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The Lone Titan: Mallikarjun Mansur

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The Lone Titan: Mallikarjun Mansur

Next week Mallikarjun Mansur, the Hindustani classical music virtuoso turns 75. Still remarkably active, Mansur remains the lone titan of a tradition that is fast vanishing. A rare genius whose creative ability overshadowed his confreres eminence.

MOHAN NADKARNI, the noted critic, pays a tribute to the maestro.

Music to Pandit Mansur is not just an avocation. With him, it is a way of life and through it, he seeks to express the very essence of his inward being. As he often declaims : “I have never let my thought and action deviate from my music.” Indeed he ‘lives’ it.


Mallikarjun Mansur.

Incredible is about the only word to describe Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, who turns 75 on December 31. He is the last titan still amazingly active on the Hindustani concert stage. And continues to sing with a verve, grace and vigour surprising for his age. Of course, his concert appearances are getting fewer – and naturally so, but whenever he condescends to sing in public, his music elevates him to a plane far, far above the vast multitude of his confreres, many of them eminent in their own right but much younger.

Mark, for example, the laser-beam precision of his swara; the crushing trenchancy of his taal; or the tremendous force and animation he imparts to his creative process; or the sculpturesque dignity, poise and balance that distinguish his melodies. These are all still here. Especially to his old-time listeners (like this writer), who have savoured his music for four decades, each of his latter-day mehfils comes as a stark reminder of a great era that is fast coming to an end.

His is, indeed, the voice of tradition – a tradition which looks almost doomed to be at the mercy of the man in the street sooner than later. Not for nothing has a multinational recording company managed to coax the maestro to cut a series of long play discs barely a few weeks ago!

My acquaintance with Mansur’s music was through his commercial records. That was in the early ’40s, when I was a college student. I still cherish the nostalgic memories of those three-minute discs of Goud-Malhar, Adana, Todi and Yamani Bilaval for their racing, sprightly musical lines, intricate rhythms and complex, odd-shaped taans. They had a stately quality which his tenor yet vibrant voice conveyed with a naturalness all its own. So abiding was their impact on my ears that I seldom missed an opportunity to listen to his radio recitals. (Public concerts were not so much in vogue then as they are today.)

Mansur’s recital at a Ganapati festival in Bombay, in 1945, brought me the long-awaited opportunity to listen to his ‘live’ music. It was a four-hour recital, comprising a rich and varied repertoire of popular as well as rare ragas. To my surprise and admiration. I also heard him render a couple of Marathi songs and Kannada devotionals in between.

Photo (31)

The author with Mallikarjun Mansur in the mid 1980s. (From the Mohan Nadkarni archive).

The maestro was so sure of his touch that he totally dispensed with the preliminary alapi in the presentation of his individual ragas. Yet he established immediate rapport with his listeners by the very opening swara of his chosen raga. In no time did he work himself into an +intense mood and impart to his music the hue and character of his classical thought, his passionate urge for self-expression and instinctive feeling for the artistic. It was as though his musical thought was in tune with some high ideal of beauty and he was striving to communicate to us with the fire and fervour of an impassioned utterance. Few, indeed, are great musicians like Mansur – who unfailingly share their pure, sensuous joy with their listeners from start to finish. And that is what makes a Mansur concert an event always to look forward to even today.

Mansur’s gayaki, to my mind, is a rare assimilation of three musical streams – the tradition of Carnatic music and the two vocal traditions of Gwalior and Atrauli-Jaipur. He had his initiation into the Carnati paddhati from Appayya Swami, a veteran vocalist, violinist and playwright of his time. He was then placed under the tutelage of Nilkanthbuva Alurmath, a leading disciple of the maestro Balkrishnabuva Ichalkaranjikar, who is credited to have brought the khayal style of singing from Gwalior to Maharashtra.

After six years’ grooming in the Gwalior parampara came the final and most decisive period of shagirdi in the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana of which Alladiya Khan is considered as the pioneer. But it was not this ustad, but his two worthy sons, Manji Khan and Bhurji Khan, who moulded the musical genius of Mansur. Manji Khan’s sudden and untimely death, within barely two years, left young Mansur without a comparable guru, while it also deprived the country of a musical luminary who, by all accounts, would have been excelled hi father. But it was not long before Bhurji Khan took his departed brother’s protégé under his wing and shared his vidya with him for several years.

It is often said, not without a degree of justification, that the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana, with its dhrupad-like massive form and robust structure, does not lend itself to free and unfettered Interpretation and, for that reason, does not command much popular appeal. It is also argued that it is the felicitous emphasis on layakari and the penchant for ingenious phirat that greatly help to hold the audience’s attention. In other words, the impact of the music is intellectual, which affords little scope for the exponent to show his individual musicianship.

