The shamianas were built, and they came – ten thousand of them. Every day, for six days in a row. Children sporting diapers, young men donning jeans, middle-aged men kitted out in kurtas, older men staying warm in their kaantopis, women in salwars, Bengal cottons, Narayanpethis and Paithanis, girls in jeggings. And at least one determined octogenarian sporting the nau-wari (nine-yard sari) that is typical of her generation.
The New English School in Ramanbaug, Pune, was the scene this year of the 60th Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Sangeet Mahotsav recently renamed by the addition of the name “Bhimsen”. A mouthful of a name, for a festival-and-a-half; actually, make that “festival-and-a-quarter”, for “one and a quarter” is what the word sawai means, but more on that later.
The week of December 11 2012 shall remain etched in my memory as the plateau in a 30-odd year career of concert-going that includes dozens of Hyderabad based events like Pt. Jasraj’s Maniram-Motiram festival, SPICMACAY recitals and Surmandal concerts. Overseas live performances by the likes of Michael Jackson, Santana and Jethro Tull and modest exposure to Carnatic music kacheris and classical dance performances.
The word sawai is familiar from monarchical titles like Sawai Jai Singh or Sawai Man Singh, that are given to denote respect. The word entered the world of music the day Bal Gangadhar Tilak heard a child prodigy called Narayan Rajhans (1888 – 1957) sing, and was inspired to call him “Bal Gandharva” or “baby gandharva”, gandharva meaning celestial musician. Tilak was so respected in his day, that this offhand improvisation started a trend that is alive to this day. It is said to be lonely at the top, but sometimes, it is crowded. Bal Gandharva’s considerable stage talents were matched note for note by one contemporary artiste – Rambhau Kundgolkar (1886 – 1952). The story goes that their respective drama troupes were once camped in Amaravati playing engagements, simultaneously. This rare opportunity allowed connoisseurs to compare their live stage personas, whereupon they felt that Mr Kundgolkar was at least a silly whisker ahead of his famous rival. If someone could be a child gandharva, then their man was even better than a gandharva; in fact one-and-a-quarter times as good as a gandharva! So was born the Sawai of music. Rambhau Kundolkar was never heard of again – in his place strove the brilliant Sawai Gandharva, whose star was now on the rise.
Sawai Gandharva’s best known student was the stalwart Bhimsen Joshi, himself best known to those outside the fold of classical music as the voice of “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara”. Bhimsen Joshi started an invitational festival in honour of his guru and named it the Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav. From modest beginnings in the 50s, it gathered momentum in the 60s and 70s, then took on a life of its own in the 80s and 90s to become what it is now – a pilgrimage, a transcendental experience, an elevated plane of existence.
Down the street from Tilak Wada which housed the revolutionary publication Kesari, and plum in the middle of the traditionalist Pune stronghold of “Peths” (localities) quaintly named after days of the week – Ravivar Peth, Shaniwar Peth, Shukrawar Peth, or their founders – Sadashiv Peth, Narayan Peth, one can’t help but feel that time has been suspended, or even turned back.
The ramshackle clay buildings, cast iron facades and narrow roads, all converge on the venue following the trails of the most discerning audience ever assembled. Hindustani classical music, not unlike jazz, attracts its share of pseudo intellectuals and frauds, but here’s where the chaff is separated from the grain. Sawai (as it is known for short) is a six hour long sit-down affair sans small talk or chit chat, which makes it torture for a poseur but nirvana for a true aficionado. Any disruptive behaviour draws raised eyebrows and stern looks that leave no choices other than shutting up, or leaving. This being the 60th year of the festival, it stretched for 6 nights rather than the usual 4, all of which meant that there wasn’t a single pseud in sight. Audience numbers worthy of a Test Match sat in reverent silence, always mindful that cheering might drown out a delicate murki, or obscure a beautiful meend. I have never been to a championship chess game, but I imagine it would have an audience like this one.
So much happened in those six days, that it would fill volumes. To get a taste, let us join the action on Day 4:
The Master of Ceremonies Anand Deshmukh speaking in proud and chaste Marathi, has just finished introducing a man to the assemblage; the man in question is a renowned musician who started life as an akhada-kushtiwala and is considered by some to be a representation of Lord Krishna, such is his mastery over the bansuri. As an aside, I will say that a dyed-in-the-wool Punekar such as Mr. Deshmukh hates to be forced to speak in English, and even more to use English words when speaking Marathi; we were therefore treated to words like chhayachitrakar (photographer) and pushpaguchha (bouquet) in the course of his compering.
