Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Viru, come back!

By MV Swaroop

Ramachandra Guha wrote some time ago on being reminded of Sehwag's batting while listening to Bismillah Khan. Khan-saheb, he wrote, was "both joyful and guileless". This assertion struck a chord, for I've always associated Sehwag's batting with another Indian classical musician, Madurai Mani Iyer, whose music was often described in those very terms—joyful and guileless.

Mani Iyer's music makes you sway from side-to-side, it makes you tap your feet, it puts a ear-to-ear smile on your face. His music is audacious, it is irresistible, and when he gets going on those long swarakalpana flights, it seems almost unstoppable. He can be funny, he can be cheeky. He can make your heart skip a beat with the most pure phrase, and he can make you raise your eyebrows with something unexpectedly unorthodox. His music is for the laymen, his music is for the experts.

Sounds like Sehwag?

But the more I listen to Mani Iyer, the more I discover how much is hidden below the surface. It is joyful, yes, but it possesses depth that isn't usually associated with joy. It is weighty, and again, that word doesn't always go with joy. It is more scholarly than it initially seems, and somehow, the scholarliness rests lightly on its shoulders. It is pristine classical music, steeped in tradition, soaked in history. That sort of music is supposed to be obscure, inward, pondering. Not joyful, right?

The cliche about Test Match batting is similar. It takes years of training, years of experience. It is supposed to be a slow grind. Tantric concentration is key. Physical and mental stamina must work together with technique and judgment to erect monuments. It is supposed to bring joy to those who know what goes into it and be inscrutable to others.

Sehwag inverts that idea of Test Match batting, like Mani Iyer did with classical music. His batting is carefree; he often sings when he bats. His batting is intuitive, it is impulsive. His batting isn't about control, it is about letting go. His batting is visceral, it is overpowering. Still, Sehwag is first a Test Match batsman, because, like Mani Iyer's music, his batting has pathos, his batting has weight, his batting is scholarly.

Sehwag's technique is underrated. While his feet don't move as much as the purists would like, his balance is faultless. In economy of movement, Sehwag has almost no parallel in his generation. Even so, he gets into great positions, he gets his weight behind the ball, he generates power, his timing is almost otherworldly. When he is batting at his best, there is not one extra flourish, not one unnecessary movement. If that isn't great technique, I don't know what technique is.

Madurai Mani Iyer's swara-improvisation is marked for its "sarvalaghu" -- a way in which he spontaneously builds patterns and structures of notes, almost unendingly, one after another, like torrential downpour. Nothing is planned, nothing is pre-set. But following that intuitive path of "sarvalaghu", Mani Iyer created edifices of notes and patterns of such spectacular imagination, executed with such ease and clarity. Musicians struggle to create equivalents with meticulous planning! It sounds easy when you hear it -- he just seems to be singing what comes to him at that point in time -- but it is more difficult than to just reproduce plans. It needs an innate grasp of a dimension of the art that is most elusive -- its philosophy. Mani Iyer grasped that, just like Sehwag understands the philosophy of Test Match batting. Neither might be able to put that philosophy in words, but one can tell from their art (ask CLR James, batting is an art) that they know something subconsciously that most others don't. That insight is what makes their art joyful.

Serious health issues deprived Mani Iyer of his voice at the peak of his powers. He came back, singing at a lower pitch, now more a senior statesman than a young maverick. He performed until the day he died. I hope Sehwag comes back from being dropped, perhaps settling for a lower, more comfortable pitch, to delight us with his most unbridled brand of batting for some more years. 

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