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Mallikarjun Mansur : The Man and the Musician

Mallikarjun MansurMallikarjun Mansur is no more. The torrent has gone back into the magic mountain from where it used to flow.

He sang for more than sixty years. And he sang till almost the very last, although he had been so continuously harassed by illness. I recall a private concert he gave in delhi just five or six months ago when he was kind enough to tell the hosts to ask me to be present. On that occasion he apologised to the audience for not being able to sing for even two hours.

Mallikarjun MansurThere was always a special intensity to his singing, a special urgency and earnestness in his treatment of melody. These are days when the voice can be preserved, unlike earlier centuries, or the beginning of the phonograph with three-and-seven minute records. Some may say that the immortals of music can now be truly immortalised. But a record of a Mansur concert can never be a substitute for the live one --- for each time he sang with a new creative impulse, and in each rendering there were several surprises. His Patdeep or Shivmat Bhairav of today would be a different experience from his Patdeep and Shivmat Bhairav of yesterday.

So many of our well-known authors and artists move about with a swagger for they seem to believe that they are indeed colossi striding the scene. They are all the time looking at those who are looking at them. Mallikarjun did not possess a regal bearing. He did not clothe himslef in princely robes. He did not care to be the centre of attraction. He was content to be inconspicuous. He continued to look like a shopkeeper's accountant. He did not speak like an oracle. He rarely referred to his triumphs. He won not only the respect but the affection of his contemporaries. He was wholly without envy. His was an unfailing geniality and lightness of heart. His airs were what he sang. He did not put on any.

Those who met him never failed to wonder at his combination of eminence and humility. His autobiography would throw some light on this riddle of Mallikarjun. ``Nanna Rasayatre'' (which could be rendered rather inadequately as ``My Emotional Pilgrimage'' -- for there is no satisfactory English equivalent for ``rasa'') is a little masterpiece. But few know about it because it is in his mother tongue, Kannada.

Most autobiographies in our country are by political persons or by literary men. Few are by artists. Mansur's book cannot be compared with Yehudi Menuhin's in its length or its depiction of a musician's challenges and rewards. Mansur tells us that his fingers are meant to play the tanpura and not ply a pen. He took up the book only under the pressure of a couple of literary friends -- A. N. Krishna Rao of Karnataka and P. L. Deshpande of Maharashtra. He had kept no diary. His intention in writing the book ultimately was not to impress but to record his debt to his musical and spiritual preceptors.

Mallikarjun's reverence for his teachers comes out strongly especially for Nilkantha Buwa and for the sons of Alladiya Khan -- Manji Khan and Burji Khan. For him they were perennial rivers from whom he could not draw enough. Even when he was nearing forty he kept going from his hometown Dharwad to Kolhapur for lessons from Burji Khan.

Writing nearly thirty-five years after Burji Khan's death, he would say that his gurus continued to guide him in spirit, inspiring him, enabling him to understand the meaning of music, and bringing him whatever reputation he had gained.

Outwardly the most captivating aspect of Mallikarjun's music was its dramatic element. He went on the stage even as a young boy, following in the footsteps of his elder brother, and made a name for himself as Prahlada, Dhruv and Narada. But he also left the stage early, when he was still in his teens. The musician Nilkantha Buwa heard him and told his brother: ``Give this lad to me. I shall make him a musician. His genius should not be wasted in theatre companies.'' The Buwa himself was with a religious establishment and apprenticeship to him was more than a musical training.

Although he had made several discs for HMV even in his early twenties, music did not become a paying profession to Mallikarjun until much later in life. His mother's faith sustained him initially. After his marriage, his wife somehow managed the house, convinced that she should aid his tapas.

One of the most moving chapters in the autobiography concerns Mallikarjun's mother. The family decided to go on a pilgrimage to the famous Saivite temple at Srisailam. Once there, Mallikarjun went to have a dip in the sacred pool, leaving his coat at the top of the steps. When he came up, the coat had disappeared and with it all the money of the party as well as the return tickets. he spent the whole day and evening moping. But his mother put heart into him. When it was nearly midnight, she took him to the temple and asked him to sing. The main door had been closed, but Mallikarjun obeyed his mother's command. He began to sing and soon the singer was lost in his song. To his surprise a priest opened the door and asked the group to go in. Mallikarjun's mother stood before the idol and made a prayer: ``Lord, if you are true, take me unto yourself. I have no further interest in living. This is my only plea to you.'' Mallikarjun joked and told her: ``How can He take you unless we let you go?''

