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Raga as a picture

NITA VIDYARTHI
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INTERVIEW Renowned singer Mohan Singh Khangura does not like the “snobbery” of classical music and feels after 40 years he has understood the essence and charm of Rabindra Sangeet NITA VIDYARTHI

Mohan Singh Khangura
Mohan Singh Khangura

The mighty fortress of vocal music especially Rabindra Sangeet still stands like a challenge, after the withdrawal of the Vishwa-Bharati copyright. But for Professor Mohan Singh Khangura, Head of the Classical Music Department at Vishwa-Bharati University, there is no sign of pause in the steadily widening scope of his popularity as a Rabindra Sangeet singer, especially the raga-based compositions, known as “The Bhanga Gaan”, and those derived from Khayal, Thumri and Tappa for which he earns enormous prestige. Rabindra Sangeet lovers are ravenous for his singing and the treasure-trove that lies in the detailed unfurling of the emotional depth and vastness of the compositions through his renditions. Trained exhaustively under ustads of the Agra, Vishnupur and Dagar traditions, he is master of several genres of Indian vocal music, including Khayal, Thumri, Tappa, Dhrupad, and folk music of his native Punjab. Unparalleled in the extraordinary richness of personal expression, expertise and style in Rabindra Sangeet, he has been honoured with innumerable awards.

Born in 1949 at Latala in Ludhiana district in a family of music lovers, Mohan Singh inherited his devotion to music from his father. “I went to school in Chandigarh,” says the gentle singer, “and after my schooling came to Santiniketan. I was 17 and didn’t know Bengali. I went to Ashit Bandopadhyaya to learn.”The modest 64-year-old son of Punjab who has made Santiniketan his home has earned great admiration and respect from his listeners for the ornamentation and colour imparted to the songs of Tagore. He completed his B.Mus. and post graduate training and became a disciple of Guru Pandit Dhruva Tara Joshi. Speaking in both Bengali and English, the acclaimed vocalist remembers fondly how he used to shy away from the rehearsals of the great Shantidev Ghosh, who once remarked that since he did not know the language he would not be able to follow.

“So I decided to learn Bengali. I bought Tagore’s ‘Sahaj Path’ and ‘Chander Pahad’ was my first novel. I tried hard and managed. I then read ‘Gora’. That was my third book and then I picked up fast. Today my home is full of Bengali books and my vocabulary is 75 per cent Bangla, 25 per cent Gurmukhi and a bit of Hindi. I love to read Bengali books,” says the singer.

His Bengali is immaculate, the articulation and diction perfect when he sings. He never falters with his Bengali. Only on rare occasions does his Bangla have a slight accent while speaking. He recalls a few of his experiences with the two famous ‘ashramites’ Kanika Bandopadhayay — lovingly called Mohordi — and Shantidev Ghosh, mentioning how everyone was afraid of “Shantida” who never praised anyone and people were scared to ask him a question. But at times they asked the students to sing, and that was what the trainees waited for! By the time Mohan Singh had learnt enough to please Shantidev Ghosh, the veteran would occasionally ring him up, ordering, “I want to hear Gurjari Todi and vilambit khayal in Bhairavi.” And the session with just two of them would continue for more than two hours, ending finally with songs of Tagore. Discussions on the trend of music in Tagore numbers with Shantidev Ghosh, who was a close associate of Rabindranath, helped Mohan Singh analyse the compositions. Singh mentions that Tagore did not follow the rules and grammar of classical music.

He did not really learn music but absorbed it by hearing, and so his compositions “do not resemble to any form of music. Every song of Tagore is a Bhairabi” according to the exponent. “Tagore learnt music by hearing — sruti. The brain cells the genius had allowed him to accept, absorb, much more than the normal human beings. So he could visualise swara, raga and their structures and could read music as we read a letter. Where did he learn all this from? From his own knowledge of form! Tagore transformed the grammar — his self taught one — into an aesthetically pleasing composition, and surprisingly no two of his compositions were the same. Once again Bhairabi (Bhairavi) was his favourite raga and most of his songs are in Bhairabi,”says the singer.

“This is the application of classical music — raga is a picture, a certain description of the note. The beauty lies in the formation. I now realise how and why Tagore deconstructed Bihag and composed ‘Maharaj eki saajey’ (the original Jhap tala khayal ‘Mere Dunda Dala Saajey’)”

On why after being so exhaustively trained in Hindustani classical music and involved in teaching it, he mostly sings Rabindra Sangeet, Mohan Singh answers with great satisfaction, “I do not like the snobbery of classical music. I sing classical music only on television. After singing and learning classical music for 40 years, I have understood the charm and essence of Rabindra Sangeet which I feel is a by-product of Indian music, which we can say is the third form.”

Tagore learnt music by hearing. The brain cells of the genius allowed him to absorb, much more than normal humans. So he could visualise

swara, raga

and their structures

and read music

as we read

a letter.


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