The Music Academy and HCL Concerts presented Pt. Venkatesh Kumar in a Khayal recital. Accompanied by Satish Kolli (harmonium) and Keshav Joshi (tabla), he presented raags Marwa, Shankara and Kaunsi Kanada, a thumri in Mishra Khamaj and a couple of devotional pieces towards the end.
Venkatesh Kumar is a disciple of the venerated Pt. Puttaraj Gawai of the remarkable Veereshwara Punyashrama, a school in Gadag, Karnataka, founded by the famous Panchakshari Gawai, a visually-challenged musician, with the mission of teaching music primarily to visually-challenged and differently-abled students. The latter learnt from Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan and this situates his music in the Kirana Gharana idiom.
Venkatesh Kumar, who remains devoted to his guru and the school, has assimilated other influences, such as that of the eclectic Pt. Bhimsen Joshi — which is most evident in the voice projection — and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. His thumri rendition is particularly impacted by Khansaheb’s lyrical style. He brings a powerful and tuneful voice, rigorous training, and a fine aesthetic sensibility to his renditions. The accompanists, too, shone that evening and, even if the two-hour concert had gone on longer, the audience would have wanted more.
As one heard Venkatesh Kumar unfold the raags mostly around the traditional compositions, the reality of change in Khayal hits home. The vilambit khayal in Marwa was the well-worn ‘Piya more anatha des’ in Ek taal. Following Ustad Amir Khan, Venkatesh Kumar sang the mukhada or refrain landing on the ‘dha’ in the lower region or saptak — the composition’s original mukhada lands in the middle saptak.
The mukhada’s construction determines the exploration of the raga to a significant extent, and Amir Khan saheb needed that lower region for his own langorous style. Exercising his licence as a highly regarded practitioner of the music, he changed the composition right under everyone’s noses — or ears. Such deliberate — or otherwise — tweaks to compositions and raags happen more often than we like to believe or acknowledge.
Venkatesh Kumar used the Amir Khan mukhada in the first part of the rendition and then switched to the original one after the badhat had progressed. He then used both alternatively. This is the freedom that Khayal has come to offer, and maintaining the integrity of the composition is less and less a matter of concern in some gharanas, especially Kirana.
Raag Shankara, which followed with its vivacious personality, made an even better impact, but brought with it the same issue of change. Shankara is an uttaranga pradhan raga and is best explored in the higher regions, above ‘Pa’, so to say. But paradoxically almost, its key phrase is in the purvanga — the phrase ‘Ga Pa Ga Ri Sa’ but with an ‘alpa’ Rishabha, which should just be a flicker while descending to the ‘Sa’ and in the quick touch prefixed to the ‘Ga’ just before that descent. That Rishabha — minimal, quick and dazzling — in that phrase establishes Shankara. When Venkatesh Kumar sang the phrase ‘Pa Re Ga’, almost like a phrase of Bhoop or even Yaman, since we did hear the Tivra madhya on more than one occasion, it was perplexing, for, the alpatva of ‘Ri’ was not maintained, and tivra madhyam or shuddha for that matter is not to be used in Shankara. Coming from a lesser musician this would have been identified as a mistake. But, with Venkatesh Kumar, it is hard to impute a lack of awareness of the tradition and one can only imagine this departure from the raag lakshana as likely intended and deliberate. One then looks for consistency in the overall persona of the musician — does he frequently depart from tradition? And with Venkatesh Kumar, the answer is ‘No’. So the puzzle about his treatment of Shankara remains.
Shankara, a great and ancient raga, has no doubt undergone changes over the centuries and its current lakshana is not immune to change. If raags change, it is through the agency of musicians with the standing of Venkatesh Kumar. But when that change actually happens, it causes disquiet in some of us.