We are the brand new heavies


Hindustani music’s future does not lie with the dynasties you have been hearing of. Arunabha Deb profiles the real superstars

Purbayan Chatterjee, 35, Kolkata. Sitar player of Senia Maihar Gharana
Purbayan Chatterjee, 35, Kolkata. Sitar player of Senia Maihar Gharana
Photo: Hari Adivarekar

JAYATEERTH MEVUNDI’S life changed with a phone call. At 21, the Hindustani vocalist had just moved to Goa to work as a tanpura player with All India Radio (AIR) there. Jayateerth was crushed at his situation. Then one day, the station director called him to his room, handed him the receiver and told him that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was on the line. “For a few seconds, I just held the receiver and couldn’t move,” remembers Jayateerth. Obviously, it couldn’t be a “hello” and he was confused between “namaste” and “aap kaise hain?”; he doesn’t remember now what he finally said. Joshi had called to invite Jayateerth to sing at the Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsava in Pune. That was Jayateerth’s first major recital; he had been given a 40- minute slot, in which he sang Raaga Yaman. But the audience was not ready to let him go after one raaga, so he sang a composition in Raaga Bahar. The listeners wanted more, and Joshi then requested him to sing a Kannada bhajan. There was no doubt that there were glimpses of greatness in that concert and the greatest vindication came when Joshi said that the future of the Kirana gharana is safe in Jayateerth’s hands.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s death this year added a few decibels to the din of despair in the world of Hindustani music. We have lost many legends recently — Ustad Allah Rakha (2000), Ustad Vilayat Khan (2004), Ustad Bismillah Khan (2006) and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (2009). This group dominated Hindustani music for more than half a century. Today, Pandit Ravi Shankar is the sole surviving member of that club of maestros. The cries of the “end of an era”, therefore, reached a crescendo with Joshi’s death.

But the lament that these deaths will bring Hindustani music into twilight is misplaced. The generation after Joshi has produced its own grand maestros: amongst instrumentalists, we have Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan; amongst vocalists, there are Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar and Ustad Rashid Khan. The legacy is set to leap to the next generation of classical musicians under 40 years of age. The tradition has tended to judge a musician’s greatness by the number and quality of her disciples, and the young brigade’s commitment to this tradition is perhaps the most striking aspect of its emergence.

JAYATEERTH belongs to Hubli-Dharwad, that mysterious region in Karnataka that has produced some of our greatest classical vocalists. He started his talim in Hindustani vocal under the late Pandit Arjunsa Nakod. Later, he became a disciple of Shripati Padegar and decided to go professional. Despite regular local recitals, he felt he was headed nowhere with the little exposure he was getting, and being the only son in his family, financial pressures were building up. Hence the move to Goa.

Jayateerth has more than lived up to Joshi’s faith in him. Today, he is already being tipped as the next face of the Kirana gharana. He has participated in almost all the major festivals of the country. This year at the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, Pandit Jasraj stood up to applaud his rendition of Raaga Puriya Kalyan. But Jayateerth feels he is still struggling. Growing up in Hubli-Dharwad did afford a favourable setting for learning, but he complains that when it came to professional growth, he has received very little support from the region’s musical community. “There was a fair bit of unhealthy rivalry. Even today it pains me that I get more recognition in Maharashtra than in my home state,” he says. He is right about the recognition in Maharashtra: he has at least two concerts a month in Mumbai itself.

He’s now at that familiar stage where he seeks to extend his niche popularity to a mass appeal. Jayateerth is bitter about having been approached by a Marathi channel to be a judge on a music show and then being ignored. He’s convinced it’s necessary for a classical musician to be visible in mass media platforms. “How will more people know about me if I remain invisible to those who do not attend my concerts?” he asks. What is left unsaid is that if newspapers and television channels are plastered with his contemporaries’ faces, he needs to catch up. This isn’t an obsession for glamour, but a desire for the fame that he feels is commensurate to his command over his music.

KAUSHIKI DESIKAN, of course, has no such worries. At 30, she is a diva. At Dover Lane this year, her tabla accompanist was 40 minutes late. Unhappy listeners started clapping, few of them even got adventurous and started banging on the speakers. A few minutes later, Kaushiki appeared without the accompanist (who was then just getting on to the second Hooghly Bridge to get to Southern Avenue — still an easy 25 minutes away). She checked the microphone level and proceeded to ‘chat’ with the audience. “I was feeling uncomfortable that all of you were being made to wait. So I’ve come to wait with you” — thunderous applause. Over the next 20 minutes, she spoke about her nervousness before her first performance at Dover Lane, how she had to take time off from music to attend to her newborn son (now one-yearold), how she hopes that some day her son will perform on the same platform. By the time she finished, and asked the organisers for a cup of tea, most men in the audience were willing to travel to Darjeeling to pick out the finest flush. Needless to say, the tabla player, when he arrived, was spared the catcalls.

