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Feature

Time in the life of
Vijay Raghav Rao


Flutist, choreographer, composer of innovative music for countless Films Division offerings, Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao is a versatile genius. An admirer paints his life in a series of word-images


Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao A dishwasher in the kitchen downstairs lights up with signs of assorted spin cycles. It purrs like a cat upstairs where Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao is busy composing Hansa Naad, a new raga he has been working on for the better part of this spring.

He plays a glissando conjuring images of swans rising up from the water with merry intent, then writes a line of music on a legal pad. The clock on the wall has kept him company from six in the morning of a balmy season on the American eastern seaboard. The hours go by, the dishwasher has stopped, the glissandos keep coming, fresh, vibrant, in chunks, stopping only to become part of a composition.

* * * *

Vijay Raghav Rao -- pioneering flutist, trailblazing composer, creator of Telugu verse that philosophizes on social themes from a vantage of solitude, and teacher of the subtleties of Indian music to distant, foreign ears. Residing for the most part of the last decade in the United States, away from his roots in Bombay and Hyderabad, his is a persona that ebbs and flows with the shades of a generation gap.

To longtime connoisseurs, critics, teachers and performers, he is a pillar of all that is best about our culture -- the vitality of dance, as it came through in his performances and choreography, and later in his scores for ballets; the energy of a whole new society growing up in the pangs of freedom captured in vibrant scores for films and gramophone records and the AIR Orchestra; the beauty and immense technique of Hindustani music as it seeps through his performances on the flute; and the magnificent commonality in our cultural diversity he so often emphasizes through his writings and lecture-demonstrations. To the younger generation, he is but a faraway star, represented through albums of music and replays of classic performances on TV and radio, a new anthology of verse, or disciples like G S Sachdev and Ronu Mazumdar.

* * * *

"Spending time away from my roots makes me come full circle. I am even more of an artiste, even more conscious of who I am...", says Panditji when I first meet him on a warm summer's day in Virginia.

Ever the traditionalist, he is dressed in an elegant dhoti-kurta, his lifetime's garb of choice. "I am no different here than anywhere, in a very positive way... I create, I discover, I appreciate, I perform, I pray." He hums a few bars of a Ram dhun. "I used to play this for Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi."

The affinity for Gandhiji runs deeper and longer in ways more formal and permanent. The score for Attenborough's Gandhi with Pandit Ravi Shankar, for example, or the Son et Lumiere at the Gandhi Peace Foundation. "My Indianness has little to do with geography", he continues. "For an artiste, it is the spirit that counts."

Record labels in England and France and California carry his flute music, sometimes even without permission; while he remains exceedingly selective about performing live, limiting appearances to "achieve a certain perfection, via sadhana." Critics applaud a new score of his, like the Ohio Ballet's Jungle Book, calling him "a 20th century Renaissance genius.".

"Good music often flows freely across boundaries, like good conversation", says Panditji. Like waves of the sea, no doubt, that stretch from Bombay around the earth to Europe and thence westward even more, tracing a movement in his life's symphony. Melodies and rhythms of music, changing incessantly, touching diverse shores, near or far. "Music is the universal language. It is invested with such simple and absolute power it can engage the minds of even those who know nothing about it."

A new cadre of young flutists and composers visit with him to learn: musicians in symphonies, students, engineers and a writer, a dancer and a choreographer. "Gandhiji once said in a prayer meeting", says he, "Sangeet ke bina sangatee kahan?" ("Can there be kinship without music?..."). "Music, my music, is a catalyst between hearts of diverse moulds, between societies of different temper. It makes my life come full circle: from its roots, away, and back again."

* * * *

I travel back in recent time to the backstage of the E J Thomas Hall in Akron, Ohio. Bouquets of roses are strewn on the floor. Dancers of assorted skin and makeup are smiling to the ends of their lips, proud and triumphant after a stunning premiere of Jungle Book, Panditji's collaboration with Heinz Poll and V Dhananjayan.

The music permeates the ambience, even as it electrified this and future audiences across America. Chunks of strings and brass shimmering in cadences, intermingling with flutes of every hue -- Indian, Japanese, African. "A kaleidoscopic melange of tonal colors," writes the critic Valerie Thorson.

"I see the jungle as a metaphor for this multicultural world... and my music, this music, represents its multiethnic beauty." What beauty, such charm. Delicate ballerinas traipsing like the wings of dancing butterflies break the boundaries of distant cultures in gentle steps based as much on the Classical ballet of the West as on the basics of Kathakali.

"I marvel at the ability of some societies, like America's, to appreciate cultural diversity", says Panditji. Sure enough, and why not. Next to India, nowhere is culture given to such exuberance as in America.



* * * *

Later in time, the exuberance of a composing triumph gives way to an endeavour of the spirit. Panditji ensconces himself in the recording studio, preparing to create a new album of flute music. Twilight looms in the darkness of an autumn's evening outside. Tanpuras drone, beckoning the spirit of raga Puriya. Voices fade away into silence outside around the doors -- would that a false note carry inside. And then the first notes, of a sky unwilling to let go of the evening, of pensive stars in a promising night. Cascading over the tanpura, filling our air with the twilight's essential magic.

