He belongs to the durbar of fingersmiths

Ravindra Katoti, one of India's top harmonium players, holds an annual festival of harmonium, Harmonium Habba. After a gap of 40 years, he is the only musician who recently got a solo performance in AIR Pt. Ravindra Katoti is among those musicians who have put Karnataka on the national map. Sought after by the top musicians of the country, Katoti's playing is ingenious and richly perceptive. Disciple of Pt. R.K. Bijapure, Katoti is the recipient of several awards, also the only artiste to have been given the A grade by AIR in the Hindustani harmonium category in the entire country. Deeply passionate about music, and the future of harmonium, Katoti shares his thoughts. It is a pleasure to speak to Katoti -- a lecturer of commerce -- whose serious vision comes masquerading in light humour.


You started the R.K. Bijapure Foundation, and in a couple of years it was followed by the Harmonium Habba. How did they come about? What were your thoughts?

I started the R.K. Bijapure Foundation in 2003, and from the Foundation we organised programmes, screened documentaries etc. Suddenly, I felt that it should be done in a more structured way, with more emphasis and focus on the harmonium. In 2007, I started the Harmonium Habba, an annual festival that is dedicated to the harmonium. We released a biography of my guru in 2007 written by Shirish Joshi and we organised solo recitals of Pt. Vasant Kanakapure and R. Paramasivan, along with my guru's. There was a Surele Samvadini Sabha in Belgaum much before I started the Bijapure Foundation. There were other such efforts as well, but they were random and none of them could sustain.

The harmonium players of the good old days were self effacing, kept a low profile and hardly portrayed themselves as solo performers. How was your idea received by them?

They are all solid thinkers from the bygone era. Any attention towards them was met with resistance. My guru was against me naming the Foundation after him. I fought and argued, finally convinced him. They were all very enthusiastic about this idea and in fact, welcomed it. There was so much within them, that had never been given a chance to come into the open. My own guru started performing at the age of 11and in his performing career of nearly 83 years, solo performances constituted two per cent at the most. You can imagine how much he must have thought about his music! Moreover, it is not easy to learn the harmonium: it came with its challenges and humiliations. In the case of vocal music, one could easily find teachers, role models, the methods and modes of singing etc. A lot of work had been done on this instrument as well but it was never given a chance to come to public domain.
Every artiste -- big or small -- is a tapaswi. Their tayyari (preparation) and sadhana (practise) must be brought to the fore. That was my mission.

The harmonium has survived rough weather. From Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru to Rabindranath Tagore to the first director of All India Radio Lionel Felden everyone reacted adversely to the instrument. So much so that the instrument was banned for 40 years by the All India Radio. Do you think there was something inherently wrong with the tonal quality of the instrument and has it evolved over the years?

There are two to three dimensions to this. One is personal prejudice. A few people may share their views, however because of their prominence and eminence it becomes a benchmark. Tell me, is there anything that comes without limitation? Harmonium, like everything else, has its own language. To be able to understand it, you must know the language. English doesn't have chandassu like Sanskrit, so can we say we will discard it?

The common accusation is that harmonium cannot produce meend. Meend, gamak etc are musical components and not the entity itself. Can meend be a whole recital? Measurement and components are not important, but impact and expression are very important in music. There should be rasa srishti. What is the use if a musician can play the gamak and meend perfectly, but with no soul? Grammatical correctness by itself is of little value.

Most scholars speak about the problem of Shruti in the harmonium...

Of course, Shruti is very important, and no good musician will compromise on that. During the days when the criticism came, harmoniums had tempered scale. The intertonal distance between the notes was equal like that in the piano. It didn't match with the Indian scale.

However, many great musicians like Arunachalappa, Vittalrao Koregaonkar, and Govind Rao Tembe have put their heart and soul to tune the harmonium to Indian music requirements. This is called Gandhar tuning. The harmonium that the top brass players in India play today has Gandhar tuning, this is very close to the tanpura. You get all the shuddha swaras accurately, and there is also a lot of work being done to perfect the komal swaras. You can get 27 swaras successfully. But tell me, isn't the journey towards perfecting the shruti the eternal pursuit of music? It is never-ending, relentless. Also, can there be anything called perfect? Then, it will be like fully toned milk, which has no taste whatsoever. You will have to add Horlicks or Boost!

There's something else that bothers me. When we go to a restaurant, we ask, 'What do you have?' Do we ask, 'What do you not have?' Similarly, through the faculties available, you should expand your language. If someone wants to recite Ramayana in Konkani, allow them. Don't hold up the Eighth Schedule and say it is not permitted.

Once Palladam Venkataramana Rao had quoted Balamurali Krishna: "If you want to ban, ban the musician and not the instrument." I think he is absolutely right. Everything else amounts to suppression. We make such a big deal about freedom of expression, how can you close doors on the imaginative faculty of a human being?

A lot of work has been done in terms of billowing, which has also changed the harmonium's aesthetic appeal.

The biggest challenge for any instrument player, unlike for a vocal musician, is that it is foreign to your body. It has to be streamlined with your thought process, you have to transmit your emotions to the instrument. If you just do typewriting it doesn't become music, you have to bring out poetry. For that the emotions within you must be strong. A lot of people have done work on this aspect, my guru was certainly among them.

Did the keyboard cause some damage?

Keyboard damaged all the instruments, not just the harmonium. It killed all live instruments. In Europe and some other countries, they never entertained synthetic sounds. But here, for nearly four decades our musicians wasted their talent and time chasing synthetic notes. Now they have all come back to acoustic instruments. Harmonium has survived bigger assaults because of its core strength.

Who are your favourite harmonium players?

My guru of course. His abhivyakti (expression) was remarkable. Volume control, pause and punctuation management... it is outstanding. Pt. Vasant Kanakapure could produce the most intricate phrases -- it was like watching scultptures in Belur and Halebid. I remain astounded by his thought process. I have great regard for Pt. Vittalrao Koregaonkar who introduced vilambit in harmonium, Pt. Govindrao Tembe, Pt. Manohar Chimoti, Pt. P. Madhukar, Pt. Vittalrao Sardeshmukh... among others.

In 1972, Montu Bannerjee fought for a solo recital and broadcasted one from Kolkata. Four decades after that episode you got a national programme. It is indeed historic.

Between 1972 and 74, there were solo recitals and my guru and Vasant Kanakapure got an opportunity. But after that it was completely removed. In 97, when the grading system was reintroduced, I applied and got a B high. But look at the irony, even stalwarts were asked to take audition. After repeated attempts to upgrade, I finally passed the audition exam and was given the A grade. I say it with more regret than pride that I am the only A grade holder in India currently.

I went to my parent station Dharwad and requested them to give me a solo contract, and they showed me the manual. It said only Carnatic solo allowed and not Hindustani. I wrote to the IB Minister and the Director General of AIR. They were gracious and instructed the local AIR to do a solo recording on an experimental basis. It received tremendous response, and I was given a national programme on April 1, 2018. I have been saddened by this -- so many great musicians have passed away and their richly imaginative and insightful music never reached the listener. I hope atleast now there will be more opportunities for harmonium solo recitals. I also hope that the musician will not have to go to this great institution asking to be given a chance to play.

Source :- https://ift.tt/2m4xezP

Subscribe to receive free email updates: