Song of Surrender

Saturday, 29 April 2017

A thinking vocalist

By Meena Banerjee

Shashank Maktedar, a die-hard devotee of Hindustani classical music, is among those bravehearts who are striving hard to win the approval of the elders in the field. He was not born with a golden voice like Rashid Khan, is not glamorous like Zakir Hussain; he is a shy, reticent, almost self-effacing young vocalist. And despite all these ‘disqualifications’, his music has haunted me ever since I heard him in 2012 during a mega-event at Dhaka, Bangladesh. Jointly organised by the Bengal Foundation, Dhaka, and ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata, this major Indo-Bangladesh venture in the arena of Indian classical music and dance, held from 29 November to 2 December, had four night-long sessions that featured almost a hundred top-ranking artists from all over India.

After this I attended numerous renowned annual soirees in Kolkata, but Shashank’s version of raga Sree, reverberating in the huge Army Stadium in Dhaka, stayed in my mind like a flawless painting. Pundits would probably give credit to the perfect timing which helped the raga to cast its spell – rendered as the last coppery rays of the day were slowly engulfed by the mysterious veil of dusk. Maybe, but any sensational musician, with his ego and showmanship ruling the roost, could have spoiled the mood. Instead, here was a devotee who, in his unobtrusive, quiet manner, with his eyes lovingly focused on the raga’s pristine features, was invoking its true spirit with utmost sincerity. It is the same sincerity that made his rendition of raga Bhoopali as impressive when he performed at the Jnana Pravaha Music Festival (22-24 February 2013) under the aegis of Vijay Kichlu’s Sangeet Ashram. Kichlu took pride in introducing this young maestro when he said, “Shashank was a scholar during my tenure in ITC SRA. He is one of the stars today, knocking at the doors of super-stardom.”

Early impact

I had heard Shashank in the late 1990s when he was receiving taleem from Ulhas Kashalkar, one of the best khayal exponents of this era. Even then he got noticed for his ear for purity of raga in the manner of his guru; so much so that the guru-sishya duo won the Jodu Bhatta award. But that was that. Maktedar then opted to become a teacher and joined Goa College of Music in 2000. A couple of years later he came down to perform at ITC SRA. The impressive maturity with which he etched the characters of the heavy Malkauns followed by a light-hearted Sohini is still fresh in my memory. He did not wring Malkauns out of its seriousness, nor did he drag Sohini down. Very few musicians show this kind of sensitivity in choosing ragas that can showcase their contemplative mood steeped in emotions along with sheer virtuosity. I had asked him then what inspired him to be so when the trend was to coerce the raga till all imagination (read khayal) ceased to exist. He had said, “Now that I teach, I get enough time to think.”

Home away from home

I wished to talk to him before he became a superstar. The only place to catch him in Kolkata is his guru’s residence within the ITC SRA premises. It is a home away from home with delicious Maharashtrian food dished out from the kitchen of Sanjeevani Kashalkar (his loving guruma), music and pooja sessions with his guruji and younger guru-bhais Sameehan Kashalkar, Omkar Dadarkar and many others. I dropped in unannounced on them one evening. While Shashank was having his supper, Ulhas, like a devoted father and the master of the house, came out of the dining room to treat me to sweets and equally sweet information, “Shashank is Dr. Shashank Maktedar now!” he announced with well-placed pride, “He has been awarded Ph.D for his Analytical Study of Pandit Gajananbuwa Joshi’s Musical Contribution. He is Assistant Professor in the vocal department of Goa Music College.” When Shashank stepped in, guru Kashalkar decided to slip out quietly to allow undivided space for discussion. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Who initiated you into music?

‘I belong to Aurangabad (Marathwada) and was fortunate to receive training in vocal music from Pandit Nath Narelkar, my first guru. I was barely eight years old when he accepted me as a student of his gurukul where, this vidya was given free of cost in the guru sishya parampara. Sincere dedication was all that he demanded. For twelve years I went there twice a day. So, morning and evening riyaz of two to four hours became my habit. The training followed a system but we never heard the word ‘gharana’ there. Frankly, in Marathwada, there was little or no influence of the Gwalior school. We admired Pandit Bhimsen Joshi a lot and, therefore, Kirana elements crept into our singing to a great extent.

What prompted you to come to the Sangeet Research Academy?

A National Talent Search was organised in 1991. I appeared from Hyderabad but there was no competition or audition test. I sang, they recorded my voice and sent it to SRA. I did not know what to expect. Suddenly we received a telegram which advised me to go to Calcutta. Upon reaching there, I was asked to sit for the competition immediately. And I stood first! When I went back home, my folks and Narelkarji encouraged me to take up this opportunity. I came to SRA as a scholar. Soon after, in 1992, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar joined the academy as a Guru. Kichlu Saheb gave me an option and I came under guruji’s guidance.

Was there any difference in their styles of teaching?

