Manna from heaven

It is the centenary year of the legendary Jaipur-Atrauli musician Mallikarjun Mansur. Unravelling the individual genius of the maestro is also the study of a living tradition

Updated - September 29, 2011 07:02 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2011 05:00 pm IST

Music was penance Mansur's music was an act of devotion Photo: Courtesy K.G. Somasekhar

Music was penance Mansur's music was an act of devotion Photo: Courtesy K.G. Somasekhar

It is not easy to locate the greatness of Pandit Mallikarjuna Mansur and understand his relevance in our times. The life and accomplishments of Mansur unravel the various dimensions of a great tradition; it is also the act of exploring the multiple dimensions of a living community.

We must first recognise that Mansur was an eminent representative of a great oral tradition. In his childhood he had a solid “culture of listening”, internalising many dimensions and visions of his culture and religion as ‘ shruthi ' (the pitch in music, and the manner of internalising it). Mansur always recollected the way in which his consciousness was shaped by his mother's devotional songs. The organic method of learning — in which devotion, emotion, shruthi and rhythm were absorbed unconsciously by him — goes way beyond formal grammar, theory and logic of music that many teachers/learners are familiar with.

Secondly, Mansur's music is not the kind that stays within the realm of style, structure and pure aesthetics. It is a vision that transcends the limits of methodology, musicology and the grammar of music. Similarly, the element of devotion that was central to him as an individual and was embedded in his music was not vaguely “mystical and transcendental”. His musical style and spirituality came to him through the real world – it was the “experience”, the “mysticism” that worked through the real existence of the body. The process by which shruthi , rhythm, thought, devotion and emotion found expression highlighted the various dimensions of a lineage of gurus, of a culture and a tradition, and the genius of an individual.

Mansur remarked quite often that the drone of the tanpura became his bodhi vriksha (tree of enlightenment). He often said that he would not have had a mystical revelation of the notes had he not constantly meditated on it. He would declare: “I understood that all the notes are the manifestations of the first note sa and all ragas are the flood that emanates from sa .” In his autobiographical work, “Nanna Rasayatre” Mansur says, “Rather than a theoretical exposition of a raga , a sterling asthaayi (the basic framework) can delineate the raga clearly and comprehensively. These days singers have little interest in mastering the valuable old asthaayis . The ragas have lost connection with their notes, and it ends up in the torture of a raga. One is not against producing new compositions. However, it is detrimental to make new compositions without knowing the form and value of traditional compositions.”

Mansur who learnt in the gurukula tradition under Pandit Neelakanta Bua, had an encounter with Ustad Alladiya Khan sahib at Sangli, the doyen of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana; it propelled him to a state that he had never experienced until then. Mansur describes the manner in which Alladiya Khan's music virtually mesmerised and left him speechless. Alladiya Khan's taans and boltaans gave Mansur a new musical vision.

Mansur came under Ustad Manji Khan's (Ustad Alladiya Khan's son) tutelage, but when Manji Khan died, Mansur felt that not only his journey of music, but his entire life was also filled with darkness. It was then that he started learning from Manji Khan's younger brother Ustad Burji Khan. The elements of Neelakanta Bua and Manji Khan gained yet another remarkable dimension from Burji Khan. The rigorous nature of the bandishes came to the fore during this phase of learning. Mansur writes: “It is not an easy task to sing the compositions conforming to the cycle of beats.” What was even more daunting was to achieve an artistic freedom within the complex structure of the rhythm cycle, and be able to return exactly to the sum position. He adds: “Beginning the phrase at a determined point, weaving words in their pure form into the rhythm cycle, to infuse the tihayi with the same vigour before returning to the beginning of the bandish is as difficult as walking on a razor's edge.” He narrates the story of how he struggled to internalise it through a conscious creative process, and not in a mechanical manner. As he groped in darkness, one day, suddenly, the precise manner of execution forged from within him. This, Mansur says, was more the triumph of training than the success of an individual's efforts. The late Pandit Dattatreya Sadashiva Garud, who accompanied Mansur on the tabla on several occasions, describes this amazing ability of Mansur in his autobiography “Sangeeta Jeevana Tapasya” as follows: “Mansur would fill an entire cycle of rhythm of Dhimatritaal with taans in a single breath, and just before he returned to the beginning of the cycle, he would reach it amazingly in one fourth the time. It was impossible for a mediocre tabaliya to keep rhythm. I have never seen a musician of his calibre.”

A unique contribution of Jaipur-Atrauli gharana is the delineation of Jod ragas and unpopular ragas. It was Mansur who kept this tradition alive and preserved it as an excellent feature of our culture of music. The rendering of Basanti-Kedar, for instance, does not emerge as a mechanical addition of Basant and Kedar. Similarly, Basanti-Kanhra is not a lifeless combination of Basanti and Bageshri. Two ragas take birth from different sources and create a third dimension as do complex ragas like Pat Manjari and Khat Khayal.

Individual genius too had a role to play in this great musical tradition. Once, during a concert, an elderly person stood up and remarked that Ustad Alladiya Khan, Ustad Manji Khan and Ustad Burji Khan did not sing the way Mansur did. Was it the right representation of Jaipur-Atrauli gharana? Next instant, Mansur demonstrated exactly the way in which the three maestros sang and after the elderly connoisseur approved, he explained that the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana he sang was a living tradition that included the music of all those masters as well as his own creativity.

It is impossible not to refer to the religious edifice of Mansur's penance of music. Mansur was an ardent follower of the Muruga Matha and Mrutyunjaya Swami and remained deeply devoted to them till his end. He constructed the aesthetics of his music from a Lingayat religious consciousness. Mansur realised god as Shiva, the Saguna, and also as Nirguna-Nirakara. The evidence for this can be found in “He Mahadev” in Bahaduri Todi or the fast-paced composition in the latter part of the Yaman piece “Pat Tore...”. This was Mansur's Lingayat dharma which, even as it sang in praise of Shiva, invoked Vishnu, Krishna, Sri Ranga, Murari and Allah with the same devotion. It was an engagement with aesthetics that dealt with devotion without compromising on the cerebral quality of music. By his own admission, he worshipped Lord Shiva through his music. There cannot be a life, an accomplishment greater than this.

Translated by M.R. Rakshith

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