Mallikarjun Mansur: The humble perfectionist, who strode the Hindustani music firmament like a colossus

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

“Mallikarjun Mansur is no more. The torrent has gone back into the magic mountain from where it used to flow” – Late HY Sharda Prasad in his touching tribute to the great vocalist.

One of his numerous admirers asked Mallikarjun Mansur: “Isn’t music a lot of hard work?” His repartee was, “Hard work? No. Music is nothing but joy. I’m lucky to be a singer.”

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur (1 January 1911 – 12 September 1992) would have been 106, had he been alive today. A man as unobtrusive, low-profile and modest, his birth centenary celebrations in 2010 passed without much notice and fanfare, typical of his modest persona. Known for his simplicity and humility, rooted to the soil of his native Dharwad, dedicated to the only cause in his life, music, and completely focused on reaching the highest level of perfection till the last day of his life, Mansur’s musical journey resembled a fakir’s life – spartan and deeply spiritual, humble and unpretentious and away from the limelight. Except for the Hindustani music aficionados or the people from his native Dharwad or his close circle of friends, many of whom are no more, no one really pays much attention to the life and times of this virtuoso, and remember the eventful journey of one of the great vocalists, from obscurity to musical greatness, to become one of the greatest musicians of all time. May be, Mansur would have preferred that way, self-effacing and unassuming that he was, for the reminiscences to be low-key and away from excessive public glare, as he himself had lived an ordinary, commonplace and humdrum existence, a virtual nobody for a major part of his music-dedicated life, till fame and recognition knocked at his door. Not possessing a forceful and imposing stage presence or personality or a rich, authoritative voice, Pandit Mansur’s musical odyssey was remarkable in the sense that recognition came to him much late in life.  But, his penchant for learning, for perfection and for improvisation continued till virtually the last breath, so much so that even when the end was nearing, his mind was working on improvisation, on improving the raga structure. 

maxresdefaultIn a heart-touching obituary and tribute to this gentle colossus who died in 1992 of lung cancer, the late HY Sharda Prasad, ex-media adviser to former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, wrote: “So many of our well-known authors and artists move about with a swagger for they seem to believe that they are indeed colossi striding the scene. They are all the time looking at those who are looking at them. Mallikarjun did not possess a regal bearing. He did not clothe himself in princely robes. He did not care to be the centre of attraction. He was content to be inconspicuous. He continued to look like a shopkeeper’s accountant. He did not speak like an oracle. He rarely referred to his triumphs. He won not only the respect but the affection of his contemporaries. He was wholly without envy. His was an unfailing geniality and lightness of heart. His airs were what he sang. He did not put on any.” Sharda Prasad continued in his sublime tribute, “those who met him never failed to wonder at his combination of eminence and humility.”

There was something in the soil of that place, truly blessed as it were, especially Hubli-Dharwar region of North-Karnatak, which was so fecund as to produce a succession of Hindustani music legends – Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva, BhimsenJoshi, Gangubai Hangal, Basavraj Rajguru  and others. In those days of Princely States, Southern Maharashtra, very near to the Maharashtra – Karnatak border, was host to many minor principalities of Miraj, Sangli, Kolhapur, Ichalkaranji, Kurundwad and they had singers in their employ. Many great singers had made the region as their home – Rahimat Khan Sahab, Balkrishnabuwa, Abdul Karim Khan Sahab; Kolhapur was host to Alladiya Khan Sahab, Manji Khan, Bhurji Khan and Shaligram-buwa; Bhaskarbuwa lived in Dharwad.

Born in a family in of poor cultivators in Dharwad, Karnataka, his father was an ardent lover and patron of music, despite an extremely impoverished existence. Starting at a very tender age of eight as part of a theatre troupe, constantly travelling in what is now rural Karnataka and southern Maharashtra (yes, there were no rigid regional and linguistic boundaries then), Mansur’s was an unsettled existence of an itinerant performer.  To his good fortune one day, he found the rare opportunity of performing on stage before the Gwalior gharana stalwart, Pandit Nilkanthbuwa Alurmath, who was so impressed by young Mallikarjun that he decided to take him under his wings. Rigorous training followed for six years under the watchful eyes of his guru at Miraj. Later, what could be more fortuitous, Mansur was noticed by Ustad Alladiya Khan of Jaipur Gharana and was placed under his son Manji Khan.  Unfortunately, Manji Khan’s early death brought Mallikarjun under the tutelage of Ustad Allaidya Khan’s other son, Ustad Burji Khan. Thus, Mallikarjun’s gayaki and virtuosity were a wonderful confluence of both Gwalior and Jaipur Gharanas, with his own improvisations within the thematic structure and purity of Hindustani classical music.

