What was that, Mr. Mansur?

Sunday morning at the NCPA’s Experimental Theatre was one of those rare occasions when I heard music that I simply couldn’t enter. It was not that Rajshekhar Mansur, presented by Sajan Milap, was breaking conventional moulds or treading new paths. Rather, he wasn’t following any clearly laid out path at all, whether conventional or uniquely individual.

Mansur’s announcement that he was going to sing raags suggested by “people” rang a warning bell. What a vocalist sings is surely dictated by how he wants to shape a particular concert rather than by people’s ad hoc favourites? Certainly, part of the listener’s pleasure lies in detecting the overarching significance of the order in which he sings his khayals. Mansur’s voice was also a problem. Lightweight and nasal to begin with, it was being particularly uncooperative that morning. Finally, his enunciation of the words of the song texts lacked clarity. This common problem strikes me as doing great disservice to the composer whose poetic skills are as important as his musical skills in creating the texture and mood of the khayal.

Like most Jaipur-Atrauli gharana singers, Mansur eschewed the antara (second half) of the song. The many-faceted nature of the raag had therefore to be spun out of the asthai alone. To do this -- and it is done brilliantly by the best vocalists of the gharana -- time was of the essence. After all, music is the sculpting of time through melody and rhythm. Unfortunately, Mansur was given only 90 minutes to present a selection of jod raags, (raag blends) for which his gharana is famous.

Whether a raag is a whole or a blend, it can reveal itself fully only when a musician has the leisure to explore it with all the means at his disposal. Each of the four raags Mansur sang, Yamani Bilawal, Jaijai Bilawal, Kabiri Bhairav and Meera Malhar (Jogia Asavari was the merest sketch thrown in at the end), called for more time than the roughly 20 minutes he awarded to each. But perhaps the problem lay not so much in lack of time as in the lack of a structuring principle that would have enabled him to put the available time to the fullest use. In his raag elaborations, one didn’t get the sense of an edifice being built up brick by brick. In khayal gayaki, much depends on how the vocalist leads us on from one musical idea to the next in a series of links forged as complete units in themselves but carrying forward from what’s gone before and pointing towards what is to come next. If this doesn’t happen, however well-shaped the individual links, they don’t add up to creating a whole that is larger than its parts. Mansur elaborated his raags in what struck me as a scattered manner. He produced some wonderful moments when his voice surged or when he sang taans that had the intricacy of filigree work or when he produced a phrase that was reminiscent of his father, the great Mallikarjun Mansur. These moments created a pleasurable expectation of what would come next; but the expectation was almost always belied.

In his book Gharandaj Gayaki, Vamanrao Deshpande describes precisely the process by which a musician creates expectation and tension followed by their release through fulfillment. I can do no better than reproduce the passage here in translation. “When one rhythmic cycle has been sung, it should be such that, while being beautiful in itself, it should at the same time provide the context for the next rhythmic cycle. Every new cycle should therefore add to the beauty of the one that has gone before. The music should continue this constant ascent till the very limits of expectation have been reached. This is the point at which the musician must fulfill the expectation he has created, resolve the tension and bring the khayal to an end.”  

Mansur neither adhered to this design, nor can one say he even intended to. Normally the tabla accompanist, who is a participant in the creation and resolution of expectation, senses the end as it approaches. In Mansur’s case the end was so unexpected and abrupt that the accompanist had to be stopped with a gesture of the hand.

In a strange way, however, the music still held the audience; perhaps because the musician was so involved with it. He wasn’t short-changing the listener as some starry musicians occasionally do. He was being entirely sincere to his purpose. And that counted for a lot.

Published On : 21-09-2016