The great improvisational guitarist, who has worked with a number of prominent Indian musicians, believes music is the sum of our life story.
By Shanta Gokhale

First Published in Mumbai Mirror on 5 November 2015.

John McLaughlin

Sunday offered us an extraordinary experience. We spent the entire day at Chavan Centre soaking up music. Yet, at the end, it was difficult not to want more.

This year's edition of the Diwali concert series organised by First Education Arts, took us on a journey through the morning ragas Bhairav and Gujri Todi (Pandit Uday Bhawalkar), the forenoon-early afternoon ragas, Yamani Bilawal and Samant Sarang (Vijaya Jadhav Gatlewar) and the late afternoon-early evening ragas Bhimpalasi, Dhanashree, Jaitashree and Bhairavi (Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar). The clever curation of the concert demonstrated, without statement, the progression of musical thought that has enriched our tradition over the centuries. The concert opened with dhrupad, the most ancient form in Hindustani classical music, moved to a khayal gayaki set within strict gharana principles but imprinted with an individual inscription, and finally on to a gayaki that drew on elements from three gharanas and gave free play to a stunning musical imagination.

Pandit Bhawalkar's Bhairav alaap was an exploration of every nuance that the melody could yield. Each swara was caressed, given its own space and substance, moulded into slow, curvilinear relationships with its companions, all leading the listener to an ever-deepening understanding of the raga. Bhawalkar was like a philosopher-musician, creating through the first of all ragas, the adi-raga, a time and space that rendered ours irrelevant. At one point in this meditation, he pulled a shadja out of a skein of swaras and stretched it upwards into a thin wire of gold till all that remained was a glittering point that gradually faded into the elements. Out there, beyond that last audible sound, lay a whole universe of unheard sound which the musician was inviting us to hear. If you wished to share in the mystery of that moment, you had to be absolutely silent and still. If you didn't, you broke into applause and destroyed its meaning. The choice was yours.

Vijaya Jadhav Gatlewar, sadly a rarity on Mumbai's concert circuit, has a voice made strong and resonant through her gharana's insistence on full-throated utterance. Within the principles of the Jaipur-Atrauli gayaki to which she bears allegiance, she found space for her own creativity, occasionally resulting in a phrase or throw of voice that were reminiscent of the great Kesarbai Kerkar. Gatlewar sang only two khayals; but they were enough for us to re-experience the majestic classicism that her gharana was once proud of before it gave way to the more romantic, individualised style that now prevails. While Gatlewar's elaboration of her chosen ragas was disciplined and went by the book, what gave her music its vitality were her taans. Complex arrangements of varied pace and pattern, none of them proceeded as might be expected. A rapid descent of sparklingly enunciated swaras for instance, might suddenly plateau off to give the singer a chance to change direction and pace. As a result, her music became buoyant and continuously engaging.

Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar who followed, has a musical persona that is diametrically opposed to Gatlewar's. She was so introverted that she made no eye contact at all with the audience and only rarely with her accompanists. Pandit Kashalkar on the other hand conducted a continuous and lively conversation with his accompanists, Pandit Suresh Talwalkar on the tabla and Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium. With him we were suddenly in a more expansive, exhilarating space which he was inviting us to enter and share. Every raga that he sang created a strong, evocative mood of its own, from the soulful Bhimpalasi and inward-looking Dhanashree, to the cheerful, almost mischievous Jaitashree that gave full play to his energetic inventiveness. By the time he came to this raga, a beguiling combination of Jait and Shree with strong undertones of Poorvi, his voice had acquired the quality of tempered steel, ready to be bent and stretched whichever way his musical imagination would take it. At times ruminative, at times playful, and always intellectually challenging, he took the words of every composition through breathtaking twists and turns that were nothing less than audacious, but strictly governed by a sense of auchitya, the rightness of things. There were times when my jaw literally dropped. Was that for real?

Finally came the slowly unfolding khyalnuma in Bhairavi which returned us to the serene quietness of the morning's Bhairav. The day now acquired a satisfyingly beautiful rounded structure. With such sublime music filling the echo chambers of the mind, the feeling one walked out with was of being privileged and profoundly blest.

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