Huge! Earlier, after the basics, Narelkarji allowed us to use our imagination to do free-flowing alap. But here I learnt that alap too followed a frame, a structure. Pure raag-roop with the help of important phrases of the raga were most important. Perfection was the key word. There was no laxity, nothing between black and white. It was so different from what I had experienced earlier. It seemed that after tasting the life of a free bird I had entered a cage. There was a time when nothing seemed to move forward. It was very frustrating. Then suddenly avartan bharna (filling up the composition with innovative phrases), vistaar (elaborations), bol-alap (lyrics-based improvisations), taans – all became easy.

Ulhas Kashalkar sings in three different styles. Did you too learn Gwalior, Jaipur and Agra?

Initially I was taught the Gwalior style.. That is when I learnt ragas like Yaman, Sree and Behag. Later Guruji gave me Jaipur’s Behagda and Pooria. In 2006-7, I won a scholarship from Delhi’s Sanskriti Pratishthan. That is when I received extensive training in the Agra style and learnt ragas like Barwa, Gara Kanada and Dhanasree. Initially I was a photocopy of my guruji’s style of singing. He pushed me to come out of it. Now, as a teacher, I realise what treasures have been handed down to me. Whenever I need something, I peep into my collection and find such precious gems. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and feel a great sense of responsibility. This forces me to think about my music and inspires me to showcase this inherited treasure with utmost care. I need the blessings of my listeners to help me do so.

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Friday, 28 April 2017

K. Rajasekharan

Musicians in Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand

K Rajasekharan was one of the early vocalists to sing for Bharatanatyam in Chennai. Trained at Kalakshetra and with many years of service at the Little Flower School for the Blind, Rajasekharan looks back with contentment on his career spanning more than four decades. He shares some of his memories and thoughts with Sruti.

How did you come to Kalakshetra?

I had no intention of joining Kalakshetra. My father was a well-known vocalist for Kathakali in Kerala. It just happened that when my father and I passed through Chennai, we met Rukmini Devi who urged my father to send me to Chennai to study. I was only in third standard and came to Kalakshetra in 1958 or so. At one point Athai wanted me to leave my studies and join the music course as a full time student. I was very interested in studies and actually refused to do so! Being the generous person that she was, Athai let me complete my matriculation. I then finished the six-year Sangeeta Siromani course in music offered by Kalakshetra. I was a part of Kalakshetra for 16 years.

Who were your teachers at Kalakshetra?

I was trained by stalwarts like M.D. Ramanathan, Budalur Krishnamurthy, Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Ramaswamy Iyengar and D. Pasupati. What a galaxy of stars!

My mentor was Rukmini Devi. Sometimes on my way to college, she would pass by in her car and stop to ask me about my progress. She would even ask me to sing some new kriti I had learnt. It was a beautiful time in Kalakshetra. Athai was a gem of a person and it was amazing how her mind was always planning and strategising! One day an attender in school came to class and said that Athai would like to meet me. She needed a young Rama and Lakshmana for the dance-drama Sita Swayamwaram, and she was hoping to cast me. Fortunately for me, I was too small for the role or — who knows — today I might have been a dancer and not a vocalist!

What made you leave Kalakshetra? Was it a difficult decision?

After my course, I was keen on getting a job as I married early and wanted financial security. Kalakshetra was not in a position to offer me a job as we had great artists already teaching there. Somehow I was disillusioned by the lives our great teachers were forced to lead. I have seen my own teacher – Ramaswamy Iyengar – such a knowledgable musician, going from house to house to give tuitions to make both ends meet. I decided early in life that even if my salary was low, I wanted the security of a regular income.

Your decision led you to the Little Flower School for the Blind. How did you start the next chapter of your life there?

Initially, I worked with Dhananjayan Anna and Shanta Akka and they were of tremendous support. They guided me in singing for natyam and I sang for them for a long time. I also worked with M.V. Narasimhachari. One of my visually challenged colleagues in Kalakshetra knew that I was looking for a job and when an opening came up at the Little Flower School for the Blind, he asked me to apply. I was one of the first male tutors to join the institution and stayed there till I retired a few years ago. Maybe it was God’s will that I teach the students there. It was a wonderful experience.

Was it difficult to teach students at the school? Did you have to change your teaching methodology?

Not at all. Teaching visually challenged students is no different. The only thing I had to help them with was keeping tala. I would hold their hand and show them how to maintain tala. Otherwise it is the same. The level of their understanding depended on their interest and talent. Many of my students became good singers and have passed the higher level exams in music.

Besides vocal music, what else are you trained in?

I learnt gottuvadyam from Budalur and even performed a few times. I learnt Bharatanatyam for two years at Athai’s insistence. I was taught by Anandhi Teacher. I trained in nattuvangam thanks to Dhananjayan’s encouragement. At a time when students were not even allowed to touch the tattukazhi and nattuvangam in the Bharatanatyam world was termed ‘soyyam’ derogatively, he encouraged me to learn nattuvangam. I too was keen to pick up skills that would help me later.

Who are some of the well known artists you have sung for?

