Life & letters

The Man Who Resides in Music

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There are no hardships in the world of music, only pleasure, Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur had once said. For all who knew this great khayal singer, a man for whom music was religion itself, nothing could ring more true. On his birth centenary, there couldn’t be a more appropriate tribute to the man and his genius than this article written for his 60th birthday by his friend and eminent Marathi playwright and actor PL Deshpande.

Mallikarjun Mansur is a man who resides in music. His postal address is “Mrityunjay Bungalow, Dharwar”. But he actually inhabits the world of music. In the morning, he lives in Todi-Asavari. Afternoons are spent in the shadows of Sarang. He sits under the canopy of Puriya-Marwa in the evening, and he spends the nights in the palaces of Yaman-Bhup-Bageshri.

Anna is also a family man, a grihastha, who takes care of his wife, five-six married-unmarried daughters, one son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He has built a small house in Dharwar out of his accumulated savings. But that is Mallikarjun Mansur, the father, the husband and so forth. In that thin frame, resides another Mallikarjun. He is the one who basically lives in music. He started living there when he was eight or nine years old and today, at 61, he continues living there. For this music, one doesn’t need to rent an auditorium. There is no need for an invitation from the secretary of a music circle. One doesn’t need the accompaniment of harmonium or tabla, one doesn’t even need an audience. One doesn’t have to hear the music; one can feel it by looking at his eyes. When Anna is sitting with friends, he is talking, listening, looking at them; and yet, he is not fully engaged in the conversation, he is not fully listening or looking at those around him. This man looks half lost somewhere. Those eyes are watching the notes of some raga. They are twinkling at the joy of meeting a long lost “cheez”, and when he meets a fellow traveller from the world of notes, in the middle of the conversation, he transports him from the real world to the world of music by saying “listen to this bandish”. And then the hands of the clock halt. The surrounding material world evaporates and what remains is the unique vision of the “swaraleela”, the play of notes!

I have been listening to his music for the last 35-36 years. I am as hungry for his company as I am for his music. Since my childhood, I have had the requisite pushiness necessary for a man obsessed with music. Thus, as schoolboys, my friend Sharu Redkar and I would listen to Anna’s mehfils sitting at the threshold of his baithaks.  If one desires the “prasada” (offerings to God) from a temple, one has to learn the art of pushing ahead and elbowing oneself close to the priest. If others object, so be it. One has to learn all the tricks to get ahead and close to the singer. One who hasn’t mastered the art of picking up the tanpuras of the singer getting out of his tonga, and thus getting right ahead to the baithak stage, has not learnt the first dive into the sea of the mehfil. I have volunteered myself to the service of many a singers in this fashion and thus, have been serving the cause of Indian music. Amongst all the others, I have served Anna a considerable amount. I have also experienced the limits of his tolerance by accompanying him on the harmonium.

There is another purpose behind going inside with the tanpuras. The pleasure of listening to the tanpuras being tuned is enormous.  I get really angry when I hear people talking while the tanpuras are being tuned on stage. Listening to the tanpuras being tuned is like watching a beautiful woman dressing up. Just as the scene transforms when the woman puts on pearls on her ears, there is a similar transformation when the strings of the tanpura get fine tuned on the jawaari (the curve of the bridge of the tanpura).  The air is heavy with anticipation as one waits for the first note to emerge from the singer. Just as one waits expectantly for the beautiful woman to turn to you and smile, the anticipation of the first meeting with the “shadja (tonic)” is similar! That first shadja has the same capacity to win you over as that first smile. My friend Ramu bhaiyya Date had gone to listen to Begum Akhtar. As the first shadja fell upon his ears, he cried, “That’s it! I have got all the music!”  He used up his entire capital of appreciation on that first note.  After that he had no greater words to reciprocate the debt bestowed upon him by the rest of the music. What followed after that was just the burden of debt!

Mallikarjun Mansur is one such great singer who can put the listeners in his debt just with the first note.  I have had the good fortune, for the last 35-36 years, of listening to the first shadja of his voice blend into the first shadja of the fine tuned tanpura. This shadja is constantly playing on the veena of his heart. In fact, this veena is Mallikarjun Mansur.

This mehfil does not need anything else. When I think back to all the instances where I have heard his music, I am repeatedly struck by the realisation that Mallikarjun is a man who resides in music, he cannot be defined in any other terms. Many, many years ago – I am telling you a story about the time when in Mumbai, one could buy a thali (plate) with unlimited rice, buttermilk and even papad, just for one anna, equivalent to 5 paise today. In a maze of tiny streets in Mumbai called Jhavbachi Wadi, a friend of Anna’s called Taikar used to live in a chawl. Taikar, the brahmachari (bachelor), lived in an eight-by-eight room, with not an inch more of space. If a baithak had to be arranged here, once the two tanpura players, Bua and the harmonium player sat in the room, and as there was no more space the tabla player had to sit in the common balcony (that surrounded the row of single-room tenements)  and protect the tablas from the accidental kicks of the passers-by. It was morning. There was a small bathing space inside the room. These were the old-style “attached bathrooms”! In fact, the rest of the room was attached to the bathing space. Anna was sitting inside bathing. In one corner of the room, the tanpura was standing, trying to eke out some space for itself. It was uncovered. The guest who entered couldn’t resist himself – strummed the strings of the tanpura.

“Hmmm, continue, don’t stop”, said Anna from his bath.

Once he said “continue”, that was it. The pancham-shadja hidden inside the tanpura swarmed the room and Bua started his Todi from the bath. The water in the bucket ran out. His wet body and the wet towel must also have dried up. But just as the sanctum sanctorum of the temple of Mangeshi is filled with water, the room filled up to the brim with the water of Todi. The previous night, at the Ganapati Utsav in Girgaon’s Ambevadi, he had filled the universe with notes of Bhairavi by singing Mirabai’s “mat ja jogi”. As he reached home at dawn and lay down in bed, Todi must have entered somehow. It was haunting him. As the key of the tanpura notes unlocked the doors to his heart, it escaped and came out. It transformed that wretched room and bathing space into a temple of notes.  Unmindful of his wet body, saplings of notes emerged in the form of “langar ka kariye”. This liquid Todi drenched the 2-3 people present there with a wetness that even water could not match!

Many singers sing – very seasoned and polished. But their voice is not drenched with the melody of notes.  The singing does not allow the rasikas to imbibe the notes. The reason that Balgandharva’s “daya chhaya ghe” melted the hearts of the listeners is because of the wetness, that liquid quality of his notes, that beseeching quality.  Such singers literally shower music on the hearts of the listeners! This quality of drenching the receiver is very important in any act of giving. Maybe that is why the traditional practice of sprinkling some water on the coins before giving them away as dakshina emerged. The wetness of his notes is a hallmark of Anna’s singing.  There are many singers who possess treasure troves of notes. Anna possesses waterfalls of notes. They keep falling and flowing continuously.

There is one such Todi that I always remember. We had decided to meet for a baithak in Pune at Keshav Rao Bhole’s house. Keshav Rao had invited a few people with a strict warning “you means you alone”. I was also included among the invitees. I was waiting at the gate waiting for Bua’s tonga. Those were the days when Pune didn’t have the vehicle called auto-rickshaw that would try to hit you head on! There were only tongas, marching in their slow pace, such that you could count the matras (beats) of the hoofs. The beats of these tongas would arouse music even in the hearts of people like yours truly! Bua arrived with that beat, already besieged by Todi. Inside, the tanpuras were tuned. The tablas were ready.  Keshav Rao, with his characteristic alacrity, had already checked about the notes to which the tanpuras had to be set. Not only that, he had got the tanpura players to start strumming the strings! The tabalchi (tabla player) had finished his smoke. Bua landed directly in the middle of the two tanpuras and with a push of shadja-komal rikhabh-gandhar, started the Todi. He had no time for small pleasantries. No small talk like, “how are you? I met you last in Jalgaon. After that, we get to meet today” etc. Nothing. The person who entered the living room was not Anna, it was raga Todi personified!

