Jayateerth Mevundi (left) and Anand Bhate
BEFORE this week, my exposure to the Marathi devotional music form of ‘abhang’ was limited to some immortal songs by three of India’s most legendary singers. My favourites were Pt Bhimsen Joshi’s rendition of ‘Teerth Vitthal’, ‘Maajhe maaher Pandhari’ and ‘Arambhi vandeen Ayodhyecha raja’, Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Pail to ge kau koktahe’ and Kishori Amonkar’s ‘Bolava Vitthal’ and ‘Avagha rang ek zhala’.
Then, on Wednesday evening, I was tempted to attend the concert ‘Bolava Vitthal’ at the Shanmukhanda Hall for two reasons. One, I had heard of the immense popularity of this event organised by Pancham-Nishad every year to celebrate Aashadhi Ekadashi. Second, it was to feature Jayateerth Mevundi, whose singing I have admired for well over a decade.
Clearly, the concert was an ear-opener of sorts. There are occasions in one’s life when one suddenly feels like exploring a new form of music more deeply, and for me, this was one of them. From around 6.15 pm to 10.30 pm, save a 15-minute break, I was mesmerised by the power of the songs which took me to another world.
I would like to clarify here that my knowledge of Marathi is very basic — passable in the market or while giving directions to rickshaw-wallahs. Hence, I did not get into the depths of the song meanings, though this is something I would love to do so in future. At the concert, I tried to sense which songs were popular by looking around for the reactions of those sitting around me. And though I took rough notes on my phone, I had to check the internet and YouTube for the exact titles.
The evening had four acts – Rahul Deshpande, Mevundi, Ranjani-Gayatri and Anand Bhate, in that order. It began with a bhajan featuring all of them. Then, each singer was to do four abhangs each.
Rahul Deshpande, grandson of the great vocalist Pt Vasantrao Deshpande, excelled on ‘Jatha Vaishnavacha’ and ‘Kaanada Raja Pandharicha’. I later discovered that the latter was known for its duet version by Sudhir Phadke and Vasantrao, and that song has been playing on a loop for the past two days.
With his extremely mellifluous voice, Mevundi rendered the popular ‘Visava Vitthal’, ‘Akaar ukaar makaar’ and ‘Rajas Sukumar’ rather well, but the highlight of his presentation was the Kannada bhajan ‘Bhagyada Lakshmi baarama’, whose Bhimsen-ji version I have grown up on. Before the break, Deshpande and Mevundi did a jugalbandi of ‘Taal bole chipalila’, coming up with an ethereal ‘Pandurang Pandurang’ climax.
Carnatic vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri, sisters who have also made a mark in the world of abhangs, impressed on ‘Je kan ranjale gaanjale’ and ‘Bolava Vitthal’. Finally, Anand Bhate, a disciple of Bhimsen-ji, enthralled the audience with ‘Maajhe maaher Pandhari’, ‘Johar mai baap johar’ and the Bal Gandharva-popularised Bhairavi bhajan ‘Aga Vaikunthicha raaya’. His rendition of intricate taans and ability to move from one octave to another were delightful.
The regret, if any, was that nobody performed ‘Teerth Vitthal’, and one has heard both Mevundi and Bhate do it so well in the past. Though some people might have felt that this would be a very predictable choice, one can never tire of that song. Yet, despite that, this was one of those lengthy evenings that one wished had lasted even longer.
So far, I had normally heard abhangs at the end of a khayal-dominated classical concert, sometimes on popular demand. This was the first time I had attended a full-fledged abhang concert, and I hope more are organised in Mumbai at regular intervals.
Besides Pancham-Nishad, the organisation Saptasur organises an annual festival called ‘Teerth Vitthal’. In fact, it is taking place at Thane’s Kashinath Ghanekar Natyagraha this Saturday (July 12) and will feature Bhate, Rahul Deshpande, Manjusha Patil and Sayalee Talwalkar. Yet, most of these concerts are held towards Aashadhi Ekadashi in June-July, and hence one wishes there are some shows at other times of the year.
From my first experience of attending an abhang concert, I have a few other observations. Let’s take them one by one:
1) The obvious one is that this music is not only spiritually uplifting, but sublime and ethereal enough to mesmerise you mentally. The songs often begin in a medium tempo, but
the climax in most cases is so energetic, one is left asking for more.
2) Singers of this style not only require a supreme command over the classical nuances, but also great power and range. To excel at this form, one must have that X-factor, that ability to transcend beyond limits. For that, plenty of ‘taiyyari’ is required.
3) This music is very strong on rhythm, and that makes it vibrant. While the harmonium provided the melodic accompaniment, the tabla, pakhawaj and manjira pepped up the rhythm section, adding to the energy of the singing. Songs with a more vibrant climax concluded with the blowing of the ‘shankh’, or conch shell, giving a temple-like effect.
4) The huge Shanmukhananda Hall was nearly packed, and one didn’t get tickets for the ground floor. This just shows that there is a large audience for this form, a sizeable chunk belonging to the Maharashtrian community. Since these shows are held in other parts of India too, one should make extra effort to spread awareness about abhangs to non-Maharashtrian audiences too.
5) This was missing at Wednesday’s show, but it’s extremely important to recognise the poets. Most of these gems have been written in praise of the god Vitthala by such great personalities as Sant Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath and Namdeo. Though the poets normally take their names within the song, the lay listener may tend to skip them. As such, it would be ideal if the singers mention the poets and say a few words about the composition before reciting it.
Though the show was hugely successful and the quality of music was extraordinary, the singers sang with an approach that they felt the audience may have been 100 per cent knowledgeable. Yes, a majority of those attending would have been diehard abhang fans, but I am sure there were quite a few lay listeners who wanted to know more about the form.
A few words to address their needs would have been helpful. I am sure there would have been many other first-timers like me.