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A festival dedicated to the guru


STAR SINGER: The three-day Sawai festival is like a musical pilgrimage for lovers of classical music

There were two goosebump moments at the Sawai Gandharva music festival. On the last day, after the singer had put away his/her tanpura, an ancient recording crackled to life. As the legendary voice of Ramchandra Kundgolkar alias Sawai Gandharva wafted over the PA system, the congregation rose to its feet and stood in silence till the thumri ended. So did Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the festival host and adoring disciple. Where else would a crowd of thousands stand up in reverence for a vinyl voice with the respect reserved for the national anthem?

The other came when Joshi started to sing at the last concert of the festival. The first sa would go unerringly to the heart. That note took the form of the entire raga, promised you the spectacular things to come. No other singer got it this right, this perfect.

A young musician once described Joshi as a rockstar of Indian classical music. Not a very reverential tag maybe, but that pretty much described what he was. And at no other place was the aura as rocking as at the festival he hosted in his home city in the memory of his guru.

It is not as if Sawai is the only large-scale Hindustani classical music sammelan in the country. There are others, some like Harballabh have even greater antiquity. What marks Sawai out is that it stands for the absolute sense of dedication to the guru, the very backbone of the Indian classical music system.

This meant that few artistes would turn down an invite to sing at the festival. For one, it came in the name of Joshi's devotion to his teacher's memory and for another, it came from an evolved musician.

In the last few years he did not have the strength to be active on or around the stage. He would arrive in a car and simply sit and listen to the artistes sing at a mega musical fiesta he had conceived and built up over five decades. But just the sight of him arriving in a car would be enough to send the crowds into frenzy. It didn't matter if he sang or not, or if he sat in his corner or not, the festival was all about him, with him or without him.

"For youngsters like us, it was an amazing sight to watch a classical musician being mobbed. Even a distant sight of him through the window seemed enough for those who loved his music, " says rising young vocalist Pushkar Lele.
Given the state of his health, his staple concluding concert at the festival had become iffy in the last few years.

He had always been the last performer but handed the slot to other senior Kirana singers during his illness. Even then the hottest buzz at the festival revolved around one big question: will he, won't he? In 2007, he gave a brief surprise performance to the great delight of the audience, but not many expected a repeat performance.

Old timers recall an age when he would personally pick up musicians performing at the festival in his famous white Merc and drop them to their hotels, tune their tanpuras. "It was really embarrassing because he would insist on picking up my bags and carrying them. For him, as the host of Sawai, we were honoured guests, no matter how young or inexperienced we were, " recalls Kirana vocalist Mashkoor Ali Khan.

It wasn't that the festival, which arguably draws the biggest crowds at a single classical event, was beyond criticism. It has been accused of being the preserve of certain lobbies and of pandering to commercial interests. But the one thing it was never short of was good-will and that came from the man Joshi was.

"He drew people to himself and that is what made the festival such a success. Every artiste performed there for him. I call him an ashtavadhani, a man who could take in every one of the eight directions around him and still stay centred. He thought about everything - how was the audience reacting, were the people with him or not, " says singer Sanjeev Abhyankar.

There are few accomplished singers who have not taken the stage at Sawai and added that to their CVs. The crowds are informed, the Pune diaspora descends at the do and the gurus are all listening. You don't want to be caught cutting corners here. Even those who are into pleasing the crowds at other venues don't go in for shallow showmanship at Sawai.

Till this year the festival paid respects to a long departed musical icon. Next year, there will be two.

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