A wooden shikara floats on the pristine waters of the Dal Lake in Kashmir,as the deep,sonorous sounds of a cello drift in. An American woman is seen sitting cross-legged inside the boat,her back straight,head bowed and hands tracing baritone notes on the cello. But the notes that the 20-something young woman is playing are not Bach or Mozart. She is attempting a detailed alaap on Shri,a popular concert raga,in the ancient dhrupad style of Indian classical music said to have originated from the Vedas. This scene from legendary filmmaker Mani Kauls short film,Before My Eyes (1989),recognised as one of the greatest landscape films that gives a private peek into the paradise of India,was also perhaps one of the first dhrupad performances on a cello. It was also Nancy Kulkarnis maiden recital.
Now,over 24 years later,Kulkarni is arguably the only dhrupad cellist in the world. She has been studying the form of music for over three decades now,since she first landed in India in 1982. Before pursuing dhrupad,Kulkarni was the co-principal cellist of the Rome Festival Orchestra and section cellist with Chicago Civic Orchestra and Orchestra del Maggio Musicale of Florence,Italy.
I dont know exactly what drew me to the cello,but I have been playing the instrument since I was 10, says the 53-year-old. Dressed in a traditional salwar-kameez,complete with a bindi,magalsootra and gold earrings,the Mumbai-based musician seems to have embraced not only Indian music,but also the culture and traditions of the country. Hailing from Wisconsin,she arrived in India because of a good offer on airline tickets for Mumbai. Armed with limited cash and only her cello,Kulkarni travelled,performed,learned and soaked in the culture of the land.
Her travels took her to Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi,where she interacted with professors and students. One of them told me that dhrupad would sound very good on the cello,thanks to its brooding notes,and introduced me to noted dhrupad vocalist Pandit Ritwik Sanyal from Varanasi, says Kulkarni,adding that she then extended her stay in India to learn from him. Kulkarni later moved on to training with the illustrious Dagar brothers first with Ut Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and then with Ut Zia Fariduddin Dagar. She was also closely associated with her gurubhais Ut Bahauddin Dagar,Pt Pushpraj Koshti,Pt Uday Bhawalkar,Pt Nirmalya Dey,Pt K Sridhar and the Gundecha Brothers,among others.
That is how I met Mani (Kaul), says Kulkarni about the Dagar brothers close friendship with the filmmaker. He used to visit bade ustad very often and it was on one of his visits that he saw me play dhrupad on the cello. He asked me to perform Shri in his film,but I was new and unprepared, she says. Kulkarni adds that it was Ut Mohiuddin Dagar who made her learn portions of the music to be played in the film. Years later,Marathi filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni tracked her down and requested her to perform in his critically acclaimed film,Vihir.
Along the way,Kulkarni has given hundreds of dhrupad recitals,lectures and demonstrations at universities and concert halls in the US and in all the major cities in India. She was twice awarded the Senior Performing Arts Fellowship by the American Institute of Indian Studies and has performed for All India Radio and TV. She has also released three solo albums and is currently working on her next one. It has been more than 30 years since I have played a single western classical music piece. That was my other life. But now,its dhrupad that inspires me musically. It should stay that way, concludes Kulkarni.