A freewheeling chat with composer, sitar player, stage director and teacher Bhaskar Chandavarkar.
Not a mainstream person: Music cast its spell on Chandavarkar early.
Way back in 1982, when Satyajit Ray watched Girish Karnad’s “Once Upon A Time” (“Ondanondu Kaladalli”) for the second time, one could not reason beyond the fact that the 13th-century Indian adventure-melodrama of two agi
ng mercenaries inspired by Akira Kurosawa was indeed a piece of fine cinema.
But this time, as Ray later admitted, he wasn’t quite attending to the visual narrative as much as to the music that had been woven in to great effect. “This is the best music I’ve ever heard in an Indian film,” gushed Ray at the end of the screening.
Subsequently, when Aparna Sen approached Ray, a close friend of her father’s, to compose music for her film “Paroma”, Ray made an unexpected suggestion. “I’ll give you a better composer than me,” he said and promptly directed her to Bhaskar Chandavarkar, the genius behind “Ondanondu Kaladalli’s” — and later “Paroma’s” — music. A quarter of a century later, Ray’s words still resonate in his mind. “Those were the best compliments I’ve ever received,” says Chandavarkar.
Man of many parts
To be sure, compliments and accolades are not new to the Pune-based Chandavarkar. More recently, this man of many parts — he is a composer, sitar player, stage director, teacher and author — won the best music award at the Madrid International Film Festival for the Marathi film “Bayo”, the first international music award in the history of Marathi cinema.
“Contrary to popular Indian understanding that film music is nothing but songs, this award is in recognition of the entire score,” he says. “Bayo” is a moving story of a Muslim orphan girl raised by an orthodox Brahmin. She falls in love with his adopted son pronounced untouchable by society. The film, about her wait for her estranged lover, is set amid the trials and tribulations of India’s freedom struggle. “My work involved a lot of research to recreate the musical style of the milieu in which the story unfolds,” says Chandavarkar.
In 2001, Chandavarkar’s background score for “Chaitra”, a short Marathi film delving into human relations centred on an age-old Maharashtrian ritual of haldi-kumkum, won him the National Award for music. Through his musical journey, he has also provided music for other critically acclaimed movies like Mrinal Sen’s “Khandahar”, Amol Palekar’s “Thodasa Rumani Ho Jaaye”, India’s 2005 Oscar entry “Shwaas” and Chitra Palekar’s folksy “Maati Maay”.
At the farther end of the spectrum, he has also made music for “some run-of-the-mill Marathi films” and bagged popular awards for them. “I have recorded with singers ranging from the Mangeshkar sisters to Sadhana Sargam and Shankar Mahadevan,” he says.
Yet, Chandavarkar has religiously refrained from cutting a dash. “Most films I’ve been connected with have been branded as art or middle-of-the-way cinema,” he says. “I’ve not been a mainstream person, seen and photographed everywhere. While promotion of oneself is an integral part of show business, that hasn’t been the case with me.”
Although he is pained by the fact that the genre of films he’d like to make music for is extinct, the uncompromising artist in him, clearly not cut out for commercial cinema, has doggedly refused to subscribe to music-on-demand or bow to market forces. “Reaching out to more people was never my aim,” he says. “What has always been more important to me is to be a better artist and make good music, rather than be popular.”
Come to think of it, Chandavarkar has travelled all over the world playing sitar, teaching at various conservatories and international academies, attending and speaking at international film festivals and composers’ concerts, and interacting with the leading lights of world music and cinema.
“This has been a different sphere of activity with the result that I have not been in films all the time,” he says matter-of-factly. “Moreover, I prefer to associate with filmmakers who think music is important for a film because it enriches their films; who feel music has something to say and who allow me to say that.”
Music cast its spell on Chandavarkar early. “I hankered after learning from the greatest of sitar players and was fortunate to become the student of Pt. Ravi Shankar,” he recalls. “Curiously enough, while I was learning from him, I happened to meet Ritwik Ghatak who came to Pune in search of a musician who could make music for him.”
Ghatak introduced Chandavarkar not just to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), but also to world cinema, especially that of Japan and Europe. “I then served a longish stint as a teacher at the FTII, also learning the craft of cinema in order to teach my students better. For me, making music transcends the fundamental research demanded by every project and also involves looking at the internal structure of the film itself — the script, camera movement, editing, and so on. I feel this is where my FTII teaching experience comes in handy.”
He says it was music that guided him to cinema. “As Ray once told me during an interview, the heart of all cinematic arts is music. That, I believe, is also true of all performing arts.”
The stage was perhaps a natural corollary to Chandavarkar’s tryst with celluloid. Notably, he is also the man behind the energetic music for “Ghasiram Kotwal”, one of the greatest plays in the history of Indian playwriting, which has been going strong for close to four decades. “Govind Nihalani once told me it is one of the three plays I have done that were made in the 20th century and are still marching on with the same music in the 21st century to draw full houses. I am very satisfied.”
Incidentally, theatre is what keeps Chandavarkar engaged these days. Apart from India, he has made music for theatre in Japan, Germany, Poland, Greece, Russia and the U.S. Inspired into his directorial foray in the world of theatre by the British theatre veteran John Russell Brown, Chandavarkar has directed plays in more than eight Indian languages. Having been closely associated with the National School of Drama and the National Theatre in London in the company of stalwarts such as Lawrence Olivier, John Gilgud and Peter Hall, he has lately been devoting substantial time to directing plays and teaching the art and craft of theatre to students and aspiring artists.
“People say that the theatre is dying, but as Karnad once quipped, they have been saying that for 200 years and yet the theatre is alive. People are braving numerous odds and doing good theatre in India,” says an upbeat Chandavarkar.
His upcoming projects include a play revolving around Rabindranath Tagore’s work and another based on Karnad’s play “The Fire and The Rain”. Also in the works is a film, but Chandavarkar chooses not to say anything about it yet.
In times of growing intolerance towards the freedom of artistic expression, the dangerous obsession to invent cultural traitors for expedient interests unnerves Chandavarkar. “It has become a helpless situation. One knows this could be dangerously close to us. However, with certain smugness, those who have been trampling over our rights continue to do so. It is imperative to build greater awareness, which, again, can be done through art itself.”
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