Reverse Swing: Ramakant Gundecha – Breath As Music
In what was an emotional moment for fans of the renowned Dhrupad maestros, the Gundecha Bandhu, the late Ramakant’s place on stage was filled by his twenty-five-year-old son, Anant at a concert in Chennai last week.
It turned out to be an emotional moment for fans of the renowned Dhrupad maestros, the Gundecha Bandhu, when at a concert in Chennai last week, the late Ramakant’s place on stage was filled by his twenty-five-year-old son, Anant. Accompanying his uncle Umakant with effortless ease, Anant refreshed memories of the now absent note called Ramakant.
It is a resonant memory, as he used to provided object lessons in how to transform breath into music.
Every time Ramakant Gundecha initiated the opening notes, in raga Bhairavi, for the performance of Chennai-based dancer/choreographer Chandralekha's last choreographic work ‘Sharira’ – with an extended rishabh, picked on the upbeat at dhaivat by Umakant Gundecha and re-deposited with Ramakant, catching it on an amplified nishad – one knew one was entering a wondrous vista of the abstract, where the breath became both tangible and visceral.
If you kept your eyes closed, you would experience a comforting clearing of space as you were led to a vast and exciting emptiness where you visualised the musician’s prana-vayu coiling upwards from mooladhara to sahasrara. If you kept your eyes open, you saw a luminous edifice of sonic elegance sprouting out of thin air before your eyes. In either case, the spell was unlikely to leave you in a hurry.
Relatively young for an accomplished musician, Ramakant (who passed away, aged 57, November last year) – in the company of brothers Umakant, elder to him by three years and Akhilesh, the percussionist, younger to him by five – returned to the Dhrupad ang of Hindustani classical music, something akin to its lost breath.
It was in 1985, at the ‘Uttaraadhikar’ (Legacy) Festival of classical music, started by Ashok Vajpeyi at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, that the siblings – the Gundecha Bandhu – not yet 25, burst on to the bleak firmament of Dhrupad, signalling early intimations of the possibility of they being the future of the genre. Trained by the Dagars, Ustad Zia Fariduddin and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin, the young Gundechas were like a waft of a fresh, moist breeze blowing through a wilting garden.
Almost 35 years later, they became the established face of Dhrupad. Their combined effort and sadhana pulled the form from the verge of esoteric isolation and oblivion and installed it on the world map of public recognition and popularity. Besides, they have trained, by now, over a hundred students who practice in all parts of the world.
Of these 35 years, I knew them well for some 30 years, having met them intermittently in Delhi and Bhopal, and then more intimately for the last 17 years, as they became the collaborative music partners in ‘Sharira’, Chandralekha’s last choreographic work before she passed away in 2006. Being the light designer and overall co-ordinator of Chandra’s work, I had the privilege of seeing the Gundechas from very close, travelling together and performing at extraordinary venues and festivals in India and abroad.
In ‘Sharira’, it is quite a musical feat the Gundechas accomplish, with some special inputs in raga joineries and transitions by Ramakant as they open with an ati vilambit (slow) alaap in Bhairavi, transit to a jod-jhala and kharaj in Yaman, move to a composition in Bihag and conclude with a dhrut in Ahir Bhairav. It is an entire hour-long musical concert by itself, working parallel to the spectacular and highly stretched, extended and slowed down movements of the two dancers. Inevitably, Ramakant was the bridge between the music and the movement.
Perhaps only the second significant musician – after Ustad Abdul Karim Khan (the legendary founder of the Kirana Gharana) in 1937 – to pass away at a railway station, Ramakant’s resplendent musical journey derailed in a rather prosaic way. Abdul Karim Khan Saheb had departed at Singaperumal Koil station, between Madras and Pondicherry, strumming his tanpura, humming Darbari Kanada and quietly tipping over on to the lap of his shaagird, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. Ramakant, on the other hand, breathed his last at Bhopal station from where he was about to leave with his two brothers for a concert in Pune the next day. As they set out from home, he had complained of some uneasiness which was attributed to indigestion. But by the time they were at the station, the discomfort had increased and he drooped even as Umakant was massaging his back. He did not wait for the ambulance to arrive. As the elder brother, voice trembling with grief, told me the next day, ‘I felt like giving him one kick; he had no business abandoning us like this’. The younger brother Akhilesh, kept repeating in deep anguish, ‘Dhokha de gaya’ – ‘he betrayed us’ – words indicative of the depth of affection they had for him.
The emotions are understandable, considering Ramakant was the mainstay of the trio – he was their de facto impresario. He was the one who fronted for the group, organized their concert tours and schedules, juggled their busy calendar, systematized their ‘gurukul’, the Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal, took the lead in teaching and transmitting and was the dynamic spokesperson for the institutionalization and propagation of Dhrupad.
Of course, he was also the most mischievous and playful of the three brothers and was constantly game for a humorous break, peppered with risqué anecdotes about musician colleagues whom he could mimic with ease. Which makes me think he wouldn’t have spared me or Chandra too in similar contexts.
After Chandra passed away in 2006, when I asked the Gundechas for a three-minute‘ voice tribute’ on the phone, to be put on a loop and played to an audience, he specially composed ‘Sandhya Sanjeevani…’ in Shivaranjini and, along with Umakant, rendered a memorable version from their landline in Bhopal, which we recorded in Chennai. Everyone who heard it soon thereafter in the memorials for Chandra in Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, still remember its vivid intensity and saturated musicality.
Whenever such sudden ruptures, like Ramakant’s untimely departure, happen, there is always talk of legacy, continuity, sustainability and so on. What of the future, of vocalists who have always performed as a pair? The analogy of Sage Valmiki’s lament at a hunter’s arrow separating two love-birds at the very opening of the epic, comes to mind, which then constructs the Ramayana as an ode to endless human separations. In the present situation, Anant seems to have seamlessly slipped into his father’s position on stage. That is a big pair of shoes to fill. It will be a special challenge for him to hold his own with the formidable and inspiring Umakant.
But, as someone described his debut with Umakant at the Gurukul in December last, 'Anant never sang! It was Ramakant himself'!
As the lines from Kabir’s ‘Jhini jhini, bini Chadariya…’, wondering at the impossibility of discerning which thread energises and enlivens the warp and weft of the weave of life, which the Gundechas have popularised in raga Charukesi, go:
Ingala-pingala tana bharni,
Sushuman taar se bini chadariya!
Kaahe ke taana, kaahe ki bharni,
Kaun taar se bini chadariya?