In resurrecting stereotypes, of showcasing the exquisiteness of Jammu and Kashmir on reel, well-known filmmaker Mani Kaul made Before My Eyes (1989). Apart from parading the luring beauty of the Valley through cinema, it was picture perfect in more ways than one. It even prophesied of the times to come, when the Valley turned into a war zone. Kaul, after all, could not resist tearing himself away from the reality of things — a shikara on the Dal lake had the haunting tune on the cello with the sound of rippling water in the background.
A 20-something Nancy Lesh-Kulkarni sat in that shikara, head down, hands moving the bow in precision, playing the sunset raga Shree in dhrupad style. The cyclical bass notes of cello, known to be the closest to the human male voice, hung in the air as Kaul shot the sequence.
Lesh-Kulkarni, then a student of the famous Dagar brothers Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar, played with her eyes shut, oblivious to the camera. “I had always played the cello, so the sound of it wasn’t new. But it was magical the way dhrupad, a 1,000-year-old tradition, sounded on my instrument,” says Lesh-Kulkarni, 54, who is probably the only dhrupad cellist in the world. She will perform at the Dhrupad Festival, which a concludes the Delhi International Arts Festival, on Sunday.
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Lesh-Kulkarni arrived in India as a tourist, armed with her cello and no knowledge of Indian music. She met the dean of Banaras Hindu University, who told her that the sound of a cello, which moves only in lower octaves, will work well with dhrupad. “Dhrupad recitals began making sense and I felt that this music was perfect for my instrument,” says Lesh-Kulkarni, who learnt from dhrupad vocalist Ritwik Sanyal. These sessions and her marriage to a yoga practitioner held her back from returning to Italy where she was the co-principal cellist of the Rome Festival Orchestra and section cellist with the Chicago Civic Orchestra and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale of Fiorentino.
Lesh-Kulkarni had to modify the cello. Apart from reducing the size, she added two chikari strings, to play the jod and jhaala of a raag; not that she was dissatisfied with Western classical music. “I worked with some of the finest musicians in Italy and had plans of going back. But dhrupad didn’t let me go,” she says.
Nancy Lesh-Kulkarni will perform at IGNCA, 6.30 pm onwards