A breakdown of the Unbreakable
I met the newly-minted Padmashri, Carnatic singer Aruna Sairam, on Wednesday for the sole purpose of deconstructing the abhang, which she is noted for. It’s ‘a-bhang’, literally ‘the unbreakable’ in Sanskrit, Marathi and Hindi, meaning the Word of God. The abhang is the semi-classical devotional song form of the Bhakti saints of Maharashtra, using classical ragas but with its own happy mix-and-meld freedom. I thought Aruna, a Matunga girl from Amchi Mumbai, who has the hugest fan following in Carnatic and European circles would have interesting things to tell us about it.
Aruna was aglow in a pink silk sari after receiving the Padmabhushan the previous evening at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Aruna, 55, has two daughters, both in the US. One is a software techie and married, the other works for the art dealers, Sotheby’s. Sairam, her engineer husband, recently quit his corporate job to locate with her in Chennai for the sake of her music. “He took premature voluntary retirement to support my career,” says Aruna gratefully.
The thing about Aruna is that she is a brave experimenter. She regularly draws flak from uptight purists about how she mixes compositions and shows bhava (feeling) with her body language – women singers ‘from good families’ are expected to sit trussed up tight. See her photo, left.
And yes, she DOES ‘play to the gallery’ sometimes! But when she’s singing at the Music Academy, Madras, that holy of holies, during the celebrated season of Maargazhi (the lunar calendar month of December-January) you can’t get room to stand on one leg. I’ve seen it myself. I mean, you can’t fool all the people all the time.
Aruna has made the abhang a part of regular Carnatic vocal concerts. It’s the rage in fact and other singers are picking up on it! Carnatic audiences now expect an abhang from Aruna at the end in the ‘small song’ section called ‘tukda’ … or, as Southies spell it, ‘thukkada’.
So how did Aruna tune in? It wasn’t terribly formal. She went to the JB Vachha High School in Bombay, growing up among Parsis, Maharashtrians and Gujaratis. The abhang came at her from the aab-o-hawa like a sweet drift of jasmine from a passing veni.
Importantly, Aruna listened.
During Tulasi Puja, for instance, the raamas, as workers are called locally, would gather in the alcove under the stairs and sing abhangs, keeping time with the chipla (clackers) and manjira (cymbals).
Or, while on the train from Dadar to VT, she’d hear porters of the Warkari persuasion (cult of Vithoba at Pandharpur) sing these songs.
Aruna’s Carnatic teacher, T. Brinda, a celebrated singer of devadasi descent, would come and stay two months a year in Bombay to teach Aruna.
“I grew up in the energy of Bombay and long after I was launched as a Carnatic singer, I sang an abhang at a concert in Madras…it was at the Narada Gana Sabha,” says Aruna.
(This hallowed old sabha or music society, btw, has an excellent canteen…so nice to pop out into for a kaapi, vadai-chutney or dosa when you need to refuel between long hours of listening).
The abhang Aruna sang was Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s famous sign-off, ‘Teertha Vitthala, kshetra Vitthala’, still one of her favourites. And Madras was hooked!
Not that Madras didn’t know abhangs for the Marathas had ruled at Tanjore in Tamil Nadu and there had been much give-and take. Just as Carnatic music was influenced by the Marathi abhang, Marathi Natya Sangeet picked up several Carnatic ragas (Arabhi, Kiravani, Suddhasaveri, to name a few).
The abhang was the gift of Saint Dnyaneshwar to the world, to take the inaccessible but worthwhile message of Sanskrit scripture to the common people in simple, sincere words.
A long lineage of Maharashtrian Bhakti saints followed him, of all castes…. a beautiful free flow of thought and feeling: Namdev, Gora Kumbhar (a potter), Janabai, Bhanudasa, Saveta Maali…
The culmination of this spiritual-musical lineage was the enigmatic, intense Tukaram in the 17th century. See this website www.tukaram.com for more on this wonderful personage.
As their legacy, there are essentially three types of abhang:
- the total surrender to God or Sufi kind, full of adbhutam (wonder)
- the anecdotal kind, which tell stories or incidents from nature and scripture with a moral purpose
- the Gaulana, a lighter variation entirely devoted to Krishna lore. Hear Aruna sing one such abhang here: Brindavane…
What intrigued me most about the abhang was its lilting rhythm, a ‘sukhyasa tarang…Pandurang..Pandurang…’ as Tukaram put it: a ‘wave of well-being’ in saying God’s Name.
There’s usually a practical reason behind artistry, with form following function. In the abhang’s case, it’s meant to be a walking song, as Warkaris sing and walk for miles on pilgrimage to Pandharpur in Maharashtra, the centre of their cult.
So, says Aruna, the abhang is not sam on sam (with the word landing exactly on the beat of the taal) but ushi on ushi (the space between beats: the off-beat). Meaning, the entire rhythm of the abhang is off-beat even while it continuously follows the song!
Don’t you think this pattern of the ‘faithful beat’ is a fabulous metaphor for the devoted heart that beats for and towards God (Tuka calls it ‘Vitthalacha chhand’, ‘God’s metre’, a chhand is a Vedic metre).
I felt its echo in this verse by Janabai who worked as a maid in Namdev’s house and sang,
dalita kaandita tuzha gaayina ananta
na visamde kshanabhari tuzhe naamga’ murari
‘Pounding and grinding, whatever I do, my heart sings of You always; I don’t forget you even for a moment, Dear One.’
Try walking to an abhang in a steady, long-distance trot. Your feet will lift and you’ll want to dance, just like the pilgrims (I tried it at home, more like a caged beast though than a pilgrim).
And do see this moving old clip from 1936 of the film Sant Tukaram by Prabhat Films, starring Vishnupant Pagnis. It was a huge hit at home and got an award at the Venice Film Festival in 1937!