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There's dance in his music

There isn't probably another musician like Prabhakar Karekar. He renders a magical touch to everything he sings

Prabhakar Karekar: `I consciously mastered different singing styles for different forms. After all, each has a voice of its own.' — Photo: K. Murali Kumar

IT'S HARD not to appreciate natyasangeet. I'm sure every connoisseur of music, even those with austere tastes, would admit this. In fact, not many classical singers, even the legendary ones, have been able to resist the temptation of singing natyasangeet. And that includes savants such as Sawai Gandharva, Abdul Karim Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, and many others who've been drawn into the heady combination of utmost dignity and romantic lilt that makes for natyasangeet. Prabhakar Karekar too has not escaped its pull. Nevertheless, he is an exception in that the music world, for a long time, simply knew him as a natyasangeetkar, even as it was fuelling his primary interest, classical music.

Prabhakar Karekar never disappoints. This phenomenal musician in his baritone — with that rather pronounced but loveable nasal twang — ensures that every concert of his is power-packed. The amazing thing about the man is that in his singing, whether it's a thumri, natyasangeet, bhajan or khayal, every form retains its own distinct personality. And so, the meditativeness of his khayal singing doesn't interfere in his ornate renditions of natyasangeet. He seems strictly a khayal singer when he sings khayal and strictly a natyasangeetkar when he sings natyasangeet.

"That is something that I consciously worked at," reveals this down-to-earth maestro, probably one of the best in the country, who was in Bangalore for a concert. His guru, another legendary musician of Maharashtra, Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, had told a young Prabhakar: "You shouldn't end up singing just for Maharashtra. Your preparation should be for an Indian audience." Not that it made sense to Prabhakar then. It was only much later, during a practice session that his guru's words came to him in a flash. In his remarkably pliable voice, he burst into the thumri, "Balamava Jaaye Base Kis Des", in Kedar and then even convincingly demonstrated what treatment the raga would get if it were khayal.

All this fame and popularity of course didn't come for a song for the 60-year-old Karekar, who ran away from Goa with his father and older brother to Bombay, when he was 14. His father was a bhajan singer and there were bhajans at home every Monday and Thursday. The young Prabhakar would reproduce all that he heard to astounding perfection. Listening to Suresh Haldankar's music, a big name in Maharashtra then, he could reproduce it to a T. Without a passport in hand, his father took the big risk of crossing the border with both his sons to Bombay. (Goa was then under Portuguese rule, and they had to travel only during the night for fear of being caught .) "It took us eight nights before we could sneak across the border," narrates Prabhakar.

"My father took us to Suresh Haldankar. He made both me and my brother sing, and for reasons best known to him, told my brother not to pursue music. He took me as his student. And my father left for Goa and my lessons began," he recalls.

Life in Bombay wasn't easy. Prabhakar's brother took on some menial job, earning just enough for them to have a meal. For three months, the footpath was their home till the day Haldankarji got to know of this and decided to keep Prabhakar with him. "For 10 years I lived with him. I got to hear the best of music and also accompanied him on all his concerts," Prabhakar remembers gratefully.

He had come away from Goa, he was on his mission, but where was to go from there? "More than me, people around me were getting worried for me. They constantly told me that I should stop learning music and get on with life," says Prabhakar, recalling all the cavilling.

After putting in so many years, it wasn't easy to just close the chapter and find himself a job. He was determined to stand ground, but at the same time, also needed money to give himself a decent diet. "After all, you need milk, ghee, and fruit, if you have to sing," says the plain-speaking Prabhakar.

And so, to feed himself, he started singing for theatre groups. He became such a hit that he soon had people begging for more. "And because people got to hear natyasangeet, they thought that's what I was (good at)," while he, after his hours at the theatre, was diligently putting all his time to perfecting his classical music.

Around this time, Prabhakar even got the "providence-sent" Central Government Scholarship, and the opportunity to learn under Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, who shaped his perspective. "I was struck by the amazing transformation he would bring about in his treatment of the various genres, and he was my role model," admits this simple musician.

After eight years with Abhisheki, he went on to learn with Pandit C.R. Vyas, who had spent 50 years of his lifetime learning music. With such a wide exposure, Prabhakar was able to blend different styles, different gharanas with great ease.

But still, people wanted to listen to his natyasangeet. He remembers how at the Sawai Gandharva Punya Thithi in Pune, he got this "golden opportunity" to sing. "I was asked to sing at 10.30 at night. But my turn never seemed to come. Finally, just when I was convinced that I had lost the opportunity, at five in the morning they called me to perform after a stupendous performance by Begam Akhtari Bai. I was nervous, but I told myself that I couldn't afford to lose such a big opportunity."

He presented a raga for 50 minutes and got a note saying his time was up. He got ready to pack his tanpura, but the crowd screamed for more. He began the 120-year-old natyasangeet, "Priya Paha", something that he is synonymous with, and the 10,000-odd crowd gave him a thundering applause and a standing ovation. "Annaji (Bhimsen Joshi) even postponed the Singh Bandhu concert that was to follow to the next day," he adds. That proved to be a major turning point in his career.

Every time one listens to Prabhakar Karekar, one is not just surprised at his large repertoire, but also at how he manages to sound so inspired, and each time. He strictly preserves the grammar of khayal, and brings out melodic nuances with stirring effect. What is it that makes his singing so intricate, so embellished, so ornate, so fresh, and so full of vitality?

And so, I caught myself humming "Priye Paha"! I, like the rest, somehow instantly associate him with natyasangeet. Not that I can ever forget that forceful Bageshree ang Chandrakauns or that poignant Bhupali Todi. I'm sure he'll pardon me for this.


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