The second decade of this century took away from us artistes who broke new grounds in Hindustani and Carnatic music. A tribute.
Holi, the festival of colours, of romance, of love between Radha and Krishna and sringar rasa would see Vidushi Girija Devi become a nayika herself.
At this particular concert dedicated to Holi, held in 2017, she presented khayal, and thumri, dadra, hori, kajri, the fine semi classical nuances of the Benaras Gharana.
An artiste known for taking over the dais as a queen, she was in her element, connecting the spiritual with the romantic.
The venue was the Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts, and Appaji was swaying into nostalgia, remembering Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan.
She addressed them as “bhaiya” (brother) respectively. Between compositions, she announced that this could be her last dedication to the festival. It is hard to explain what prompted Appaji to make this declaration of sorts.
Appaji was unstoppable during the summer that followed. It would be the last stretch of her illustrious life immersed in a unique mission. She wanted to give the audience more and more — in terms of what she delivered at a single concert.
So battle ready she seemed towards giving as much as she could, that it left her followers stunned.
The energy in her singing was pouring out in total control, voice — even more chiseled and softer, improvisations — unparalleled and retrospective — and her explaining of what made her generation of musicians different and robust — affection laden but blunt.
In the Holi concert, she sang the celebrated dadra — Ganga Reti. She dedicated it to Ustad Bismillah Khan's memory. Her tear-laden eyes glistened through it more than the diamond in her nose in the yellow light that fell on her.
Another concert at another venue followed days later, and there too, this author listened to Appaji, in awe of her hurried mission, a strange sense of time-bound duty towards the audience, and an emotion behind it.
She passed away later that year.
Miles, months and states away, in Maharashtra, Vidushi Kishori Amonkar was performing at concerts, being generous with her balance of popular and less popular compositions.
Then one day, she asked Swarnima Gosain, one of her senior disciples: “Thumri gayegi? (Will you sing thumri?)”. The question meant that it was time for Gosain to leave for Kolkata — to start learning thumri from Appaji after a gruelling training in khayal singing from Amonkar for 11 years.
The question came a year-and-half before she left the world. Gosain explains the guru's vision for a disciple as a yogi's insight.
If music itself had a voice, mind and temperament it would be best represented by Vidushi Kishori Amonkar's.
Tai, in this author's humble opinion, could easily be seen as the Navadurga of music in general and Hindustani classical music in particular — such were her different swaroopas and strengths exploring the ragas and presenting them.
Raag Nand, Bhimpalasi, Rageshri, Bhupali, Bhoop, Madhyamaad Sarang, and so many other ragas, earned a miraculous, prayerful and contemplative approach from her. She bathed them in her introspection.
Appaji and Tai, as they were endearingly called and known, are among the stalwarts we have lost during the years between 2009 and 2019. Their passing away means that Indian classical music will not be the same again.
It meant that practice as sadhana has lost volumes of its physical and spiritual mettle. It means that the soakers of inter-gharana richness would not return, and that a living heritage — 5,000 years old has lost its defining pillars and preservers of gharanas; that and ragas have lost some fervid, fervent and fanatic worshippers of shruti and grammar.
These artistes were initiators of a movement which was inspired by the way they decided their own journey through raga-bound aesthetics, or in the way they chose a musical instrument to make it blend with the Hindustani and Carnatic language of music making, or in the way they performed the ragas.
Their performance caused creative disruption in the already enriched, immensely practised nuances of grammar and technique.
So intense was their quest in music, that when their musical journeys are discussed, the spiritual understanding of it goes back to their childhood, their early days in learning.
Vidwan Lalgudi Jayaraman and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Vidushi Gangubai Hangal are three such greats.
The stories of how they turned themselves to music and to their gurus, how they chased both, speaks of an eternal journey which can never be wrapped in their meeting the five elements.
They lived as yogis practising music, and music reflected their meditation in full brim.
The 1990s and the early 2000s will be known for taking away with them yogis, such as Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, Kumar Gandharva and Vidwan Mallikarjun Mansur and Vidwan Sundaram Balachander.