Manji Khan was, by common consent, something of a rebel, determined to widen the horizons of his gharana without compromising, in the least, on its fundamentals. He lent it a refreshing quality of romanticism – as Abdul Karim Khan did to his Kirana gharana and Faiyaz Khan to his Agra gharana. And thereby he evolved a style which was marked not only by the purity and vigour of Alladiya Khan but also the subtlety of his own imagination. Although he did not live long to watch the success of his new genre, it was left to Mansur to promote and popularize it. Here indeed, lies the distinctive character of Mansur’s contribution to the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana in particular and Hindustani music in general.

Another important aspect of Manji Khan’s approach to music deserves mention. It is his progressive outlook, conditioned by an awareness of the tastes and preferences of his audiences. This was reflected in his repertoire, which included a judicious mixture of light and popular songs, like Marathi bhavgeets, natyageets and bhaktigeets. This has also been the format of Mansur’s concert fare for several years. It is only in recent years that he has restricted his singing to khayals. Only in very rare cases, and that too, in response to pressing request, does he end his recitals with a Kannada devotional or two.

Mansur gratefully says that Manji Khan’s vocalism has had the most abiding impact on his style. This is also the opinion of those who were au fait with his mentor’s style. They are, in fact, all admiration for the way Mansur – incidentally, the ustad’s only worthy shishya – has imbibed even the spirit of his guru’s approach. All this, within an incredibly brief period of studentship!

Mansur is equally grateful to his other gurus who contributed significantly to the moulding of his musicianship. He says his first teacher saw in him the makings of a future musician and initiated him into the mysteries of Carnatic tone and rhythm. Alurmath groomed him in the tradition of the Gwalior gharana, with special emphasis on aakar, alamkar, swara, taal, laya and brief compositions in popular ragas. The grooming from Bhurji Khan, which was the longest, gave him a thorough insight into the laya-oriented, dhrupad-based style of Alladiya Khan along with a rich repertoire of rare and complex ragas.

And Mansur, in my opinion, is the only maestro who can present such an amazing variety of less-known ragas as naturally, as spontaneously, as the familiar ragas. Incredible though it may seem, the number of melodies I have heard from him comes to 125! If his depiction of familiar melodies unfolds their unsuspected niceties and beauties, he reveals his savoir faire in making an uncommon raga sound easy and simple and project it as a well-knit, aesthetic build-up.

Strange but true, Mansur chose to remain away from the limelight till he reached 60. At least his concert visits to Bombay had become rare. Meanwhile, I also gathered that he had accepted – after persuasion – a 10-year assignment as music adviser with AIR, with headquarters at Dharwad, in Karnataka. In keeping with his nature his involvement with the job was so total and complete that he seldom stirred out of Dharwad. Evidently, during this period, he spurned offers for concert recitals, so much so that music circles in Bombay lost sight of him till 1969.

The late Kamal Singh, the popular thumri and ghazal singer, who had started his Sangeet Mehfil to organise periodical sangeet sammelans in the city, asked me to suggest names of top artistes who had not performed on the concert stage for a long time. He was planning his annual soiree early that year. He was visibly baffled at my suggestion of Mansur’s name for his sammelan. Sensing his predicament, I assured Kamal Singh that Mansur was quite hale and hearty and musically active, too, leading a quiet life in his home town after retirement from AIR.

And it was Mansur’s recital for the Sangeet Mehfil in March 1969, that truly marked his return to an active concert career – and that, too, with a bang! He has never looked back since then. Needless to say, his visits to Bombay became very frequent and, in time to come, he became an all-India figure.

Titles, awards and honours began coming to Mansur in profusion: Padmashri in 1970; President’s Award for Hindustani vocal music and Padma Bhushan, in 1976; honorary D Litt from Karnataka University, in 1975; and Kalidas Samman, the prestigious Rs. 1 – lakh award instituted by the government of Madhya Pradesh, in 1981. More recently, he has been nominated as a member of the Karnataka State Legislative Council. He is currently dean of the faculty of music of Karnataka University and, in that capacity, he guides its destiny with typical devotion even while performing at major musical events all over the country.

I have been one of his Bombay hosts during his concert visits to this city over the last 15 years. And with Mansur at home, it is music, music all the way. It is during his brief sojourns that I could get many glimpses of his personality as an artiste as well as a human being. Profoundly simple and humble, there is nothing vain, eccentric or capricious about him. He has both genius and spirit but does not display them. I have often found it ticklish to draw him into a conversation though he delights in informal chats.

During one such conversation, not long ago, the maestro burst into a thumri, a tappa and a dhamar – the forms he has never presented at public concerts. These revealed new facets of his versatility and came to me as a revelation. In reply to my question, he simply said that he was basically a khayalist and always remained true to the spirit of the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana. He asserted that the khayal style embodied all that is best in the Hindustani tradition of classical and light classical music, which is why it continues to be the most popular style of classical singing.

Panditji’s has been high pitched singing. When I sensed a slight degree of tiredness creeping into his intonation, especially in the post-interval part of his concerts, I made bold to ask him, with utmost caution, if he could not bring down his aadhaara shadja (tonic or base note) to a lower key. To my relief and joy, he instinctively understood the import of my suggestion and acted on it, adopting what is popularly known as the ‘Black Two’ key of the harmonium, for his tonic. This was about a decade ago.

Although, even at 75, he has plenty of muscle in his voice, both emotional and physical, his listeners cannot but notice that it is no longer plentiful enough to sustain him uniformly in a full-fledged concert lasting three hours or so. That is because he loses himself in his creative ecstasy and oblivious of his advancing years, strains himself needlessly when he switches over to the faster movements in singing. The result is that more often than not, the maestro clearly looks frayed during his post-interval singing. When, recently I sought to plead with him, through my review column in The Times of India, to counsel a degree of moderation in expending his physical energy, his reaction was not one of annoyance, but of helplessness. “I simply can’t manage it,” he said, with a disarming laugh.

Music to Pandit Mansur is not just an a vocation. With him, it is a way of life and, through it, he seeks to express the very essence of his inward being. As he often declaims: “I have never let my thought and action deviate from my music.” Indeed, he ‘lives it’. Those who have chanced to visit him at his Dharwad residence in the morning hours will know what I mean. You will hear him sing when he is plucking flowers in his garden for his pooja. There is an incantational fervour in his musical soliloquy. The soulful strains elevate you even as they mingle with the wafting breeze. The same spirit pervades his pooja room when, after his bath, Panditji sits to offer prayers to his deity, Lord Shiva, with flowers and music, which is often an invocatory bandish, like ‘He Mahadev’, in Bahaduri Todi, or ‘He Narahara Narayana’, in Bibhas, taught to him by his musical mentors.

A deeply, religious man, Panditji attributes his attainments equally to his professional mentors and spiritual gurus. He refers feelingly to the blessings bestowed on him by three eminent saints of Karnataka – Siva Basava Swami, Siddharudha Swami and Mrityunjaya Swami. He began his concert career as a boy of 15 with his recital before Siva-Basava Swami and he has named his house after Mrityunjaya Swami. He firmly believes that his association with these saints brought about radical change in his temperament.

Panditji planned to retire completely from his concert career shortly after his 75th birthday and devote the rest of his years to matters of the spirit – and understandably so.

“The Tradition of Hindustani Music May die”

The reclusive Mallikarjun Mansur rarely talks to the press. Here, Mohan Nadkarni reproduces excerpts from discussions he had with the maestro on earlier occasions.

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur is a man more inclined to listen than to speak. It is only rarely that he condescends to talk about himself and that, too, when his mood permits. Lately, the maestro has developed a strong dislike for formal, long-drawn-out interviews if it is meant for publication. So much so that when I sought an interview with him during his visit to Bombay last month, pat came his reply: “You have known me so well for so long. No more interviews to you or to any one else. I am tired of talking about me or my music or my professional career.”

Over the years, there have been innumerable occasions for animated conversation and discussion with him on the contemporary classical music scene. I have had the good sense to record the impressions of important discussions with him in the past. Here are some excerpts:

On family background and early career:

I owe my surname to my native village in Dharwad district in Karnataka state. I was married at the age of 10 to a girl of 5. There was no music in the family, but my father was deeply interested in musical drama. I was first attracted to the stage while only eight. I left school and joined a Kannada drama troupe of which my elder brother, Basavaraj, who later became a noted stage-actor, was a partner. I became very popular as an actor-singer when I was still in my teens. I played a variety of roles in many Kannada mythologicals which were the rage of those days.

On his switchover from musical drama to Hindustani classical music:

As is now known, I had learnt the basics of Carnatic music from Appayya Swami, who himself was an employee of the drama company in which I worked. Later, I joined another touring troupe and during its sojourn at Bagalkot, in Bijapur district, I chanced to hear a recital of Nilkanthbuva Alurmath. He was a veteran exponent of the Gwalior gharana of Hindustani music and I was greatly fascinated by his performance. He also heard me on the stage and, in response to my request, he readily took me as his disciple. My company even agreed to pay him a monthly remuneration of Rs. 100 to teach me!

