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Sunday, January 17, 2010

A musical togetherness

Tushar Bhatt

    Is Mrs Vibha Desai there,he whispers up the telephone wire in a sonorous voice,glancing at his watch which shows nearly 5.30 in the evening."This is Mr Vibha Desai this side," he says equally af-fably to the inevitable query at the other end.

    That is quintessential Rasbihari Desai,renowned Gujarati singer, composer and music-maker,whose contribution to popularisation of sugam sangit,people’s own music, is unmatched.

Evening shadows have already begun to lengthen outside his third floor ,modest flat as Rasbihari turns to the amused visitors."You see, it is her work-place, the Income Tax office and obviously she is better known there.So what is the harm in identifying myself by her name.Do not wives identify themselves by the name of their husbands? It is the same thing." This was a routine scene till Vib-haben retired sometime ago.
    Actually,no such explanation has ever been necessary in the case of the Desai couple,musical people both, whose marital life of more than three decades began on a musical note and has been forever an ever deepening creative relationship.
    Minutes later,Vibhaben,clad in China silk sari,and sporting an apologetic smile for being late by a few minutes,enters the drawing room.She and Rasbihari,dressed in khadi pyjama and a kurta,exchange mere glances, before settling down on the sofa.There is a harmonium too.Although she knows the visitors are there to talk to her about her husband's musical journey through life,the first thing both of them do is not to talk,weaving flights of fancy words,or faked emotions, or counterfeit mod-esty.Instinctively,he starts playing the harmonium,its notes filling the evening air of the semi-darkened room,escaping through the open windows and doors to reverberate and vanish into the open sky.She knows intuitively what is about to be sung and as if by a commonly operated switch,Rasbihari and Vibha launch into a de-voitonal piece,"Maadi Taro Divado Jale...".
    The brief performance was not to please the visitors,nor to im-press anyone.It was more of a tribute to their own musical togeth-erness.Vibha Vaishnav was 19 when she first came into the life of physics professor at the Bhavan's College,Rasbihari.Already a man who had decided on his way of life,Rasbihari at first tried to ward her off but they were as if made for each other.If after three dec-ades a couple can spontaneously display the sweetness they seem to exude every moment of their togetherness,it does not need a thought-diviner to tell that the sweetness has become a hallmark of their existence.
    What has been the sweetest memory of their life ? A smiling Rasbihari keeps quiet for a long moment,but his sweeter half even-tually bursts out with a reply that would in in print come across like a reply written by a public relations officer for public consumption." I cannot recall any specific moment for all moments of our togeth-erness have been equally sweet." