SOUNDS OF SAWAI

Ambika Shaligram
Sunday, 8 December 2019

The 67th Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav will begin on December 11. Ambika Shaligram talks to some of the artists who will be bringing their learnings, experiences and innovations to the discerned audience

Classical art forms like music and dance touch our lives in inexplicable ways. This is because the artists have dedicated their entire lives in learning the art and enriching themselves with every interaction with their gurus and the audience. This ceaseless pursuit of excellence will be evident at the 67th Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav that starts in the city from December 11. We speak to four artists who will be making their debut at the festival organised by Arya Sangeet Prasarak Mandal at Maharashtriya Mandal, Mukund Nagar.

‘LEARNT A LOT MORE THAN MUSIC’
A short telephonic chat with Sandip Bhattacharjee turns into a Bengali adda. He eagerly shares anecdotes from his music journey, his stay at ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata, learning from gurus like Chhote Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan and Malvika Kanan. 

Bhattacharjee first trained under his mother, Krishna and then Amita Dasgupta. Later, he trained under Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, and the one desire that he harboured from his earliest days in music was to perform at Sawai. His wish will come true this year, when Bhattacharjee performs on the second day (December 12) of Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav.  

“Ulhasji (Pt Ulhas Kashalkar) was my guru at ITC. One day, Ulhasji told me, ‘Panditji (Bhimsen Joshi) will be performing at Shri Jayanta Chatterjee’s house in Kolkata. The host has invited you.’ After the morning concert, when I went up to Panditji, he asked, ‘Tum kaun ho?’, Who’s your guru?’ I said, ‘Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan’. He then said, ‘Beta..ek cheez sunao’. I was scared because I was going to sing before ‘god’. I presented Raag Shuddh Sarang. After that he patted me on the back and blessed me, ‘Dekho beta...tum bahut achha gaate ho. Aisa hi gaya karo. Humara zamana toh khatam ho raha hai. You have to take this legacy forward’.”

Bhattacharjee’s performance at Sawai will be special because like Panditji, he too belongs to Kirana gharana. “I was aware of the gharanas, but I didn’t know what set apart Jaipur from Kirana or Gwalior and so on. When I started learning the style of Kirana gharana, I realised that its USP is in ‘sukoon’. Its sargam, sur, taal spell peace. There is a lot of love when a swar is expressed,” he says.

The conversation then moves on to his gurus and the bond that they shared. “I have been scolded, rebuked, loved by my gurus. I have done their sewa and learnt a lot more than music. We were not allowed to record raags, but memorise them. At ITC, we would be frequently called over by the gurus and they would say, ‘Sing Marwa.. show what variety you can bring in’. Later, they would correct us,” he says. 

The vocalist then goes on to share another anecdote with Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan to illustrate the methods used by the gurus in their teaching. “I was rehearsing Abhogi Kanada. He told me, ‘Shamsan (cremation ground) mein jaake riyaz karo.’ I was stunned and afraid that I had committed some mistake. He said, ‘No...you are singing well. But to bring out the pathos and grief... you have to come face to face with sorrow. At the cremation ground, you will see families who are suffering. Next time, you sing the raag, you will recall what you saw,” says Bhattacharjee.

With such rich and enlightening training under his belt, it’s no wonder that Bhattacharjee isn’t happy with budding singers turning to YouTube for their music lessons. “The process of learning from YouTube is wrong. You can’t become an artist until you have a guru sitting with you and an invisible power is formed between the two. That’s how you learn. Technology has advanced no doubt, but it has to be employed by those who are accomplished artists themselves,” he says.  

‘AN ACT OF MEDITATION’
Reela Hota learnt Odissi from Kelucharan Mohapatra and Madhavi Mudgal. After performing the traditional repertoire of the “utterly feminine and utterly dynamic” dance for several years, Hota now incorporates ancient Indian philosophy and spirituality in her style. Hota will be performing on the fourth day (December 14) of Sawai. She will be presenting the smaller version of her performance based on Vedic wisdom.

“It has been scripted and choreographed by my mother, yoga guru Bijoyalakshmi Hota. The music is by Padma Vibhushan Pt Rajan-Sajan Mishra and Swaransh Mishra. The original performance covers the creation (of life) and primordial elements, Brahmacharya ashram, Nityakarma, Grihasthashram and Moksha,” says the dancer.

In her performance, Hota will focus on the Mangalcharan verses from the Rig Veda. It will be followed by depiction of the Grihasthashram, where the fulfillment of desires is considered important. “The women in a Vedic household would be held in high esteem. The man had to please the woman. If the woman was happy, then the child in her womb too would be happy. In the dance, we have a beautiful and a tender scene of a man proposing to a woman. They get married and then have a baby. It’s a very romantic and beautiful dance,” she says. 

Elaborating on Vedic life, describing it as “full of  positive reinforcements”, Hota says, “There is a mantra for every action, right from the time you wake up, till you fall asleep. After Brahmacharya and Grihasthashram, every individual has to face the last phase of life, which is the shedding of his body. They have to start identifying with their soul, the eternal being. This state is called a state of self realisation or moksha, which is the ultimate goal of human life. The Vedas have completely understood human life and this is what we are showing in our dance,” explains Hota, who also teaches dance at an ashram in Jharkhand.  

