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Singing Meera in a boat

Dattatreya Garud shows that Meera can be sung in many unconventional ways

Amazing energy. This 85-year-old man is alert to everything around him. At the rehearsals for Meera Shyam, a programme devoted to Meera's compositions, he sits on a sofa conducting a large orchestra of vocalists and instrumentalists. Pandit Dattatreya Sadashiva Garud, in white, looks rather like an animated rishi.

No lapse, however minute, escapes his attention. He is simultaneously keen to the musicians' good points -- he appreciates a singer's taan here, and the sitar's gamak there. His sparkling eyes ocassionally turn to his three-year-old great grandson, who is playfully slapping on a tabla.

Two days later, I find the concert at Gayana Samaja well-attended. Sung in unison are select Meera bhajans. Musicians on stage include vocalists, a sitarist, a sarangi player, and several tabla players. The concert's uniqueness is that Meera's songs are rendered not like routine bhajans; Garud has adapted them to genres like the khayal, thumri, hori and jhoola, all within the Hindustani classical tradition.

"I've thought about Meera's poems for years and years, and this concert has been a fulfilling experience," says Garud.

Garud shows the movement of a boat, the flow of the Jamuna, and even the climb up and down a flight of stairs. His tunes, and the carefully crafted tala patterns that accompany them, mirror the tensions and tribulations that Meera records in her poems. The emotion of each poem unfolds through Garud's music.

Meera perceives Krishna as a friend, lover, husband and personal god. She walks away from the confines of a palace in search of a higher truth, longing for a world where her lord reigns.

Meera's life inspires several readings and interpretations. Essentially, she explores bhakti as a mode of rebellion against imposed social bonds and uses song to express her ideas.

Meera's dissolution of the self comes close to the worldview of musicians like Garud, who give themselves up in humility to an all-pervasive, all-knowing god. And to music. "Teaching music is my life's mission," he says, simply, without a trace of ostentation.

Long, hard journey

Garud was among the small group of musicians who propagated Hindustani music in Bangalore in the 1950s. Along with Pandit Rama Rao Nayak, a dear friend, he set up a music school in 1955. Sangeeta Kala Bhavana has trained scores of musicians like the now well-known sitarist N V Gopinath.

Mere technique, Garud feels, is not enough. "A teacher must help the student understand the soul of a raga," he emphasises. He has a warm way of reaching out to people, and his large gestures and loud laughter lend him a dramatic quality. No wonder, I remind myself, he is the son of 'Abhinaya Kesari' Garuda Sadashivaraya, a great company drama personality.

Sadashiva Garud founded Dattatreya Nataka Mandali in 1920. He put his son into music under Govinda Vittala Bhave, who had learnt from the legendary Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Bhave was the music tutor for all the actors of the drama troupe as well. Dattatreya Garud was exposed to the tabla and harmonium during those formative years. Ghanashyam Badkar, Basarur Sanjeeva Rao and Raghunatha Rao taught him later.

The war years

Ebbs and tides characterised the drama troupe during the war years. The senior Garud moved from place to place in search of a livelihood. He didn't feel comfortable in the film studios of Madras, and decided to shift to Bangalore. That proved a boon to this city's Hindustani music environment. The young Garud joined the ranks of Sodhe Shankar Rao, D B Harindra and K H Acharya, musicians who were already teaching and performing here.

Garud's crippled leg -- a handicap he has suffered since childhood -- did not deter his growth as a musician. He has played the tabla solo, and also accompanied masters like Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal, Begum Akhtar, Ravi Shankar and N Rajam, besides his close friend Rama Rao Nayak.

Garud believes a knowledge of vocal music enhances one's instrumental skills. To him tala is the pulse of music, and laya the window to an understanding of nature and time. The fundamental purpose of music is the expression of emotions. "Sangeeta Saraswati can never be realised through a rendering devoid of bhava, however proficient the musician," he says.

C S Sarvamangala

Garud's school, Sangeeta Kala Bhavana, functions from 78/2, 6th Cross, Malleswaram, Bangalore 560 003

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