Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur - Khayals
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Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur
Dunya/Felmay (

cd cover These recordings are old friends to any aficionado of Hindustani singing. The late Mallikarjun Mansur re-emerged from obscurity late in his life, overwhelming listeners with a unique combination of profound musicianship, emotional purity and sheer vocal skill. After a series of justly celebrated 78 rpm discs recorded in the 1930s, Mansur remained out of the limelight for over three decades. Many listeners assumed he had died until he returned to the Hindustani concert platform in the late 1960s. From then until his death in 1992, Mansur's performances were eagerly awaited and applauded. During this period he recorded extensively, and while only a small percentage of his enormous repertoire (probably the most extensive of any Hindustani musician of the time) was documented on lp and cassette, these recordings have been enormously influential.

They're also enormously beautiful. The current CD presents three khyal performances in the ragas Deshkar, Yaman Kalyan and Nat Bihag; each originally occupied a full lp side of about twenty minutes. The LPs as issued were subject to the usual problems of disc recordings manufactured in India (about which it was joked that the discs are never simultaneously flat and round), and while the digital remastering is hardly state of the art, it constitutes an enormous improvement over the original releases. Mansur's singing can be heard clearly.

He was a master improvisor, capable of extending a small motif into extensive, swirling elaborations. One of the hallmarks of his performances was his almost exclusive use of the slow teentaal (16-beat) cycle as the basis for his presentation of the raag material. Unlike many other khyal singers, who would switch to a fast composition at the end of a leisurely raga development in order to display their virtuosity, Mansur remained in what was technically a slow rhythmic structure (sixteen beats spread over, say, twenty-five or thirty seconds), but subdivided the rhythm more heavily with each iteration of the cycle, eventually culminating with fast melismatic passages which resolved with great assurance to the focal theme (at which point the educated listeners in the audience would invariably burst into effulgent approbation).

The performances of Deshkar and Yaman Kalyan follow this pattern; the Nat Bihag is presented in a somewhat brisker tempo, and constitutes an object lesson in how to develop improvisations on a theme. Mansur inserts short variations and reconnects them to a recurring melodic hook (the traditional composition "Jhan jhan jhan payal baaje"), and he never repeats himself over the whole twenty-minute rendition. From a strictly technical standpoint, his singing is exemplary; his command over different vowel shapes, his preturnatural breath control (even more amazing when one realizes that the singer was an enthusiastic chain-smoker) and his overtone-rich, spot-on intonation help to make this recording an essential one. An Indian newspaper quoted Mansur toward the end of his life, saying "music is nothing but joy." Listening to these performances, one understands anew just how joyful music can be. - Warren Senders

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