After that, for an hour and a half, Todi ruled that room. The cheez finished. The audience was astounded! After a nearly minute-long stunned silence, Keshav Rao said, “Bua, please don’t sing for fifteen minutes. Let the Todi leave this room completely!”

I have heard Anna’s music when he was around 25 years old, then when he was in his forties and now that he is in his sixties (and I am in my fifties). They say that the more one grinds sandalwood, the more fragrant it becomes, similarly his music is maturing beautifully with age! As the tanpuras start, the melody starts. In mehfils that last 4-5 hours, this melody never breaks. The notes dance like water in a fountain. The flow is dancing, but never breaks. The power of the dance never weakens. On the contrary, the flow has acquired a glow from the years of penance and practice (tapasya) and is now sacred like “teertha”(place of pilgrimage).   

Anna has been particularly careful about preserving the grammar of classical music. He believes in the purity of music. He regards the senior musicians, who created the bandishes, as God. But his faith is extremely perceptive. He keeps observing the unusual spots in the old bandishes.  When Anna finds a particularly unusual spot in a bandish, he is like an archaeologist who suddenly discovers a hitherto undiscovered facet of an old sculpture that he had possessed for a long time and thus, finds his field of knowledge expanded manifold! Talking about Shuddha Kalyan, Kumar Gandharva had once said, “while singing Bhoop, some great singer must have spotted the shuddha madhyam, pleading “please, let me enter”, and must have given him a bit of space to it by saying, “all right, sit”!  Similarly, Anna has the ability to spot the hidden beauty of in a cheez and to address it and bring it to the fore.

My sculptor friend, Sharbari Roychowdhury of Shantiketan, is a big fan of Mallikarjun Mansur’s music. I had taken him to Dharwar once. We stayed for 2-3 days in Anna’s house. One day, there was a mehfil from 4 in the afternoon to about 7-7.30 in the evening. We were sitting on the terrace at night, chatting. There was a mention of Bhaskarbua Bhakhle in the course of the conversation.  And suddenly, as one would remember a long lost dear friend, we remembered Bua’s “kavan des gayo”. And Anna demonstrated several beautiful spots in that cheez with such affection that I understood then the real meaning of the clichéd and overused phrase, “love of notes”.

Anna’s love of notes is so extraordinary that he probably can’t tolerate being separated from them even for a moment.  Once while crossing a road with heavy traffic in Delhi’s Connaught Place, he had demonstrated the hidden beauty of the bandishyeho neend na aaye”. One can never tell which cheez will emerge from his throat at what point. And he has an unlimited collection of ornamental, complex bandishes. He has acquired this treasure after a lot of effort. He has been blessed by his gurus, all because of his extraordinary faith in this (vidya?) knowledge!

Anna is religious by temperament.  On the wall in his living room are several photographs of gurus from the Lingayat tradition. There are small idols as well. But the same wall has a picture of Alladiya Khan Saheb.  It also has pictures of his sons Manjhi Khan and Bhurji Khan. For Mallikarjun, a believer in the religion of music, they are like religious gurus. Indeed, he was able to catch a glimpse of God in the notes that he received from them. Every evening at dusk, his daughters sing hymns in praise of Shiva. They sing Basaveshwara’s couplets so tunefully that the music sounds like gently flowing water. Anna taught these hymns and couplets to his daughters. Not only did he teach them the right notes, but also got trained them in correct Sanskrit pronunciation. This devotee of classical music understands the value of the spoken word and his compositions reflect the importance of the word. As a young boy, he has acted in Kannada musical plays. His brother is a fairly well-established singer-actor. I still remember him, with his very sweet voice, accompanying Anna on the tanpura.  Anna(saheb?) Kirloskar introduced beautiful Kannada tunes into Marathi musical plays. Later the music of Balgandharva went to Karnataka. Therefore, he got trained on stage to sing while paying special attention to the melody, the rhythm and the lyrics. Earlier Anna would happily sing Marathi numbers such as “hee raat savat baai”, “naav chale dule”, “jaau kuthe vanamali”, “hoi bala kamuka” during mehfils in Mumbai. He was even been a music director to some Kannada films. But his real passion is Hindustani classical music.