Besides the Dhananjayans and Narasimhacharis, I have sung for Chitra Visweswaran and Shobana. We have travelled widely abroad on long tours.

What are the challenges an artist faces as a Bharatanatyam accompanist?

It is not as easy as mainstream kutcheri artists think it is! It requires a different approach. I remember once during the Natya Kala Conference, the mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman commented on stage that playing for dance was easy. Someone from the audience got up and challenged him to play for Bharatanatyam the following year at the same conference. He accepted and went to Adyar Lakshman to practise. The next year at the conference, he admitted that he was mistaken and that it was actually not that easy!

I feel that music should be used in any way beneficial to others. It does not matter whether you are a kutcheri artist or an accompanist for dance. We have to serve society in whatever way we can.

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

[Note: Rajasekharan referred to his gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]

Birthdays & Anniversaries

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Kaushiki- Rakesh jugalbandi

A triumph of communication

By PNV Ram

My four-day long visit to SIFAS helped me to understand the work the institution has done in the last fifty years to promote Indian classical music and dance in Singapore. Among the people I met were those who extended their warm hospitality and shared several insights into the functioning of SIFAS. Mr PS Somasekharan took great trouble over making my stay comfortable and gave me a delightful lunch at Singapore Cricket Club, where I had played a match back in January 1978 as a member of the visiting Deccan Blues Cricket Club. He also made sure I had transport and good seats at every concert besides driving me around whenever possible. Mr Ashok Talwar was another person who made my visit enjoyable.

Dr ST Kasinathan took me on a conducted tour of SIFAS, taking me to a variety of class rooms and introducing me to the dedicated faculty and other staff. Dr Seshan Ramaswami, Ms Sarita Alurkar-Sriram, Mr and Mr Shankar Rajan have all been part of Kala Manjari, a coffee table book on SIFAS's role in propagating Indian music and dance for the last fifty years, and it was a pleasure to interact with them and learn a bit of the SIFAS lore from them.  More about this in a later blog post.

Among the highlights of the SIFAS festival this year was the jugalbandi between Kaushiki Chakraborty and Rakesh Chaurasia. The duo obviously enjoy a brilliant chemistry on stage, and this enabled them to keep the packed hall totally hooked to the music on offer. Both boast impeccable pedigrees as does Satyajit Talwalkar, the tabla artist who accompanied them that evening. Not only did the artists offer music of quality, both Kaushiki and Rakesh, displayed a certain spontaneity as communicators, and drew as much applause for their witty remarks as their music. The vocalist and flautist performed solo first before combining in the second part of the concert. The choice of ragas was refreshingly different from the menu we are used to in Chennai, where visiting Hindustani musicians tend to give us an overdose of Yaman. Kaushiki's Rageshri was beautifully rendered, especially in the slower pace. The gifted singer that she is, Kaushiki tends to overdo the virtuosic part of superfast taans and incredible voice modulation that she is capable of. Sure enough, she earned tremendous applause with her extraordinary prowess, but it did seem like avoidable overkill to an old-fashioned rasika.

Likewise, Rakesh Chaurasia, too, knows how to wow his young audience, and who are we traditionalists to complain when speed and extreme sound effects take over from evocative music to the delight of the majority of those present? Like many other rasikas I know, I have long been a critic of the harmonium as an instrument for Indian classical music, but within the limitations of the instrument, young accompanist Tanmay Deochake was delightfully inventive and supportive of the main artists, showing excellent aesthetics.

Of the SIFAS musicians and dancers I heard or watched, PK Geethanadhan, a Kalakshetra product, was most impressive in his margam performance. His abhinaya was as striking as his nritta, and his trim, boyish figure made the performance a visual treat. The singing by TP Nishanth (said to be a disciple of PS Narayanaswami and a recent entrant into singing for dance), nattuvangam by PN Vikas, violin by Naveen Kumar, flute by V Sivakumar and mridangam by Tripunithura Sreekanth, were a perfect foil for Geethanadhan's dance, and the overall effect was as dignified and aesthetically pleasing as a Kalakshetra production.

The other local artists (among those I heard) to give a good account of themselves included Seema Jayesh (Hindustani vocal), Sabapathy Tirupathy Ramana (Carnatic flute) and Gayatri Krishna (Carnatic vocal). Ramana tended to get carried away with his own virtuosity, while his accompanists Naveen Kumar (violin) and Tripunithura Sreekanth (mridangam) were a sobering influence on him. Both Seema Jayesh (of the Kairana gharana) and Gayatri Krishna seemed to have minor vocal niggles, but both acquitted themselves very well. Gayatri has been a student of the redoubtable teacher Seetha Rajan of Chennai, and the Semmangudi bani was very much in evidence in her concert. The violin-sitar jugalbandi by Bharati Murali and Priya Bedekar never really took off after promising much, perhaps as a result of insufficient practice together. Young Kathak dance Os Agrawal did a neat job of her performance, bringing credit to her guru Mulla Afsar Khan, an ever present encouragement at the venue.

It was overall a very satisfying sample of the local talent available.