari and abhog. Indra Kishore renders the four parts of the bandish strictly in sequence, several times over, with tremendous emotional involvement, but without any melodic or rhythmic improvisations. This poetry-based approach imbues his renditions with an emotionally charged quality, which is in contrast to the aloofness characteristic of bandish renditions in the rival gharanas of Dhrupad.

The ideological restriction on improvisations focuses musical/ creative energies on the communication of poetic meaning by preventing their diversion towards the cleverness of melodic-rhythmic design. This is why Indra Kishore’s bandish renditions have an endearing quality not encountered too often in familiar manifestations of Dhrupad.

The fast-tempo bandish-es in the minor tala-s, such as Sul or Tivra, or Adi, exhibit a greater sense of artistic freedom in rendition. He may either render them, like Dhrupad bandish-es, with just the repetitive iteration of the pre-composed form at a steadily increasing tempo, or decide to display his mastery over rhythmic improvisations. In these bandish-es, he makes generous use of tihais (a melodic-poetic phrase articulated thrice in a row to create a rhythmic impact), and dogun (enunciation of the bandish at twice the pre-composed pace) iterations, and more complex forms of layakari (play with rhythm). However, even at the fastest tempo, the poetic form is not allowed to degenerate into meaningless articulation.

Indra Kishore presents contemporary audiences with an unfamiliar model of music making within the Dhrupad genre. As music, it offers the entire range of aesthetic experiences from the devotional to the titillating. Despite its archaic features, his is a highly cultivated art. It is sparse on artifice and exploding with emotional energy. It comes straight from the heart and goes straight to the heart. This quality – perennially relevant to music --may have the potential to circumvent the obstacles to Indra Kishore’s success.

This, however, is an “Indian” viewpoint --discerning of musicianship per se, without genre-based preferences or prejudices, and accepting of stylistic diversity between lineages performing the same genre. Considering that Dhrupad’s constituency today is substantially outside India, such appreciation amongst Indians constitutes no assurance of success for Indra Kishore.

The genre that Western audiences recognize today as the “real” or “authentic” Dhrupad is no longer “Padashrita” (poetry -driven) and “Swarashrita” ( melody-driven) – as originally conceived – but Swarashrita and Layashrita (rhythm-driven). Dhrupad is, indeed, being globalized in order to service its trans-continental market.

Indra Kishore’s music, pegged to the poetic -melodic axis, is pitted against this reality. Notwithstanding his formidable musicianship and the richness of his repertoire, he remains on the fringes of the Dhrupad revival. If his style should drift into oblivion after him, Dhrupad will have lost some of the stylistic variety it still presents in a fast homogenising musical culture.

Deepak S Raja 2004
(c) India Archive Music, New York, producers of the finest recordings of Indra Kishore Mishra. 

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.