Rabindra Sangeet singer Manoj Murali Nair on why music proved a bigger pull than dance, and why tampering with originals is often unnecessary

With the rising bulk of Rabindra Sangeet singers, many of whom fail to appreciate and adapt the correspondence between Tagore’s verbal accents and his music, Kolkata listeners are now fortunate to hear the magical distinctions of personal style and vocal colour of the accomplished 39-year-old singer Manoj Murali Nair from Kerala.

Son of Kalamandalam Muralidharan Nair, Visva-Bharati’s well-known Kathakali guru and Kathakali actor from Kerala Kalamandalam, Manoj’s perfect consonants, smooth, passionate singing and intense expressions are responsible for his mounting fame in such a short time. Brought up in Santiniketan, the exhaustively trained and established Rabindra Sangeet singer will shortly present Tagore’s songs in Malayalam for a wider audience. Excerpts from an interview:

Having been brought up in Santiniketan, how has the place and Tagore’s philosophy influenced you?

I was eight when I came to Santiniketan. At first glance I found the place more like an ashram. I was too young to understand the philosophy behind Santiniketan and, above all, the language and the culture of Bengal was totally unknown to me. But as I grew up, I learnt to embrace the Bangla language and the very essence of Santiniketan. Tagore’s philosophy slowly unfolded before me and my life became a part of the culture, my soulmate Santiniketan, and Tagore.

Please throw some light on your musical training.

I did a diploma in Rabindra Sangeet and Hindustani classical music from Visva-Bharati Sangeet Bhavan, B.Mus in Hindustani classical music and M.Mus. in Hindustani vocal. I had special training in Hindustani vocal from Aloke Kumar Chatterjee and Dilip Karmokar and had the privilege to learn from Sangeetacharya Sri Amiya Ranjan Bandopadhyay. I later trained in Rabindra Sangeet under Manju Bandopadhyay, Bulbul Basu, Gora Sarvadhikari and Ashish Bhattacharya.

Did your the environment at home nurture the Bengali culture?

Though at home the environment was purely South Indian, my parents did encourage me to take up Bengali culture. My father came to Santiniketan to join Visva-Bharati Sangeet Bhavan as a Kathakali lecturer. My mother is also a dancer trained under Guru Gopinath. So there was a cultural atmosphere at home that helped me take up music as a subject and passion.

Wasn’t dance a more obvious choice?

I started learning dance from the age of five. In Santiniketan Pathabhavan dancing was compulsory and, so, dance became a part of my life. But music had been my passion from an early age, so I never considered dance my profession. My maiden Kathakali performance portraying Raja in the dance drama “Raktakarabi” was enriching as it enhanced the depth and understanding of my singing and helped to bring out the hidden passion of the songs and, at the same time, finally fulfil my Kathakali training inherited from my father.

You started learning Hindustani classical music but made a name as a marvellous Rabindra Sangeet singer...

True, I loved Hindustani classical and was fascinated by the style of Ustad Amir Khan sahib. Even now whenever I listen to the ragas and bandishes of maestros, tears of joy and pain flow. But when I learnt the technique of Rabindra Sangeet and experienced the depth of its meaning, I observed that the lyrical beauty of the bandish in classical music fades away with its taankari and laykari. But, on the other hand, the understanding of ragas helps me cherish the beauty of the tunes of Rabindra Sangeet, most of which have been inspired by classical ragas. I feel more comfortable singing in Bangla, which is now my own language. When I first performed in Kolkata in 2000 at Rabindra Sadan, people here accepted me as a Rabindra Sangeet singer. That inspired me to take it up as a profession.

Any difficulties?

Indeed! Life in Santiniketan is peaceful but in Kolkata it is different, and proving and moulding myself for different types of audience, most of the time performing before or after the modern Bengali or Hindi songs, is still a challenge for me.

Listeners love your romantic numbers…

Being a romantic, I love to sing romantic songs of Tagore, but to achieve salvation through songs I am preparing myself with the help of Tagore’s devotional songs, which sing about the ultimate power and beauty of the Supreme Being.

How do you see Comment on the present trends in Rabindra Sangeet?

Working on Tagore or singing his songs needs deep understanding of his life and philosophy. I doubt how many singers of Rabindra Sangeet understand their inner meanings and sing. Yes, we have great singers who have popularised Tagore’s songs among the masses, but most of the time we come across the most painful experiences of experimentations. Why disgrace him with poor understanding and fruitless efforts? Why not maintain the originality of the songs and present them in their full glory because, after all, these songs had been created by the one named Rabindranath Tagore!

Plans?

I am planning to create a Malayalam version of Rabindra Sangeet. I’m also working on an album blending symphonies of maestros like Mozart and Beethoven with Tagore’s songs. I would love to sing with my wife in an album in the near future.