Desert Island #20: Mallikarjun Mansur, Desh

At its heart, the formal edifice of classical music rests upon older and more deeply-rooted melodies drawn from folk and religious music. Architectural complexity and structured presentation can provide food for the intellect, but it can also detract from the primal appeal of these roots. Classical pieces that retain the raw emotional energy of folk, to the point that the technical structure becomes secondary, are rare. Classical pieces that further imbue their folk bases with a certain transcendent mysticism are still rarer. This recording of Mallikarjun Mansur singing Desh (variously labelled as Sorath) is to me the profoundest example of the latter category. It is futile for me to attempt a technical analysis of its appeal. Suffice it to say that, as a friend wrote of Faiyyaz Khan’s Jaunpuri, this is the recording I would like to hear on my deathbed.


Desert Island #19: Faiyyaz Khan, Bhairavi Thumri

There is a fine line between moving and maudlin. This line is probably crossed most often in the genre of thumri, where the themes and compositions lend themselves to excessively romanticized expression. When the composition exudes weepy sentimentality at both the literal and allegorical levels, being both the tearful goodbye of a bride leaving her parental home as well as the lament of Wajid Ali Shah, the ousted Nawab of Lucknow, looking back at his lost city, then restraint is doubly difficult. K. L. Saigal’s classic rendition of “bAbul morA naihar chhooto jAye” for “Street Singer”, far from attempting any such restraint, is embedded within a third layer of cinematic and narrative melodrama.

In this live recording, Faiyyaz Khan deftly uses inflection, repetition and pukaar to imbue the song with all the requisite pathos and nostalgia. Yet the rendition also maintains perfect structural form while being an object lesson in improvised raga exposition. Each iteration of a repeated line logically builds upon, yet is distinct from, the previous one — an exercise in continuity, counterpoint and tension that brings the best of Gwalior-Agra bol-taans to the natural bol-banao of the thumri. Colloquial exclamations are judiciously inserted as both emotive hooks and structural punctuation. For a punch-in-the-guts example of the gestalt effect, just listen to the 6:30-7:30 passage.

If this was all, the piece would be remarkable. But Faiyyaz Khan is also allusive, contextualizing the piece within a broad musical and textual canvas. At 0:50, he perfectly sets up the characteristic movement to the mukhda of his dadra “banAo batiyAn” before mischievously returning to the main piece. Around 6:10, he throws in a tappa-style taan. The full-throated enunciation of the high notes evokes the style of Zohrabai Agrewali. The laggi, which starts out in the expected fast repetitive format, gradually morphs into a much wider spectrum of bolkari and layakari until it becomes clear that it was simply the launching point for the full-fledged drut conclusion. And in a nod to the composer, Faiyyaz Khan weaves in the nawab’s morose couplet: “dar-o-deewAr par hasrat se nazar karte hain/khush raho ahle watan, hum to safar karte hain”.

Who sings today by quoting Wajid Ali for Wajid Ali, all in one seamless musical whole?

Desert Island #18: Vilayat Hussain Khan, Bilawal ke Prakar

Vilayat Hussain Khan is regularly consigned to second fiddle status in historical retrospective. Within the Agra gharana, he was a cousin, contemporary and confrere of Faiyyaz Khan, whose larger-than-life presence dominated the gharana. This extended even to stories about them. There are any number of colourful anecdotes about Faiyyaz Khan, my favourite being the one where he takes taleem from a bootlegger in Dharmatala while Hafiz Ali and Enayet Khan replenish their alcohol stock behind his back. Any story about Vilayat Hussain, on the other hand, invariably pitches him as the “good conduct prize” candidate: either as a devoted disciple or as a dedicated teacher. His pedagogical legacy is immense and his compositions, featuring the “Pranpiya” takhallus, are widely sung. Yet we do not regularly listen to him actually sing.

Vilayat Hussain Khan’s short recordings are the best examples of his music. If Faiyyaz Khan’s 78s are expressions of emotive genius, Vilayat Hussain’s achieve perfection of structural form: the combination of perfect composition and perfect delivery. Far from being dry technical exercises, they jump to the heart of the raga from the first note and take up permanent quarters there.

In this collection, I have collated four Bilawals sung by Vilayat Hussain: Sarparda, Alhaiya, Nat and Kukubh. The Sadarang bandish in Sarparda Bilawal, “ri more Aye ghar saiyAn”, gets things going with a beautifully convoluted approach to the madhyam, linking descending meends before straightening out upwards for the sam. The taans appear as extensions of the bandish, never straying from the melodic theme. The second recording, in Alhaiya Bilawal, is a more straightforward affair, serving as a canonical reference for the raga. Its brisk, cheerful air, however, gives way to the sombre romanticism of the Nat ang in the subsequent Nat Bilawal, characterized by the step-by-step ascent through the poorvang and a more linear, sustained structure. The final piece in Kukubh Bilawal is a Pranpiya special featuring some spirited taankari.

