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I’m dissatisfied with my dedication, says Pt. Mukul Shivputra

‘I come from a typical Hindustani music lineage. Learning music in this tradition is the exact opposite of how Carnatic music is taught.’   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe

Last month, eminent vocalist of the Gwalior gharana, Pandit Mukul Shivputra, toured South India with six concerts at Belagavi, Dharwad, Chennai, Bengaluru and Mysuru. Son of the legendary Kumar Gandharva, Pt. Shivputra’s tour was a tribute not just to his father but also to the celebrated M.D. Ramanathan, with whom he trained in Carnatic music. As he dazzled Southern audiences with his particular brand of magic, I was delighted to be granted an interview with the reticent and famously mercurial Pt. Shivputra. Excerpts:

You have lived and learnt music in Chennai. Can you tell us about it?

I was 18, and this was many years ago. I came alone, filled with a keenness and curiosity to study Carnatic music. I lived by myself and very honestly, for the six months that I lived here, I didn’t have a single friend. My afternoons were in the company of my guru, Sri M. D. Ramanathan, in whose house I learnt to appreciate and sing Carnatic music and when I’d be home, I’d be consciously notating whatever I learnt… It was a beautiful phase.

I’d also take off in bursts to perform my own concerts in places like Nagpur and Delhi and I’d return to Madras to study with MDR.

What prompted you to study with MDR?

I was and continue to be fascinated by anything that is traditional and has a flavour and identity of its own. I wanted to understand and appreciate its nuances; I’d say I was only seeking and learning along the way…

Have you let that music influence you?

Not really. I don’t think I learnt it to be influenced by it but there’s always something that settles in the subconscious and creeps into your music; so I suppose that is true of everything we learn. Carnatic music — like any traditional form — has a natya of its own and I wanted to soak in the many ways of expression of that natya.

Your concert in Chennai was meant as a tribute of sorts to MDR. Did you construct the concert with anything special in mind?

The concert was of significance because of what I think about him and of his music and of the time I spent learning from him. But honestly, I didn’t structure the concert with him in mind. In fact, I didn’t plan anything in particular. I was meant to open the concert with Raag Marwa.

On the morning of the concert, I changed my mind and informed my accompanist that I’d open with Shree instead.

Do you do this often?

Not exactly, but somehow the concert at Kalakshetra was one of those rare evenings when I was absolutely not tense.

I felt no pressure of the performance; it was liberating, in a sense. Often as performers, we tend to worry about the audience — who, how many, their musical know-how — but strangely, that evening, I felt a sense of peace and quiet. Like I was coming back home…

As a Hindustani musician, and with a formidable legacy, what was it like to foray into the Carnatic tradition?

The learning and the experience of it was full of paradoxes. I come from a typical Hindustani music lineage. Learning music in this tradition is the exact opposite of how Carnatic music is taught. I remember how students of my father, Sri Kumar Gandharva, including myself, would invariably wind up our practice almost always at lunch. Hindustani musicians like to rest in the afternoon; the nights tend to stretch and hence they value their siesta.

I clearly recall the morning I met MDR. I asked him when I could start my lessons and he said, “Come from tomorrow.” What time, I asked?

And he responded, “2 p.m.”

When I met him that afternoon, he was fresh as a flower.

How hard was it to adjust to a new music and new patterns?

It was very weird in the beginning, but I warmed up as I went along. It was also the first time I sat face-to-face in front of a teacher who taught me how to sing. In Hindustani music, students first learn to play the tanpura, then learn how to tune their voice with it, and then slowly they break into an aalap.

Every now and then, when something went wrong, an Ustad would peep in and make a correction or two and you, as a student, are expected to listen intently, make the necessary change, and practice and perfect it with hours and hours of mostly unsupervised singing.

That was not the case with MDR. His tambura rested quietly in a room and I never ever touched it. He sat on his armchair, head thrown back and with absolute calm and control, he used his fingers to put the talam as I sang. The afternoon stretched into the evening… It was a different kind of a quiet bliss.

One afternoon, after two hours of continuous singing, I asked his wife for a glass of water. I was still new and unfamiliar with the practices in their fairly orthodox household. His wife handed me a glass full of warm water with some jeera soaked in it. Water for me meant cold water. My throat was parched and I needed for it to quench my thirst. “Drink warm water,” MDR said, “It’s good for your throat.”

But you stopped learning after six months. Why was that?

It’s a strange story when I think about it. I was at the Madras Music Academy one morning and I bought a book which was a compilation of compositions of Saint Tyagaraja with notations in the Devanagari script. I bought it instantly and slowly familiarised myself with the Panchratna kritis.

One afternoon, one thing led to another and my guru and I began to discuss the Pancharatna kritis and fascinated by the kriti in Varali, he rendered for me, two Varnams, back-to-back in that raag. Enthused by the spirit of that raag and the overall atmosphere of the afternoon, I joined him and sang along, attempting to capture the spirit of the raag, following in his footsteps.

Suddenly, he stopped. And said Varali, the raag, is not meant to be taught to a sishya by a guru and is meant to be learnt only by listening. Popular belief is that learning it will affect the guru-sishya relationship.

To my fiery young adult spirit, this superstition seemed utterly ridiculous. But odd enough, the next day I had to travel somewhere and somehow I never returned to pursue my classes with my Carnatic guru.

In life, you have lost a lot; how has loss shaped your music?

If life is bound to be affected, naturally it’s going to affect my music. I can’t say though whether the effects of life and its circumstances on my music have been good or bad. But I recognise that the impact of life’s losses and gains have had their impact on my music.

Having said that, I like to think of myself as lucky. I was blessed with great gurus; whoever I wanted to learn from, taught me with a certain generosity of spirit. I like to think that Rahu and Ketu exist in every individual’s horoscope, their placements and positions keep changing but we can’t really do away with them.

As a musician and an individual you’ve been inherently curious, but the curiousness has come also with a sense of restlessness.

I like to think of restlessness as a sense of dissatisfaction, discontent, and the opposite of it, as a sense of comfort. If I were to logically analyse things, I’d say that I’m immensely grateful for the opportunities I’ve gained but I must admit that I’m restless about my own efforts at getting better with my music. I’m dissatisfied with my dedication, or the lack of it, but I’m very fortunate for the money, fame, admiration and adulation that I’ve received for it.

And yet, you say music is your universe. Why do think you aren’t dedicated enough?

Well, music is my realm, not my universe. I listen to it outside. And within. My storehouse of memories — of people, places, thoughts, things — are also interlinked with music.

What’s that one memory of your father’s music that remains with you?

Honesty. My father was a very honest human being and that quality sparkled in his music too. If someone shattered that honesty, it caused him a great amount of pain.

The writer often wonders if she enjoys the arts more - or the people who make it.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 6:31:38 PM |

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