‘Mumbai is the Kashi of well-informed listeners’

(Top) Rajshekhar Mansur, 73, a stalwart of the Jaipur gharana; Mansur accompanying his father, Mallikarjun Mansur (above). A khayal concert by Rajshekhar Mansur will be held on September 18 at the Experimental Theatre, NCPA
Being rooted in a gharana is essential, else your music will resemble a khichdi, says Rajshekhar Mansur, the veteran Jaipur gharana khayal singer, who performs in the city next Sunday.

For decades, Rajshekhar Mansur, 73, learnt from and accompanied his father, Mallikarjun Mansur, one of the 20th century’s greatest khayal singers.

After retiring in 2002 from his job as an English literature professor in Dharwad’s Karnatak University, he has devoted all his time to music. In 2005, he moved to Bangalore, where he teaches eight students, three of whom are professional singers.

Excerpts from an email-cum-phone interview:

What has your routine been like after retirement?

I teach daily in the guru-shishya tradition — one disciple at a time. I teach morning ragas in the morning and evening or night ragas in the evening. Each session lasts for two or more hours. In the remaining time, I love to ruminate about various ragas, because my disciples keep asking me questions about them. My meditation is listening to my father-guru’s music.

What has your experience been with Mumbai audiences?

I love Mumbai audiences because many listeners are well-informed and have been following true gharana music for a long time. After programmes, people have called me and my disciples with feedback. This shows their genuine interest. Mumbai has been the Kashi of well-informed listeners for a long time.

What is the importance of the gharana today, when students can listen to so much music online?

I firmly believe in the notion and practice of gharana music. Every gharana has a structure and style, has a distinct vision of a raag and is a pathway to realising music’s true essence — just as every religion is a pathway to realising god. Single-minded adherence to a gharana’s tenets is of utmost importance. Once you have a grip of a gharana’s gayaki [mode of singing], there is no harm in imbibing nuances from other gharanas, provided you do not tamper with the original gayaki.

How would you describe the Jaipur gharana in musical terms?

Instead of compartmentalising different elements of khayal, such as aalap, taans and bol banav, we combine these and start with a bandish [composition]. We consider the bandish the raga’s foundation, on which we build the structure, according to the gharana’s tenets. But we have no quarrels with any other gharana. It’s a personal preference which gharana a student chooses.

How would you describe non-gharana music?

It is singing without a style or in a khichdi of styles without thought. A gharana is not a prison, but it shows you a way of proceeding.

Great musicians, including your father and his almost exact contemporary, Gajananbua Joshi, learnt from musicians of different gharanas. Can you not blend gharanas?

Gajananbua first internalised and assimilated each of these gharanas, and after a lot of thought amalgamated them. It takes years and a lot of patience. It requires long, loving, strenuous effort.

How hard is it to maintain the gurushishya parampara?

Gharana music continues in the hands of some teachers and disciples who passionately believe there is no true music beyond gharana styles. For example, all my eight disciples loyally adhere to our gharana’s framework. They are from all over the world, yet we are like one big family. Time, distance and the contemporary environment have not come in the way of the guru-shishya parampara. The onus of maintaining and propagating this tradition lies solely with the guru, who should be a torch-bearer to his disciples. All my disciples are highly placed professionals. Yet they make time to be with me and learn in the typical tradition. It’s a matter of intent and passion. It is wrong to blame the contemporary environment’s decadence.

How does your music differ from that of your father’s?

My gayaki is not different from his. But people say my singing has a romantic aestheticism and pathos, while his was a strict classicism. People are touched by both. My guru always said that disciples should not be their master’s voice, but must infuse their individualities into the traditional gayaki. Every individual’s manodharma (imagination) and voice texture makes his or her style unique.

What do you think of the contemporary Hindustani system?

The rigmarole of getting programmes and the drive to become a star have corrupted the system. There is a dearth of wellinformed listeners, those who understand traditional, pristine music. Also, many listeners want to hear the same 30 ragas again and again. Many young musicians are forced to play to the gallery. The result is a watering down of classicality.

I sing for myself and don’t chase programmes, but rasikas who want true, gharana-based music should push organisers. Unfortunately, most organisers are not nurturers of music but money-making entities.

Still, today young musicians can reach out to audiences directly. YouTube is a good platform. In the Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur National Trust, we recognise and give awards to two upcoming artistes, one from Karnataka and one nationally. Our committee painstakingly listens to all recordings. Similarly, other institutions also recognise upcoming talent.

How secure is Hindustani music’s future?

Hindustani music will never go out of currency. In fact, I feel there is some kind of resurgence, going by the number of genuinely interested people who come asking to learn from me. But I do worry about the future of gharana music. The long list of gurus from different gharanas on the resume is painful and shocking.

How did you juggle your teaching career and music?

Music was part of my life, right from childhood. I woke up and went to bed listening to my father doing his riyaaz. The sensory effects of the sounds I heard during childhood have stayed with me and become an integral part of my being. Hence music is not something external that I had to contend with. Literature was a profession and music was a passion. There was no juggling. I still remember the head of my English department, whose scholarship I admired, telling me on the day I joined work, “Rajshekhar, please remember one cannot ride two horses at the same time, music and language-teaching.” I had replied: “With due respect, sir, for me a music is not a horse to ride. It’s a unicorn that I am trying to see. I need to ride only one horse, that of literature, with your guidance.”
A beautiful, mysterious and wondrous unicorn it still is for me because I consider myself a sadhak, a
seeker still. This journey has given me the greatest happiness in life.

As an English and linguistics professor, did you get any special insights into the relation between music and language?

My study of both linguistics and music have shown me correlations. For instance, linguistics has the concept of the phoneme, which is an umbrella sound, and allophones, which are variants of that one sound. Similarly, the concept of the swara is akin to the phoneme, while the variants of a particular swara in different ragas, are akin to allophones. I call these micro-tonic variants ‘raga swaras’. Like phonemes, swaras are theoretical constructs. And like allophones, raga swaras are what get expressed in music.

Who are some of the contemporary musicians whose music you like and why?

I must admit that I am a recluse listener, in the sense that for me my father-guru’s music is the last word in music. I have nourished my soul with his music, and even today I listen only to
his music. This music is the only contemporary music I know.

What is your impression about the Hindustani music system today? Is there a meritocracy? Do you think there is a fair system through which young musicians can reach audiences?

The entire rigmarole of getting programs and the drive to become stars have corrupted the music system. I say ‘corrupted’ because many a young musician is forced to play to the gallery. There is a lacuna of well-informed listeners who understand traditional pristine music. Concomitantly there is a watering down of classicality. They want to stick to the same thirty ragas that are in circulation. I sing for myself, but the rasikas should tell organisers. Most organisers are not nurturers of music, but money-making organisations.
But young musicians can also reach out to audiences directly today. YouTube is a very good platform. In the Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur National Trust, we recognise and give awards to two upcoming artistes, one one from Karnataka and one nationally, from all the other states. Our committee painstakingly listens to all recordings before making a selection. Similarly, many institutions are recognising upcoming talent.

Originally published in Mumbai Mirror