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Sunday, January 17, 2010

A melodious life, a soothing voice: Rasbihari Desai

Tushar Bhatt

Even if he were to keep utterly silent the man sitting in a chair in the third floor flat at Chandra Ratna in Ellisbridge area of Ahmeda-bad appears to have an unmistakable presence --not that of an in-timidating personality who dazzles his surrounding but that of someone like the full moon in a night sky, soothing and allowing other stars also to shine.
    The man, Rasbihari R. Desai, noted Gujarati singer,composer and music-maker, nevertheless, also gives an impression of being detached from even his own self; he often refers to himself as Rasbhai,as if he were talking about a third person. The gaze from behind the black-framed spectacles is so piercing that for a mo-ment or two you feel the man is not looking at but looking through you.The biggish glasses rest on a rather large nose and seem to separate the rest of his face from the large forehead topped by wavy hair.Unconsciously,he tries to pat down the waves from rising into a mesh antenna at the top of the head.
    The visual image could be dismissed as an effect created by the first impression were it to undergo a change in subsequently. In Rasbihari's case,even those who have known him for years would easily vouchsafe that the air of curious detachment around his be-ing is indeed a permanent feature.
    That also perhaps explains the low profile he projects in Guja-rat's cultural life,in spite of having a rich voice,considerable musical talent that he has nursed through rigorous self-training over four to five decades and the yeoman's service that he has done in helping others to make a name in the sugam sangeet,light music.
    He insists on continuing as an amateur artist instead of becom-ing a commercial or professional artiste; for he sincerely believes that he is neither of the showbiz nor in it.He has been in the lime-light,but would not move a little finger to keep the spotlight on him-self.
    Says Kshemoo Divetia, a noted Gujarati music composer: "Rasbhai has a first rate voice, a superb kharaj, and sings with all his heart and being."  Madhav Ramanuj, a noted poet,says: "Rasbhai is a unique music-maker in more ways than one.For one, he does not pursue music either as a career or hobby; he does it as a kind of sadhna ,spiritual activity. For another, besides being a music-maker par excellence, he is also a human being of the same grade."
    Rasbhai,as Rasbihari is generally known,approaches music with a sense of reverence,combined with a scientific attitude of a life-long professor of physics. He says: " To me,music is not something that comes from your vocal chords,or hands or any instrument that you have.It mainly comes from the heart,is channelised through your body kept in trim through arduous 'riyaz'. I always treat myself as a perpetual student of music."
    Born on June 23, 1935, at Patan in north Gujarat,Rasbhai lost his mother,Durgaba,when he was hardly 4 years old.His fa-ther,Ramanlal,who died in 1983,had a melodious voice.He used to sing patriotic songs with great fervour and sweetness at the meet-ings and processions during the fight for the country's free-dom,earning the nickname of being Meghani of Patan.(The late Mr Zaverchand Meghani,poet who also had a rich voice, has long be-ing hailed as Gujarat's poet-laureate of the Independence move-ment.) Rasbhai's grandmother, Mahalaxmiben,too had a very sweet voice and had a vast repertoire of bhajans,kathas and folk songs. She could recite the entire Ramcharitmanas from mem-ory.Thus, although Rasbihari had no formal exposure or training in music,the talent ran in his blood.
    Even as he grew up as an average boy,Rasbihari,thanks to his aunt,Nirmalaben V.Desai,developed a spiritual bend of mind.In a commemorative volume,brought out after her death,Rasbihari re-calls how the foundations for his future life were laid during the eight years he spent at her aunt's place till he reached the age of 12.Her influence was to exert a great deal in his life,shaping his dreams,tempering his ambitions,providing him courage and sol-ace,and always there as a guiding star.It was she who in addition to the love for music inculcated in Rasbihari a great respect for lit-erature,taught him spiritualself-effacement and introspection.She herself was a good singer,wrote a lot and worked ceaselessly as a social reformer and teacher.
    Says Rasbihari: "Music,simply put,is the language of emo-tion,language of the heart.Every human has some music in his or her being.There really can be no true enemy of music-- not even Aurangzeb,the moghul emperor." But why some people can sing or play music and why others could ,perhaps,enjoy it all only is some-thing that defies explanation. "Our ignorance about such things is limitless. There are machines that can synthesize and produce something very akin to a human voice. But, no, you cannot repli-cate a Lata Mangeshkar through such a machine." This was be-cause music was not only a product of vocal chords or hands play-ing tunes and rhythms; it also was a product of the heart,of the in-volvement of the self of the person doing it.
    Rasbihari firmly believes that when he sings, " it is not I -- the ego of I in a capital letter - but some unknown,divine element that sings." This was so everywhere,but some recognised it and others did not. In truth, every public performance of Rasbihari and his singer wife, Vibha,begins with a prayer to that element in a be-ing.Since he sings with all his heart,his lack of formal training in music never posed a big impediment to him.He has a natural gift of a rich,resonating voice; he enhanced this gift by a systematic self-training that included even pranayam. His enchanting kharaj (lower octave) is the result of his regular pranayam that needs deep breathing. Lower octave, say music critics, is a sound produced from the depth of the navel (nabhi) and deeper and more pro-longed the breath is richer it would be.How enchanting it all could be can be sampled from a duet the couple has sung: Maadi tarun kanku kharyun ne suraj ugyo (written by Avinash Vyas) or Ame komal komal (written by Madhav Ramanuj).The couple has sung poems and ghazals written by many noted Gujarati poets such as Anil Joshi,Sheikhadam Abuwala,Harindra Dave,Bhagwatikumar Sharma and Ramesh Parekh.
    Rasbhai began singing quite early in his life,but the real turning point in his life came when in 1964 he got married to Vibha Vaishnav,herself a top-notch singer.Says Rasbihari: " She has been a source of constance inspiration and encouragement.She is the first critical listener of anything that I sing or compose." The husband frankly says about his wife, who is an assistant income tax commissioner, that she is a superior artist as compared to him as far as self-confidence and consistency are concerned.They have given musical performances at hundreds of places in Guja-rat,India and abroad,and bagged honours. Rasbihari and Vibha have also some long play rcords and cassettes to their credit.
    But,Rasbihari's most significant contribution has been to go be-yond self-development. On the Dushera day in 1961,he was in-strumental in the formation of a voluntary grouo,called Shruti,devoted to music. "Some friends met at my house on that day and we decided to sing together,experimenting with different styles and innovations in light music." The group, which had initially 22 members,has helped put on the high road of music a number of budding young people.Today there are 28 members in Shruti,but ,says Rasbhai, times have changed. "The pace of life all around us has quickened.Thirty years ago,it was not difficult to find three hours twice a week for the group activity.Today,it has become a tough thing to do. Yet, whenever programmes are to be organised, we do get together."
    Rasbhai had taken to music as a mission only.Quite early in his youth,he decided to become a teacher,resisting family pressure to go for engineering which was the in thing then. He took up teaching of physics in a government college in Ahmedabad,later shifting to the Bhavan's college,and in his spare time at the Bhavan's started twice a week classes in light music,another activity that has given philip to young aspirants.Even today the class is conducted.He has also been at a number of youth camps ,run by the state govern-ment for ten days in the summer vacation,for moulding talents in music. Recalls Mr Kshemoo Divetia: " I would go for two or three days. But Rasbhai has a knack for these things.He is very comfort-able with students and can devise ways to keep them occupied throughout the day even as they learnt a lot about music." In 1980, Rasbihar got the best playback singer's award in Gujarati for his song,Maari Ankhen Kankuna Suraj (written by the late Ravji Patel) for the path-breaking film, Kashino Dikro.He and Vibha have also toured the U.S.A. extensively,and recalls fondly how very well-responsive the crowds there were. In Cleveland,says the singer,the audience gave them a standing ovation for as long a period as a song would last. At another place,they gifted them more money impromptu than the amount they were to get as honorarium.All through these years, Rasbhai has resisted playing to the gallery.He says that his amateur status,backed by his ability to eke out a living as a teacher,enabled him to stand up against making "compro-mises" that would have meant playing second fiddle to commercial interests.Essentially,the Desais sing for themselves, for their own artistic fulfilment and believe that if do it with hearty involvement,it makes an impact on the audiences too.
    Rasbhai has no regrets;he has got no ambitions either. He is content that he remained a teacher for more than three dec-ades,which enabled him to remain an amateur in music as he de-sired.Then,he took premature retirement ,giving up teaching some five years sooner than the age bar would require to devote more time to music. Vibha continues working.He does some writing on music as well as on physics since " I like writing ".He puts much store by the yoga in music and feels that music is a kind of yoga only.He calls his devotion to music a process of mind purification (chittashudhdhikaran),and he keeps harbouring a restiveness that he should be able to be more and more creative in music-- "till this body lasts".He thinks that as his pursuit -- or devotion,as he would put it-- intensifies,he would be able to bring out more music from his being.All around him,Rasbhai does not find reason for despair on the music front in Gujarat."There are a lot of talented young people who will shine soon."
    He stands aloof,singing mainly for what is called nijan-and,unimpressed by the rat race around him to hit the top of the chart. He is popular,but he is not a populist.The spiritual balance of mind that he has achieved enables him to follow his own motto: Surilo kanth,surilun jeevan ( melodious voice,melodious life).That he has entered the sixtieth year of his life is a little known fact.And,Rasbhai is not bothered about it.



