I thank Anupama Rao for her inputs and Chandra Pai and Baithak team for their invitation to write this piece.
Becoming a Singer
Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur (henceforth, Mansur) was born on December 31, 1910. He was the third of the eight children of Bhimarayappa Gowda and Neelamma, who lived in the village Mansur in Dharwad district in today’s Karnataka. At the time of Mansur’s birth the village was part of the Bombay Presidency in colonial India. The main occupation of the family was on agricultural land, but Bhimarayappa Gowda was also the head of the village. According to the traditional ways of those times Mansur would have continued to follow his father’s footsteps like his three other brothers did. What prompted Mansur as a young boy to dream of becoming a singer, traverse across linguistic, cultural and geographical boundaries and lead a life in the quest of north Indian classical music? We find some answers in the account of his life and some in the larger context of a modernizing colonial India of the early twentieth century.
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Mansur tells us about his life in his autobiography Rsayatra: My Journey in Music. (Mansur 2005.) His father was a lover of music and theatre. He often took the lead in inviting the itinerant groups who performed the musical-drama, doddata, to the village. Mansur’s mother was not only fond of music but gifted with a mellifluous voice and sang devotional songs in the worship of the jangama.
Then there was the school. Mansur candidly states that he did not enjoy the formal education which was given in an atmosphere of mindless and harsh discipline. However, he describes with pleasure the memory of the singer Appayyaswami arriving in the village and training the school children for the production of the play, Sairandhri. Mansur’s elder brother Basavraj was chosen to play the lead female role of Sairandhri. Appayyaswami was a singer of great qualities. Mansur says: “On hearing his melodious rendition, my eyes would fill up with tears. At home, after her daily chores, in the night, my mother would sing devotional songs. When I heard her sing, I would experience a familiar, strange, strong and soul-stirring emotion. When the bells chimed in the temple of Karevva, the melody echoed in my soul. Thus, the seed of music was sprouting within me when I was but a lad of five.” (Mansur 2005, 8.)
How this seed would blossom into a flower depended on where society placed music. It seems music and theatre were literally in the air in the Bombay Presidency. In the local region of village Mansur and its surrounding area, there was not only the traditional doddata but as in any other part of India, the regions included in the Bombay Presidency were replete with traditional musical and theatrical genres like doddata, sannata, shrikrishna-parijata, dashavtar, kirtan, tamasha, garba, bhavai and many more. Most participants in these art forms were hereditary artists.
The school that encouraged students to produce plays deviated from the traditional practice of theatre, rather, it followed the modern practice associated with the emergence of a new theatrical form, ‘natak’. Natak had emerged as a new form sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, partly drawing upon the extant genres and partly creating new genres like adaptations from Sanskrit and Shakespeare, the comic farce, new mythological musicals, and from the 1880s, the well-known sangit natak. The performances of English plays by the British amateur actors in Bombay and the building of a theatre hall served as an inspiration. Very soon, the newly established repertory theatre companies started to produce plays in Gujrati, Hindustani, Urdu, Marathi and Kannada, marking the standardization of the regional languages. Proscenium theatre became not only a commercial adventure but a space that fashioned a new aesthetic, attracting people from communities hitherto not part of the business of arts and entertainment. With this venture came a spirit of competitiveness. Between Marathi and Kannada theatre, Marathi claimed a leading position.
A popular story of the birth of the Marathi natak comprises the tale of an enterprising young man called Vishnudas Bhave in the princely state of Sangli. Encouraged by the prince, he wrote and produced a new play on the theme of Seeta’s wedding to Rama. Theatre historians tell us that Bhave’s inspiration came from a traditional Kannada bhagavata performance, but he “refined” the model. Most importantly, eschewing the hereditary artists altogether, he included men from the upper caste families for whom acting on stage was a transgression of caste purity. Given that there would be more restrictions on the upper caste women on participating in this venture, he decided to cast young boys to enact the female characters in the play. This was in the year 1843. Following the tremendous success of this and other plays in Sangli, Bhave took his troupe to the urban and metropolitan centres like Pune and Bombay and set the beginning of an adventure which would soon be followed by many others in the Marathi speaking region. (Banhatti 1957.)
