Veteran vocalist Bankim Sethi, among the recipients of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards being conferred this Friday, counts it his duty to keep the young generation in touch with tradition.
Classical dance audiences have heard his voice sonorously providing vocal accompaniment to Odissi dancers for decades. The melody, the ringing tones, the characteristic andolan or undulating notes of Odissi music, all spoke of confidence and mastery, but after the performance, Bankim Sethi would simply pack up his harmonium and quietly head home. If his singing voice is masterful, his spoken words tell a story of patience and humility. And as he receives the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2013 — being conferred this Friday by the President of India — as a vocalist in the category of “Other Major Traditions of Music”, he seems unchanged in this quiet approach. What has changed, though gradually, is the way the traditional music of Odisha is viewed, as a parallel classical form, as well as the range achieved over the decades.
The veteran vocalist has played an important role in this change of perception. “At the time when Odissi was given recognition as a classical dance form, there were just a few ragas that were being used in the compositions,” he states. “Then in the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya we tried to incorporate traditional forms which no one was using in dance till then. Afterwards, others also began to incorporate these forms.”
It was while working with eminent classical dancer Sonal Mansingh and the late scholar Jiwan Pani that he participated in research of the Sangeeta Ratnakara and Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda to rediscover authentic ragas of Odissi music. “This was during the 1980s,” he recalls. Ragas characteristic of the Odisha region, such as Desh Barari, Pratham Manjari, Amra Pancham, Shri (neither the Carnatic nor Hindustani, but Shri of Odissi music) and others were revived with the help of the Sangeeta Ratnakara and introduced into the Odissi dance repertoire.
Many of these revived compositions were performed memorably by Vidushi Sonal Mansingh. Who are the other dancers he has worked with? “I have worked with Madhaviji (Madhavi Mudgal), Ranjana Gauhar, Geeta Mahalik, Vijayalakshmi Mohanty, Sangeeta Dash…all have been able to make use of my music,” he says.
Bankim Sethi has toured India and the world as an accompanying artist. Applause is not new to him. But, having dedicated his life to the art, does it rankle that the SNA Award has come at this late stage in his life? “I believe that there is a time for everything. I carry on doing my work. Even when the Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi gave me the award, I received it alongside my juniors. Here also, I may receive the award with my juniors or after them, but I am not worried about that.”
What he does feel strongly about is that the young generation should be kept in touch with indigenous art traditions. “I used to teach a lot of students, but as my programmes increased I had to cut down a bit,” he admits. Also trained in Hindustani music, he says the demand was usually for him to teach this classical stream rather than Odissi music. “In Delhi there is not much interest in Odissi music. Only if the students were from Odisha I would insist and teach them Odissi music too,” he says.
The stalwart feels, “No matter if times have changed, it is our duty to leave our traditions to our young generation. We may not have been able to produce students who can perform at the same level as us, but we have to give them something, whether in the form of workshops, or seminars or through programmes in colleges.”
Pandit Bankim Sethi performs at the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Festival of Music, Dance and Drama on April 15, Meghdoot Theatre – III, Rabindra Bhawan, Mandi House, New Delhi, 5.30 p.m. The other performers of the evening will be Dhaneswar Swain (Odissi mardal) and Sangeeta Dash (Odissi)