Dear Tusharbhai,
Very good piece on an artiste I like so much.
I had heard him for the first time years back in Anand's town hall.
My God, his base was amazing!
I was more impressed because my younger brother who was with me in the program, told me that Rasbhai was his lecturer of Chemistry at a college in Bhadaran near Borsad.
Science and Music? What a rare combination!
The way he started the Shruti prayer 'Purn midam..' Years later, i.e. just a few months back, I again heard him here in Toronto and it was the same voice.
When Kshemubhai composed music for 'Kashi no Dikaro' I had done a very long piece in Sandesh. Shruti and its artistes are part of a glorious heritage of Sugam Sangit of Gujarat.
Some one should do some documentary work on this subject in English for wider audience.
Would you please convey my warm and of course very respectful regards to both Rasbhai and Vibhaji... they are like Jagjit Chitra to me. (or is it the other way? J/C are Rasbihari and Vibha Desai of Hindustani gazals!)
-Salil Dalal

Tushar Bhatt's Gujarat said...

Thanks a lot. I will pass on your message to Rasbhai. You may be interested in a companion piece on Vibhaben: Musical togetherness. I think Jagjit should be measured against Rasbhai. Rasbhai has a wider range and a better modulated voice

Amit Akkad said...

We marvel at Rasbhai and Vibhaben, and thank God for giving them to us. Any comparison is meaningless, as they stand on their own. Thanks for writing such an excellent piece.