Kannada historians accept this lead, albeit stating that the Marathi example simply fuelled a competitive spirit. An early moment for the modern commercial Kannada theatre is associated with the writer Sakkari Balacharaya a.k.a. Shantkavi and the establishment of Shri Veeranarayan Prasaditka Kritapura Natak Mandali in mid to late 1870s in the town Gadag in Dharwad district. (Ranganath 1982, 83-84.) By the time Mansur saw the dream of becoming a singer in the late 1910s, he knew that theatre was the road to music. This realization must have been very real, because he not only saw his elder brother Basavraj act in the play in the school, but also leaving home and school and entering a theatre company. Basavraj Mansur joined the well-known Vishvagunadarshak Sangit Natak Mandali. It was established by the great actor-singer and director, Vamanrao Master who was influenced by Narayan Shripad Rajhans a.k.a. Balgandharva, the female impersonator “star heroine” of the Marathi theatre. A footnote in Rasayatra informs us that Balgandharva, in fact, had invited Vamanrao to join his Gandharva Natak Mandali in 1913, but Vamanrao seems to have chosen to stay back and serve his own language. (Mansur 2005, 12-13, and 19.)
Even then, following the footsteps of his brother was not easy for Mansur. All said and done, theatre was still a risky and transgressive profession. In his speech in the celebration of Mansur’s seventieth birthday, the well-known Marathi writer P. L. Deshpande jokingly remarks, “Mansur ran away to a theatre company… those days it was not possible to ‘walk’ into theatre, one had to ‘run’!”
But the desire for music was so strong that Mansur managed to convince his brother and the proprietor of the drama company to let him stay. He must have convinced his father too, when he came to take him back home.
Life in the drama company was enjoyable but not easy. As a child actor Mansur was put through a strict discipline of training in singing and acting and a strict daily routine of rehearsals. The harmonium player Pandoba Master, who was the disciple of Pandit Neelkanthbua Alurmath of the Gwalior gharana, taught music to Mansur and the proprietor Vamanrao Master taught acting skills. There was a tacit expectation to use this training and excel on stage every time: “It didn’t matter that we had to repeat the very same dialogues, the very same songs; they never sounded mechanical and oft repeated. I strove hard to bring into performance the freshness of a just blossomed flower.” (Mansur 2005, 16.)
The child actor Mansur.
During his days in this drama company, Mansur experienced two significant moments, the blessing from Shri Shivayogi Swami of the Athani math and a chance meeting with a guru in music. Mansur tells us that when Pandit Neelkanthbua Alurmath heard his singing in the drama company, he offered to take him home and train him in music. This trope would become significant one more time in Mansur’s life. Mansur left the drama company and accompanied his guru Neelkanthbua to live in his home in the town Miraj and learn music like a fully devoted disciple.
Pt. Neelkanthbua Alurmath
The break from theatre was temporary, though. Mansur returned to the same drama company briefly in 1929 to compose music for the play Veer Abhimanyu and enact the role of Shakuni. Soon, however, he joined the Vani Vilas Natak Mandali whose proprietor Irashi Bharamappa had ambitiously put together a team of stalwart actors. (Mansur 2005, 28-29.) Mansur is modest about recording his own success in this drama company. But we find others who tell us more about it. In his biography of the great singer Amirbai Karnataki, Rahamat Tarikere tells us that at one point Vani Vilas company had employed Basavraj Mansur, Mallikarjun Mansur, Amirbai Karnataki and Goharbai Karnataki, and the music composer was Pandit Neelkanthbua. Among all these great singers, Mansur got the highest number of “encores” and dazzled the audience with his singing. (Tarikere 2014, 23.) Mansur’s friend, N. K. Kulkarni remembers how Mansur entered the stage with a flourish, singing a tarana in raga Malkauns, in the role of Madhavacharya in the play Varapradan. (Kulkarni, conversation with Urmila Bhirdikar, 2000).