The years between 2009 and 2019 will be known for taking away of several others whose concerts and journeys in themselves were revered as pilgrimage for the rasikas.
And with the combined vacuum left by these two decades, never will Indic music — flowing out in voice and sound, be delivered in the same intellectual proclivity, same intensity, initiative, matter and courage, again.
Among the greats who crossed over during this decade was Dr M Balamuralikrishna, whose contribution to Indian classical is extraordinary, generous, and grossly underrated — in how he infused his own genius into jugalgayan, or duets, with stalwarts practising the Hindustani tradition.
His duets with Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi came straight from the churning of amrita.
Their duets were waiting to happen for centuries. People growing up on their telecast in the 1990s would often be locked in emotion. Their alacrity to collaborate suffused two genres with a divine confluence of two traditions.
There is a moment in the jugalgayan of Dr M Balamuralikrishna and Pandit ji, where Pandit ji leaves to him with the madhyam, and then invites him to nishad. The raag is Yaman. Balamuralikrishnaji follows him, but carves his own intricate path through gamakas. Characters get defined in their peerless singularity. They establish the accent from nishad and shadaj respectively, they do a brotherly ‘follow-me’ over phrases in sargam from Balamuralikrishna.
Pandit ji shoots off to the taar saptak later on in taans, and even shows his co-performer in gestures that he is filling the taans in ‘dana’. Both, then, sum it up in the swaras of Yaman before concluding this making of history.
Each improvisation coming from Balamuralikrishnaji has Pandit ji's ear, followed by his voice marking appreciation for a peer and his expression. These two collaborators and their collaboration will never return.
This is jugalgayan, as it must, and should have existed over the years, and during the years which followed Pandit ji's passing away. It did not happen.
There will not be another Sangeeta Kalanidhi Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, Vidushi Annapurna Devi, Vidwan Mandolin U Srinivas. These greats treated the raga like a deity. Their performance of the raga was meant for the raga. Their performance of the raga has lent the ragas emotive evolution.
Ananda — bliss — the outcome of their practice — got redefined every time these stalwarts chose to sing the popularly sung ragas and compositions set in them.
The approach of these maestros to the ragas was not of plain veneration. It was a blend of scientific and philosophical outlook towards the swaras that made ragas, their inner-most contours, the vaadi and samvaadi swaras, the underlying possibilities and swaras in their inherent ebb and fall of perfection-driven challenges.
"Music is a prudent combination of art and science," Sangeeta Kalanidhi Nedunuri Krishnamurthy once told Shruti, the leading magazine on Indian classical music published from Chennai.
Listening to Nedunuri Krishnamurthy's singing of Natakuranji varnam Chalamela Jesevayya would be a good beginning and end to understand what he meant when he referred to the word ‘combination’.
Renditions of Natakuranji varnam Chalamela Jesevayya from a younger maestro, who is known for his activism towards demonising the sacred in Carnatic music, is not half as robust, and is pale in comparison.
The greats who have left us during this decade were propellers of a deep thought in art and music, who made the ragas talk to themselves and did not merely perform the ragas, or talk to the ragas. Take Raag Manj Khamaj.
How would the raga fulfill itself if not on the surbahar of Annapurna Devi — the greatest of the great artistes?
Annapurna Devi's performance of this raga surpasses human imagination in thinking of this raga and playing. It is, as if the raga is bursting to itself under her brilliance, flowing feminine in the alaap — revealing its beauty and its many characters — abound.
And in jod — splinters of it fall out from her fingers and mind. She would bury her beautiful face in these splinters. The tempo speaks of the woman she perhaps was — free — bold —unparalleled. Its concluding — gentle and reclusive.
A rasika's lifetime is short to hear and unravel how Annapurna ji establishes Raag Kaushiki, letting it sprawl, and scooping it safely enough back to herself, keeping it wet-muslin-thin breadth away from Bhimpalasi. She would have passed some of it to Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, whose rendition involuntarily guides you to "Ma", as her followers and disciples addressed her.