For me, these recordings capture the soul of Bilawal: a certain restrained optimism, a morning blitheness that is attenuated by the individual characters of the different prakars. Rarely does this soul find better expression than in the simple perfection of Vilayat Hussain Khan.

Desert Island #17: Sharafat Hussain Khan, Darbari Kanada

How long can a musician test the patience of their audience? Aside from experimental specials like John Cage’s 639-year magnum opus, the longest traditional symphony is under two hours long. John Coltrane claims a 65-minute jazz solo. A pop song anywhere in the world rarely breaks 10 minutes, “Thick as a Brick” notwithstanding.

In this recording, Sharafat Hussain Khan sings Darbari for 2 hours and 30 minutes, flat. The alap itself is 80 minutes. When they said his music will last forever, this is presumably not what they had in mind.

Of course stories of hoary ustads singing Yaman for four hours abound. One does not know how many listeners had fallen asleep or simply died of old age by the time the performance finished.

Yet the most remarkable thing about this recording is that it is not a sonorous sleeping pill. On the contrary, it is a tour de force of extended raga exposition, starting with a perfectly structured traditional Agra alap-jod that progresses through weighted, undulating aakar and nom-tom movements from the poorvang to the uttarang, slowly introducing a pulsing rhythm. At the 1 hour 20 minute mark, the first line of “hazrat turakmAn”, surely the greatest song written in Darbari, drumrolls onto the scene. For a performer of mercurial (and occasionally overdone) improvisatory wit, Sharafat is nevertheless in a mood of high seriousness in the vilambit. The last 20 minutes of drut are rather dodgy especially in the over-the-top and discordant layakari. (He was probably getting a kick out of giving Kishen Maharaj’s saath sangat a run for its money, and can I say I’m not a fan of KM’s drut accompaniment.) It’s nowhere as good as, say, his mamujaan’s late recording of the same bandish. This detracts little from the experience. It deserves a dark room, an excellent sound system, a glass of one’s favourite poison and, yes, at least two uninterrupted hours of your time.

Desert Island #16: Ali Akbar Khan, Darbari Kanada

In this series, I’ve tried to select recordings that stand out not just for their melodic geometry, but also for a sense of individualized expression, a mark of the musician that serves as, to borrow a phrase, an aural self-portrait. Of the great instrumentalists, Ali Akbar Khan’s genius lay in the shadows, in the middle and lower tones and, most tellingly, in descending movements. These qualities are on ample display in his best renditions of the traditional Darbari Kanada. In its default form, the raga comes with a heavy dose of “darbar”: the sombre, lamp-lit heaviness of its eponymous royal courts — think Vilayat Khan’s classic alap, characterized by a certain romantic richness. Ali Akbar, by contrast, strips away this courtly baggage, exposing the lonely, searching core of the raga. The sarod’s mellow, deep and clear sound aids this project, yet as is common in the case of Ali Akbar, no other sarod Darbari sounds like his, in a list that includes greats such as Radhika Mohan Maitra and Bahadur Khan. This Darbari dives deeper into itself, caught up in its own interiority.

Several of Ali Akbar Khan’s early recordings reveal this sustained urge to charge into the solitary depths of the raga, to make even the most innocuous material an acutely personal vehicle for romance, whimsy, or a brooding darkness (not necessarily separately). In Darbari, at least, this urge never left him. The alap from the 1950s (below), recorded when he was roughly as old as his son Alam is now (or for that matter I am now), is as fine an example as any of what an introspective young man in somewhat turbulent circumstances is capable of. But fast forward three decades to 1986, and this Darbari sounds as inward and troubled as ever. The 7-minute 1986 alap is also the most insightful precis of the raga I know of.

Sharad Sathe and the Gwalior voice

Published in Scroll, March 24, 2017, as “Why Gwalior gharana vocalist Sharad Sathe occupies a remarkable position in Hindustani music”.

Sharad Sathe_2
First Edition Arts

Modern Hindustani classical music is the product of a continuous process of assimilation, cross-pollination, and experimentation. These processes operate not just across traditional stylistic schools, or gharanas, but also within individual schools. If we tease apart the tangled threads of pedagogy and influence, we find a rich narrative of a living and changing art form.