Kaushiki followed up this charm offensive with a corrosive rendition of Raaga Jog. Without doubt, this ability to always cushion her charisma with music of the highest standard has helped establish her as the most popular female vocalist of the new generation. She stormed into the scenario at the age of 17 with a debut concert in Delhi, and the cliché of not looking back is apt here.

Daughter and disciple of Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, she admits owing several opportunities to her lineage. “I’m not foolish enough to think that other girls my age couldn’t have achieved what I have if they got the same opportunities as I did,” she says. But she’s quick to add that she has justified those opportunities: “An organiser may come to me once or even twice because I’m my father’s daughter, but he wouldn’t come back a third time if he didn’t really want me to perform in his festival.”

Right from the start of her career, Kaushiki has carried the weight of her legacy with ease and panache. Her gayaki is modelled on her father’s and also draws generously from Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, but she deliberately avoids certain hallmarks of the Patiala gharana — like heavygamaks (traversing notes through forceful shakes of the voice) — that she feels are unsuitable for a female voice. “My father would always warn me against imitating him,” she says. “In class, he’d ask me to complement his phrases rather than repeat them verbatim. Learning by repetition often becomes learning by rote; then you find yourself mechanically reproducing the same sequence of phrases every time you sing a raaga. That kills the spontaneity. As my father says, it’s like reheating and serving last night’s food — and what’s more dangerous is that it stunts your growth as a musician.”

Her father also coaxed her to develop faculties of selfcriticism — evident in any conversation with her, which is peppered by quips like “five years back, I sang a terrible Raaga Jog” or “I know I need to go easy on mytaans (fast-paced improvisations)”. She claims she’s never received full-throated praise from her father. “Whenever I sing, his face betrays this feeling that everything is going horribly wrong. I’ve heard that he has said a few good things about my singing behind my back, but I’m yet to hear it from him,” she smiles. He trained Kaushiki to be a traditionalist, and in the guru-shishya parampara, the guru rarely praises the disciple.

Jayateerth Mevundi, 38, Hubli. Vocalist of Kirana Gharana
Jayateerth Mevundi, 38, Hubli. Vocalist of Kirana Gharana
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

Kaushiki, though, doesn’t view tradition as rigid imperatives. “Tradition is a fluid notion — we are trained in it, but then we also contribute to it. It should embrace growth. As soon as you start viewing tradition as something within four walls, you run the risk of getting caught in the rut of mediocrity,” she says. Here she’s referring to her music — she remains quite the traditionalist in her professional choices. At a time when most professional Hindustani musicians are involved in collaborative ventures with other musical forms, she has resolutely stayed away. She is no prude — she loves the band Shakti — but feels that the much of the current collaborative endeavours have a casual air about them and don’t aspire to the high standards set by Ustad Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin. “I don’t get it — all this ‘Lounge’ stuff,” she says. “Also, there is a new wave of corporate shows. I went to one as a listener and walked out midway. The sight of people eating, that too with their backs to the artiste, made me too uncomfortable to stay.”

PURBAYAN CHATTERJEE is a sharp contrast to that sentiment. If you ask any aficionado to name a young sitar star, you can be certain to get Purbayan’s name. You can also be certain that after him, most people will stumble in providing a second name. In a new generation of sitar players, arriving after Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee and Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, Purbayan enjoys a monopoly.

Of the 110-odd concerts he did last year, 70 were classical and 40 were collaborations with other genres — ‘fusion’, to use a dirty word. A visit to his website gives an instant idea about how he wishes to be identified: grey text on a white background waxes poetic about the notion of duality; the central image box is divided down the middle — the left throws images of Purbayan, in aviators, playing his electric sitar (which he has named “Dwo”, scoring an extra point for lateral thinking over Niladri Kumar, who called his electric sitar “Zitar”); on the right, he is in a kurta, holding the ‘original’ sitar.

Kaushiki Desikan, 30, Kolkata. Vocalist of Patiala Gharana
Kaushiki Desikan, 30, Kolkata. Vocalist of Patiala Gharana
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

Growing up in Kolkata, Purbayan created a sensation when he first started performing largely because his playing style was reminiscent of the late Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. His father and guru, Partha Chatterjee, was a disciple of Banerjee, and Purbayan consciously fashioned himself in the image of his father’s guru for many years. In fact, he played Raaga Darbari and Raaga Hemant in his first ever appearance at Dover Lane — the same combination that Banerjee had played in his last appearance at the same festival. It worked as a throwback for many Banerjee fans and gave Purbayan a considerable boost at the beginning of his career.

