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.

Desert Island #11: Kesarbai Kerkar, Desh

A conventionally good voice is often regarded as a secondary concern in Hindustani music. Gajananrao Joshi would never find employment in Bollywood, but is rightfully regarded as a phenomenal singer despite his C-grade voice. In fact, one could argue that the rawness of his voice sometimes adds to the impact.

That said, there is something to be said for the effect of a voice like Kesarbai Kerkar’s. It has a moderate timbre, and within the ambit of her style is completely unfettered by any technical limitations whatsoever. Every note is clear and accurate, every glide is smooth, and every long chain is linked together seamlessly without apparent need for breath. The grave danger for such a singer is in sounding like a textbook that has learnt to speak, or in getting carried away by one’s own virtuosity. Yet Kesarbai manages to employ her voice and technique in the service of great music, with weight, phrasing and idiom.

This recording of Desh, published under the Broadcast label, has a sound balance that is so off whack that the sarangi and tabla are virtually inaudible. This is a stroke of great good luck. We can hear Kesarbai as an unfiltered singer, who really needs no accompaniment to convey the full force of her music. The effect hits one in the guts.

Desert Island #10: Nikhil Banerjee, Hem Behag

Between roughly the ages of 17 and 30, I went through a protracted Nikhil Banerjee “phase”. I collected every recording I could find. I followed up on every scrap of trivia. I began translating his biography into English (I abandoned it after a couple of chapters because the Bengali original is one of the most atrociously written books I have encountered). I took the train up to Berkeley every Friday to sit with Steven Baigel as he worked on his NB documentary. In short, I was a fan.

This phase slowly passed. Nikhil Banerjee appeared less and less in my playlists. I started listening to other sitarists with increasing intellectual appreciation, even if their music rarely held the same immediate appeal for me. And vocalists further extended their hegemony.

Yet NB remains a soft spot. This Hem Behag (Discogs entry) was the first recording of his that I owned. It lacks an alap and is incongruously tabla-heavy. Kishen Maharaj could be accused of going completely overboard with the constant improvisation. Yet in some strange way it works, partly because of the compositional genius of Allauddin Khan, and partly because the sitar treads a light path between restraint and whimsy.

Nikhil Banerjee passed away in 1986 at the age of 54 (cf DI #9). When I was given this recording, I was told that it was played on loudspeakers in Kolkata after his death. Many years later, I was in a taxi inching through peak Durga Puja traffic between Ekdalia and Singhi Park when I heard it again, floating above the rooftops, far above the milling crowds. Kolkata, that incurable romantic among cities, sometimes finds an impeccable sense of timing.

Desert Island #9: Sharafat Hussain Khan, Chhaya Behag

Sharafat Hussain Khan, who passed away in 1985 at the young age of 55, was a master of the long format khayal. In this 75-minute performance of Chhaya Behag, he starts with the vilambit composition “saba nisha jAgi” (who knows if he sang alap before this or not!). A lengthy phase of relatively unstructured raga elaboration is followed by increasing layakari, including some terrific addha bol-baant heavily stressed on the first syllable, creating a sequence of off-beat bha-gana/dactylic feet. More bolkari follows. After a solid hour of this, he finishes with the self-composed drut “kala nAhi pAv”. Shitty recording, shitty harmonium, but a singer very much in the mood. I have returned to this recording over and over again since my teens.

A few comments about the raga. Rajan Parrikar describes it as Behag plus the P-R swoop of Chhaya. The Ramashreya Jha recording he provides illustrates this view: it is literally pure Behag plus an awkwardly inserted (PR),G line. Radhika Mohan Maitra’s beautiful half hour piece has a Behag-heavy alap but with a different (and more attractive) insertion of Chhaya in the poorvang including considerable attention to the rishabh. The gat opens with a heavier dose of Chhaya focusing on the rishabh and gandhar, before bringing in the GMPNS of Behag in the uttarang and reverting to a wholesale reunion with Behag in the taans. The Agra Chhaya Behag appears to be a third Chhaya-heavy beast altogether, but with a deconstructed and reshuffled PNSMG-(RS) of Behag in the poorvang this time. Purnima Sen’s reference recording adds some subtleties not easily observed in SHK’s version, but it also suffers a bit more from multiple personality disorder. Perhaps SHK’s particular genius is in extracting the most coherent-sounding melodic progression out of this mess. Colour me confused. Perhaps some more knowledgeable listener can shed light on this menagerie?

Desert Island #8: Mallikarjun Mansur, Bhairav

Mallikarjun Mansur was known for being a “one raga, one bandish” singer. Even though he had a large bandish repertoire, demonstrated privately, he virtually always sang the same song in a given raga, for a given tempo, in public performances. Bhairav was an exception. He has publicly performed at least three vilambit compositions: “nAm e kareem”, “eri mAi”, and today’s feature: “dukh door kariye”. Equally unusually, he has even sung a half hour alap in this raga.

Mansur was a devoutly religious man, and this is a devoutly religious song, written as a prayer. The heart-rending ascent to the komal dhaivat must be one of the greatest opening lines ever composed in its emotional synchrony between tune and text. Even to the irreligious among us (I count myself), there is something profoundly moving about its appeal, a universal plea to be relieved of the sorrows of the world. The nishad is applied with the lightest of touches, to avoid distracting from the dramatic upward movement and to give the dhaivat a certain raw intensity. Mansur’s energy in layer upon layer of rising passages is backed by pitch-perfect linking of meends in this uttarang-heavy presentation, which slowly give way to characteristic aakaar taan work.

Sadly, these elevated thoughts come to an abrupt end with the decidedly fleshy sentiments of the drut. The listener is urged to kindly adjust. Kishori Amonkar (13:10) seems to be adjusting quite happily.