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Aching for Gouri...

What happens when one has a great musician for a father and teacher? One, no doubt, walks in the footsteps of the grand tradition, but also learns to go beyond. Rajshekhar Mansur, son of the maestro Mallikarjun Mansur, tells DEEPA GANESH that gharana is dead matter if one does not improve on it. This musician will be felicitated in the city on September 7.

Rajshekhar Mansur: `Striking an identity of one's own within a gharana is like giving a new course to a river.' — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

WHAT DOES it mean to negotiate with a complex tradition and a person who embodies the tradition? The tradition in question is the intricate Jaipur gayaki, marked both by complexity and restraint. And the embodiment of such an evolved style is the legendary Mallikarjun Mansur, whose austere music was characterised by a supreme imagination and a deep understanding of the grammatical structure of this grand tradition, the foundation of which was laid by Ustad Alladiya Khan. In The Footsteps and Beyond, an album by Rajshekhar Mansur, to be released on September 7, coinciding with his 60th birthday, could be seen as an outcome of this difficult but fruitful negotiation.

Having for a father and teacher a towering personality, regarded as the authentic voice of the tradition, could prove devastating for a growing individual. But Rajshekhar Mansur was among the few who learnt to draw from this enormous resource.

Music was an unconscious activity for Rajshekhar Mansur till he was about 16. And having Mallikarjun Mansur for a father meant no big deal. "He was just a father," reminisces Rajshekhar Mansur, retired professor of English, Karnatak University. "In my younger days, he didn't seem big. But as I began to think about music seriously, he began to seem like a giant," he says, full of admiration for his guru.

Mansur was initially very disapproving of his son taking to music. He didn't want his children to suffer the way he did. (Mallikarjun Mansur was 60 when recognition came his way.) But by then, Rajshekhar Mansur was hooked to music and there was no looking back. "By the time I was 20, I started accompanying him. Much of my learning happened on the concert stage," he says with awe. "One wonders about how far an artiste's imagination can reach, and how far they can push the contours of the raga and still maintain it as a raga, without harming its structure. He never rehearsed the ragas he would sing in a particular concert. It came spontaneously."

What is remarkable about this guru-shishya relationship is that it does not stop with veneration, but translates into a reflective process to achieve a creative integration. A constant search for one's own space in the larger framework of a tradition is evident even in some of Mansur's recordings in which Rajshekhar Mansur provides vocal accompaniment. For instance, in Shivmat Bhairav ("Prathama Alla ho"), Khat ("Vidhyadhar Guniyan"), or Jait Kalyan ("Papihan Bole") one notices that the musical registers that Rajshekhar Mansur works out are free flowing, soft, mellifluous, unlike the rigorous, unrelenting, and almost breathless expanses created by his father. One is different from the other, even though there is the presence of Mallikarjun Mansur in Rajshekhar Mansur's style. "I have learnt music from him. But more than that, he has given me a vision. The guru can only give you a direction, a framework. But what you do with it is the journey you undertake at a personal level. And there you begin to see new possibilities, new avenues, and new horizons as you progress. And so, I call my first album In The Footsteps and Beyond... "

This negotiation is, obviously, not easy. It has been a relentless battle for Rajshekhar Mansur to disentangle himself from this overwhelming father/guru figure and strike an identity of his own. He poetically calls this process "giving a new course to the river". But he does not believe that the process is as lyrical as Wordsworth puts it ("Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.") It has been an intense, conscious activity for him. "This is a two-way process. You are there and so is the tradition. A certain restlessness is born out of the meeting of the two. You never know what is going to happen to you or the tradition. This restlessness is reflected in your music. There can be no creativity without restlessness," stresses Rajshekhar Mansur, for whom music has always been a search.

Even as he searches for a personal space within a tradition, he firmly believes that gharana discipline is not stifling. In its discipline comes a freedom, and also a control which prevents an artiste from becoming self-indulgent.

Some argue that the Jaipur gayaki style makes far greater, intellectual, academic demands on the listener than any other gharana. The singing is marked by the integration of swara and laya (what Rajshekhar Mansur calls "laya-oriented raga swaras"), and many unusual jod ragas (sankeerna ragas) are taken up into which a common man is not initiated. "The gharana believes in elevating the standards of the listener," Rajshekhar Mansur argues. The tradition holds that the seriousness within each individual must be treated with respect, whether the individual is conscious of it or not.

"In a recent performance at Indore, somebody in the audience had travelled a long distance just to listen to Behang. He had heard my father sing it years ago. Several others in the audience got initiated to Behang in that concert," he reasons.

In this time and age, when everything is tailored to the needs of the market, Rajshekhar Mansur holds on to his serious style of music with fervour.

In a brief introduction to the raga Gouri in In the Footsteps and Beyond, he says: "My heart aches for Gouri, that forlorn but brisk raga... " This in a way sums up what music means to Rajshekhar Mansur — a profound intellectual and emotional pursuit.

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