Song of Surrender

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Dharwar: A southern seat of Hindustani music (Part II)

By Gowri Ramnarayan

(Continued from blogpost dated 15 February 2013)

Two eminent singers from Dharwar started with the same guru from the Gwalior gharana, and worked in drama companies, but developed their own original music.

Mallikarjun Mansur was born in a family of agriculturists in Mansur village. His exposure to music came from brother Basavaraj of Wamanrao Master’s drama troupe. Nilkanthbua was so impressed by his talent that he took him on as his disciple. Mansur returned to acting for his livelihood, but dreamed of becoming a classical singer. It was suggested he take further training from Sawai Gandharva, but Mansur did not rate his music high. At a friend’s shop in Bombay, he chanced to meet Manji Khan, son of maestro Alladiya Khan. The friend played a record of Mansur to persuade Manji Khan to teach the Dharwar man. Followed rewarding lessons, which continued after the master’s demise under his brother Bhurji Khan. The bristling complexities of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana fascinated Mansur. He revelled in its challenging rhythm patterns, its vast repertoire of ragas, in the techniques of khyal singing. It gave him freedom to improvise in the grand manner. His treatment of the antara came in for special attention.

Son and disciple Rajshekhar Mansur, a vocalist who teaches English at the Dharwar University, reminisced, “Our house of two rooms had to hold us eight siblings. We woke to father’s morning riyaz, returned from school to hear him practise, and went to sleep at night with his voice ringing in our ears. No, he did not encourage me to take up music as a profession. He had faced too many problems in his career”.

Many thought Mansur was difficult, haughty. Certainly he had few disciples compared to those who crowded the Rajguru home. “Father was impatient,” admitted Rajshekhar. “He never praised me. Today I am glad he didn’t. It kept me growing”. Disciple S. V. Bhirdikar reasoned that perhaps Mansur’s sishyas simply did not meet his standards. “He was totally engrossed in his music. Were we as passionately committed, I wonder.” A friend repeated Mansur’s rueful admission in old age, “People flock to hear me now as they never did when I was at the peak of my powers”.

The vocalist could be sharp tongued. When an old timer complained he did not sing like Alladiya Khan, Mansur demonstrated that style and said, “This is Khansaheb’s method, but am I his stenographer?” Scholars surmised that Mansur’s highlighting the tara shadja was the influence of Rehmat Khan of Gwalior. Rajashekhar summed up, “Unlike Rajguru, my father never tried to please the audience. Rather, he tried to raise them to his level”. Mansur is remembered for introducing the highly philosophical Kannada vachanas of Basava and Mahadevi Akka in Hindustani music. The idea was mooted by Kannada novelist A. N. Krishnarao on a stroll by the Shalmali river.

A restless spirit was Basavaraj Rajguru who spent his lifetime learning from as many sources as possible. An astonishing twelve gurus from many parts of India and several gharanas tell their own tale. He went to Lateef Khan in Pakistan, managing to escape with his skin intact during the Partition years. When bandits attacked the Frontier Mail near Amritsar, young Basavaraj hid under the train on the steel shafts. He was wholly without guile. “I found this cheez in the Agra gharana,” he would announce on the stage and proceed to sing it. On his boltaans the impact of Carnatic music was evident, especially of swaraprastara.

Rajguru’s home in Dharwar was unpretentious. We were welcomed by his son who ran a grocery shop at the entrance. Soft-spoken Prabhavati Devi was proud to share her memories of her late husband. “He was from a family of priests who served kings, but I always saw him as a raja. Begum Akhtar called him Sur ka Badshah (king of melody).”

We piece together the facts of Rajguru’s career from her account. Beginning with Carnatic music at six, and initial training under Panchakshari Gavai, Rajguru went on a cross-country pilgrimage of learning. Not satisfied with khyal, he studied dhrupad, dhamar, tappa, thumri, ghazal, qawwali and bhajan. He cut several popular discs, acted in plays which touched his concert renderings of natyasangeet with a verve all their own. With an amazing collection of 12,000 compositions, he shaped his individual style. And though he failed to train his children in music, he had many disciples who remember him with love and gratitude.