The vocal master Sharad Sathe personifies the complex development of a singing style within a single gharana — Gwalior — and largely within the musical community of a single small region, Mumbai and Pune. Sathe, who turned 85 in February, is appearing in concert in Mumbai this Sunday as the fourth musician in First Edition Arts’ Secret Masters Sessions, a series featuring phenomenal musicians who have remained hidden from mainstream view. Sathe, who lived in Mumbai for most of his adult life, moved to Pune two years ago. His performance will bring the first year of the series — which has already featured Arun Kashalkar, Narayanrao Bodas and Jayashree Patnekar — to a close.

To convey Sathe’s remarkable position in contemporary music, it is necessary to provide some historical context. The Gwalior school, the oldest pedagogical tradition of khayal, traces its roots to the court of Mohammad Shah “Rangile” of Delhi. … more in Scroll

Desert Island #15: Amir Khan by SNS Sastry

Can a film say as much about a singer as the music itself, to the extent that it can be regarded as a bona fide part of their oeuvre? When Jim Jarmusch cast Iggy Pop and Tom Waits (thank you, lord, for Tom Waits) in Coffee and Cigarettes, it was an eccentric take on two eccentric (to put it kindly) people that works because it riffs off exactly these eccentricities. “I delivered a baby this morning, about 9 o’clock.” “The beauty of quitting is that, now that I’ve quit, I can have one. Because I’ve quit.”

In 1970, the experimentalist filmmaker SNS Sastry turned his lens to Amir Khan, the famously avant garde vocalist. Sastry was on the staff of the Films Division of India, at a time when the sarkari machinery was surprisingly catholic in its tastes despite serving, as all such bodies do, as the propaganda arm of the government (e.g. see S. Sukhdev’s “After the Silence” (1977), a film that incongruously combines an indignant social conscience with praise for the Emergency). Sastry’s 20 minute shorts exploited cubist montages of protagonists and perspectives — both visual and sociopolitical. Even when clearly commissioned to make a film in the “national spirit”, Sastry managed to imbue it with a certain multifaceted, ironic whimsy, as in his classic “I am 20” (1967), a documentary on people born on 15th August 1947. Other films served as meta-narratives on the nature of documentary itself.

It is quite likely Amir Khan made it to Sastry’s list of subjects by government fiat. The result, however, was neither propaganda, nor hagiography, nor history, but a uniquely modernist take on a modernist artist. It concerns itself not with the story of Amir Khan but with the experience of Amir Khan, in the wave of a hand by a train window, the indulgence of street food, fragments of domestic life, philosophical ruminations, and a background of seen and unseen music. Perhaps more than anything else, the film conveys a sense of fragility — of a transformational (but classical) musician, who simultaneously straddled several worlds, as one rather vulnerable part of a changing sociopolitical fabric.

Amir Khan died at 61 in a road accident in 1974, Sastry at 48 in 1978. Their premature deaths bookended the trauma of the Emergency, inflicted by a cruel state that sought its own glory in the art of the former and through the art of the latter. It is fitting that the film itself is bookended by a haunting poem of Josh Malihabadi on finding meaning in our brief sojourn between birth and death in an uncertain world. But another couplet of Ghalib, which makes an appearance halfway through the film, is perhaps more telling:

ranj se khugar hua insaan to mit jaata hai ranj
mushkilein mujh par padi itni ki aasaan ho gayin

Desert Island #14: Mallikarjun Mansur, Lachchhasakh

(This is the second of a two-part post, #13 being the first.)

About 15 years ago, I discovered a raga that rejoiced in the strange name of Lachchhasakh. More investigation revealed three siblings: Devsakh, Bhavsakh and Ramsakh, all positioned at different points on some odd triangle between Kanada, Bilawal and Kafi; Lachchhasakh being the most Bilawal-ish of the lot. At the time, the only recording I had ever heard of the latter raga was this 8-minute clip of Mallikarjun Mansur, featuring a bandish that he obtained from Azizuddin Khan, who presumably inherited it directly from Alladiya Khan. I came across Limayebuwa’s version of this haunting composition — ab kachhu kahA nA gaye more bAlam — much later.

The Sakhs are usually labelled “aprachalit” (uncommon) and complex ragas. Rajshekhar Mansur, in an interview covering the Sakhs and more, makes the point that all ragas are complex to get right: familiarity has simply dulled the complexity of common melodies. The Jaipur Lachchhasakh is an ideal follow-up to the nearly as aprachalit Shukla Bilawal, being a similar raga in many ways but with less obvious strains of Alhaiya Bilawal.

