Stunning Vocal Play

I do not exaggerate when I say that I would put aside just about everything of practical importance to hear Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar sing-- whenever and wherever. It was therefore a dugdha-sharkara (milk and sugar) occasion when he performed at Pandit Arvind Parikh’s 80th birthday celebration at NCPA’s Tata theatre on Friday, giving me two luminous reasons to be there.

Pandit Arvind Parikh is arguably the only Indian musician who has pursued two parallel lives with equal success, a life in music and a life in business. Suited, he is brisk and formidably efficient. With a sitar in his hands, he  turns serene and inward-looking. His meditative music takes us far away from the frenzy of the world outside; for, unlike some other instrumentalists, he refuses to import that frenzy into his music.

All the speakers on Friday evening-- Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Uday Kotak, Vijaya Mehta, Dr Ashok Ranade and family friend Praful Patel, Minister for Aviation-- wondered how he had managed to achieve such a perfect balance between these two lives. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the priorities he appeared to have set for himself. Someone quoted him as saying that business was his hobby and music his passion! The other part might lie in what Dr Ranade said in his characteristically witty speech. “It is not true that Arvindbhai doesn’t have vices. He has. He is a workaholic. He must have made a pact with God at birth, that he would never remain idle!”

Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar brings similar qualities of rigour and sincerity to his vocalism. In an interview given in 2000 to Deepak Raja, author of  “Hindustani Music: a tradition in transition”, he had said, “…the process of self-discovery in a vocalist matures only around the age of forty. Until then, he does not fully understand his own training, the significant features of his own and other gharanas, his own musical temperament, or even the eccentricities of his own voice.” If we take 40 years as the magical entry point into self-aware music, then Pandit Kashalkar has been singing in his impeccable, evocative, unique style for at least 12 years. But I think it has been many more.

The physical aspects of Kashalkar’s music are impressive. He has a sweet, supple voice with an astounding range. His notes are crystal clear even in the fastest taans, and his control over laya is effortless, a testimony to decades of rigorous practice. But there are other less tangible, more powerful virtues at work here too— a profound seriousness of purpose, a strict musical conscience, and an innate sense of proportion and aesthetic propriety. These constitute the moral and spiritual fibre of his music, irresistibly drawing critics, connoisseurs and lay listeners alike to it.

On Friday he demonstrated an aspect of his musical personality I had not known before--a delight in playing with the aesthetics of music. Familiar with his mellifluous but formal presentation of Basant Bahar on CD, I was quite unprepared for what he did with the raga that evening. Beginning with a leisurely alaap which emphasised its every sensuous curve to evoke the exquisite pleasure-pain of the two seasons with which it is associated —autumn (Bahar) and spring (Basant)-- he moved into a different geometry altogether while filling in the voluptuous contours he had traced. He dismantled the raga note by note, moving in quick zigzags between distant notes to expose its nuts and bolts, so to say. This done, he rebuilt the raga and made it whole again. It was a stunning bit of intellectual and vocal play.

The Bhairavi that followed was steeped in deep emotion. Always a moving raga, it became doubly so because of the bandish that Kashalkar sang-- “Tum ho jagata ke daataa, rakhiyo laaj mori natha”. It is set in the upper octave and gives the impression of the singer calling out to God, pleading with Him for His grace. Taught to him by the late Ustad Vilayat Khan, Arvindbhai’s guru, it was a touching choice to make that evening.

Published On : 31-01-2015