His early training was with Pandit Neelkanthabua. He got excellent training in the Gwalior tradition. Gwalior is like the Kashi-Varanasi of Hindustani music. This music came to the south through Pandit Balkrishnabua Ichalkaranjikar. Those days princely states in southern Maharashtra like Miraj, Sangli, Kolhapur, Ichalkaranji, Kurundwad, Jat, Jamkhindi etc reflected the synthesis of Karnataka and Maharashtra. These princely states had their own court singers. They would sing in the courts and teach disciples. In those days, southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka had many great singers. Rahimat Khan Saheb in Kurundwad, Balkrishnabua in Miraj, later Abdul Karim Khan Saheb, Alladiya Khan Saheb in Kolhapur, Manjhi Khan, Bhurji Khan, Shaligrambua and in Belgaum, was Vazebua. In Dharwad was Bhaskarbua and the sitarist Rahimat Khan Saheb. Kundgol had Rambua Savai Gandharva. These are names that come to mind easily. From among the contemporary singers Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Basavraj Rajguru, the newly emerging singers Sangameshwar Gurav, Arjunsa Nakhod  are all from this region. Some regions are plain lucky!

Mallikarjun’s village, Mansur, is near Dharwar. He went from there to Miraj to get training under Neelkanthabua. When he was about 22-23 years old, he started performing in Mumbai during Ganeshotsavs and at the invitation of music circles (listening groups). That was the time when the music of performers such as Master Krishnarao, Rambhau Savai Gandharva, Hirabai Barodekar, Mogubai Kurdikar, Faiyyaz Khan Saheb, Vazebua, Nissar Hussain Khan Saheb, Vilayat Husain Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar was at its peak! Rajabhaiyya Poochwale and Krishnarao Pandit would come from Gwalior and light up the scene with their display of the old, traditional musical lamps. And this young singer found a place in this Test (cricket) team easily.

That was the age of singers, not technicians. A singer from Mumbai had driven all of us crazy. That talented singer was Alladiya Khan Saheb’ son, Manjhi Khan. He was, of course, accomplished in classical music. But he was also so good at lighter, semi-classical music too with which he would enthral both the connoisseur and the lay person alike.  An imposing personality, Manjhi Khan sang with a pleasant expression.  Hand movements were measured.  He had a regal manner. So college students those days would go to listen to his “aikiv tava madhu bol” and Gadkari’s “murali” and without realising it, would happily get drawn into his flow of classical music as well. So when we heard that Mallikarjun Mansur had become the gandaband shaagird (initiated disciple) of our beloved Ustad, we applauded the news as we would applaud a fine piece of music! This training lasted barely two years and Manjhi Khan Saheb passed away suddenly. But he had passed on the key to a great musical tradition to his favourite student. How long the training lasts is not that important. An intelligent student needs to be shown just the direction. He has to carve out the road himself.

Anna was enthralled by the treasures of the Jaipur-Atrauli tradition. This tradition was not at odds with the original Gwalior tradition. Now the garland of musical notes started playing around with new rhythmic patterns. The manner of sur-lagaav (voice application) is similar across the Gwalior and the Jaipur-Atrauli traditions. Also, all the elements of a musical performance are balanced in the two traditions in similar ways. No one element dominates. Anna could see the similarities and continued his practice.

Anna became disheartened after Manjhi Khan died. But he was fortunate that Bhurji Khan Saheb agreed to be his guru. Bhurji Khan was an outstanding teacher. He trained students cleverly by showing them the pathways to becoming a singer. He also became very fond of this student. Thus, the training under this particular tradition did not get interrupted. Continuing tradition does not mean copying the singing of one’s guru. That reminds me. There was a private mehfil of Mallikarjun ji’s in Pune. That day, he presented bandishes from such difficult ragas that we were stunned. There was a gentleman in the audience with an expressionless face like that of a custom officer. In this world of music – also that of theatre – there are always special members of the audience that are like camels, who seem to have been created by Allah Mian at leisure. Amazingly ignorant and superior! Anna had presented one cheez so beautifully and hit the top shadja (high tonic) so accurately that applauding it by saying “wah, wah” would have been inappropriate! At that point, this insolent man claimed, “Bade Khan Saheb antare ki aisi uthavat nahi karte the” (Bade Khan Saheb would not execute the antara this way) – implying that the antara was not presented properly.

