When I first met Rajshekhar Mansur and asked with great trepidation if he would become my teacher, he had only one question. “Will you commit to following my instruction in all aspects of music?” he asked. “I want an absolute commitment to our gharana.”
It was early in 2013. My cousin Usha, a student of his, had taken me to visit him in his simple two-bedroom flat in a suburb of Bangalore. I had some training in dhrupad. I think this appealed to Mansur because Alladiyan Khansahib , the founder in the late-19th century of the Jaipur-Atrauli school of which Mansur was a revered exponent, had also been trained in this courtly, spiritual form of Hindustani music.
That is how a middle-aged economist living in the US who was clearly never going to be a performing musician came to become a student of the son and primary disciple of the great singer Mallikarjun Mansur. Like Rajshekhar Mansur’s other students, I would thereafter address him as “Sir”. Mansur passed away in May, but his birth anniversary on December 16 has given me the opportunity to reflect on his approach to music and the tradition of which he was the upholder.
The Mansur style
Rajshekhar Mansur wanted all his students to be steeped not just in the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana but in the Mansur style of the gharana. The gharana, building on its dhrupad antecedents, is characterised by a combined emphasis on intricate rhythmic patterns, melody and the purity of notes improvised within the framework of a bandish (composition). It has a wide repertoire of aprachalit (uncommon) and jod (where two or more ragas are welded together) raags, along with more commonly sung raags.
The fact that I was not a performer was actually an advantage. Mansur believed that that teaching professional musicians would dilute the gharana because they would mix his teaching with other styles or focus on singings bhajans and other forms of more popular light classical music.
He believed very strongly that the dilution of the gharana system – which is akin to a home, a way of learning and performing music developed over decades by several generations of musicians and their descendants – had led to a loss of knowledge and musical identity.
As it turns out, Rajshekhar Mansur did not consider himself a professional musician because he made his living as a university professor in Karnatak University in Dharwad, from where he retired as Chair of the English Department in 2002. This gave him a certain uncompromising freedom. For instance, unlike his father, he refused to sing vachanas (“sayings”/poems of the great saints from Karnataka’s Lingayat tradition). Most often, he even refused even to sing drut (fast rhythm) compositions, believing that everything that could be said about a raag could be demonstrated in one composition at varying speeds.
When I made my bi-annual trips to Bangalore, usually for a few weeks at a time, I would visit him every day – in the morning or evening, depending on whether he was teaching me a morning or evening raga. We once tried a lesson on Zoom but he ended stopped after a few minutes, disliking the lack of immediacy and intimacy.
When I arrived at his flat I would find him in his balcony surrounded by plants and terracotta sculptures, smoking a cigarette. We would spend about 15 minutes talking – almost always about music or family. Once we talked about linguistics, in which he was trained at the University of Wales, and he said that the study of linguistics and grammar offered a structure for him to delve into a deeper understanding of the grammar of music.
We would then start the lesson – me sitting on the floor on a dhurrie and him on his bed.
Rajshekhar Mansur’s teaching style was what he called aural/oral. He never followed the conventional manner of teaching raag: he never relied on a harmonium, or went through the scale and sargam (sa re ga ma, the notes of the raga), described the “that” (the family that the raag belonged to), or vadi/samvadi (dominant sub-dominant notes). Instead, he would plunge directly into the bandish, with the view that most of what is worth knowing about a raag is embedded within the beautiful, subtle, complex compositions that were the legacy of the gharana.
He would give great importance to what he called “ragaswara” making the point that each note in a raag only takes on meaning when it is embedded within the context of the raag. He would teach me to think of the entire raag when singing any given note in the raag – emphasizing the microtonal elements that could differ from raag to rag; about how to approach the note in the context of the raag, and how much to “rest” on it.
His many years of teaching college students English made him a very patient and tolerant teacher, unlike his own guru who was, in his music, a hard taskmaster with exacting standards. Mansur would point out my mistakes with a gentle head nod, never a harsh word. I told him that I found it hard to sing in his high pitch – D – because of a medical problem. He immediately started teaching me at a pitch that was several steps lower – B, even though it taxed his own vocal cords.
Once he felt that I had mastered the bandish he would begin teaching the badhat (raga progression) and upaj (elaboration, expansion and improvisation) – always emphasizing the key elements of the Mansur style of the gharana; melodic creativity with the avartan (the rhythmic cycle). He would show me how to play with rhythm by using meends (glides from one note to another), taans (rapid note patterns) and ghamaks (forceful ornamentations between notes).
He taught me to create patterns of improvisation within the avartan’s divisions of time, with great priority given to aaghaat – vocal flourishes and strokes.
Mansur emphasized the journey to the sam (the first beat in the rhythmic cycle) from the beginning to the end of one avartan as being centrally important: creativity needed to be expressed in that short journey.
Rajshekhar Mansur was sensitive, kind and gentle – a man of the world singularly committed to his father’s legacy. He was well aware that he did not have his father’s vocal range or acrobatic flexibility. This made his music more searching, introspective, and romantic than his father’s, but also deeply established within his style. He told me to listen to his father’s music to enjoy it, but not to try to learn from it – it was far too difficult to emulate. Instead, he said, “Listen to me – I am not as good as my father, it is easier to follow me.”
To get a better sense of Rajshekhar Mansur and his music, here are some recordings and interviews with him:
Shyam Benegal’s beautiful short film picturizing an anecdote about Mallikarjun Mansur where Rajshekhar played his father and sang raga Ek Nishad Bihagada.
Selected audio recordings
Sukhiya Bilawal, a blend of raga Savani and Bilawal.
Shuddha Nat, which was one of Rajshekhar Mansur’s favorite raags – a blend of raag Nat and raag Shuddha Kalyan.
Another interview in Kannada (with English subtitles)
Vijayendra Rao is an economist who integrates sociology and political science to work at the intersection of research and practice in the Development Economics Research Group of the World Bank.