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First person

The musical burning bush

Sugandhi Ravindranathan describes her discovery of the intense genius of Mallikarjun Mansur. The more she listens to his uncompromising music, the harder she finds to sympathise with twentysomethings, barely literate in music, who crib about lack of recognition

There is nothing more fulfilling than a passion discovered late in life. Mine is Mallikarjun Mansur. To me, the man's music is the nearest I can experience divinity: it a prayer that will brook no flippancy or interference. When I listen to him, I close my eyes and surrender totally to the music of the master.

When it comes to classical music, I know about the technicalities as much as a mango does about metaphysics. It's not that I was not exposed to it. My mother, with an eye on my future matrimonial prospects, did try to get me to learn Karnatak music. But somehow the process went offkey and soon I found myself wallowing contentedly in lugubrious Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi songs, besides the pop music beamed by Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America.

I was well into marriage and motherhood when I tentatively bought Bhimsen Joshi's Miyan ki Todi. I must point out that Keralites generally find Karnatak music easier to appreciate than Hindustani. However, in due course I found myself liking Joshi and his fellow singers and bought more of them. Again I found myself wallowing, this time in Kirana gharana. I found a safe haven in listening to easy ragas like Shuddh Kalyan and Yaman sung by masters like Abdul Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharva, Gangubai Hanagal and bachchas like Rashid Khan.

I then stumbled upon dhrupad, thanks to the Dagar brothers even as I discovered Ustad Faiyaz Khan of Agra gharana (I instinctively went for his aristocratic, bewhiskered face but was initially unnerved by his raw style). Meanwhile, I also toyed with Pandit Jasraj.

One day, a dear friend and colleague, fed up with my casual dabbling, gave me a recording of Mansur's Jaunpuri, Jait Kalyan and Bihari. I had vaguely heard of Mansur in the context that he was one of the many stalwarts Karnataka's Dharwad district had produced.

When I heard Mansur's Jaunpuri the first time, I knew exactly how Moses felt when he communed with the burning bush. My hair stood on end and I could not move. I was staggered by his breath control and the way one note packed into the next. I knew then that this was what I was looking for. I bought all of Mansur's music available in the market. I read up on him, found out that he was the greatest exponent of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, a specialist in jod-ragas, a stickler for tradition, and that fame came to him at the ripe age of 60.

Listen, you twentysomething punks who can strum a guitar or yodel a few taans and who want instant recognition: all the decades Mansur lived and sang in relative obscurity, he never compromised on his sadhana. Whatever fame he earned, came to him in the last 22 years of his life. He never gave up his riyaz or his simplicity. K G Somsekhar, who takes pride in the fact that his first work as a professional photographer featured the great singer, once told me: "His eyes were never focussed. He was always thinking of music, always humming some raga or the other. He was like a child -- completely guileless."

Mansur's dedication reflected in his music. No other singer matches his intensity and interpretation of a raga. Look at the range of ragas he mastered: Bhairav, Bhankar, Paraj, Sorath, Gaud Sarang, Gaud Malhar, Ramdasi Malhar, Adambari Kedar, Basanti Kedar, Basanti Kanhra, Raisa Kanhra, Bahaduri Todi, Shukla Bilawal, Kukubh Bilawal, Yamani Bilawal, Sughrai Kanada, Nayaki Kanada, Lalit Gauri, Gara Bageshri, Khat (reputedly a combination of six ragas) and many more.

Listening to Mansur is my prayer. I keep aside everything and concentrate on the great man's offering. His life and music are my inspiration. There is a wonderful photograph of Mansur (by Somsekhar, of course) hanging above my bed I see the first thing in the morning. Whenever I come across instances of supposedly great performers who behave abominably offstage (sometimes onstage, too) I look to Mansur's Rasyatra. My greatest regret is that I have never heard him live.

Why am I writing about Mansur now? Because there's this music shop I visited once and was thoroughly put off when, as a promotional gimmick, it had invited one of those underclothed, underfed, shrill-voiced VJs. There was a big, slavering crowd around her. I quickly picked up a couple of jazz cassettes (my other passion) and sidled away. Recently something nudged me visit that shop again: and there, under a pile of Kirana gharanas, was this double cassette set of Mansur's Jait Kalyan and Shree. I never knew that he had sung Shree. And later, when I listened, it was pooja time all over again.

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