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Hallowed by Melody

Jaipur-Atrauli Singing | Learning with Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur

by Chandrika Kamath


I was a simple housewife and had aspired to achieve the impossible -- a Phd in English. My BA and MA were both done as an external student and most guides refused to take me under their wings. Prof. Mansur, who was the Chairman of the English Department of Karnatak  University, agreed to be my guide, but  after six months of grueling tests. I finished my PhD on Post Colonial Theory in two and a half years. Prof. Mansur was a man of few words. And in my fifteen odd meetings, I had not found out much about him.

RasYatraI had vague idea that he was related to the great Mallikarjun Mansur, yet never realized the actual relationship. Once, I made bold to ask him if he sings and he replied with a monosyllable ‘hmmmn’. After the completion of my thesis, he said, “I’m impressed by your language skills. Would you be interested in translating my Appa’s autobiography from Kannada to English?” I accepted and took an old cyclostyled copy of “Rasa Yatra” (Kannada). For the next six months I lived every moment of Appa’s life. I lived his sorrows, his joys and travelled with him in his exhilarating musical voyages. I put my heart, soul, emotions et al into the Rasa Yatra. Six months later, I was emotionally drained and the translation was complete. My draft would be corrected, modified and some portions written anew by Prof. Mansur in next few months before it would be sent to publishers.

In the mean time, Prof. Mansur had retired from the university and had shifted to Bangalore. He had been honored by the Karnataka State as the chairman of the Sangeeth Nritya Academy. He asked me to come to Bangalore with the manuscript. But by then, my commitments at home had doubled. My third child had just begun schooling. My mother-in-law had become confined to bed. He understood my plight and accepted to come over to Hubli, during his next visit to Dharwad.

Prof. Mansur came home and read my translation-draft with tears in his eyes and said, “Great work!  I would like to teach you a Raga, as a gift.” I looked up at him with disbelief and pleaded my inability to sing but my father-in-law said that I must not refuse such an offer. He said it was a blessing and I must accept it, what if I doubted my singing ability.

I put a darri on the floor and both of us sat down. Suddenly Prof. Mansur transformed into Pandit Mansur. He began to sing and asked me to repeat. I prayed to all the thirty three crore Gods and opened my mouth and by their grace, made the same sounds he made. Please don’t laugh. For a music illiterate like me, they were mere sounds. But they sounded good and to my greatest amazement I was able to reproduce them. He didn’t tell me the name of the Raga. No words of the bandish were written down. He sang the bandish many times over and then moved on to variations and I followed him.

  • This is the way to teach music. The girl has talent and... a good voice too. I could make her my disciple and prove to the world that music can be taught at any age without exams, theory and repetitive sargams.Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur

He then did a few tans and I repeated. After half-an-hour, he smiled at me and my father-in-law and said, “This is the way to teach music. The girl (I was 41 years old!) has talent and did a good job. She has a good voice too. I could make her my disciple and prove to the world that music can be taught at any age without exams, theory and repetitive sargams." 

The momentous day ended like a dream. The manuscript was sent for publication to Delhi. Pt. Mansur went back to Bangalore and I went back to my household chores. But, heart of heart, my soul sang the Raga he had taught me. In the privacy of my room, I often sang the tune with all the possible variations. It gave me great joy. Although I did not know the notations, the taan patterns had got etched in my mind as mental pictures. I could even draw them- spirals, straight lines, arcs, zigzags and so on (I’m a painter). No one at home spoke about my learning music and I didn’t ask. Six months later Pt. Mansur came down to Dharwad for a recording and stayed with us. His other disciples came to learn from him. In between samosa and tea, I too sat down to listen. He asked me if I remembered what he had taught me. I said, that it is etched in my being (such was his teaching).  He asked me to sing and sing I did- taan, bandish, badath and all, oblivious of these technical words. He was over joyed and said “That’s it. It’s final. You are my disciple.”

Next morning, began my journey into music. No pooja, no dakshina, no fanfare. He taught me with great passion and I learnt with greater passion. He sang beckoning and challenging me, as if saying, “Catch me if you can.” I followed him.  How, I cannot tell. That is his power as a guru. I drowned in the deluge of his music. Every time he came to Dharwad for an AIR recording, he stayed with us and taught me. After he left, I practiced like a possessed. I had become an addict, drugged with Mansur music. In the mean time I had got a job as a lecturer but my mind was nowhere in it. I worked because I must. I sang because I couldn’t live without it.

Guruji taught complex Raga-s with ease. He never theorized nor did he ever discuss the vadi, samvadi nyas swara-s and other technicalities .He taught the bandish like "tune”. He insisted that the bandish must be sung over and over again. He always said, “Sing till effort becomes play, labour becomes leisure and passion becomes prayer. Only then the Raga will reveal itself to you." Another great truth Guruji revealed to me was that notes played different parts in different Raga-s. For example, he said gandhar is not just shudh or komal. There are as many Gandhar-s as the number of Raga-s. Todi Gandhar, Kanada Gandhar and so on. He drew my attention to the andolit Dhaivat in Bhairav and the shadja mukhi Rishabh in Sampoorna Bhibas. Mind you, he did not mention this before teaching the Raga but after the student had assimilated the nuances of the Raga. These little details were told as a matter of fact. With this revelation, each repetition of the Raga brought in new realisation. Much later I came to know that it was Raga Nand.