But Purbayan knew he could not ride on the throwback for long. Before people could start calling him a clone, he introduced significant changes in his style of playing, following it up by drastically changing his musical persona. “Until I joined Presidency College (for English Literature), I only spent time with people who were connected with the world of classical music,” he says. “In college, for the first time I was exposed to things beyond this realm. With new friends, I started listening to different genres — I started with The Beatles and eventually found heavy metal — and realised I actually enjoyed it.

His discoveries made him question a number of his beliefs. First among them was that Hindustani music is the world’s greatest form of music. “That’s a ridiculous thing to say, but you don’t assess the thought objectively when you’re surrounded by people who consider it the gospel truth,” he says. “A musician who practises a different genre can claim that his genre is the greatest — and that would be an equally meaningless thing to say.”

‘I walked out of a corporate show midway. The sight of people eating with their backs to the artiste was uncomfortable,’ says Kaushiki

Purbayan emphasises that it was his interaction with non-musicians that gave him a new worldview, which, in turn, forced him to rethink his positioning as a musician. First, he knew he had to get off the high horse that most classical musicians are conditioned to believe they are entitled to. “I pitched my first band, Shastriya Syndicate, as a classical ensemble,” he recalls. “I thought I was doing something holier than those who were doing fusion. Then I realised my snobbery wasn’t really doing me any good. I discovered that collaborating with other genres of music was challenging and fun. And then I decided to perform both classical and collaborative music — and that I won’t be coy about the two different worlds that I balance. There are several classical musicians my age who do vodka shots till 6 am, but in concerts and in interviews, you won’t get the slightest hint of that side of their personas. They will talk demurely about parampara. I guess it works for them, but I’d rather put myself out there the way I am. Yes, I like partying. Yes, I love it when I’m thronged by young women for autographs and I don’t see how or why any of this should compromise my status as a classical musician.”

Purbayan’s defiance is backed by the simple fact that he has not lost an inch of ground in the pure classical scenario. Organisers know that he head-bangs with his electric sitar around his neck and that he regularly does corporate shows, but continue to invite him to the most prestigious festivals in the country, be it Sawai, Saptak or the Tansen Samaroh. There is no shadow of any other form of music in his classical concerts: he doesn’t deviate from the grammar of raagas and has developed an aesthetic blend of vistaarlayakari and tayari (slow exposition, rhythmic improvisations and speed).

It’s tempting to see Kaushiki and Purbayan as leaders of two schools of emerging musicians. Both are immensely successful and are considerably ahead of their contemporaries in terms of fame and money. Their divergent paths can only be heartening news for young musicians — there’s comfort in knowing that, with either choice, the chances of success as a professional musician are not diminished. Jayateerth can, therefore, take heart in Kaushiki’s narrative; there can be no comparison between their backgrounds, and without doubt Jayateerth will take more time to become the star that he perhaps wants to be, but missing out on the television show will probably not prove to be a hurdle.

Manjusha Patil, 40, Pune. Vocalist of Agra - Gwalior - Jaipur Gharana
Manjusha Patil, 40, Pune. Vocalist of Agra – Gwalior – Jaipur Gharana

MANJUSHA KULKARNI PATIL is a brilliant vocalist who has not quite become a star — much like Jayateerth — but has been consistently impressing connoisseurs and listeners alike. She talks only about her music, and her bubbly enthusiasm is reminiscent of the playful vitality that invariably informs her recitals. She was born in Sangli, Maharashtra, and after initial talim under Chintubua Mhaiskar, she became a disciple of Pandit DV Kane (popularly known as Kane Bua). Kane lived in the nearby town of Ichalkaranji. Unlike Kaushiki and Purbayan, for whom theguru-shishya parampara was largely a matter of staying at home and learning from their fathers, Manjusha had to travel to her guru in another town daily. On weekends, she would stay over at her guru’s house for intensive talimand riyaz sessions. “The weekends would be the most rewarding,” she says. “It was a continuous process of him teaching and then me practising it in front of him. If I made a mistake, he’d immediately point it out and I’d have to keep singing the part until I got it right.”

Kane was an exponent of the Agra and the Gwalior gharanas. Manjusha tries to retain both flavours in her gayaki. Her present guru, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, is also an Agra and Gwalior exponent (as well as of Jaipur- Atrauli). She admits that the Agra gharana has been waning for a while and most vocalists partially trained in the Gwalior gharana tend to enhance the Gwalior elements over others. “That’s why I retain the Agra flavour in my presentations. Sometimes, I do nom-tom alaps (a dhrupad- inspired Agra speciality), but this depends on the raagaand whether it fits in the Agra mould,” she says.