They emerged from the temple and once again Mallikarjun was gripped by worry as to how to get back home. A fellow pilgrim noticed his plight and came forward to loan him the required money. The following day was spent in visits to more religious establishments. The group decided to spend the night at Srisailam and leave early in the morning for the railway station. As was the practice in those days at pilgrim centres, they spread their sheets on stones bordering the streets and went off to sleep. When it was near dawn, Mallikarjun woke up to the sound of the bells of bullock-carts. All of a sudden a cart came hurtling towards them and ran over Mallikarjun's foot. Before he could realise what had happened, it had also run over his mother. The Lord of Srisailam had answered the devotees prayers and gathered her up to Him.

It should not be imagined that Mallikarjun has painted himself as a blemishless saint. The book has a chapter which recounts the clash between him and his son. Mallikarjun had eight children, and Rajashekhar was the only son. Much to Mallikarjun's anguish he showed no interest in music, at least outwardly, and kept himself aloof. He even ran away from home when he was in the last year of school. Mallikarjun often told himself that he had seven swaras in his daughters and one false note in his son. The consolation was that Rajashekhar was good at his studies in college. But a head-on collision came when he decided to marry a classmate, while Mallikarjun, the traditionalist, wanted him to marry a girl chosen by the family. Rajashekhar went ahead and Mallikarjun stood before the portraits of saints in the house and vowed never to let his son enter again.

Some years passed. One day Rajashekhar heard his father singing on the radio and something happened to him. Tears cascaded down his cheeks and he proclaimed that he would not touch food until he saw his father. The father, adamant, would not hear of it. In this dilemma, the family went to the prelate of Murgod and narrated the story. He sent for Mallikarjun. There was a long silence, which was broken when the holy man directed Mallikarjun to make up with his son. And he, the prelate, would take upon himself the responsibility for releasing Mallikarjun from his oath. He went on an expiatory fast.

Soon father and son drew close. Rajashekhar became one of Mallikarjun's star disciples, and accompanied him in concerts, while holding his job as a teacher of English.

The best portions of the book, understandably, are where Mallikarjun speaks about his gurus and about the nature of music.

He was introduced to Manji Khan by Vishnupant Pagnis, who had gained a name for himself as Tukaram in Shantaram's film. Mallikarjun had by then sung Gaud Malhar and Adana for HMV. Manji Khan was impressed by the records and tied the red thread of discipleship around Mallikarjun's wrist.

Practice began at eight every morning and went on until 1.00 p.m. What struck the disciple most in the master was the manner in which swaras merged without a fissure. Manji Khan taught him how to visualise the whole configuration of a raga and how to move in different tempi within the time cycle, so that raga, tala, laya became one and inseparable. A single raga was taught over days, but each day, each time, it assumed a new birth, a new form. The same raga, the same composition, the same set of notes, but there was no repetition, no staleness, no feeling of it being a stereotyped reproduction. ``Whether it was a straightforward raga like Yeman, or a twin raga like Basanti Kedar, or a complex raga like Khat, the stream of his (the guru's) singing flowed with astounding power and beauty. And once I began learning from him, my personality underwent a change. I felt there was nothing other than music for me. Here was nectar for a thirsty man.''

But this discipleship lasted for only a year and a half. It came to an abrupt end with Manji Khan's premature death. Mallikarjun went to his master's father, the venerable Alladiya Khan, and begged to be vouchsafed more insights into the Jaipur style. The elderly man said he was no longer in a position to devote five hours a day to a disciple and directed him to his second son, Burji Khan.

Mallikarjun found that Burji Khan was a true teacher, in that he understood the disciple's strengths and shortcomings. Above all he learnt from Burji Khan how to eschew slackness and how to achieve creative independence within the framework of tradition.

Mallikarjun's book is a short one of a mere eight-five pages, but, like his music, it conveys profundity in an unselfconscious way. It ought to be translated into all our languages (and into English, if anyone can find the vocabulary in English for our musical terms). Here is something that the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi might take up.

Posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series.
(Photos courtesy: Daniel Fuchs. Photos were taken on April 26th 1992, at one of Panditji's last performances in Delhi, in Kamani Auditorium.)

by H Y Sharada Prasad

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