Sunday, August 12, 2007

In a special strain

Renuka Narayanan

New Delhi, August 11, 2007


I can't forget Moonman Neil Armstrong's remark that geologists have a saying: rocks remember So surely, do ragas? It is dazzling to think how much emotional history is contained in musical history. So I want to retell two of my favourite stories this week for India's birthday, one about a singer and the other about a raga.

The singer
I'm thinking of is the late Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1902-1968) of the Patiala Gharana. A great big hulk of a man with heart to match, Khan Sahib was born in Qasur in West Punjab. When Partition happened in 1947, Khan Sahib went to live in Lahore.

But he packed his bags for good for India very soon after that. The reason is glossed over tactfully in articles by our elders but this is what apparently happened. Sadly, the Pakistani radio station director objected to Khan Sahib singing the bhajan Hari Om Tat Sat.

Khan Sahib could not endure that because the bhajan had been taught to him by his guru and he valued it as a beej mantra. So he hied himself back to India, despite dire warnings that 'the Hindus' would not let Muslim artistes flourish. We all know how that theory turned out, so let's stick with Khan Sahib.

He was a huge hit in supposedly stuffy old Madras. And sometime in the 60s, he turned up suddenly at the house of Tambrahm singer M.L. Vasanthakumari (MLV), saying he would stay with her since she was a fellow musician. Now Khan Saheb had to have his meat and drink every day.

So MLV's husband arranged that a non-veg restaurant nearby should deliver rotis, kababs and meat curries to the guest room upstairs via the back stairs, and a good time was had by all. Don't you love this story for the gentle practical lesson it holds for us as a society? The other story is about an ancient raga called Shankarabharanam. The name means 'Ornament of God'.

The Brahmanda Purana tells an old tale called the 'Bhadragiri Mahatmyam' of how Narada, the wandering sage, once stopped by that place and worshipped its presiding deity Chandrachoodesvara (Shiva) with sweet tunes on Mahathe, his divine veena. The Lord teased him with one glimpse of himself as an iridescent iguana. Baffled, Narada went off to Satyaloka, the abode of Brahma, to beg an explanation.

The incident recalled how Shiva wanted to lure Parvati there in one of his lilas and took the form of a jewel-like iguana. Chasing behind, Parvati managed to touch the tip of its green tail, which gave her an emerald hue and the name 'Maragathavalli', the green-hued-goddess. Bhadragiri, by the way, is the Tamil border town of Hosur on the Salem-Bangalore highway The raga that pleased Lord Shiva so much in this ancient legend is a very important and beautiful Carnatic raga.

In the Hindustani scale it corresponds to the noble Bilawal, which the great musicians of the north have sung with relish, notably Nissar Ahmed Khan of the Rampur-Seheswan gharana (Sumiran kara mana Rama nama). The power of this raga to cure emotional disturbance and stress-related pain is a byword. Many say they feel fearless and empowered, as if God's hand is sensed on their head.

There's also the story that Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar opened the shut doors of the Shiva temple at Kivalur in TN by singing Akshaya linga vibho in Shankarabharanam. In early 19th century Tanjore, Shankarabharanam produced such ecstasy that Raja Sarfoji declared that the singer, Narasaiyer, be called "Shankarabharanam Narasaiyer" and so he was known through the Madras Presidency.

Once Narasaiyer, who badly needed a loan, approached the landlord Ramabhadra Moopanar of Kapisthalam. For 80 sovereigns (gold guineas) he grandly offered Raga Shankarabharanam as collateral, with a promissory note not to sing it till he had redeemed his debt.

Soon after, a powerful employee of the East India Company called 'Wallis' Appuraya after his English boss, invited Narasaiyer to a concert and wanted Shankarabharanam. When the story came out, he sent the money at once to Moopanar, who rushed over to give the money back and chide the singer for not demanding the money as a right in the first place. Yes, but what's the big deal with this raga, you say? It's just that we all own it: think Jana Gana Mana.

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