Raga from the Heart

In this year’s Bollywood-dominated National Awards, Mahesh Kale was a rare name from the world of Marathi film playback

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Updated: April 6, 2016 4:37 am
dsadmn Mahesh Kale grew up in a house full of music and playing games improvised from alaaps, bandishes and notations.

A certain mania comes through the lush murkis and harkats that find themselves in the musical dual sung as the centerpiece of the critically-acclaimed Marathi film Katyar Kaljat Ghusli (A Dagger Through The Heart). Placed at the climax of the film, which is based on playwright Purushottam Darvhekar’s eponymous play about a clash between two musical gharanas in a king’s court, Aruni Karani is a piece in the melodious and sensuous Sohini.

Composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, the raga is known to not offer much space for elaboration. Singer Mahesh Kale attempts a conversation with the soul by representing a musician’s attempt to understand the existence of love, or lack thereof, through this bandish. Kale’s vocals for the same have not only won him praise from critics and musicians alike, but also a National Award for being the best male playback singer in 2015 for the same film.

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In this year’s Bollywood-dominated national awards selection, an award for a Hindustani classical vocalist is somewhat redemptive. As for Kale, neither did he factor this one in, nor did he know that he was eligible. “I am quite removed from this award business in general. It is a very different kind of environment where I learnt music. The sadhana acquires more importance than anything else. I was just hoping that I could pour a piece of my heart into it,” says 40-year-old Kale over a telephone conversation from Pune. where he lives.

What, however, is interesting is that almost half a century ago, Kale’s guru and legendary vocalist Pt Jitendra Abhisheki sat down for a musical duel with another iconic artiste Vasntrao Deshpande. The two heavyweights were enacting the same play in theatres across Maharashtra. The Marathi play, the original music for which was composed by Abhisheki himself, went on to find much popularity in the remotest regions of the state. Years after Abhisheki’s demise, Kale and Deshpande’s grandson Rahul Deshpande would enact the same play and perform the same duel. So, when director Subodh Bhave got the two to do playback of the duel in his film Katyar Kaljat Ghusli, the compositions Surat piya ki and Aruni karani found much appreciation.

“The movie as a medium has a tremendous outreach. The play, over the years, has reached out to fewer people. With the film, my guru’s music was heard by many more people. The kids have picked it up and are at home with it. The songs from our grandfathers’ days are being loved by kids,” says Kale about the film that has retained a lot of Abhisheki’s music and has included some of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s classical compositions as well. The trio didn’t offer Kale a strict blueprint but asked him not to wander off. “They were open to what I wanted to do. Shankar ji knew exactly what he wanted. Leeway was in the abstract portions,” says Kale.

What concerned Kale about Aruni Kirani, however, was not that it was an exhaustive piece with elaborate taand and alaaps, but the idea of dubbing it correctly so that the lip synching matched. “As classical musicians, we are used to improvising but not matching the vocals with the actors’ lip-synching. That was new for me and quite challenging. Musically, I had a great time,” says Kale.

He grew up in Pune, surrounded by music. His mother was a classical singer and would devise classical music games for him. “I was a notorious kid and she would try these games. She would hum a tune and give me the notation or sing an alaap and ask me to identify the raag. Before I knew it, I could remember hundreds of bandishes by heart,” says Kale, who was baptised into classical music by Abhisheki in the early ’90s.

Abhisheki wasn’t a taskmaster, but was meticulous. “I looked up to him as god and there isn’t an iota of exaggeration there. I was madly in love with most of his music that I had heard on the tapes and radio. To be able to be around him was awesome enough, let alone sit with him and learn. If you like something really well, you aren’t even aware of how strict someone is,” says Kale, whose parents wanted him to also find a “stable” career alongside.

He moved to the US to study engineering but his heart pulled him back to music. He began teaching music in the Silicon Valley and became a full-time musician eight years ago. He now teaches students in his house in a gurukul system. “It’s the closest I can get to Abhisheki Bhuva’s music. Eating with a guru and living alongside gives well-rounded training another definition. I have opened my house in the States to my students in a similar way,” says Kale.

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