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TELLING a tradition anew

Tradition will, of course, always be there. But it is important to give it a contemporary idiom, says scholar-musician Satyasheel Deshpande



If one finds traces of khayal, thumri, abhang in Satyasheel Deshpande's renditions, it is because of the creative turbulence to evolve a new, contemporary idiom — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

IF YOU'VE regretted not meeting the unparalleled maestro, Kumar Gandharva, all your life, it only heightens after meeting Satyasheel Deshpande. That amazing musician, who refused to surrender to the gharana mindset, was Satyasheel Deshpande's teacher. Every time you listen to Kumar Gandharva, you're convinced he will never sound the same: he comes up with so many different interpretations, new textures, and new idioms. Didn't he famously once say: "The raga is bare, it's the musician who clothes it." And so, one did go to meet the shishya with a lot of expectations, but what came one's way was more.

Satyasheel is not only an outstanding storehouse of information on the various traditions of classical music, but also a scholar who is constantly thinking and reinventing himself. Consider this, for instance, which might seem shocking coming from a classical musician: "I am of a generation when Lata Mangeshkar, Mehdi Hasan, and Ghulam Ali were reigning in the world of music. How can I not be influenced by them and lock myself up in a gharana?" This is even more astonishing: "Last week, I went to a birthday party. They asked me to sing. I looked at the child and wondered what to sing. If I sing a khayal full of saas, nanat, and souten, I knew I would be irrelevant. So I sang "Janam din aaya meri, mamata ki jyot jaagi", an old Lata Mangeshkar number. There's so much vatsalya in it and that's what the occasion demanded."

Satyasheel Deshpande is inimitable (probably blasphemous by a conservative musician's standards) in his views. And that's perhaps why one wonders how Kumar Gandharva, who, to put it in T.S. Eliot's language, asserted the right to individual talent and look at tradition from one's own innate vision, would have been to talk to.

At the moment, what Satyasheel has on his mind is his novel experiment, Kahen (a telling), an album that contains 16 bandishes. In this, he takes a new look at the age-old classical compositions, some rare, some unknown, as he presents his own. While he holds on to his classical base, he takes off to explore the various possibilities that could enhance the lyrical content, rather than pursue "musical improvisation for its own sake". If you find traces of khayal, thumri, abhang in his renditions, it is because of the creative turbulence to evolve a new, contemporary idiom.

"One day, my son's friend came to me with a song. "Tere mere sapne" from the film Guide. The boy wanted to improvise, but decided its too boring to take classical music lessons," says Satyasheel, trying to explain how youngsters find the rigours of khayal music irrelevant. "You're an ustad, you've mastered khayal music in all its ashtangas. So, now move on," urges the scholar, referring to the great musicians and teachers of classical music, who never tire of singing in the same pattern. He breaks into the song, keeps beat with his fingers on his briefcase, and explains how by changing rhythm pattern and treatment, "Tere mere sapne" or "Adha he chandrama" can be clothed with an entirely different worldview.

"Why shouldn't one sing it this way? These are the thoughts that flood my mind when I listen to these lyrics," he says, "and this is surely not escapism."

One more or less concedes. But what about all those theories that one has over the years come to believe that sahitya is just a means to an end, while the accent is on emotional content in Hindustani music. "Musicians from the entire belt of Karnataka and Maharashtra were unfamiliar with the language. So they developed a musicology that used words as nails to hang notes. And obviously, lyric gained a backseat and musicians could afford to get carried away," argues Satyasheelji. This reminds one of what a musicologist said of Kumar Gandharva, who strongly

believed that words are not vehicles of musical sounds. When he sang phrases such as "shuba ghadi", he would insist on stressing "bha" and "gha", and these would hold the key to the rest of the experience at this point.


Satyasheelji's Kahen has had an overwhelming response. "The album is not me and not even my verdict. It's currently my subject," he emphasises. One could perhaps consider this as a good entry point. "It's time we got out of this saas-nanat mould and begin to compose our own khayals. Or, its

time that we explored poetry. But again, one cannot sing Mahadevi Varma's poems because our requirement is two or four lines." He sings Sadarang's "Nike ghunghariya tumakat chaal chalat hain" in Bilaskhani Todi and tells how a musician had complains about his choice of raga. "On the contrary, they got it wrong. Because the word `ghunghariya' has nothing to do with dance," protests Satyasheel. "The poem talks about the joy of watching a child who has just learnt to walk, and so the udaat bhava of Bilaskhani Todi is most appropriate."

Kumar Gandharva held that raga was incidental. And once someone walked upto Satyasheel and asked him what the difference between Yaman and Kalyan was. Technically, Yaman uses one madhyam and Kalyan uses both. But look at what he had to say: "Kalyan is more a bhava than it is a raga. Like in the evenings, when you light lamps, a certain quiet envelops you, and there is a sense of surrender. That is Kalyan."

Satyasheel has a great sense of pride as he talks about his guru. "He always said, `Listen to your guru, but don't do what he does'," he remembers. For instance, when he taught Behag, he would say: "This is Fayyaz Khan saab's style, this is Gwalior style, and this is my style, now you decide what you want to do with it." Kumar Gandharva, a post-modernist in his thinking (much ahead of his times), probably knew that discouraging independent thinking, like most other gurus do, would spell the decline of gharana sangeet.

"When I made this album, Hridaynath Mangeshkarji had clearly told me not to make it reek of classicism and render it unattainable to the younger generation. Tradition will be there. But it is important to give it a contemporary idiom," says Satyasheelji, summing up his philosophy. Because, classical music, he says, is like Narmada, which takes different courses, but comes back to where it started.

You may agree or disagree with Satyasheel Deshpande's telling. But it's a striking telling nevertheless.

* * *

INTERESTINGLY, SATYASHEEL Deshpande has an archives in his home in Bombay. His father Waman Rao Deshpande was a well-known musicologist, and their home was always teeming with musicians. Having listened to so many of them, being witness to several exchanges, Satyasheel couldn't help wanting to document them. Today, he has a huge archival coll0ection, Samvad Foundation, and is open to all music lovers and students of music. Those who want to interact or get more details can email: satyasheeld@yahoo.com.

DEEPA GANESH

Satyasheel Deshpande will perform in Bangalore on June 9 at SBI Auditorium, K.G. Road, 6 p.m. His album, Kahen, will also be available at the venue

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