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The unlikely rock star

lady, visibly excited, has left her phone camera open, unknowingly capturing awkward, close-up shots of her palm lines. A teenage girl checks herself out on her phone camera while waiting for her turn to take a selfie with the man of the hour. There are many more like them. We are at the Prabodhankar Thakre theatre in Mumbai’s far-northern suburb of Borivali and these are scenes half an hour after a Mahesh Kale solo concert.

The effect of his performance on the audience would lead you to believe that Kale is some sort of a rock star. In spirit he maybe, but technically he is a Hindustani classical vocalist who has won the Best Singer (Male) in the recently announced National Film awards for Marathi film Katyar Kaljat Ghusali.

For those aware of the niche attention classical music in India is used to, this is an achievement. Not only did Kale pull off a Saturday night full house, the family-dominated audience seemed to have enjoyed every minute of it, connecting to the performer and applauding him in the right places. Going by the autograph books and selfie requests by the young and the gushing approval of the older lot, Kale seems to be the newfound youth icon of the culturally conscious Maharashtrian middle class.

While his live performance was a master class in vocal artistry in the times of auto-tune, Kale, who sports stubble with a natural Afro hairdo, also seems to have the glamour to sell it. He doesn’t mind it. “A lady once walked up to me after the play to ask me if my hair was real. I asked her to pull it and see it for herself. As for the beard, it is more out of my laziness although I keep getting messages that it looks cool. If these help people get interested in me, I’d be only too glad. But that won’t sustain unless they like the music,” says Kale, a disciple of Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, a respected proponent of Agra and Jaipur gharana whose compositions form the heart of Katyar.

The fact that Kale had an engineering background before he became a full-time musician makes him an inspiring success story for the musically inclined youth of today. The event was a part of a series of shows, titled Sur Niragas Ho after a song from the film designed in a way to present Kale to the larger audience. “People know me in the classical music circles in India but not so much otherwise primarily because I have been living in San Francisco for the last 15 years. After the success of Katyar, we thought it will be a good idea to share my story,” he says. While Kale sang two songs — the climactic ‘ Aruna Kirani ’ and ‘ Surat Piya Ki ’ — for the character of Sadashiv in the film, he in fact played the same role in the recently revived version of the play that has an iconic place among Maharashtrians. The film’s success, and the subsequent National Award, has not only sparked interest in Kale’s career but it has also busted the myth that the youth is not interested in classical music.

“The music in Katyar is ‘non-sexy.’ We didn’t do anything but ended up being cool for the kids to be associated with. Anyone who puts in work in classical music will get the return. One doesn’t need to have a legacy or privileges. Music kisiki jaagir nahi hai , it’s not like a family business. The Internet has democratised the whole game,” he says.

With four albums under his name and sold out concerts across the world, Kale, is a rising classical music star, but much of his energies is focussed toward the promotion of Hindustani classical vocals among the youth.

“I conduct myself on the stage as if I am in a party or a katta chatting with my friends. I want to be someone who is accessible to them,” he says. It also explains why he decided to stay back in the US after he went there to study engineering. He wanted to bring the sanctity of the Gurukul system that he was honed in into the classical lessons culture in USA. “When I looked around, I found out that most of the music teachers were housewives who see this as a source of additional income. If the goals are non-musical, then the results can’t be great. I really wanted the kids to do well. And I love teaching because you only learn more.” While 90 per cent of Kale’s students are Indians, the rest include Pakistanis, Turkish and Afghans.

Kale, 40, is a live confluence of the latest gadgets and one of the most ancient forms of music. As he uses hand gestures to perform an abhang, an iPad in front, it is hard to not notice a white-banded Apple watch occasionally slipping out of the sleeve of his kurta. He often does his riyaz with the help of the electronic tanpura app on his Macbook and has an image of his guru Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki emblazoned on the back cover of his smartphone. Sometimes, in the US, he tells me, he likes to drive his double door convertible BMW 100 miles an hour even as he is singing a vilambit khayal. And when he is on tour, his students back in San Francisco Bay Area attend classes at his house for which they have access codes as per their scheduled timings. No matter which part of the world he is in, Kale doesn’t fail to log in to Skype on the time of his classes and gives lessons, attending to them individually. It’s only natural for someone who went to study multimedia engineering in USA so that he could use “technology to solve a music problem.” “Instruments such as esraj and sarangi are getting extinct. And I wanted to study engineering to look into the possibility if these sounds could be stored for eternity by incorporating them into a synthesizer,” he says. It was while doing his second masters that Kale took the plunge into full-time music.

It’s his stay in the US that also broadened his horizon that was until then confined to small city life in Pune. Describing himself as someone who “tries to look for signs and follow them”, he says that the US experience, where he had Greek, Turkish and Tamil roommates, made him more receptive to life around. Kale thrives on the philosophy of seeking new life experiences. He talks about an impromptu jetty ride he took to Alibaug or how he doesn’t listen to his own playlist while in India so that he can listen to new songs on the radio. Sometimes, he likes to take a Shivneri bus from one part of Maharashtra to another. “To be able to create something out of the ordinary you have to have a very good sense of what ordinary and normal,” says the artiste who has participated in INKtalks.

On its surface, Kale’s music may strictly remain within the contours of Hindustani classical music but his inspirations come in all shapes and sizes. He reads out his playlist that is a surprising mix bag — from AR Rahman to Adele, Arijit Singh to Lady Gaga. When travelling abroad, he attends as many jazz concerts and broad-way musicals as he can. “At points, in my career, I was listening more of Western music than Indian,” he says while slipping into a somewhat spiritual realm. “I maybe feeling Michael Jackson in my mind but may express it with a classical phrase. Sometimes, when I hear a strong Western note, I may feel Bhimsenji. It’s about finding that sweet spot, as in when you feel absolute stillness inside even as you are running and sweating.”

As someone who has been performing since the age of three — he started under his mother, a non-professional singer — Kale sees music as one of those simple pleasures in life as in experiencing the sunrise, sunset or a moonlit sky. “Music in its inception was as a means to something but over the years it has become a commodity because it sells. I want to reverse it.”

Mahesh Kale’s live performance was a master class in vocal artistry in the times of auto-tune

Kale is a confluence

of the latest gadgets and one of the

most ancient

forms of music

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 5:24:12 PM |

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