Shantaram Hegde who taught at the Karnatak Music College burst out, “He was everything we wanted in a guru. He gave us affection and no holds barred training, often correcting our mistakes with a joke. As accompanists we could not follow him on his soaring flights in the upper octave. He would smile at us with sympathy as he hit the high notes. He encouraged us to try many things, gave appreciation when it was due.”

Since this discussion took place at the radio station in Dharwar, we attracted staff members eager to share stories about this colourful artist. Raghunath Nakod, who accompanied Rajguru on the tabla, started describing Rajguru’s lovable eccentricities. “He carried 24 pieces of luggage, including a wooden crate which held his VIP suitcase”. Some of the trunks contained a whole kitchen of vessels and provisions. Rajguru cooked his own food, which he shared with his party. He would ask Raghunath to practise as long as he cooked - in order to drown the noise of the kerosene stove, banned in lodges!

He carried drinking water in pots placed in buckets. When the water got over between two concerts in Delhi, Rajguru thought nothing of journeying back to Dharwar for a refill. His love of milk made him take the train everyday to Hubli, to a special vendor who supplied it. In Bombay he would go to Victoria Road from his Dadar lodge, just to treat himself and his accompanists to milk at a particular halwai’s place. They were pressed to enjoy the delicacies of each town at the guru’s expense. Rajguru invariably halted at Pune on his way to Bombay to spend a few days at his favourite Badshah Lodge. There, late at night, he recorded some of his vast repertoire. “Generous to a fault, he spent lavishly,” sighed Hegde.

Dharwar has not made any notable contribution to instrumental music. But two families settled in the town produced three generations of sitar and tabla players. Arjunsa Nakod took music lessons to work in a drama company. Son Raghunath and siblings took up the tabla and perform as a trio. They are much in demand as accompanists to leading artists. Grandson Ravikiran is a talent to watch for.

The sitar family’s oldest living member is A. Karim Khan, with a vocalist grandfather and a beenkar father Rehmat Khan. “He had to transfer the been technique to the sitar to make a living. His guru forbade him to take money for playing the been,” says the bedridden Khansaheb. His seven sons play the sitar, including Bale Khan at AIR. The family orchestrates several sitars for the occasional show.

At the time of writing, Dharwar had no star musician except for Gangubai Hangal. The department of music at the university and the Karnatak Music College turned out only degree holding teachers. But the town had something of immense value. It had dedicated teachers of the Gwalior, Jaipur and Kirana gharanas like the gentle, sweet voiced Chandrasekhar Puranikmath; and Sangameshwar Gurav, a direct disciple of Bhaskarbua Bhakle and Abdul Karim Khan. His ancestors were Carnatic musicians, which explains his son Kaivalya Kumar’s introducing its flavours in his gayaki. To father and son, Abdul Karim Khan’s words were a litany, “Music must reach not the ear alone, but the heart”.

Such teachers were not without hope for Dharwar’s future in music. “There is excellent talent here,” said Puranikmath. “It may take a while to mature. And there are earnest listeners to encourage it”. Gurav conceded that the eagerness of youngsters could get dissipated because Dharwar did not offer them a future. There were no industrialist sponsors, no media attention.

But Kaivalya Kumar’s obvious vocal skills prove that, with commitment and sound training, such drawbacks can be overcome. Groomed by father Bale Khan in the sitar, young Hafiz Ali Khan had the last word. “Dharwar is a great place for learning music without the distractions and tensions of city life. Artists are respected here. A career can be pursued anywhere; the important thing is to complete my training”.

(This is an edited version of the article “Where North Meets South” that appeared in The Hindu Folio in November 1998)

Gowri Ramnarayan is a performing arts critic, playwright and translator)

(Concluded)

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