On how and why he sought further grooming in the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana:

During my company’s camp at Miraj, I had an opportunity to hear the great stalwart, Alladiya Khan, who was the founder of the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana. The impact of his music made such a deep impression on my mind that I began cherishing the ambition of learning from the ustad. His age and eminence forbade me from approaching him. My mind was distraught and I came to Bombay in search of a comparable guru after leaving my studentship with Alurmathbuva and also the dramatic company. Rambling through the city streets. I happened to meet Vishnupant Pagnis, the famous Marathi stage and film actor-singer and also a leading jeweller. I learnt that he was a close friend of Ustad Manji Khan, the young, versatile exponent of the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana and son and disciple of Alladiya Khan Saheb. Fortunately, Pagnis had heard my first gramophone disc which was already out. To introduce me to Manji Khan, he played my disc before him. Deeply impressed by my singing, he gladly accepted me as his disciple. But Manji Khan Saheb died suddenly and prematurely in less than two years and I was left without a guru. A little later, Bhurji Khan Saheb, the late ustad’s younger brother, began teaching me systematically. He also took me along with him on all his professional tours. This gave me valued concert experience.

On the future of Hindustani music:

The great tradition of Hindustani music may die, unless proper steps are taken to impart its training systematically. Of course, there is no dearth of talent. But there are no facilities to make them perfect artistes.

On music education in universities:

What is being taught in the music schools, colleges and universities helps the students only to the extent of understanding the basic principles of music. It is sad that music students are required to have formal educational qualifications. This naturally prevents talented young artistes, deprived of formal education, from joining the music courses in the universities. You will be interested to know that I have made a departure at the Institute of Fine Arts of Karnataka University in this respect. I have thrown open its six-year certificate course in music to all those who are genuinely interested in learning music. This is irrespective of their educational qualifications.

On guru-shishya parampara:

I am a gharana man. The gharana system is vital to our tradition. Without it we can never have a generation of true artistes. Can there be a real kalakar emerging out of the present-day educational system? On his shishya parampara: There is a general lack of competent gurus in the field. This lack is matched by absence of dedication and discipline among students. Speaking for myself, I have tried to teach many students but few of them have ever cared to pursue their profession seriously. On audience appreciation of Hindustani music: Not all those who hear classical music today can be said to have real love or taste for it. Times have changed and we have come to live in an age of mass appreciation. The masses should be helped to understand and appreciate the finer points of classical music in several ways, for example, by explaining to them, in simple language, what is swara, laya, bandish and the like.

On the influence of film music:

Film music has had no influence on classical music. If anything, it is rather the other way round. See how film songs based on classical music enjoy continued popularity! Sadly, film-makers and music-makers have wrong ideas about popular tastes and provide them with hybrid, unwholesome music.

On experiments and innovations in music:

Do you mean the whole crop of new ragas? These are nothing but pruned, twisted versions of our time-honoured melodies. A whole life-time will not suffice to explore the vast variety of siddha ragas. There are hundred of old and also unfamiliar ragas waiting for the right artiste to unfold them.

On unification of Hindustani and Carnatic music:

Unification of he two paddhatis may be possible in the distant future, but certainly not feasible. The two systems have grown and prospered in peaceful co-existence for centuries. Why then force them to come closer? In that event, both will lose their distinctive individually.

On Western interest in Indian music:

I haven’t cared to go on a concert tour abroad. But I welcome this ‘export’ of music. It is a laudable effort, in so far as music-loving Indians residing abroad are concerned. Being far from their motherland, they feel starve of our music. As for foreigners, they seem to attend Indian music concerts largely out of curiosity and partly to please their Indian friends. Ironically, our artistes except in a few cases, seem to indulge in musical gymnastics and gimmickry in an attempt to dazzle the audiences there. On their return home, they demonstrate before their home audiences what they did abroad and how they won their applause. This trend has caught on in the country – mostly among instrumentalists – and their audiences. If it goes unchecked, it is going to be suicidal.

On music criticism:

I believe that the performing artiste should be able to assess for himself the standard of his performance. Personally, I do not even care to look at press reviews of my concerts. Barring a few rare cases, there is no informed and unbiased comment from reviewers. For a proper understanding and appreciation of classical music, critics as well as audiences, should be knowledgeable tolerant and also impartial.



The Illustrated Weekly of India, December 22, 1985


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  1. Thanks for writing

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