Like Bharatanatyam, Odissi was also a temple dance. In modern times, Indian artists have brought in a variety of ideas and themes. Hota, who is drawn to yoga, spirituality and Vedas, says, “You can’t call my dance contemporary, because the texts on which it is based are ancient. A dance doesn’t mean that you only perfect the technique. It has to be an expression of what you are as a person. My dance is an act of meditation. It took me several years to understand that dance is an elevated and high level of performing art. I feel the difference when I am in the dance costume and wearing make-up,” adds Hota, who has been organising International Ancient Arts Festival in New Delhi.  

A WAY TO REACH OUT TO GOD
Swami Kripakarananda is a sanyasi and a part of Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service. With a background in music and medicine, Swami Kripakarananda will be performing at Sawai on December 14. Swamiji believes that music cannot be taught. “Music is something you are born with. In one way, you are bound to continue with music because that is your entity,” he says.

Swami Kripakarananda studied music under Pt Jagdish Prasad of Patiala gharana who was upset when Swamiji decided to study medicine. “Pandit Jagdish Prasad was a disciple of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Whenever Bhimsenji performed on his own, he would call Pt Jagdish Prasadji. They were good friends. I also met Bhimsenji and accompanied him. When I decided to study medicine, Pt Jagdish Prasad became sad. He told my father, ‘Why is he going for medicine? He should sing’.”

“That’s what I have done... I have continued singing even when I was studying medicine. I chose medicine because I thought I could help others heal. I thought I can train, open a clinic... that there is a fragment of freedom in medicine,” adds Swami Kripakarananda, who completed his MD from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. 

A big turning point came in his life when he chose to become a sanyasi. “I pondered over it for about six years. In that phase too, I was working in both fields of medicine and music,” says Swamiji, who is now based in Varanasi. 

Talking about  how the founder of Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Vivekananda, and his guru Ramakrishna Paramhansa also bonded over music,  Swami Kripakarananda says, “Much before he became Swami Vivekananda, Narendra was a great musician. He had written a very good book on music. He would sing, and play the sarangi, tabla and pakahawaj. His guru, Ramkrishnaji was also full of music. Narendra and he also met through music. Many spiritual experiences occurred through music. Music demonstrates a very vibrant, spiritual aspect. Traditionally, music is a way to reach out to god.” 

Many artists, like Allauddin Khan Saheb, have come and performed on their own at the Ramakrishna Mission. “There is a lot of spiritual music in our order. That gave me freedom to continue in music. Our order is like a home. We don’t have any code. If somebody comes and wants to learn music, we can teach them for hours. There is no regimentation. It’s very natural and simple,” he adds. 

Swami Kripakarananda also continues to treat people who are ailing. When asked about the healing properties of both music and medicine and how he epitomises both, Swamiji says, “All the vidya have been integrated because they are centered on human entity. To do welfare, you have to know what welfare means, the better you know it, the better you can integrate it. The role of medicine in human welfare deals with body and mind too. Music helps in healing, it has been scientifically proven. We have to follow the path of inner satisfaction.” 

CONSTANTLY LEARNING
This year has been incredibly special for Ruchira Kedar, a vocalist from Gwalior-Jaipur gharana. She was one of the 32 promising young artists, who was bestowed with Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar 2018. To top it, Ruchira will also be making her debut at Sawai, on the fifth and last day (December 15) of the festival. With recognition and accolades coming her way, Ruchira is conscious of the fact that she will now be perceived differently. 

“The Yuva Puraskar is a very prestigious award in our field. With this award and the invitation to perform at Sawai, I will be judged on how good is my taalim, how well I am representing my gharana, how well I am innovating. I am constantly learning, anaylsing, meditating on how all the experiences can be assimilated in my performance. This process is happening very consciously,” says Ruchira, who teaches music at Vishwakarma University Pune.  

The vocalist, who will be performing in the afternoon, will choose her raags accordingly. “Khayal and thumri dadra are my forte. There are very few people who sing thumri. So I am looking forward to present that,” she says. 

Ruchira, whose first guru was her father, Dilip Kale, says, “Sawai has really been encouraging young artists. When you get an opportunity to perform at Sawai at a young age, it’s a big achievement. It catapults you into the big league.” 

She adds, “Sawai has an audience, including serious, regular and casual listeners. It is attended by music festival organisers too. This serves as an opportunity for the artist to create their audience.” 

As an artist, it’s important to create your own voice. “We work within the boundaries of raags, gharanas, guru’s style. So creating our own voice is a long process. Popular Marathi writer, Pu La Deshpande, had once told an artist, ‘Tu changla karat raha, vegla aapop hoil’ (you keep at it, something unique will come out of it). You have to be immersed in music 24 hours. I keep telling my students — you have to keep learning, practising, listening and analysing music. This is what I have deduced after all the years that I have spent in the field,” explains Ruchira, who has performed at Bengal Classical Music Festival, Dhaka. 

The vocalist, who trained under Dr Alka Deo Marulkar for seven-eight years, later studied under Pt Kashalkar. “Guruji had a very different approach. The first two years were very tough. I thought that all that I had learnt was of no use. However, somewhere down the line, it all came together. At this stage of my career, I can learn a raag from another senior artist, because I now have the ability to assimilate it in my existing music. My guruji does that even now. He has learnt different raags from different artists. But he doesn’t sing those exactly like them, he blends it into his existing style,” says Ruchira, who was a residential scholar at ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata.

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