It was at Maihar, the small princely state in Madhya Pradesh that was beginning to establish itself as a gold mine of musical genius under Ustad Allauddin Khan, where it can be said that Goddess Saraswati decided to pause for longer than she did elsewhere.
What else would explain the emergence of Annapurna Devi — one of the greatest of all musicians born in a civilisation with more than 5,000 years of musical heritage? Annapurna Devi. Daughter to a father whose utter and complete mastery of music, in Pandit Ravi Shankar's own words, came from “years of fanatic dedication and discipline”.
Music lovers have looked around for Ustad Imrat Khan at concerts, where he was needed the most, but wasn't present. We found him, instead, in the brooding masculinity in Raag Darbari on Surbahar, where his meends in mandra saptak established two meanings — one of the alaap and the other of the raga itself. He stays there — in the meends of the mandra. He builds an abode there. We saw a glimpse of his elder brother in that abode.
Gangubai Hangal's contribution to gayaki, bandish, vachanas and devaranams established Hubli-Dharwad — an entire region — as the destination for gyaan seekers.
Gangubai Hangal was the hero of a constant quest dedicated to voice — her unconventional voice ripped performance-related limitations. Amonkar's struggle with her own voice, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi's with his — these phases bound the rasikas to them forever emotionally.
Where are those bonds through thick and thin now?
Some of these greats were artistes who became instrumental in giving their Western musical instrument the Indic soul, the flow, the tenacity of Indian embellishments.
Two of them, Kadri Gopalnath and Mandolin U Srinivas had tamed two West-born instruments — the saxophone and the mandolin — to give music more beginnings and the ragas two new voices.
Mandolin U Srinivas' passing away was particularly heartbreaking for this author. Perhaps, watching him teach his disciples at his home in Chennai, and watching him collaborate in the illustrious ‘Remember Shakti’, and other collaborations, did play a part in feeling this great loss.
In the years, he was celebrated as a child prodigy, he was setting the pace for a task he had to leave incomplete even in the dedicated and religious pursuit of excellence.
Srinivas made the mandolin sing to cover a humongous range of traditional Carnatic compositions and kritis. His art made me feel as if he had fitted the heart of a veena into his mandolin — and some of his own throat to the mandolin.
His brother and co-performer Mandolin U Rajesh is giving it continuity through his dedication, but then, it is hard to not feel the vacuum and not miss Srinivas' swan like approach to music.
Pandit Ravi Shankar, as post Woodstock music history would tell you, braved tough peer reviews during those years. A man who took the chaar taal ki sawari to seemingly the most unconventional stage — where Ustad Alla Rakha Khan saab clearly won hearts and Panditji himself, should be given the credit for opening the world's heart for Indian music.
Panditji is often subjected to unfair criticism for reasons well known. All those notions should be watered away.
Today, when his music still resonates, it is important to accept that the events that took place in his life, the concerts and collaborations he chose, the path his took, had a strong purpose and was guided by a multifarious approach to ‘sangeet’ as a whole.
His gallantry contribution to the arena of composing a global language of music, of orchestration, of assimilating Indian musical instruments popular in both Hindustani and Carnatic genres — will not visit this planet, unless Panditji himself decides to reappear.
Yes, gayaki is the soul of Indian classical instrumental music, but Panditji had his own throat to strings, his own way of gayaki. This civilisation will not witness his celebration of the alankaar again.
He was a lover of instrumentation, a worshipper of the deepest treasures in sound, of happiness and the eternal festivity and musical universe called India. His use of kharaj and baaj attracted a new thought in global music. His use of the chikari — it resonated his own love for life as a musician. It can't be grudged. It has to be celebrated.
Pandit Ramakant Gundecha passed away recently. He defined the singularity — even as being one half the historic pair of Dagarvaani known as the Gundecha brothers. With his passing away, his brother Pandit Umakant Gundecha and the pair has lost half its voice.
These performing thinkers gave the last breath of greatness to Indian classical music. Between Balamuralikrishna ji's rendition of Thyagaraja's Marugelara O Raghava and Pandit Ramakant Gundecha's Rann Jeeti, Ram Raghu Aaye, Ram himself will seek dedications that won't return.
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