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If you were looking for a long and leisurely evening of inspired music, Sunday was the day, Tata theatre the venue and Pt Mukul Shivaputra the singer, presented by TOUCH, an NGO for underprivileged children.

I cannot claim to have heard Pt Shivaputra as often as many of his devoted admirers who packed the auditorium to bursting that evening must have done. But the few times that I have heard him, I have been filled with wonderment at the uniqueness of his genius. Three years ago, at Karnataka Sangh, he sang a brilliant two-tiered Puriya Dhanshree in the conventional way with nomtom alap leading to the vilambit and drut bandishes; but in the next bada khayal in Bageshree, he shook the familiar ground under our seats by rejecting the conventional pyramidal architecture of the khayal to deconstruct the raag and put it back together through fragments of itself. This approach that had seemed tentative then, has grown in the interim to full maturity. What we heard on Sunday was a masterly presentation of this alternative form, made effective in both the pre-interval Multani and the post-interval Jogkauns by playing down the words of the bandish in preference to nom tom and sargam.

One can see what motivated this deliberate choice. A bandish dictates the shape of a raag; and its words dictate the mood. However, if a singer desires the freedom of abstraction, the only way he can gain it is by disregarding the concrete lyric. Having done so, Pt Shivaputra was like an unpressured painter in his studio, using the swaras of each melody like a predetermined palette, but applying paint in his own way, at his own pace, standing back, looking at the effect, returning, adding colour, overlaying one stroke with another, till gradually the image of the raag emerged. Or, if an architectural metaphor is to be employed, one could say that, rather than a solid edifice, what he built was a light, airy structure of windows, doors, jharokhas, and occasionally, majestic gates that gradually coalesced into the contours and body of the raag.

What this method did for the listeners was to unhook them from the drama that the conventional exposition offers, where much pleasure lies in the building up and release of tension through our anticipation of each new development designed to lead to the climactic end of the item. What listeners experienced instead was an extended contemplation of Multani and Jogkauns minus dramatic flourishes. There was some internal drama going on in Jogkauns with the occasional introduction of some grace notes to which the audience responded with a collective gasp. But otherwise the music was infinite, not to be marked by dramatic closures. What added greatly to the quality of the sound was the restrained sitar accompaniment by Bhupal Panshikar.

In the absence of an overtly conventional structure, what was it then that held the listeners spellbound, so that there was none of the restless shuffling and coughing that goes on in concerts? Certainly the depth and pliancy of Pt Shivaputra's voice with its endearing, non-aggressive quality; but also the magnetic force of his internal energy. Listening to him reminded me of the illuminating lec-dem I had heard only a few days before by the Bharata Natyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai, whose long, creative journey the NCPA had honoured with a weeklong series of events. Speaking of the relationship between sculpture and dance, Sarukkai had demonstrated how the classic Chola bronze pose in which Devi holds a lotus bloom in the right hand while the left arm balances it in a downward movement, is given life by the dancer focusing her energy on consciously feeling the gravitational pull earthward on the free arm. Similarly, every note and phrase that Pt Shivaputra sang was given life and weight by that kind of intense, concentrated attention.

We have some amazing musicians in this country, but even the most daring only dare to innovate within the given form. Pt Mukul Shivaputra is unique in inventing a form which stands as a valid alternative to the established one. The great thing is that, as his song Dekho re rut phoolan lagi and the bhajan Jamuna kinare mora gaon demonstrated, he retains a deep attachment to lyricism too. The bhajan, an audience favourite, made an utterly delightful finale to what had been a sublime concert. What happier way could there be to end an exhilarating musical experience, than to go home humming Saware aijaiyo, the jaunty refrain of the bhajan?

- Shanta Gokhale