Looking at that man with his piercing eyes, Anna said, in his Kannada Urdu, “Bademian antara aisa nahi uthte the, hum ko bhi accha malum hai. Magar hum aisa uthte hain. Hum kya Bademian ke khali stenographer hain? Ab suno Bademian kaise uthte the – humare guru Manjhi Khan Saheb kaise uthte the – aur hum kaisa uthte hain” (I know very well that Bademian did not present the antara like this. But this is the way I present it.  Am I just a stenographer to Bademian? Now listen to how my guru Manjhi Khan Saheb presented the antara and how I present it). And then, keeping in mind the overall balance in the antara, he hit the sam at the taar shadja (the tonic of the upper octave) in two different ways, one after another!  This ignorant, arrogant “gharana” man did not know the simple fact that when an accomplished artist fills out the bandish in various ways, he is not doing that out of ignorance of the “original” way of presentation, but he is presenting it by playing around with the rhythm in many different attractive ways. This is what distinguishes a thinking artist and a gharana sycophant. Even Manjhi Khan himself did not simply copy Alladiya Khan Saheb. Each artist has a distinct personality. Nature has endowed him with an ability to think, with imagination. But the world of music is riddled with a level of confusion between tradition and creativity that one does not find in the other arts.

When one is listening to music soaked in the light of the taleem (training) received from a great singer, the notes always remind you of the guru. If the son reminds you of his mother because of the way his face is cut, is he supposed to behave like his mother all his life? If the murti (idol) of the music has the hallmarks of the gharana of the guru, should it not have its own beauty? Otherwise we will only have clones. He has mastered all the characteristics of the Jaipur Atrauli tradition. His singing is extremely meticulous. His raga-vistar (elaboration of the raga) suggests that he wants to put every moment in the trital-jhaptal laya (patterns of rhythm) to good use. He doesn’t lose track of the laya even for a moment.

My wife had once asked him the difference between dhrupad and khayal. He illustrated the difference very well by singing old dhrupads and khayals based on dhrupads. Layakari (playing with the rhythm) often becomes talkari (playing with the specific tala) and then the strokes become fossilised. Aesthetics is replaced by calculations. Gwalior gayaki (style of singing) did not disturb the basic discipline of the dhrupads; it elaborates the notes (swara vistar) freely with strong adherence to the principle of laya. The freedom in swara vistar is based on recognition of tala or laya. Free verse also has rhythm. This is similar to the situation that would obtain if the poem were to be granted freedom from the metre, in the sense that the relationship between the poetic element and rhythm remains, but it is freed from the calculations of the short and the long vowel. We find, in the Jaipur Atrauli gayaki, this freedom based on a happy acceptance of the constraints of rhythm. After all, the khayal is bound in a shape. And any shape or figure is necessarily bound by the balance between the different lines.  Anna got this free-restraint in his singing from the jaipur Atrauli training. That is why he maintains the characteristic of the raga with extreme care. He chooses to elaborate on the right notes for a given raga. Whether he sings the cheez for five minutes or for half an hour, he presents the basic picture of the raga at the very beginning.  When he sings joint ragas like Basanti Kedar or Bhairav Bahar, it doesn’t appear that he has simply pasted two distinct ragas together. He is very reverential towards the tapasya (the relentless pursuit of music) of the ancient sage-like musicians who conceptualised ragas or bandishes through their first vision, as if they received a divine blessing. That is why he is angry at singers who, without proper training of ragas and cheezas, listen to a bandish once, write the notation down in a notebook and then immediately start singing in mehfils. Explaining why it is wrong to believe that one knows the raga simply  through a bookish knowledge of its aaroh-avaroh (ascent-descent) and its pakad (characteristic phrase), he had said once, “not only each note of the raga, but even the first “sa” should stand dressed in the raga!”

Such is this worshipper of melody and rhythm. One who lives in this world with the belief that all that is pure, beautiful, thought provoking, awe-inspiring lies only in music.  He didn’t leave a stone unturned in the service of this art. He cannot tolerate others who fall short in their service. The art of music today has become snappy and colourful! Fortunately, his son Rajshekar is getting good training, but Anna is not happy that he is a professor of English.  Shekhar is deeply interested in English literature. His command over English is very good. But that is why, Anna feels, he finds it difficult to devote the time to the pursuit of music. He has a disciple called Panchakshari Mattigatti. He also has enthusiastic disciples such as Bhirdikar who come from well-off families.  But he is tormented by the fact that he doesn’t have a disciple who will devote himself solely to music, someone who will not get lured by the fame and the publicity, but will be obsessed instead with the pleasure of music.

When we heard that Anna had turned 60, some of us among his friends decided to go to Dharwar. Pleasantries exchanged, the tanpuras were tuned. He sang Multani. Then Shree. Then Lalita-Gauri. And then Nat. Next morning began with Khat Todi. Then Khat. Shudhha Bilawal and Sarang – the waterfall kept flowing for three or four days. During that stay, the Akashvani Kendra staff organised a small tea party. Anna gave a beautiful speech in Kannada. Naturally, I had to follow with a speech. I simply said that the devout go on a pilgrimage. A music-hungry man like me comes to Dharwar with the same devotion.  My journey, fortunately, has always been successful. That is because I get the religious merit (punya) through immersing in the Ganga of Anna’s music. I always visit the homes of my favourite singers with the same feeling.

Someone asked Anna, “Anna, isn’t the pursuit of music full of hardship?”

Anna replied, “Hardship? How can music have hardship?  It is my good fortune that I became a singer. In our world, there are no hardships, only pleasure.”

He is not only comforted by the fact that he is a resident of this world of pleasure, but is actually proud of it. For someone who is as simple as a small child, he is very forthright about this. When radio was scouting for singers of repute who could serve as consultants, even though his financial position was not very good, he refused the offer. Bhausaheb Dixit from the radio used all his might to persuade him. Once he went there, he recorded some outstanding bandishes. Anna sings as if he is pouring his heart out during mehfils. But he is happiest when he is singing in his small house in Dharwar. He is very keen to set up a centre where good students can be trained. He keeps trying. But Anna doesn’t understand political manipulations. He doesn’t know that universities have divorced the arts. That people in the universities simply write papers on the arts, aesthetics, culture etc. Then they write guide books with readymade answers to questions based on these topics. They play the politics of elections. One such “dudhhacharya” (old fogey) blew up his sensible scheme of a music centre. His name came up in the course of a conversation and Anna exclaimed, “Hush! Stop! Please be mindful of the tanpuras and don’t mention the name of such a corrupt person. Has he ever revelled in the pleasure of notes? If I have to talk to him, I consider it something to be ashamed of. Forget about music, if he had immersed himself in his own subject, it would have made him a man. Tell me, what is the difference between a dog and this man?”                      

Anna spoke about this officious crow, smug in his position of power and completely disrespectful towards music, with such contempt, that I got a glimpse into how the ancient sages must have boiled with moral rage. I quietly signalled to the students on the tanpura. The tanpuras started strumming and the atmosphere became redolent with the notes of Yaman. The singer went into his happy abode.

As the steamboat recedes from the coast, the coastal world becomes more and more distant. Exactly the same way, the world outside the room became more and more distant. In the inside world were us, that singing man, and that vast ocean of Yaman!

Translated from the original Marathi by Ashwini Deshpande 

Excerpted from the commemorative volume Remembering Mansur: Words and Text with permission from The  Mallikarjun Mansur Centenary Committee.