Manjusha moved from Sangli to Pune when she got married in 2000. Apart from the richness of variety within herkhayal presentations, Manjusha performs different genres of light classical music with ease: while thumris andbhajans are part of every vocalist’s repertoire, her command over tappas, natyasangeet and lavanis differentiate her from her contemporaries. In addition to her robust voice, her repertoire initially made her a favourite in western India, but now she’s been getting regular invitations to Delhi and Kolkata.

Vinay Mishra, 29, Delhi. Harmonium player of Benaras Gharana
Vinay Mishra, 29, Delhi. Harmonium player of Benaras Gharana
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

VINAY MISHRA has also benefited by moving from a small town in Uttar Pradesh to Benaras and then to Delhi. Vinay grew up in Chehariya on the border between UP and Bihar, and nobody in his mohalla could have imagined he’d become a professional harmonium player. “The only thing that still matters is that there is an MBBS or engineering degree. I was seen as a gaane-bajaanewala until I went for my first concert tour abroad. With that, they suddenly felt that maybe mine is a real profession after all.”

Today, Vinay still looks like a good boy from UP and could easily pass off as the MBBS aspirant his family once wanted him to be: well-oiled hair, neat side parting, simple kurtas. He actually spent a year preparing for MBBS entrance exams. His musical journey started when he had to sing parts of the Ram Charit Manas with his grandfather during pujas at home. Beyond that, music was absent in the family’s life. Vinay discovered his vocation at school through singing in plays and Republic Day functions.

His father indulged his wish to learn music and decided to take him to Pandit Channulal Mishra in Benaras. Once a month, they would travel the 52 km between Chehariya and Benaras for music lessons. It so happened that Mishra started Vinay’s vocal talim using the harmonium as opposed to the tanpura, which is a more obvious choice. “With due respect, it wasn’t correct for him to start with the harmonium,” he says. “The tanpura offers a much stronger axis for developing one’s sense of sur. Because of his decision, I was compelled to play the harmonium.”

Vinay eventually discontinued learning from Mishra and went on to learn from a number of vocalists in Benaras, where he moved to for high school. He was already intent on becoming a professional singer but friends kept urging him to focus more on the harmonium. While pursuing a bachelor’s in music at Benaras Hindu University, he’d often be asked to accompany visiting artistes. “Because I took the harmonium so lightly, I’d say yes. There was no fear because I never felt anything was at stake. But many insisted I formally learn to play the harmonium. I was told I should go to someone called Ustad Mehtab Khan, and when I did, a whole new world opened up. He infused life into an instrument that I’d been playing almost mechanically,” he says.

A few years later, he moved to Delhi for his master’s in music from Delhi University. He arrived at a time when Mehmood Dholpuri was pretty much the only harmonium player in Delhi. Vinay was quick to sense the opportunity and decided to settle in the capital. He was in his early 20s and being taken seriously was difficult. “There were some musicians who I had accompanied in Benaras. Some thought I’d be happy with the same rates in Delhi. When I said I couldn’t possibly play for Rs 300, they thought I was being arrogant. But I knew if I relent once, I’d have to keep playing at ridiculous rates,” he says.

His risk paid off. Through tabla player Vinod Lele, Vinay got to accompany Ashwini Bhide Deshpande and since then he’s accompanied the likes of Pandit Madhup Mudgal, Shruti Sadolikar Katkar, Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar and recently, Ustad Rashid Khan. For someone still in his 20s, it can’t get better than this.

“Accompanists have to deal with differential treatment all the time. The main artiste will fly, but we’ll have to go by train. I insist on similar treatment,” he says. This might not sit well with senior organisers or senior musicians, but he feels notions of ‘proper’ are changing, and it’s essential for young artistes to assert themselves if they feel they have the talent to back up what might be seen as insolence. Today, he says he’s waiting for the right time to launch himself as a soloist. “Playing a harmonium solo doesn’t hold the audience for too long,” he explains, “and the instrument has several limitations that the artiste has to circumvent. I want to first come up with an engaging recital pattern. And I’m not in a hurry.”

MURAD ALI cuts a natty figure with a diamond stud in one ear and heavily embroidered kurtas. He’s also had to deal with the soloist-accompanist dichotomy. As the brightest young hope on the sarangi today, he is in constant demand from classical vocalists, music directors and bands. He manages to keep them all happy and also sneak in solos at prestigious festivals like Sawai and Vishu Digambar Jayanti. A sixth-generation sarangi player, Murad insists there was no family pressure towards the instrument. “My twin brother plays the sitar. Even I could’ve chosen something else. But I wanted to carry on the family legacy,” he says.

