Return of the Recluse

Sumati Mehrishi on the concert of noted vocalist Mukul Shivputra in JNU, New Delhi on 23rd October. She is a journalist and a trained musician.

A musician without his eccentricities is like a tanpura without a dangerously unpredictable tuning knob. A musician, until he is about a pinch or abundance of recalcitrance, you know you aren’t up for a memorable concert evening. Musicians calm and stoic are worshipped, loved and followed. But Mukul Shivputra, son of legendary vocalist Pandit Kumar Gandharva gets the love and reverence despite being the fraternity’s undoubtedly the most unpredictable, habitually impulsive boy.

Mukul Shivputra (Author of this post on Tanpura)/File photo:The Hindu

At a concert organised by Sriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra in 2006, Shivputra was at his stoic best. It was at the Kamani Auditorium — a closed formal setting and no bohemian setting like a spot in Benaras, a temple in Devas or a jungle in some God forsaken part of Madhya Pradesh where Shivputra really would enjoy performing. There was Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, the mother of Jaipur Atrauli gharana, sitting in the front row watching Shivputra perform. Knowing Shivputra’s weakness for stage tantrums — a bit for the wrong sound decibles or the bass, a bit for the percussionist’s rhythm skills, a bit over the tanpura accompanist’s finger placement over the string, a bit for a light falling on his eyes, assuming a mood disaster to happen seeing Kishori Tai seated in the first row. Thankfully, none of that happened really. Shivputra had stepped out of the dais, only to touch Amonkar’s feet out of love and respect.

Three years later, we got the heart breaking news of Shivputra seen begging near the Hoshangabad railway station, in a state we would not like to remember. His family refused to take him back — only to see a bunch of aficionados and disciples put their act together for him. Shivputra was well taken care of and in a year’s time he is in Delhi — making demands and wishes that only his ardent fans can understand and appreciate.

So on Sharad Poornima, Shivputra chugged with a swarm of aficionados and well wishers into the Jawahar Lal Nehru university campus, with hundreds of packets of dairy milk, elaichi and a willingness to perform under the full moon. At the Parthasarthy Rock Open air theatre, where students usually huddle up under the moonlight, perched over rocks, romancing, discussing events that make or break communism, Shivputra romanced raag Bihag. At a time when vocalists, known and unknown take utmost care to walk the safe line — Shivputra, proudly gets away with doing things on his own.

Mukul Shivputra in JNU/photo: Prasad Mahajan

At this particular concert he presented a macro approach to the alaap in Bihag — the perfect love song for the full moon. The embellishments on pancham rippling over a touch go on dhaivat, its slide down to gandhar, with a tease on madhyam; the framework of swaras required to highlight the vanity in madhyam and the humility in gandhar, with something as basic ni-sa-ga-ma-ga-re-sa, the travel to the uttarang. He has his performance priorities well in place. . In 2003, he had told us how he would like to bring about the essential feature of Indian percussion music – the mizrab, the string plucker tucked on his finger. In 2010, however slightly slow for his “update” hungry peers, he has done it — he has it in his singing.

At this concert, he was accompanied by a sitar artiste — this translates into the fact that Shivputra has reverence for musical aesthetics and their presentation. But he will say something intentionally plain like — “accha lagaa to bajwaa liya.” In a scenario where tabla artistes want to make their presence felt at vocal concerts through costume and clamour, Shivputra performs without one. He used a single drum, tapping it to his convenience.

The recluse has returned. Very much like a father who looses his way after preposterous insecurities. On Sharad Poornima, we celebrated this return with elaichi milk prepared and distribute by the maestro himself.

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