Mallikarjun in his autobiography “Nanna Rasayatre” (a rough English equivalent would be “My Emotional Pilgrimage”) dwelled on his early riyaz, and let us listen to him. “Practice began at eight every morning and went on until 1.00 p.m. Whether it was a straightforward raga like Yaman, or a twin raga like Basanti Kedar, or a complex raga like Khat, the stream of the guru’s singing flowed with astounding power and beauty. And once I began learning from him, my personality underwent a change. I felt there was nothing other than music for me. Here was nectar for a thirsty man.” His reverence and lifelong respect for his Gurus was indeed touching and as Sharda Prasad recalled, “nearing forty he kept going from his hometown Dharwad to Kolhapur for lessons from Burji Khan.” 

As we know that the most popular form of vocal classical music in North India is Khayal singing and it is a highly improvisational genre; the very word khayal literally means “imagination.” Singers are expected to improvise, innovate and add new dimension within the flexible melodic structures called ragas, with performances lasting for many hours. Mallkarjun Mansur and other greats of Hindustani music through rigorous riyaz mastered the technique and art of Khayal singing and that is what the music connoisseurs enjoyed. His command over the khayal, and specifically of the esoteric Jaipur style, would eventually make him a maestro in his time. The music aficionados and his countless admirers, whose numbers must have been formidable at one time, recall that he could cast a hypnotic spell on his audience with his astounding breath control, the absolute purity of his swaras and the wonderful way in which he employed various embellishments. They also remember that Mansur was well known for his command over a large number of rare ragas as well as his ever mercurial improvisations without disturbing the emotional content of the song. He had a slightly high-pitched tenor and his expertise rested on the vast repertoire of ragas in khayal vocalism he had mastered. Be it Basanta Kedar, Nat Bihag, or Khat, or uncommon ragas like Kamod or popular ragas like Yaman Kalyan, Deshkar, his range was amazingly vast. In the words of HY Sharda Prasad again, “he sang for more than sixty years and there was always a special intensity to his singing, a special urgency and earnestness in his treatment of melody.”

The well-known Marathi writer, humourist, film and stage actor, music composer and orator, late P L Deshpande (popularly known as Pu La Deshpande) narrated an anecdote of Mansur’s improvisation and not blindly imitating his gurus, in a wonderful article on the musical journey of the musical maestro ‘The Man wholly immersed in Music’ (originally in Marathi titled ‘GaaNyaat raahaNaaraa maaNuus’; later on, it was translated into English): “Learning gayaki of a gharana must not be confused with blindly copying guruji’s style. Once Mallikarjun-ji was once presenting a private mehfil in Pune, presenting so many bandishes of well-known raags, one graceless person among the audience loudly remarked in the midst of that ethereal moment his music was creating: “Bade Khan Sahab did not present the antara in this manner”, the implication being that Anna could not present it properly. Mansur, lovingly called Anna, fixed him with a withering stare and told him in his Kannada-influenced Urdu: “That Bade Miyan did not present this antara thus is well known to me. But I present it that way. Am I supposed to be a mere stenographer of Bade Miyan? Now hear how Bade Miyan used to present this antara, how my guru Manji Khan Sahab changed the contours of its presentation and how I have brought a different interpretation to bear on it.” And then without disturbing its weight, he presented the same antara in three different styles, with three different approaches. When an acknowledged master presents a bandish in his own distinctive manner, it is not because he does not remember the phrases used by other artists, but because he wants to use the same kernel to show his artistry and present various patterns of laya using that bandish. But that blind adherent of the gharana did not know this basic fact. And this is where the slavish followers of gharana gayaki are left behind by an artist who has truly grasped the spirit behind a style. Manji Khan Sahab himself did not believe in copying his father. Every genuine artist has his own personality. He is endowed by nature with imagination and ability to think new thoughts. But probably no other field suffers as much from the confusion and the opposing pulls between tradition and innovation as our Indian Music.”’

Pu. La. Deshpande, in an article where paying the gentle colossus fulsome praise, recalled: “When he turned 60, some of us went to pay our respects to him in Dharwad. When the greetings were over, the tambouras were tuned. Pt. Mansur sang Multani, then Shri, LalitaGauri and Naat. The following morning, we heard Khat Todi, Shuddh Bilawal and Sarang. It was an uninterrupted cascade of music. One of us asked him, “Isn’t music a lot of hard work?” He shot back, “Hard work? No. Music is nothing but joy. I’m lucky to be a singer.”

Mallikarjun always led a simple life and humble life. He worshipped music and wanted to share its purity and joy with all his listeners. Worldly success meant little to him. Even in the semi-coma condition he was in, before he bid adieu to the mortal world in September 1992, he would ask his son Rajasekhar to sing and guide him as to what he should improve. Music was truly in his blood and was his only passion. In a television interview telecast after his demise, he had expressed satisfaction at the vastly growing interest in classical music saying, “In the olden days we had so many veritable colossi in music of the highest calibre, but the audiences were small, exclusive and limited. Today, there are mammoth audiences, but sadly very, very few musical giants left.”

Mallikarjun Mansur left his mortal coil to be with the Supreme maker almost twenty-four years ago, but his music, sublime, heavenly and ethereal, steeped in the rich traditions of Hindustani music, would endure forever.



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