The raga is the mood, the virtuoso technique is the feeling, the artiste is his art. "It is futile to look for components of a total expression, like music", says Panditji later. "The secret to art is what happens because of it, not how. I create unconsciously. Part of it is my spirituality, a lot of it is technique and skill, the backbone, and then there is tradition and a simple feeling I sense, and the medium".

The night comes on gently into the studio holding the caresses of the notes. Panditji improvises with increasing vigour as the ambience warms up to his vision. Two versions of dhrut, and then variations set to three talas. The tape keeps rolling, the spirit comes alive with new life by the hour, and the art thrives on its life.

* * * *

Two months of a balmy autumn later, I catch up with Panditji in a sun splashed enclave by a lake tucked in a corner of his daughter's home in the deep American south. He is delving into the intricacies of raga Durga with his flute, manipulating disparate patterns of blowing, playing with deft variations of pressure and finger settings on the seven holes that span his instrument.

Transported from his environs into a world of solitary inquiry, oblivious of a young filmmaker who has quietly set up shop around him. "I seek to capture the essence of the artistic process", whispers the documentarian, "and there is no medium better at it than film". Why Panditji? "He knows film in the terms of music. I want to know music in the terms of film. That's why."

As the afternoon rolls, so does the camera -- uninterrupted, reminding one of Hitchcock's The Rope, attempting to capture long, winding notes of the alaap with smooth, pensive observations. Rude noises of discordance force themselves onto the soundtrack from the outside, but the artistes continue. "That is part of the process of creation", says the filmmaker with a smile. "God never flinched from making the universe because of the Devil...", chuckles Panditji.

"The Devil represents a reaction to the pure motivation of creativity. If we wouldn't create, if we wouldn't make music, make film, there wouldn't be any realization of noise, of what is discordant, of what is nonart, of what is wrong", says the filmmaker.

And we speak of creativity some more. "The process of creating is transcendental," says Panditji. When a human being makes, he seeks form -- in painting, dance, music, film, writing. And form sets up identity, which delineates, sets itself apart, makes it unique. Creates a microcosm of Godliness that challenges the devil, the destructive, the pointless, the mundane.

"Film is the closest you can get to distilled reality", says the filmmaker. "I'd say every young man in India, obsessed as he is with cinema, should get himself behind a camera, any camera. That way he will see wrong from right. Feel reality for himself. And soon enough do something constructive ".

* * * *

A ten-year-old child plays Copland's Simple gifts on the violin in the afternoon of a quiet Sunday, sitting by the fire in a roomful of Indian artifacts. He understands the tune, it seems, the notes come easy to his fingers, the bow of his instrument corresponds to the composer's whim. Panditji, the adoring grandfather, watches from a distance, proud, smilingly. "This child represents what I cherish most about all of this", he says. "Like a magic carpet of wonderful, intermingling threads, he is Indian, he is American, and he shows that without saying a word, through music". The child plays more, simply, sweetly, lovingly, capturing the moment's spirit.

"Omar Khayyam had his bread and his wine, I have my kids and their kids and music", gushes Panditji a little later. The brood is diverse -- physicians and engineers, businesspeople -- a chairman, a CEO, scattered in India and America. "All of them have music running through them", he says. "Hindustani and Western". A grandchild dances her way onstage to a tillana in a benefit concert one afternoon, then rushes off to a class with a teacher of the western violin. Another grandson spends his weekends practising for upcoming concerts of the Atlanta Youth Symphony. Back in the studio, his older son accompanies him on the flute during a recording session for a new album.

Is this by design? "No...". "Music is the most natural of all languages", he says. "All we do is let them listen".



* * * *

In a brilliant, stark, shiny November afternoon we stroll through a park adorned by nature's whimsy. Leaves of gold and bluish green stream down in gentle caresses of the wind.

I look up at them, strokes of an invisible entity, set in the frame of a gentle blue sky. Is this the work of an artiste? "Can you ever believe that nature -- our nature, beautiful, colorful, multivariate - throbbing with a multitude of energies, seething with a billion forms extending well into the reaches of time and space, that this nature could ever be the work of a nonartiste?" counters Panditji.

Later the same day we receive news that the Sangit Research Akademi has bestowed its prestigious honorary title and award on Panditji this year for a lifetime's achievement and contribution to music. I look for a reaction, some exuberance, perhaps. "An artiste is like Arjun in the Gita", says Panditji. "Focused on action, not the reaction." And then he recites a verse.

"Karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachan
Ma karmaphalhetubhurma te sakhshoshtavkarmani"

"The secret of my life is to create, take action, without any expectation of results. That is the best reward. I am allowed to practice my skills in the open fields of life. That is the greatest of all rewards".

I come away from the meeting with renewed energy.

* * * *

Conducting the national anthem from the Red Fort in Delhi in 1947 ushering India's independence, pioneering innovative, experimental music for films at the Films Division, composing scores for a multitude of films and ballets including Akbar, Bhuvan Shome, Through The Eyes of a Painter, Trip, Interview, Explorer, Life, Ananta, Oka Oori Katha, Badnam Basti, Ramayana, Sri Ram Prateeksha, Sri Krishna Vyjayanti, Ode to Peace, Desitny, Mukti; literary publications in various languages, Padmashri and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, Golden Bear of Berlin Film Festival, honorary doctorate of literature -- these are but a handful of pearls in the astonishing career of Vijay Raghav Rao.

Mihir Kumar


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