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Unwavering notes

GOVIND D. BELGAUMKAR

Much before he started learning from the Kirana maestro Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Upendra Bhat had made him his guru. To this day, his admiration for the legend remains unchanged

PHOTO: SAMPATH KUMAR G.P.

NEW LIFE When Upendra Bhat accompanied Pandit Bhimsen Joshi on the tanpura in 1971, things changed for him

As an eight-year-old, K. Upendra Bhat, adored the Hindustani maestro, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. At 55, he continues to feel the same: spellbound by the Kirana gharana's living legend. Though he has spent more than half of his life under the tutelage of Pandit Joshi, he still believes: "Gurune so kaha vo karo; guru ne jo kiya vo mat karo." (Don't do what your teacher does; Do what he says.)

In terms of commitment to his guru, it is probably difficult to find a shishya like Upendra Bhat. Though he has emerged as an independent singer and has presented concerts on the most prestigious platforms of the country and even abroad, he cannot stop talking about his mentor.

Young Upendra's father, Kagal Padmanabh Bhat, wanted him to become a Sanskrit scholar and be with him in Mangalore. He would not have a mere "singer son." Of course, he could not have his way. Things changed for the young Upendra, when he sang "Murali daniya moha maya... " in school. And his singing had the stamp of Pandit Joshi. Puttur Madhav Nayak, who was a music lover, was so impressed by the lad's singing that he put him under the tutelage of Narayan Pai, the best Hindustani teacher around.

It so happened that in 1971, he got to accompany Pandit Joshi on the tanpura. He pleaded to Pandit Joshi to accept him as shishya. Pandit Joshi in turn directed him to his disciple Madhav Gudi. Soon he became the disciple of Pandit Gudi. Years later, in 1980, Pandit Joshi accepted him as his student. Upendra Bhat shifted his base to Pune.

He had to be at his guru's house at 6 a.m. for his music lessons, everyday. But when he did approach the house of Pandit Joshi, the 25-year-old Bhat would not muster enough courage to press the calling bell. He would wait for the milkman to do the job for him. For the first one month, Pandit Joshi did not care to teach him anything. But it did begin one day.

Mr. Bhat had thought that he had learnt much from Mr. Gudi. But Pandit Joshi changed his notions by rejecting all his learning till then. "Forget all that you have learnt," he had said with a wave of his hand. He started teaching Mr. Bhat the basics in Bhairavi. He taught him the essence of kharaz (lessons in the lower octave). He showed him how the body should be calm and the mood pleasing. "Don't try to reach any swara forcibly," he advised.

Even as he worked for an Insurance Company in Pune, Bhat kept his music lessons going. He would practice with the tanpura in the mornings and with the tabla in the evenings. He would attentively listen to the lessons given to senior students. In about five years he earned enough confidence, and his guru gave him the go ahead to present concerts on his own. "And luck was on my side," says Mr. Bhat. He sang for All India Radio and Doordarshan. More opportunities opened up. Quickly, he was being recognised as an able disciple of Pandit Joshi.

Many awards came his way. This included the Surmani award. In 1996, the then President, Shankar Dayal Sharma, honoured him. In 2000, he received the Musician of the Year Award from the Andhra Pradesh Association of North America. He won a citation for his contributions to music during the Millennium Konkani Sammelan in Chicago in the same year. He performed at the Savai Gandharva Music Festival organised by Pandit Joshi at Pune. Last year, Mr. Bhat became one of the trustees of the trust that organises the annual event.

All this adulation and recognition hasn't changed Mr. Bhat. "There are times when I still feel that I do not understand music. I feel the need for more riaz." As a performer, he strives to maintain the Pandit Joshi diktat: "If you cannot take the (force or power of) concert higher, no problem. But never bring it down."

To mark the silver jubilee of his tutelage under Pandit Joshi, Mr. Bhat has embarked on a mission to spread various facets of his mentor. The inaugural programme of this mission was held in Bangalore recently.

High Note is a fortnightly column that features reputed musicians of the State. Send in responses to Friday Review, The Hindu, 19&21, Bhagwan Mahaveer Road, Bangalore 1

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