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Kerala chalo re
Visva Bharati, the iconic institution founded by Rabindranath Tagore to break down narrow domestic walls has been in the news mostly for all the wrong reasons. But two weeks ago, when Manoj Murali Nair started his Rabindra Sangeet recital at Rabindra Sadan in downtown Kolkata, the negativity and recriminations fell away as the audience was swept up in a soothing musical experience that recalled the cycle of nature and the healing rhythms of life. It was a recital that breathed the spirit of Santiniketan in every note.
This was scarcely surprising given that the performer Manoj, and his sister Manisha Murali Nair, are two of the institute's most devoted practitioners and loyal custodians. Whenever either of the Nair siblings breaks into a Tagore song, the soul of Santiniketan comes to life. This is the Santiniketan that nurtured the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla Nehru and fired the creative imagination of Mrinalini Sarabhai. Like Indira Gandhi or Mrinalini, the Nair siblings came to Santiniketan in their childhood. Unlike their illustrious predecessors, they stayed on. In the last 30 years they have produced more than 40 Rabindra Sangeet albums and performed at hundreds of concerts. They are easily among the most prominent young faces of this tradition.
Born to Kalamandalam Murali and Bhama Murali, the Nair siblings' relationship with the school started in 1980 when their father joined Sangeet Bhavan as a Kathakali teacher. Manoj was only seven then. He was taken out of his missionary school in Kerala to take the admission test at Patha Bhavana, the building block of the Santiniketan tradition. "I didn't know a single Bengali word then, " Manoj remembers. "I spoke with the principal in English. " But he was selected. (For Manisha, a few years younger than Manoj, it was easier - she picked up the language and music in the nursery. ) With music in the air and ample opportunity to sing the seasonal compositions of Tagore at various school functions, the boy developed an aptitude for the rhythm and melody of the music. Performing devotional numbers at the prayer hall every Wednesday morning provided enough practice.
Soon the Nair kids were winning music competitions, singing at special congregations and gaining admirers. Later, both of them studied music at Sangeet Bhavana. Manoj specialised in Hindustani classical while Manisha stayed with Rabindra Sangeet. In 2000, they sent demo-cassettes to the organisers of Bangla Sangeet Mela, the state-funded annual festival of Bengali music. Manoj was selected. After his maiden public recital in Kolkata, his name was on every connoisseur's lips. At the same festival, Bhavna, a leading music company that specialised in Tagore songs, offered them an album deal. Dakkhin pabane, their debut album, was strategically promoted to highlight the Malabar connection. It included a medley of Tagore songs including one inspired by Carnatic strains. "The cassette was priced at forty rupees, " Manoj recollects. Dakshin Pabane was a sell-out. Soon the Nairs were performing at various prestigious Kolkata venues. With a harmonium in hand, Manoj led, with Manisha, like a good little sister, in tow.
Those who saw them in their early days remember how every Nair recital had a freshness to it. The soft-spoken siblings blended popular numbers with off-beat ones, often adding their own interpretative angle. The duets were tastefully coordinated. Manoj's musical background came handy in attempting rarely heard numbers with classical undercurrents. Manisha's pliable timbre reminded listeners of the legendary Kanika Bandopadhyay. Once they started singing duets the synergy worked wonders - Manoj always dapper in a starched kurta-pajama and Manisha in beautiful but simple Santiniketani sarees. Both started taking the stage with traditional bindis on their forehead. The critics welcomed them wholeheartedly. The provincial hierarchy was breached. For once, the Mitras, the Mukhopadhyays, the Bandopadhyays and the Sens found the Nairs singing alongside.
The Nairs have performed in other cities - in neighbouring Jamshedpur and in Mumbai where they sang before a Shreya Ghoshal recital - and countries like Bangladesh and Canada. They now refuse to perform overseas with pre-recorded tracks. "We love to improvise every evening, " says Manoj. "Tracks help the music travel but we feel restricted. We don't want to compromise on that front. " And they have strong support from seniors like octogenarian Dwijen Mukhopadhyay. "Continue with the Santiniketan tradition of singing Rabindra Sangeet. Don't play to the galleries, " Mukhopadhyay exhorted Manoj a few weeks ago.
For the last decade, the Nairs have spent more time in Kolkata than in Santiniketan. "But our souls are still in Santiniketan, " Manisha says, who loves to visit Tagore country. Longtime mentor Bulbul Basu has allowed her to attend her classes any time she feels like it. Manoj's marriage to dancerchoreographer Madhuboni Chatterjee has yielded some wonderful collaborative acts so far. The 2011 production of Raktakarabi in dance-theatre format saw Manoj donning his father's Kathakali costume, with Madhuboni as the heroine. He's now toying with the idea of using snatches of Mozart and Beethoven as a prelude to Tagore's songs.
Most challenging of all is to showcase Rabindra Sangeet in the Malayalam heartland. A few years ago, at the hermitage-like ambience of the Kunjan Festival in Thirur, the Nairs had to explain the lyrics in Malayalam. Soon enough, the 200-strong audience was singing along to Ekla cholo re, one of Mahatma Gandhi's favourite songs. This winter, the Nairs will take things to another level by coordinating a Tagore festival at Thiruvananthapuram. "This is going to be an acid test, " says Manoj. But the Nairs are confident of pulling it off. Whether they are Malayali or Bengali is of little significance now. After all, they are representing Santiniketan to the rest of the world.
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