This drama company closed down suddenly, in 1931, after a fire breakout on the stage, ending Mansur’s career in theatre.
Very soon, however, the gramophone recording company, HMV opened its doors in Mumbai for Mansur with great enthusiasm. We notice 22 gramophone discs recorded on both sides, totalling to 44 items in the 78 rpm format.
These are the first of the many recordings Mansur would make in the later years. Made between 1933 and 36, these recordings showcase the tremendous musical achievement of a singer in his 20s. The list of the items shows the genres he had mastered in the last 10 or 12 years. His training with Pandit Neelkanthbua and his mastery over the repertoire of Gwalior gharana shines in about 26 items, the two Marathi bhavagit songs evince his entry into an emerging musical genre, the two Kannada songs indicate his powers of composing music for the hitherto unsung genres of devotional poetry, about 8 items show his grip over the complex genres of theatre music and the last 4 khayals record his entry into the repertoire of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana.
Let us look at 4 recordings closely, noting the details of the context in which they can be understood.
Take the recording of the thumri “nanadiya mhare bol”. An avid listener of the Marathi natya sangit will not fail to recognise its similarity to the well-known song “ydumani sadana”. A peep into the history of the recording of the Marathi song tells us that it was first sung by the legendary female impersonator actor Balgandharva in the Marathi play Sangit Swayamvar in 1916, and recorded in the 78 rpm format in 1918. (Joshi 1974)
The relationship between the Marathi theatre song and the thumri in braj bhasha set in the raga Mishra Jangla shows the aspiration of the Marathi theatre to explore the repertoire of the north Indian art music genres to strengthen the power of the theatre. While the exploration of the north Indian genres came from the training from Maharashtrian singers like Pandit Bhaskarbua Bakhle and Pandit Ramkrishnabua Vaze, the circulation of the gramophone recordings of the hereditary women singers (often termed Baiji or Tawaif) was equally valuable, especially to enhance the credibility and power of the female characters in the plays. Thus, items from the north Indian genres served as the “base tunes” on which the Marathi songs were composed. Even though the rendition of the song in Marathi drew upon the singing style of the base song, it selected some aspects to suit the affect of the character in the Marathi play. Balgandharva’s “yadumani sadana” thus needs to be understood as based on and yet distinct from the base thumri, “nanadiya mhare bol”.
Against this background, Mansur’s recording of the base thumri “nanadiya mhare bol” indicates that while on the one hand, he records a “cover” citing one of the most influential singers on Marathi stage, he does not merely mimic him. Rather, the recording reveals a bold and confident musical statement as he presents some significant aspects of the north Indian thumri style such as bol banao, a more sustained pukar (call in the voice) and laggi (the fast paced rhythm in the concluding part) which mark the difference from Balgandharva’s rendition of the Marathi song. Even then, Mansur’s rendition follows the basic structure of the Marathi song. What is more, none of these are likely to be part of Mansur’s training in the Gwalior gharana.
The second example is Mansur’s recording of the song “ye maya tya karunamaya”, set in raga Karnataki Kafi.
This recording indicates some other interesting aspects of the gramophone recording industry and market of those times. Listening to Mansur’s rendition immediately reveals that the song is similar to the well-known Marathi theatre song “de hata sharanagata” from the play Sangit Manapaman, first performed in 1911. In the play, the hero Dhairyadhar sings this song. Illustrious actor-singers such as Nanasaheb Joglekar, Keshavrao Bhosle and Master Deenanath sang it on stage at different points in the early history of its performance. Interestingly, however, none of them seem to have recorded it before 1930s. (see list in Joshi 1974, 189.) Mansur’s recording of this song thus cannot be compared to an earlier recording and yet it is a “cover” since it cites an earlier and frequent rendition that must have been a popular favourite. The second interesting feature of this recording is that the lyrics are in Marathi and the lyricist’s name appears as Mama alias B V Warerkar on the cover of the gramophone record. This name is different from the original Marathi song writer Kakasaheb Khadilkar. Clearly, this must have been to avoid copyright issues! Mansur hardly ever sang the songs associated with Marathi theatre later in his career, but the original song “de hata sharanagata” remained part of his repertoire, often sung on audience demand. Some people remember that he sang it with his brother Basavraj Mansur accompanying him on the harmonium.
