How Pt. Rajeev Taranath combines his love for music and literature

At the age of 91, sarod maestro Pt. Rajeev Taranathji’s passion for books, like his burning idealism, has not waned a bit. You may find him reading Samuel Johnson into the wee hours of the night, talking brilliantly about Eliot in the morning, or on a nice afternoon, having an animated conversation about Kambar or Adiga’s work. Music fills the house even at 4 a.m. when he begins his sarod practice. Receiving visitors from all walks of life — musicians, writers, theatre artistes, friends, and those who come seeking help and know that they will never return empty-handed — all this happens through the day.

His is a relentless struggle for perfection in music. But he is also a people’s person. Like in music, his achievements in literature are of the highest order. Foremost among those who shaped the modernist movement in Kannada, he is the first Indian to be referenced in the famous Arden edition of Shakespeare. His critical writings in Kannada are as influential as his work on Indian English writers like Raja Rao, Nissim Ezekiel, and R. K. Narayan. Talking of the maestro’s with books makes us realise how his ardent musical quest is essentially the stuff of literature.

Pt. Rajeev Taranath sharing a lighter moment with noted writer Chandrasekhar Kambar

Pt. Rajeev Taranath sharing a lighter moment with noted writer Chandrasekhar Kambar
| Photo Credit:
V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Perhaps, it is only his friend of 50 years, the Jnanpith awardee and eminent Kannada writer Chandrasekhar Kambara, who has caught these plural aspects of Rajeev ji’s personality in his works. In all the dreamers and artistes that the writer creates in Chandamutta we see Rajeev Taranath’s image. A man in search of an impersonal and transcendent goal, but at the same time, ready to give himself up to a human cause. In the prose-poem Chakori, the young protagonist leaves his village in search of the ‘moon raga’, which will reveal the cosmic mystery. Still, he empathises deeply with people’s sufferings. He brings rain to the village. Finally, he even sacrifices himself to save goddess Yakshi’s life. Ninnadi in Shikharasoorya (who is Chandamutta reincarnated) is also a multi-dimensional character — doctor, thinker, warrior, and spiritual leader. In the end, he turns out be a sublime musician as well.

During a conversation, Chandrasekhar Kambar talks about his friendship of a lifetime with Rajeev Taranath, and how it created a meeting point between literature and music.

Pt. Rajeev Taranath trained under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Pt. Rajeev Taranath trained under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

How did it all began, this rare friendship?

I was working in Lingraj College in Belagavi. I had written Helatini Kela just then. Along with the manuscript, I packed a notebook and set off to Dharwad. My plan was to read it to Keerthinath Kurtkoti, who was one of the important Kannada critics of the time. Keerthinath frequented the famous atta of the Manohar Grantamala (a pioneer publishing house in Karnataka). I went there. He sat talking to Rajeev Taranath. I had heard about Rajeev’s great influence on navya Kannada writing. He was an English professor in Karnatak College in Dharwad at the time. Rajeev asked me to read what I had written. I told him it had to be sung, not read. He replied, ‘Sing it then.’ I warned, It’ll take a long time. He said simply, ‘Sing.’ I sang. Then, we got into a literary discussion. It was late night. We went to his house in Saptapur. There were only two slices of dry bread in the kitchen. We dipped them in water and ate. He talked three in the morning. It was just wonderful!

Rajeev’s association made me grow. From then on, my writing became confident. Writing in those days of high modernism in Kannada, I was unsure of my work. Besides, the navya writers hadn’t responded in a big way to Helatini Kela. But he assured me saying, “You have a rich culture and language of your own to draw upon. Why should you feel inferior?” I went back to Belagavi and wrote Rishyshringa in the next six months. From then until now, I run everything I write by him and take his advice.

Pt. Rajeev Taranath has created a niche for himself in the Hindustani music world.

Pt. Rajeev Taranath has created a niche for himself in the Hindustani music world.
| Photo Credit:
VAIDYA

You have often spoken about the influence Rajeev father had on your father.

In North Karnataka, there was deep reverence for Pandit Taranath (Rajeev’s father), who was a well-known doctor. It seems he gave lectures on matters ranging from social reform to spirituality, from medicine to music, from literature to art. My father was his disciple and admirer. So were many in North Karnataka. Rajeev is like his father.

Rajeev Taranath is literally part of your works.

When I wrote Chakori, I was thinking of how Rajeev went to Calcutta and all the hardships he experienced there. Chandamutta’s musical life mirrors Rajeev’s search for his guru. How he met Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and trained under him. He narrated it all to me. Few musicians have this kind of guru-sishya bond. Such a large heart and a brilliant mind. In folk culture, the values we create and live by, the relationships with literature, music, art are all interwoven with the fabric of everyday life. In my writing, I try to bring out this myth-like figure. There is something like penance in Rajeev’s quest. It gives him a kind of force that you can’t find in others.

(L-R) Pt. Rajeev Taranath, Chandrasekhar Kambar, U. R. Ananthamurthy and Shimoga Subbanna, at the music festival organised as part of the birth anniversary celebration of Pandit Taranath in Bengaluru in 2004.

(L-R) Pt. Rajeev Taranath, Chandrasekhar Kambar, U. R. Ananthamurthy and Shimoga Subbanna, at the music festival organised as part of the birth anniversary celebration of Pandit Taranath in Bengaluru in 2004.
| Photo Credit:
K. Muralikumar

Did Rajeev ji provide music for your film on Hampi?

I have lost the entire reel, thanks to the bureaucratic mess of the time. But the experience of making it was memorable. How beautifully he sings too. I was making this documentary on Hampi. The great singing saint Purandara Dasa has composed a song, ‘Lola lotte’ (all is waste) which describes Hampi in ruins. I wanted this song playing in the background. Next thing to think of was who should sing it. Rajeev offered, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll sing it.’ I hadn’t heard a dasapada sung like this. It was as if the whole tragedy of Hampi unfolded in front of my eyes. I want to listen to it again, but it can’t be traced.

When Rajeev sits with his sarod, he looks like a giant brooding over a child on his lap. When he delineates the ragas, it is like establishing a connection with something unknown, yearning to connect this world with a world beyond. Like going back to something forgotten, a primordial and mythical space. You are filled with madness or bliss, or something that transcends both. Can’t describe it. Rajeev is his music. When that music washes over us, we are left inchoate.

Mutual admiration

The two friends, Pt. Rajeev Taranath and Chandrasekhar Kambar recently shared the stage during 91st birthday celebrations of the sarod exponent at Ravindra Kalakshetra in Bengaluru. The felicitation was followed by the sarod performance by the maestro. It was a rare evening where musicians, literary figures, activists, friends and admirers came together to celebrate the power of swar and word.

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