I must relate a memorable incident. One of my best friend’s co-sister is a vocalist and she lives in the USA. I met her during one of her visits to India and during the course of our conversation she came to know that I was under the tutelage of Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur. She was surprised and said "That’s a big name. During my last visit, you did not know the A, B, and C of music. I smiled sheepishly and said, “Yes I have been fortunate to get such a great guru. He has changed the course of my life in the last two years. Now music is my life” She looked at me with great doubt and asked me which Raga I had learnt. Guruji had already taught me 40 Raga-s. I thought it inappropriate to tell her this. And so I said 10 Raga-s and she asked me to name them. Jaipur Atrauli Gharana is known for Sankeerna Raga-s and Guruji had taken upon himself the onus of giving currency to Aprachalit Raga-s. He had taught me so many of them. But I decided to mention some common well known Raga-s ...I started with Bhibas, Bhairav, Shudh- sarang, Pooriya.. and then I ran out of common Raga-s and was forced to complete my list. I reluctantly said Yamani Bilawal, Basanti Kedar, and then she cut me short and said, “Do you know Basant, do you know Kedar?” I answered in the negative.  “Then how can you claim that you know Basanti Kedar?” she retorted.

Guruji had always given me a beautiful analogy while talking about jod Raga-s.  He always said, “Look at your children. They have a wonderful blend of both their parents, but to know them, one doesn’t need to know their parents.  They are individuals with their own identity.  Similarly, the parent Raga-s need not be thought of, when you sing the Sankeerna Raga. In fact, he was weary of the word Jod because it suggested combination. He said these Raga-s are not combinations but an amalgamated synthesis. When you sing Yamani Bilawal, forget Yaman and Bilawal.

In this same line, he taught me Khat. I learnt the tune in abandon. Taleem (teaching-unfurling) of every Raga was like a performance in all its splendour.  He went through the entire gamut of the Raga. So was the taleem of Khat and he taught this in the early stages of my learning. At that time I did not have the wisdom (?)  to see the different Raga-s, in the composition. After a long time, when I had become comfortable with the Raga, he told me that there were six Raga-s in Khat. He said, “If I had told you this before I taught you the Raga, you would have got intimidated.” Even then he did not tell me which were the component Raga-s and I did not ask. I don’t want to ask. As per my Guru’s advice, I will leave the theory to musicologists.

When Guruji started teaching me, he forbade me from listening to any other singer. He said, “For a few years, until you get a grip on this Gayaki  (vocal style) do not listen to any other singer. When you have found your foothold in this Gharana you can then listen to all other maestros.”  Having said this he went on to explain the importance of Gharana and the need to maintain its purity. He said that Gharana-s were like different paths that lead to god. For those who are emotional there is Bhakti Marga, for the intellectual, there is Jnana Marga, for the man of action there is the Karma Marga. Ultimately they lead to God-realization. So also different Gharana-s are paths that are means to Sadhana. No marga is greater than the other. But having chosen a path, the sadhaka must remain steadfast in it. With faraway look in his eyes and an amused smile he recounted a story to me. Once two well-known musicians from different Gharana-s had a fight about the greatness of their Gharana-s .They went to Shiva to get his verdict. Lord Shiva picked each of the musicians and placed him in each of his two ears and asked them to sing. He then laughed and said, “To this day they are singing.”
Then he sang the bandish of Khat.

  • Vidya dhara gunijana so kahaieye  
    Kachu na characha ki larayiye lare
    Jo kachu jaane gaiye bajayiye
    Nahin to guru ke charana dhariye

Perfecting knowledge, be known to aesthetes
Never engage in verbal scuffles
Play and sing how best you can
Else seek salvation at the feet of Guru

As he was telling me this, I began to realize the importance of a Guru in music. The spiritual guru helps you cross the Bhava-sagara but the Guru in music helps you drown in the Nada sagar and yet remain afloat. In fact he often said that a guru must push the disciple into the ocean of music.  Years of grammatical teaching is like sitting on the banks of the river, trying to fathom the depth. Such an effort will only make you a musicologist, not a musician.

Often when disciple read up on some Raga and tried to question him, he said,”Sangeeth gane walo ka kaam hain, baath karne walo ka nahin (music is for those who sing, not for those who prate).”  No amount of theoretical study and no amount of listening to recorded Raga-s can help.  But just one session of taleem with Guruji was enough. Somehow, the Raga got transferred from him to me. Nuances that had not struck me when I had heard the recording became clear. Guruji always insisted that music teaching must be one to one. If there are other disciples they must listen only as passive participants. Even this listening is a great shravana samskara (listenership acculturation), he said.