The artiste who was introduced ascends painfully to the stage with the aid of several helping hands, to the sound of a modest, respectful applause. His health no longer allows him to sit cross-legged to perform like everyone else does, so he is seated on a low chair. The extent of his physical deterioration becomes obvious when the tremors in his hands barely allow him to hold the bansuri to his lips for more than a few seconds at a time. The recently installed giant LCD screens make this all the more poignant. In fact, the magnification of the screens take the hitherto-private expressions of confusion, impatience and adoration of the accompanists and made them part of the show, adding a slice of reality-TV to the proceedings.
Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, no stranger to applause and adoration, is not doing this out of pride or commercial pressure. In fact he is in no shape for such a prestigious concert, but the audience senses his purpose and respects it. Like Malini Rajurkar would say later the same day, they are here for seva. Service. They come in service of music, and in service of the memory of Bhimsen Joshi. The occasion brings out the best in them – for one evening, they are all Usain Bolts on the Olympic stage, where the adrenaline comes together with decades of saadhana to ensure that they give their personal best performance.
There’s a kind of hush as the notes of raga Madhuvanti yawn, stretch and unfold as if waking up from an afternoon nap. Panditji has taken a runner – his nephew Rakesh Chaurasia, who is there to replay his runs in a clearer and steadier manner than he can manage now. After the first performance, the audience requests Panditji to play a Pahadi dhun, to which he complies by taking out a much smaller (i.e., a treble) bansuri. Six bars into the dhun we know that this will be a special experience – it is a physical as much as a spiritual effort for Pandit Chaurasia, and his effort uncovers alchemical notes hidden in the midst of the regular ones – calling them teevra this or komal that just exposes the limitations of language. The magic of his bansuri transports us into a mindscape of dewy hills, clear sunshine and gurgling mountain streams where we taste the beauty, joy and loss in the raga’s narrative. There is not a dry eye in the house, everyone is moved to tears by his wordless music.
Day 3’s star, the 23-year-old sarangi prodigy Sarwar Khan had a similar effect on the audience, moving everyone to tears of joy and transcendence.
One of the great aspects of the festival was a strong showing from young musicians, many of them scions of famous gharanas. Shiv Kumar Sharma’s son Rahul Sharma was brilliant on the santoor, Amjad Ali Khan’s sons Amaan and Ayaan show promise on the sarod (right now, they’re trying to pass off volume for virtuosity, but I have hope this will change for the better), Rajnish and Ritesh Mishra are really superb representatives of the Rajan-Sajan Mishra combine, Kalapini Komkali sings so much like her father Kumar Gandharva, young Sameehan Kashalkar sounds like a worthy successor of the brilliant Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar. Given the timing, it was not surprising to hear many of the same ragas from several artistes – Multani, Bhairavi, Bhimpalasi, Des, Puriya Kalyan and Puriya Dhanashree. Of the several great performances by veterans, Pt. Jasraj, Malini Rajurkar and Pt Ulhas Kashalkar get special mention.
The discovery of this festival for me was the 41-year old phenom Anand Bhate. A student of Pt Bhimsen Joshi’s from 1986, he dazzled with his intricate, fast and relentless taanbaazi. His rendition of the Bal Gandharva natya geet Vad Jau Kunala Sharan and the Bhimsen mainstay Mazhe Maaher Pandhari had everyone in raptures – he was the only singer in the festival who had a curtain call, which the organisers felt obliged to entertain despite the strict 10pm deadline implemented by the police. Bhate is actually deserving of that much overused term “genius”. Besides being really humble and openly appreciative of others’ singing, he is also a modern role model of work-life balance. He has a B.E. and an M.Tech, works full time in a major IT Services firm, and manages to pack in local and overseas concerts. Anointed “Anand Gandharva”, he is also the latest in the line of singers to earn the “Gandharva” tag, the last great one being Kumar Gandharva.
One other highlight was the transfixing beauty of Shobhana’s Bharatanatyam recital. It was a performance heavy on abhinaya and light on nritta, or technical footwork. This was calculated to work for the musically inclined crowd, and it did. Suffice it to say that I took over 2GB and 500 photographs of her hour-long dance, and counted maybe 1356 different expressions. Striking one divine pose after another, bringing mythological characters to life through the use of her preternaturally developed bhava, for an hour that day Shobhana ceased to be a mere mortal. She was a mythological apsara who was passing through this realm to give the audience a glimpse of beauty that is not of this earth, and is rarely glimpsed in the rough and tumble of daily life.
For the music, the emotion, the beauty – this transformational experience, I shall be ever grateful.