MALLIKARJUN MANSOOR, India's best-known classical singer, ruled colossus-like over Hindustani or Indian vocal classical music for four decades, winning laurels as numerous as the ragas, or patterns of notes, he mastered, improvised and created anew.
Mansoor's music - an unusual amalgam of north Indian Hindustani and his native Carnatic from the south - came from deep within his soul. His singing had a spiritual quality which he conveyed with increasing intensity as he grew older. He never gave in to commerce and preserved the traditional core in his repertoire of 150 ragas.
Mansoor's mellifluous voice, singing variations of ragas like Basanti Kedar ('Ode to Spring'), improved with age, and he retained complete control of it till the end. Unlike most Indian classical vocalists, he could establish instant rapport with his audiences in the shadja (opening notes) and, effortlessly throwing his voice around the swar (notes), mesmerise them for hours at a stretch.
In the esoteric world of traditional Indian classical music and dance, artists undergo long and rigorous tutelage in a handful of centuries-old gharanas, or music schools, all of which are very particular about the disciples they choose. During the decades-long training that follows, the shishya, or disciple, is subjected to a strict regimen of study and practice, which few can endure. It is only the very talented and disciplined like Mansoor who emerge not only raising the prestige of their gharanas but also evolving an exciting genre on their own.
Mansoor was born in 1910 into a Brahmin family in Mansur village, near Dharwad, in Karnatka state, south India. Attempts by his parents to educate him failed as he was far too interested in music and constantly played truant to attend the practice sessions of a local drama troupe which he eventually joined after running away from home. His artistic talent was spotted and at a young age he played leading roles with his itinerant drama troupe, but never abandoned music.
Seeing Mansoor's talent and determination, Appayya Swami, a noted Carnatic vocalist and distant family friend, taught him the basics of Carnatic music before he was snapped up by Neelakanthabua, of Miraj, an exponent of Hindustani music from the Gwalior gharana in central India. Soon after, as his potential blossomed, Mansoor was taken on as a disciple by Allaidya Khan, the pioneer of the Jaipir Atrauli gharana in Bombay, but it was left to Manji Khan and Brij Khan, the maestro's two sons, to nurture and mould Mansoor's prodigious talent.
Mansoor's fierce independence precluded him from slavishly imitating his gurus and the 150 ragas he developed went well beyond the work of his teachers. Mansoor's ragas formed part of his own spiritual evolution and those he sang at his final concert in Dharwad recently were an amiable synthesis of his personal eclectic secularism and institutionalised religious beliefs.
Mansoor weathered the discipline of his gharana well and in 1933 HMV brought out his first disc; by the Forties his innovativeness in combining Carnatic and Hindustani music as well as the sheer sensuousness of his ragas had become well known. In 1960 he was appointed music adviser to All India Radio centres in Bangalore and Hyderabad in the south and Pune and Bombay in western India.
Two years later he was awarded the Karnataka Sangeet Natak Academy Award for excellence in music. Mansoor won this award three more times besides receiving the Padma Bhushan, a high civilian award, in 1970 and the Padma Vibhushana, India's second highest civilian decoration, a few months ago.
But Mansoor's most remarkable asset was his voice, which retained a vibrant timbre and range due entirely to his swara sadhna, or daily rigorous voice exercises at dawn. His last performance a few months before he died was for many fans a retrospective, time having brought minimal changes in his voice even though his body was emaciated.
Mansoor, a lanky and shy man, lived an ascetic existence, rarely ever leaving Dharwad, a small southern town, despite being offered innumerable opportunities to perform in the West. He eschewed all aspirations to wealth and refused to sing abroad, saying that he interacted directly with his audiences and foreigners understood nothing of Indian classical music.Reuse content