When he sang, the Raga stood sakshat (manifest) before me. At that point I didn’t need talent to learn. His blessings were enough.  I owe my learning not to my talent but to Guruji’s taleem (teaching). I must tell you about this. One day my taleem was in progress. In realm of notesGuruji closed his eyes when he sang. I too did that because it gave me better concentration. He sang and I followed, oblivious of everything else. Some 30 minutes must have gone by, when Guruji stopped. I opened my eyes to find my friend standing at the door. She had tears in her eyes and said, ‘I have been standing here for the last half an hour. This is indeed tapasya. Both of you were dead to the world outside.”  Such was Guruji’s dedication. For him teaching was a sacred activity. And that’s why I could learn.

In the ensuing anecdote, I must tell you about Guruji’s concept of Raga Swara. But before that I want to tell you a little of my life. I delve into these details, not because I want to tell you about myself but to illustrate how a Sadhaka’s journey is fraught with numerous impediments. And yet, with Guru’s grace anything is possible. At 41 I was not only embarking on a music career but also on a teaching career. Both the fields were new to me. Thrice a week I was teaching American transcendentalists to post graduate students. My work place was 100 kilometers away. Long hours of riyaz, preparations for the lectures, commitments at home began to tell on my health. But my longing for music burned ever bright. Destiny denied content. My mother-in-law continued to worsen and my pillar of support, my father-in-law, took ill and died. Mounting medical expenses meant that my earnings were welcome. But I could not manage music, hospital duties and work. I quit work. In the last five years we have had six deaths in our family. My husband has lost his father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law. Being a close knit family the trauma on my husband and me was immense. I stood by my husband’s family and my husband stood by my music. These days whenever Guruji would arrive to teach me, a patient would be there almost in every room. The time and place for talim had to be changed every now and then. But Guruji always co-operated. If my cooking session was to begin at 7, he would wake up at 5 and teach me. We would sit wherever place was available, so as not to disturb the ill. If I got an hour or two free in the afternoon, Guruji would sacrifice his siesta and taught me. Guruji had become a part of our family and shared our traumas. He stood by me, pacifying me that these were tests given by destiny. If I persevere, the universe will cooperate to make my dream come true. For me this is true Guru-shishya parampara. It is not to limited objective but to total existence of the disciple that Guru’s compassion encompasses.

I also had to contend with my ignorance in music. It took me nearly two or more years to recognize the Swara-s of what I was singing. At first, it didn’t trouble me. You must understand that I met my Guruji once in a month, for two or three days. He would teach me 3 or 4 Raga-s in each visit. I would then practice them and sing it before him in our next session.  Once he taught me Gauri and I did rigorous riyaz of the Raga. When I sang it before him the next time, he said that the take-off note for all tan patterns in this Raga must be Gandhar. I could not recognize Gandhar (are you shocked?) or any other note at that point of time. I sang tan-s just by ear.  I had practiced the tan-s so many times and found it a little difficult to unlearn the mistake. From then on I began to pay attention to the swara-s in the tan-s and gamak-s. I wondered if I should have learnt all notes before trying to sing the full Raga. Guruji assured me that the realization has dawned at the right time. He said, “If I had told you to learn the notes of every Raga, you would never have learnt so many Raga-s in two years.” 

I understood that this was the methodology – to initiate awareness of one’s ignorance. Knowledge can be imparted, both as meaningless burden of abstractions that would fall into some understandable pattern in future, and as real but complex pattern, which creates the need to learn peripheral steps.  Every session of riyaz is a revelation for me.  The characteristics of the Raga dawn on me because Guruji has given me insight or drishti in the most uncomplicated manner.  Guruji always said, “Look to the bandish for all guidance, It holds all secrets of the Raga in its construction. Keep singing the bandish over and over again and it will slowly unfold the Raga to you.” This is especially true in respect to jod Raga-s.  One has to be very careful when doing badhat or elucidation.  One must show a component Raga in the right measure. Neither too much nor too little! For example, in Raga Jaitashree, maryada (designated deployment) of Raag Jait is comparatively lesser than Raga Shree. It is not a 50/50 amalgamation.  Approximately one can say Shree is 65% and Jait is 35%. The arcs of Shree blend with staccato-ed phrase of Jait – sa ga ga pa.  This is clearly shown in the bandish and must be used as a guiding principle for all development of the Raga, he said. Guruji told me a beautiful story from Zen – the story of a disciple, who asks Guru to show the path to realization. The Guru takes him to the mouth of a tunnel, lights a candle and shows him the entrance to a dark, long tunnel. As the eager student took the candle from him, the Guru blew the candle off. He explained to bewildered disciple that a teacher can only show the path; the aspirant has to light his own candle and find his way. This can happen only with sadhana. What more can I ask. He had shown me the path to truth.

I realize that my Guru is the Poet they talk about in poetry. His very being is a melody that breaks into this or that song. The ‘wise’ are wise to hear and realize the value of these outbreaks. They are pearls to them that my Guru keeps rolling around. Why should he cherish and hold precious that he has plenty of? He is the true philosopher-king who delves into universe of sounds and gives away freely all he creates. He acts like Paras (philosopher-stone) to turn ordinary mortals into singers. Guru, tasmaya namah. I bow to you, Noble Teacher!