Exchanging notes

Dhrupad cellist Nancy Kulkarni has spent 30 years in India,soaking in the culture and giving performances.

Written by Prajakta Hebbar | Published: May 19, 2013 2:39:04 am

Dhrupad cellist Nancy Kulkarni has spent 30 years in India,soaking in the culture and giving performances.

A wooden shikara floats on the pristine waters of Dal lake in Kashmir,as the deep and sonorous sounds of a cello drift in. An American woman is sitting on a bench inside the shikara,her back upright,head bowed down and hands tracing the baritone notes on a cello. But the notes that the 20-something woman is playing are not Bach or Mozart. She is playing notes from the Shri raag in the dhrupad style of Indian classical music — the oldest style said to have originated from the Vedas. This scene from legendary filmmaker Mani Kaul’s short film Before My Eyes (1989),recognised as one of the greatest landscape films giving a peek into the “paradise of India”,was also perhaps one of the first dhrupad cello performances that artiste Nancy Kulkarni had given.

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,ever since she 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 don’t know what drew me to the cello but I have been playing it since I was 10,” says Kulkarni,now 53. Dressed in a traditional salwar-kameez,complete with a bindi,mangalsutra and gold earrings,the Lonavala-based musician seems to have embraced not only Indian music but also its culture and traditions. Hailing from Wisconsin,US,she arrived in India because she got a good offer on airline tickets for Mumbai. Armed with limited cash and her cello,she travelled,performed,learned and soaked in the culture.

Her travels took her to the Banaras Hindu University. “Someone there told me that dhrupad music would sound very good on the cello 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 studying with the Dagar brothers — first with Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and later with Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar. She was also closely associated with her gurubhais Ustad Bahauddin Dagar,Pandit Pushpraj Koshti,Pandit Uday Bhawalkar,Pandit Nirmalya Dey,Pandit K Sridhar and the Gundecha Brothers.

“That is how I met Mani,” says Kulkarni about the Dagar brothers’ close friendship with the filmmaker. “He used to visit bade ustaad very often and it was during one of those visits that he saw me play dhrupad on the cello. He asked me to perform the Shri raag in his film but I was unprepared,” she says. Kulkarni adds that it was Ustaad Mohiuddin Dagar who made her learn portions of the music to be played in the film. Years later,Marathi filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni requested her to perform in his film Vihir.

Kulkarni has given many dhrupad recitals,lectures and demonstrations at universities and concert halls in the US and India. She has also released three solo albums and is currently working on the fourth one.

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