He took simultaneous lessons in singing and on the instrument from his grandfather Ustad Siddique Ahmad Khan and father Ustad Ghulam Sabir Khan respectively. By his early 20s, Murad was playing in studio recordings, and was a busy studio musician by the time he gathered prominence as a classical musician. “I have a huge debt to Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan,” he says. “I was part of Shubhaji’s Ab Ke Sawan and have been playing with her since then in both concerts and recordings. She supported me when I had very little to fall back on and encouraged me to believe I could be a classical musician and yet continue to do commercial recordings.” He says he’s learnt as much in the studio from music directors as he has from his gurus. “Studio recording is not easy. There’s little margin of error. Nothing is more embarrassing than being corrected by the music director in front of other musicians. The pressure ensures you focus on accuracy.”

‘Many classical musicians my age do vodka shots till 6 am, but in interviews they talk demurely about parampara,’ says Purbayan

Like Purbayan and several others of his generation, Murad has also plunged into collaborative music. In fact, he was part of Purbayan’s outfit Shastriya Syndicate and has now formed his own band Soul Samvaad. “Fusion is challenging, of course,” he says, “but it’s also a great way for us to earn money. And fusion doesn’t have to be the dhik-chik sort — our band plays pieces based on raagas and what fits our aesthetic sensibility.” Murad reiterates Purbayan’s point that as long as the two types of music can be kept separate, no one should be upset. He goes a step further to say that the whole idea of fusion is being seen as a sham because many young musicians look upon it as an easy route to getting gigs. “If you have anything to do with Hindustani music, you have to go through a period of intense talim,” he says. “Only when your fundamentals are in place, can you think of venturing out to try new things.”

Murad Ali, 35, Delhi. Sarangi player of Moradabad Gharana
Murad Ali, 35, Delhi. Sarangi player of Moradabad Gharana
Photo: Garima Jain

THE FIVE OTHER musicians featured here would surely echo Murad’s sentiment. All six have gone through the two core experiences of Hindustani music: talim and riyaz. They may have chosen different ways of marketing themselves and have differing notions of what should comprise the identity of a classical musician, but they all agree that without intense training and gruelling practice, an attempt at any sort of music is futile. Their priorities are clear: everything follows the music. Self-fashioned ‘serious’ listeners tend to pass caustic remarks about the youngsters’ flair for looks and stage persona, but they forget this is hardly new. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is believed to have one of the best collections of shawls in India.

In terms of what makes a successful musician, the formula, if there is such a thing, remains the same. And much remains the same in the world of Hindustani music at large. A growing audience for collaborative music has not seen the number of core classical listeners dwindle. In spite of young listeners taking a fancy for ‘classical sounds’ in collaborative music and corporate houses obsessing over ‘classical-type fusion’ shows, few young musicians complain about diminishing audiences in pure classical concerts. Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune continue to have loyal audiences and most young musicians report that they always perform to full houses at festivals in smaller towns, especially in Maharashtra.

Young musicians consider an image of tradition necessary — just as glamour is considered necessary in the film industry

Concerts apart, television channels in West Bengal and Maharashtra regularly broadcast pure classical recitals by upcoming musicians. And now YouTube is also playing its part. Musicians are not always the best of friends and are not necessarily regulars at each other’s recitals, but they are still keen to know how their contemporaries are doing. As Kaushiki says, “In Kolkata, I don’t often see my contemporaries at my concerts. But in Maharashtra, it’s very different, both contemporaries and seniors attend: people like Sanjeev Abhyankar, Padma Talwalkar and Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. But even if we don’t go for each other’s concerts, artistes of our generation are very aware of what everyone is doing. With YouTube, keeping track has become easier.” New media has made Hindustani music more accessible; listeners who would not go out and buy a CD (for fear of being overwhelmed) have the opportunity to sample Hindustani music in smaller doses.

However, easy dissemination has not reduced the importance or the status of gurus in any way. Democracy does not sit very well with the notion of talim in Hindustani music. All musicians agree that it is impossible to learn by listening to CDs and that the lack of depth is immediately evident when someone chooses to go down that path.Talim is still something precious that the guru passes over to the disciple; there is no substitute for this oral tradition as there is no shortcut to the maniacal hours that a classical musician needs to put in behind his/her music. The six young musicians featured here do not hesitate to owe all their success to their gurus; and modesty compels all of them, Purbayan included, to be silent about the hours they have put in. In spite of the new vocabulary of this generation, the script for success has not changed.



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