Tribute | Society

Offerings to the queen of time: The gaana-yajna of Pandit Jasraj and Mukund Lath

Pandit Jasraj in concert.

Pandit Jasraj in concert.   | Photo Credit: K. Bhagya Prakash

The disciple, friend and reclusive philosopher, departed first. The guru, the guide, the celebrity, followed in little more than a week, slightly reversing the order. Mukund Lath, singer, painter, Sanskritist, historian of Indian music and musicology, moral philosopher of the Mahabharata, art collector, and above all, poet-thinker (kavir maniishii), passed away on August 6. Within 11 days, Pandit Jasraj, who had taught Hindustani classical music to Mukund for at least five decades, breathed his last, 10 years short of a century. Close friends, they were also guru-bhais because both had sat at the feet of Pandit Maniram, Jasraj-ji’s eldest brother.

That double epithet kavi-maniishii is applied to the supreme Isha who dwells in and clothes and perfumes all that changes in this whirling world, à la the first verse of the Isha Upanishad. While a deadly virus plays havoc by making an unsocial ‘distancing’ from one another globally mandatory, that first verse continues to teach us how to enjoy by giving up. Mukund left this earth just in time before not sitting close to one’s teacher — un-Upanishad — became the new normal.

Pandit Jasraj had initiated the brilliant adolescent Mukund into a gaana-yajna, which was simultaneously the art of offering away one’s intellectual/ academic ego, one’s vocal breath rising from one’s navel, and one’s emotional energy — all into the all-consuming mother of all flames: Maataa Kaalikaa. That first verse of the Isha Upanishad changed the life trajectory of Debendranath Tagore, the prodigal-merchant-turned-contemplative-saint father of Rabindranath. And it urges us to enjoy and suffer the beauty and the riches, the viruses and the vicissitudes of this world, by means of “sacrifice”.

The last sacrifice is the offering up of one’s bodily life at the altar of Time, who reveals himself as “decimator of people” in the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. That most famous song sung and recorded by Jasraj-ji, which I first heard in Mukund’s voice, calls Kali the Mother “the great queen of Time the great” (Mahakala Maharani), opening with an arduous ascent in raga Adana and always finding a triplicate repose in the mantric repetition of bhavaani, bhavaani, bhavaani.

Dark mother

In 1898, sitting in a house-boat on Dal Lake in Kashmir, Swami Vivekananda invoked the same “Thou ‘Time’ — the all-destroyer dark Mother” in his classic poem ‘Kali the Mother’. Some phrases of this poem are fatefully relevant now in the pandemic-stricken world. The mother is addressed as one who comes “scattering plagues and sorrows”. “Who dares misery love... to him the Mother comes” wrote that Buddha-like, tender-hearted, cyclonic monk who sacrificed his life to relieve the suffering of the sick, the poor, and the downtrodden.

Fusion between the devotional raga Durga and the festive spring scale Bahar resulted in Jasraj-ji’s invented raga Bhavani Bahar. The lyrics of the bandish that you can hear Jasraj-ji sing in this raga on YouTube were composed by Mukund: saanvari salone kaanh, un hii se laagyo dhyaan. The focus here seems to shift from dark Mother Time to a dark lover lad of Vrindavana who seduces by his heart-stealing looks. Mukund and I used to savour Aurobindo’s poetic commentary on this civilisational fluidity between Kali and Krishna in the poem ‘Who’:

“We have love for a boy who is

dark and resplendent,

A woman is lord of us, naked and


But Jasraj-ji was at his Upanishadic best when he sang the Islamic bhajan “Mero Allah meherbaan” in raga Bhairav. For decades now we have heard his Advaita Vedantic Sanskrit song Chidaananda Ruupah Shivoham Shivoham side by side with his Krishna song, ‘Notorious in Vraj is this butter-thief, who stole the clothes of the girls of Vraj, and steals the hearts of hermits.’ But when he addresses god as the lord, Maalik, and says “Amazing is this universe of yours, Master, some know and some do not know/ Those who knowingly know it, indeed, do not know… Those who are immersed in ecstasy do know,” (Ajab teri duniyaa maalik — bandish in Darbaari) he effortlessly echoes the Kena Upanishad.

A sketch of Mukund Lath, done by the writer in 1989.

A sketch of Mukund Lath, done by the writer in 1989.   | Photo Credit: Arindam Chakrabarti

I started by claiming that Mukund was taught gaana-yajna, which is not just a pun on the Bhagavad Gita’s word jnaana-yajna. Whatever “fruit” of international fame he earned by his stupendously scholarly work on Dattilam, the 2000-year-old Sanskrit text on the theory of music, or by his translations of Prakrit and Sanskrit poetry, or by his work on moral dilemmas (dharma-sangkata) in the Mahabharata, or by his rendition of the first Indian autobiography (16th century), Half a Tale, Mukund renounced by offering it up to his poetry and painting, where the unsaid rules over what is said. He gave up the most brilliant research results — how many of us know that the expression sawaai in titles like Sawaai Gandharv or Sawaai Jai Singh meant one-and-a-quarter? — with a resonant laugh and a musical hand gesture of a sliding (meedr) swara-offering to the universal fire of egoless search for truth and beauty.

Singular seer

Although the teacher and the taught took their leave of us together, and one imagines them doing riyaaz together again in some empyrean baithak, to get ready for another Bhairavi rendering of the unique Niranjanii Naaraayani song, friends and family who knew the warm-hearted Mukund also knew that he preserved a profound solitude in his heart. In his last years, he told me he wanted to go back to the Isha Upanishad . He showed me the beginnings of his Hindi translation of his teacher Srimat Anirvan’s Bengali commentary on this Upanishad. Not only does this small Upanishad use the epithets “poet/ thinker” for god, it goes on to call the Sun “ekarshi” — the singular seer. I could sense something solar, in this sense, in Mukund’s intellectual-imaginative self. He was a singular seer — eka rishi.

As Kumar Gandharva, Mukund’s favorite singer, used to sing, we could predict with resignation: ‘The lonesome swan shall fly away.’

I remarked that he renounced his artistic and scholarly ego through his gaana-jnaana sacrifice. But he was no ascetic. He renounced the renunciation too. Even through his excruciatingly painful terminal sickness, Mukund lived lightly and tunefully, practising the Kashmiri Shaiva motto so well phrased by Abhinavagupta in his hymn ‘Anuttaraashtikaa’:

maa kim chit tyaja/ maa grihaana/ vilasa (‘do not give up anything/ do not acquire anything/ play and have fun’)

But, for all that paradoxical wisdom, I feel inconsolably lonely now that Mukund is no longer waiting for me on his Jaipur home’s bed of books with an electronic tanpura droning in the background. Having lost both Jasraj-ji’s inebriating voice and Mukund’s immeasurably agile imagination that improvised and revitalised Indian traditions beyond the boundaries of any religion, language or ethnicity, the world feels like a plundered polis. Which thug/ bandit has ravished this city? Kaun thagwa nagariyaa lootal ho?

The writer is a professor of philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i—Mānoa and visiting professor at Ashoka University.

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 8:52:11 PM |

Next Story