Mansur’s recording was immediately arresting. It is a busier melody than Shukla Bilawal even though both hover around the gandhar-madhyam sangati. But just as there can be two Mansurs, as I noted in the previous post, there can be Mansur vs everyone else. No other Lachchhasakh, not even Rajshekhar-buwa’s solo efforts even though he is singing backing vocals in this recording, captures the soaring energy of Mansur’s interpretation, imbuing the text with a potent mix of romance, nostalgia, aspiration and finality. The relatively fast tempo contributes to the sense of rising restlessness. It is unclear how often he sang this raga in public (this is the only recording I know of), but if I had to devise the ideal morning concert, an in-form Mansur starting with Shukla Bilawal and ending with Lachchhasakh sounds about right.

Desert Island #13: Mallikarjun Mansur, Shukla Bilawal

(This is the first of a two-part post, #14 will be the second.)

There is presumably some ineffable combination of factors that makes one performance of the same piece, by the same musician, dramatically different from another. Whether it’s audience, inspiration, time constraints, the quality of the morning chai, or the itchiness of one’s underclothing, we can only conjecture. As a case in point, allow me to present Exhibit A: Mallikarjun Mansur’s commercial recording of Shukla Bilawal for Music Today. This is a competent, rather accelerated run-through of a standard-issue Jaipur text. There is absolutely nothing special about it. Perhaps Buwa simply bottled up in studios? Perhaps he was thinking of an upcoming appointment with the dentist? Perhaps he had spotted Jasraj entering the building? Perhaps he had run out of beedis? Who knows?

On the other hand, here is Exhibit B, a live recording from the Calcutta Music Circle in 1975. Buwa has got his teeth firmly into the spirit of things this time. He’s slowed down the pace and is letting the raga take its time to warm up. There’s much more intent and weight behind the long syllables. Mansur sang his fair share of morning ragas in general and Bilawals in particular, but this rendition of Shukla stands out for a certain clarity of purpose, an unaffected purity of expression that is warm, not clinical. The taankari, when it comes, seamlessly weaves in and out of the bandish without appearing mechanistic. This is an uplifting rendition of an uplifting melody.

Shukla Bilawal is a particular favourite of the Jaipurwalas, going back to Laxmibai Jadhav’s 78 (about as close as it gets to perfection in vocal music). Even in this august company, Mansur’s exposition is a tour-de-force, demonstrating why one cannot draw conclusions from a single recording. The false start to the drut adds a pinch of humour.

Desert Island #12: Gangubai Hangal, Abhogi

In the days before he developed a strange predilection for a certain musical family, the critic Nilaksha Gupta wrote some perceptive essays on music. One of these was an obituary of Nikhil Banerjee in which he compared the style of the late sitarist to those of Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan. While generally extolling Mr Banerjee’s virtues, he noted a particular caveat: “I once had the opportunity of listening to the raga Marwa played by Nikhil Banerjee and Ravi Shankar within, say, two weeks of each other. I had heard the Nikhil Banerjee recital first… and remember coming back very satisfied. Then came the Ravi Shankar Marwa. I immediately noticed the raga mood, its awesome sombre effect was palpably greater in the Ravi Shankar recital… I realized that Nikhil Banerjee, by the flowing mellifluence of his style and his penchant for working out unusual combinations had diluted somewhat the sombre roughness that gives Marwa its potent character.”

This observation must lie at the heart of any appraisal of Gangubai Hangal. In my previous post I wrote about the unfettered voice of Kesarbai Kerkar. In this respect, Gangubai is the anti-Kesarbai, with a voice sounding more and more over the years like a wheezy foghorn with a cold. Yet compare her rendition of a raga like Abhogi with that of any great contemporary, whether Amir Khan or Hirabai Barodekar or Bhimsen Joshi. The starkness with which she hits the madhyam is not a liability, rather it lends a uniquely raw emotion to the sound. Gangubai’s cracked and abbreviated attack on notes, an exercise in grand asceticism, is vividly different from that of her neighbour Kumar Gandharva, who placed his staccato delivery at the service of melodramatic romanticism.

Like many women musicians of her age, Gangubai navigated a society deeply entrenched and stratified on issues of gender, caste and the role of the performing arts. Many of these intersectional issues are outlined in Somak Ghoshal’s excellent obituary. On Women’s Day, it serves to keep them in mind as we turn off the lights, look out into the darkness, and listen to Gangubai Hangal’s broken foghorn of a voice traverse the severe contours of Abhogi.