Pakhawaj maestro Pandit Bhavani Shankar on his long innings and the way ahead.
When Pandit Bhavani Shankar plays the pakhawaj, it is a divine rhythm that emanates from the percussion instrument, transporting listeners into heavenly rapture. A solo recital of pakhawaj is a rarity, practically unheard of. But, when Panditji goes solo, it is cosmic music, and then one can very well understand why the pakhawaj (or mridang) is the first instrument to be played in temples at the stroke of dawn — why it is a favourite of the deities, especially of Lord Shiva.
Banyan Tree Events’ recent daylong music festival, Teen Prahar, kicked off at the Satya Sai International Centre with Pandit Bhavani Shankar’s inimitable performance. Later, after his stupendous rendition (accompanied by his disciples Aniruddh Shirke and Ganesh Sawant) that left audiences mesmerised, the maestro, in an informal chat, explained the need to bring the pakhawaj to the forefront and not allow it to languish as a mere accompanying percussion instrument in a concert.
You are credited with innovating and virtually giving a second birth to the pakhawaj. You are sought after the world over, as a percussionist par excellence. Tell us something about your experiences as performer, and composer.
I have had the joy of performing with giants of the musical world, including Ustad Alla Rakha, Pandit Samtaprasad, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasiya, Ustad Zakir Hussain and singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi. I have rendered the Sampoorna Ramayan, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Devi Bhaagvat and “Om Vedaya Namah”, “Drums of India” and “Power” replete with such bols. The Ramayan album has made it to the Limca Book of Records. And I have composed music for several films too.
You have been nominated for a Grammy and successfully experimented with fusion music. How do you create this amazing dialogue between the formidable musical tradition of India’s past and the musical consciousness of the present?
This percussion music is Nada Brahma and you cannot afford to keep it so esoteric as to not appeal to each listener. It is the duty of the musician to keep the purity of classicism and yet appeal to the very soul of listeners. Even a novice can relate to a performance if he has music in his/her soul. I have been steeped in music, thanks to the guidance and wisdom imbibed from my father, eminent Kathak exponent Pandit Babulal. I began learning both the pakhawaj and the tabla when I was just five years old. Considerable research and study has gone into creating the unique sound in my pakhawaj recitals. I have literally poured my being into evolving the music. And I have always tried to incorporate the pakhawaj in various forms of music, be it western, jazz or film music. I find fusion music very fascinating and have very fond memories of playing with John McLaughlin.
Your unparalleled rhythms, control and dexterity and the manner in which you utter the bols while playing the pakhawaj lends a special resonance.
That is right. Uttering the bols calls for tremendous strength. Each and every beat has a correspondingly meaningful syllable and the whole makes for a wonderful chant. And all of it has to be deeply and divinely inspired. Only then, it makes for pleasing hearing.
How do you see the pakhawaj evolving in the times to come?
I have received awards galore for my felicity with the pakhawaj. However, despite the recognition and fame that has come my way, I would still say that there is a lot more that needs to be done to boost established musicians as well as for fostering the music culture. The future of the pakhawaj lies in government and societal patronage. I teach nearly 250 students free of cost and practically nurture them. However, for the pakhawaj to thrive and for creating intensely pure music of the noblest order that simply cruises across all cultural barriers, one needs the requisite backing from the system.