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Concert review/ Bolava Vitthal


Jayateerth Mevundi

Concert: Bolava Vitthal

Singers: Jayateerth Mevundi, Devaki Pandit, Shankar Mahadevan

Date and Venue: July 26, Shanmukhananda Hall, Mumbai

AS expected, the Shanmukhananda Hall was jampacked on Sunday evening. In fact, many were forced to walk in 15 or 20 minutes late because of the bad traffic outside and the serpentine queue at the gate. But then, this was the Bolava Vitthal concert of abhangs, which over the past 10 years has now established itself as one of the most awaited annual concerts in Mumbai.

Organised by Pancham Nishad to mark Aashadhi Ekadashi, the festival has evolved into a 12-city tour this year, with the addition of Vadodara and Ahmedabad. While the Shanmukhananda show featured Shankar Mahadevan, Jayateerth Mevundi and Devaki Pandit, the concert at Thane the following day was to have Suresh Wadkar, Ranjani-Gayatri and Mevundi.

Like is the case every year, many similar abhang concerts are held in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra around this time. On Sunday evening, Happy Lucky Entertainment hosted an evening featuring Wadkar, Manjusha Kulkarni-Patil, Mandar Apte and Amruta Kale at the Dinanath Mangeshkar Hall in Vile Parle. On Monday, Pt Bhimsen Joshi’s son Shrinivas was scheduled in a show organised by Shanmukhananda.

Sunday’s event in Sion lasted over four hours. This included the launch of the book ‘Bolava Vitthal’, and the guests of honour were minister of state Prakash Javadekar, Vidyachaspati Shankar Abhyankar and noted theatre and film personality Vijaya Mehta.

The evening began with the customary ‘Gajar’, where all the musicians got together and chanted. However, this writer was still stuck in the queue at that time, and reached his seat only when Shankar Mahadevan was about to begin.

Mahadevan’s fare did not restrict itself to abhangs, as he began with his popular ‘Gananayakaya Ganadaivataya’, dedicated to Lord Ganesha. Next up was ‘Baaje re muraliya baaje’, which had a wonderful sawaal-jawaab with extra-talented flautist Varad Kathapurkar.

Mahadevan’s last piece was a beauty. A unique composition depicting a devotee’s journey to Pandharpur, it was structured wonderfully by Mahadevan who incorporated well-known pieces like ‘Bhagyada Lakshmi baarama’ and ‘Maajhe maaher Pandhari’, before ending with a brilliant ‘Vitthal Vitthal’ climax. The inclusion of Raj Sodha on saxophone lent an interesting twist.

Devaki’s recital came after the book launch. She was technically in fine element on two pieces regularly sung by her guru, the late Pt Jitendra Abhisheki – ‘Natha ghari nache mazha sakha Pandurang’ and ‘Tati ughada Dhnaneshwar’. But the maximum applause was reserved for ‘Bolava Vitthal pahava Vitthal’, which the crowd asked her to repeat.

Mevundi, as always, was a treat to hear. Since he arrived on the scene in the early 2000s, the Kirana gharana exponent has really evolved as one of India’s leading male classical singers. The Bhimsen Joshi influence is there undoubtedly, but Mevundi has matured tremendously and developed his own style and identity. His command over the swaras and those sudden bursts of energy in the higher register are simply outstanding.

The only complaint, probably, was that Mevundi repeated last year’s set list, singing ‘Visava Vitthal’, ‘Akaar ukaar makaar’ and ‘Rajas sukumar’, before concluding with the crowd favourite ‘Bhagyada Lakshmi baarama’. Each song was stylishly and perfectly rendered, though one missed the other great song ‘Teertha Vitthal’.

In the end, it was another memorable evening that left music lovers on a high. This concert – and for that matter any evening of abhangs – has the ability to take you to another planet, another universe.


The first-time experience at an abhang concert


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.

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