Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, the man who breathed music
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Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, the man who breathed music

"Even while struggling for his life in a hospital bed at the age of 80, he was trying to sing"

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, the man who breathed music

On this World Music Day, let us talk about a person for whom the occasion holds no meaning, for he breathed music. For him, music was all his life.

This is a fact that those who knew Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, knew too well. One of those who were blessed to share personal space with Mansur was Pandit Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, a well-known sarod maestro. The moment you ask Pandit Choudhury about Mansur, he bursts out with emotions. “I can talk about him in three words or I can talk about him for a whole day. What would you prefer?” he asked.
“Let’s start with three words and then move on to a longer explanation,” is what I could muster.

Pandit Biswajit Roy Chowdhury
Credit: Wikipedia

“He breathed music,” says Chowdhury. Then there was a long pause. “I have seen many great musicians, but no one lived or breathed music like Pandit Mansur. Money, fame, admirers, and awards meant nothing to him. He lived amongst us, endured all life-related pains that an ordinary person goes through, and still nothing affected him. He had a saintly existence. The only thing that moved him was music.”

Pandit Mansur was awarded Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian honour given by the Government of India in 1992. Says Choudhury, “He started learning music when he was 4, he had a musical guru even at the age of 75. Even while struggling for his life in a hospital bed at the age of 80, he was trying to sing raaga Mahadev Bhairav. Many people do not live for as long as the number of years he learned music. Even at his old age, he had a guru. He practiced for eight hours on a daily basis all his life. He did not think of music as a performing art, he sang for the love of it.” Pandit Mansur made his first recording with HMV in 1929 and his last recording dates back to 1991.

While reminiscing his first meeting with Pandit Mansur, Choudhary says, “The first time I met him was in 1978 when my guru Ustad Amjad Ali Khan had sent me to pick him up from New Delhi Railway station. I was a music student in my early twenties and Mansur was a great guru. The moment I met him at the platform, I asked him a question about the difference between raaga gauri and priya dhanashri. Hearing my question, he sat in the middle of the platform and started explaining it to me. I asked a couple of more questions and he explained those too and that session continued for a long time.”

Choudhury has several such anecdotes that show very clearly how Pandit Mansur lived a life totally immersed in music. Like how he was once sitting in an auditorium in Mandi house and watching a play by Sheila Bhatia. There was a rendition of a raaga in the middle of the play and Pandit ji sitting at the back of the audience started singing loudly. The whole performance stopped when people realised this great person was sitting at the back of the auditorium. He was then felicitated, brought to the front and the play continued after a 20 minute break. Says Chowdhury, “Once while he was staying with me at my home, he woke me up at three in the morning and asked me if I knew raag sundar kaali. Something like this would happen very often. He was known in his home town Dharwad as Anna and the people of Dharwad knew very well that Anna would break out into a raaga in the middle of market or at any random place.”

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur
Credit: openmagazine

Mallikarjun Mansur was the living repository of Hindustani classic music. “There must have been 400 to 500 rare raagas that he knew but we never heard him sing. I remember once there was a five day long music festival in his home town where all the big names in Hindustani classical music performed. Pandit Mansur himself sang for two hours. When he finished, the whole audience, which was made of the most knowledgeable crowd, many of whom had heard Panditji singing all their lives, were left wondering. No one knew which bandish or raag he sang. When we asked him, he simply said that he sang the raaga or bandish that came to his mind.”

Once he was going to the New Delhi airport being dropped by the driver of some eminent patrons of his. The driver wondered if Panditji sang Jhinjhoti Shankar at the concert. Hearing this Panditji asked him to stop the car and started explaining how Jhinjhoti Shankar was dhrupad and not khayal,” says Chowdhury.

Chowdhury says that Panditji always carried his heavy harmonium around himself even at an advanced old age. “He often did not carry any clothes while travelling, but always carried his harmonium,” says Chowdhury.

Prime Ministers, heads of state came to him but left little impression on him. “Once Panditji was performing at Sirifort auditorium, New Delhi and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was the chief guest. He was staying at my South Ex home then. Once his performance was finished, he got up and asked me to pack and we left for home. The PM who was hoping to meet him was left waiting.”

Chowdhury recalls how after five years of the passing away of Pandit Mansur, he got a call from a television studio in Bangalore. “They had some recordings of the Panditji and they had no clue about the raaga he was singing. I told them that they should ask Panditji’s son for it as he was his foremost student. They said that they have already done that but even Panditji’s son did not have a clue about it. That was the amount of musical knowledge he had and he has taken all that knowledge with him. There are many music maestros, but I have never known anyone like him. Maybe other than legendary Ustad Allauddin Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s guru.”