The third example is that of the Marathi song ‘hi raat savat bai”. This is an independent item and would fall into the category of bhavagit that was emerging as a new and popular Marathi musical genre in the early twentieth century. The rendition of this song tells us how the early bhavagit was partly drawing on the Marathi theatre music but also on the north Indian style of ‘gazal-qawali’. Not only Mansur, but other singers from Karnataka, such as Vidushi Gangubai Hangal or Pandit Basavraj Rajguru also recorded Marathi bhavagit in the early years of their careers. The interesting aspect of Mansur’s recording is that the lyrics were written by an amateur poet H P Joshi from Dharwad. He was Mansur’s friend.
The last example is the disk of the khayal bandishes “kanganava mora” in raga Adana and “saiyan mora re” in raga Gaud Malhar. These recordings are the true indicator of Mansur’s future career, not the least because it contains in three minutes the gems of his Gwalior gharana training and independent talent for khayal music but because for Mansur, they served like a path leading to his guru Ustad Manji Khansahab of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. Mansur was never tired of telling this story. Let us hear it from him from Rasayatra:
“1935- this year was the turning point of my life. One evening I was in Vishnupant Pagnis’ shop. […] All of a sudden, the great Ustad Manji Khan Saheb entered the shop. Tall, broad and handsome with enchanting eyes, he was the heir to Sangit Samrat Alladiya Khan Saheb’s musical legacy. […] Amidst their animated conversation, Vishnupant introduced me to Khan Saheb. ‘Young Mallikarjun Mansur has made quite a name for himself. He often gives recitals. Many of his HMV records have become popular. Yet, he is burning with the desire to learn more. If a stalwart like you would accept him as a disciple, he could be moulded to be an artiste beyond compere’. Khan Saheb responded by saying ‘I must listen to one of his records’. At once, Pagnis took Khan Saheb to a nearby shop which sold gramophones. He then played my rendition in Gaud Malhar and Adana. After listening to me the Ustad said, ‘This boy would definitely be able to master my music’. (Mansur, 2005, 39-40.)
In response to his 75th birthday felicitation in Mumbai, Mansur calls Mumbai as his “karma bhumi” and then goes on to describe Ustad Manji Khansahab as the transformative force in his life. The young singer had launched on his lifelong quest.
The Nayaki Kanada he recorded in 1936 evinces his entry into the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana.
Banhatti, S. N. Marathi Rangabhumicha Itihas, vol I. Pune: Venus Prakashan, 1957.
Joshi, Baburao. Sangitane Gajleli Rangabhumi. Pune: Continetal, 1974. (First edition 1959.)
Kulkarni, N. K. Conversation with Urmila Bhirdikar, Dharwad: October 28, 2000.
Mansur, Pt Mallikarjun. Rasayatra: My Journey in Music, translated by Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2005.
Ranganath, H K. The Karnatak Theatre. Dharwad: Karnatak University, 1982. (First edition 1960.)
Tarikere, Rahmat. Amirbai Karnataki, translated by Prashant Kulkarni, Mumbai: Granthali, 2014.
About the curator: Urmila Bhirdikar
Urmila Bhirdikar trained in vocal music with Pandit Rajshekhar Mansur. She studied English Literature and Sociology. Urmila teaches in the department of Sociology in Shiv Nadar University, UP, India. Her teaching and research interests are in the fields of gender and sexuality, privilege and dispossession, the discourses of respectability and self-respect and sonic cultures. She is a translator between Marathi and English and has published her research on theatre and music in colonial western India.