Mastering the king of instruments

Jyoti Hegde. Photo: Special Arrangement  

On a quiet farm away from the glitz of the urban art world, in a village near Sirsi about 125 km from Dharwad in Northern Karnataka, lives a young woman with her husband. Her name is Jyoti Hegde and she might not be splashed on newspapers but she is the first woman performing artist of the rudraveena in India. Rudraveena is a world heritage instrument, protected and promoted by the UNESCO. Jyoti follows the Khandarbani school of Dhrupad and her guru is the illustrious Ustad Asad Ali Khan.

In the rustic peace and unpretentious but generous hospitality of her home, she talks about her life and her views on Dhrupad and the rudraveena with Sowjanya Peddi. Here are the translated excerpts.

I was born in Dharwad, Karnataka, where my father was a range forest officer. I grew up in Belgaum and Sirsi. I liked dance and was particularly talented in drawing. I might have become a painter if a chance encounter with the rudraveena had not transformed my life. I was learning the sitar from my first guru Dr. Bindu Madhav Pathak and in a lec-dem one day, he played the rudraveena. The sound of the instrument haunted me. The gambhirta (sonorous resonant sound) of its tones was very different from the chanchalata (playfulness) of the sitar. I requested Pathakji to teach me, but he refused, saying it is not a woman’s domain. I persisted. I told my father about my wish. Initially, Pathakji refused my father too, but later he relented and said that “playing the rudraveena is not a woman’s forte but since she is so insistent, let us give her an old rudraveena that is lying at my house. Once she plays it for a while, she will give up the idea of her own accord”. This was like a secret pact between my father and him, unknown to me. But when Pathakji saw my commitment and determination, he eventually advised my father to get me a new rudraveena, at the age of 16, which I continue to play even today. I would go to Pathakji’s house by 7 a.m so that he could set me an exercise for the day.

He would return at 5.30 p.m. The entire day I would practise the single phrase he had taught me that morningI was so focussed that he once said I had gained the expertise of 10 years within a year. Within a year I won the first prize for rudraveena in the Akhil Bharatiya Akashvani Sangeeth Spardha in 1981-82. I was also enrolled as a regular artist at All India Radio. I also won the first prize in the Karnataka Youth Festival for three consecutive years from 1981 to 1983.

My gurus chronicle my journey from Khayal to Dhrupad. I learnt from Pathakji in the Khayal tradition. He used to compliment me, saying “she knows how to get knowledge from me”. Now after many years of teaching, I understand this was the biggest compliment. An early review commented that “the artist did not spare enough time for bandish rendition with sat sangat (jointly) on pakhawaj”. I felt the most prominent attribute of the rudraveena is its capability for nadopasana through alap. Playing with the accompanist is less important. I understood then that this instrument is not best supported by the Khayal. I discovered a book on Dhrupad by Thomas Marcotti titled The Way-Music: How to conjure with sounds? The book had a 90-minute music cassette attached to it. I was transfixed by the depth and richness of the notes and its emphasis on slow measured movement. I was drawn to Dhrupad from then on. Whenever an artist performs in the Dhrupad ang, whether sitar, surbahar or rudraveena, it will entail more emphasis on alap than on bandish.

I studied with Pt. Indudhar Nirodi for three years, who gave me a deeper understanding of Dhrupad through vocal training and taught me the subtleties of Dhrupad. After he left Dharwad, I approached Ustad Asad Ali Khan where I learnt for five years.

Rudraveena is known as the king of instruments. All string instruments are shaped after it. According to Hindu mythology, Shiva is said to have taken inspiration from Parvati’s form and created this instrument. Shiva was the first to play this instrument and he taught it to Parvati who in turn taught it to Saraswati. It was restricted initially to the dev loka and was used for aradhana (devotion) alone. Later, Narad learnt it from Saraswati and brought it down to earth. In earlier times, it was used as accompaniment for veda mantra pathan (vedic recital) and with the yaga yagna (vedic rituals) of the rishi munis (sages). It held a place of reverence equivalent to that of the shank (conch) or jagate (circular plate/gong used in temples) that produce sounds during worship rituals but are not specifically used for producing music. It was treated with the same sanctity accorded to the sacred idol. Only select people were allowed to touch it and that only after purifying themselves.

Rudraveena is considered a measure to weigh the principles and grammar of the Dhrupad style of music. As Dhrupad evolved out of Sama veda chanting, the rudraveena also came to be considered the instrument to accompany Dhrupad. The shift must have been sharp and swift, as the music left temples and entered the Mughal courts. This brought a change in lyrics, tempo and style of playing. Dhrupad lyrics were chiefly based on the varnanas (description) of deities following the earlier devotional context. In the new context, more preference was given to prakriti varnana (nature description), shringar ras (romantic feelings) and songs praising the emperor/royalty. Both the rudraveena and Dhrupad rose to popularity from the 8th to the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the golden period for rudraveena, which produced artists such as Swami Haridas, Miya Tansen, Baiju Bawra, Gopal Nayak, Nayak Bakshu and Nayak Charju among others.

In Akbar’s times the instrument was very popular and prevalent. The rise of Khayal can be seen as a development of the above context. With Khayal, the sitar emerged as a more apt accompanying instrument its playful and rapid explorations. The rudraveena receded from the scene.

The rudraveena is a large and heavy instrument. Its strings are thick and plucking them requires strength. In addition, the original posture requires keeping the instrument on the body, which means carrying 3.5 kg to 5 kg for two or three hours in one sitting. Also, the sacred context of the instrument conventionally permitted only select classes of men to play or even touch it. It was a superstition that if women played it they will not be able to conceive children. One reason could be that the Vajrasan posture might have been considered harmful for the uterus. When my mother heard this she asked me to stop playing, but I was already so much in love with it that I could not think of leaving it. Eventually I got married and conceived a son. But some controversies persist. I could not play in the Vajrasan posture during my pregnancy and adopted the Sukhasan posture. After delivery, I continue to play in Sukhasan. I don’t believe earlier restrictions on women are valid in present times. The measure of what is sacred and pure is redefined in every era. We should interpret cultural norms and injunctions as indicative of demanding inner purity from the artist.

We live a quiet life on our farm. I get much support from my husband, son and daughter- in-law who help me with modern technology to take my art forward. I relish the peace and rhythm of farm life; it brings depth and anubhav (experience) to my music.

Dhrupad is the foundation for Hindustani classical music. Unless young people take it up, it will be lost to us. The rudraveena is also disappearing because no new generation is passionate enough to learn this demanding skill. They find it difficult to support themselves [financially]…. they look for quick fame. But the foundation of our newness should be based on our own culture. If we just rush into modernity that is not our own, it will be meaningless.

The instrument

The rudraveena cannot be bought off the shelf. Its making is unique, as it is connected to the player’s body. For instance, its length should be 11 times the hand span of the player. The tuning can be completed only after it is placed on the body. The playing is connected to the player’s breathing rhythm. Traditionally, it was played only in the vajrasan pose.

One tumba (gourd) is kept on the right thigh and one on the shoulder, the right hand plucks the strings going over the right tumba and the left holds the strings with the left ear touching the left tumba. Khanji used to associate this posture with the sacred Swastika.

The instrument’s centre falls between the navel and the heart. The vibrations circulate in our inner body with the sound of ‘om’ entering the left ear from the left tumba. The right tumba’s vibrations go through the lower body through the right thigh. These vibrations produce inner well-being and tune us to the universal nada (sound). The instrument is itself a tool of pranayam and yoga. For those who have not mastered

breathing, it is a difficult instrument to learn.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 3:30:07 AM |

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