Varsha Agrawal was only 10 and living in the sleepy town of Jhalawar, Rajasthan, when she wrote a threatening letter. Addressed to Ujjain-based musician Pt Lalit Mahant, a senior disciple of the famous Pt Kishan Maharaj and Pt Rijram Desad, Agrawal wrote, “I have made up my mind to learn santoor. You say there’s no point in teaching me the instrument because I will soon get married and give up everything. I want to tell you that I have already married santoor; it is my husband.”
A famous tabla artiste from Banaras gharana, Mahant had heard Agrawal talk about learning santoor before. Thinking that it was just a temporary fascination with a little girl, Mahant didn’t encourage it. “But when I received a letter from her, I realised how serious she was,” says Mahant, who began training Agrawal in santoor when she turned 12.
One of the few female santoor players from Kashmir’s Sufiana repertoire, 47-year-old Agrawal was recently in Pune for a santoor performance and was accompanied by Mahant on the tabla. The concert presented by ICCR had Agrawal present raag Shree, an evening raga comprising an alaap, jod and jhala. The recital ended with a jugalbandi between the two artistes.
Agrawal’s fascination with santoor began when she heard a recital on the radio by Pt Bhajan Sopori. Even though she was just eight, the tunes left her mesmerised. “I found the music extremely engaging and soulful,” she recalls. When she shared her desire with her grandfather, he was perplexed. Living in a small town, it was impossible to find a teacher to teach this instrument to his granddaughter. But since the little girl was adamant, he called up Mahant’s mother in Ujjain. Agrawal is the gandabandh disciple of Sopori.
An A-grade artiste from the All India Radio, Agrawal has a PhD in “Folk Ballads of Hadoti”. Currently, a music professor in Ujjain, she is busy performing in India and all over the world. She is also the first female artiste to receive the Dagar Gharana Award. Some of her well-received albums include Morning Melody, Walk Together with Santoor, Energy and Sound Sleep.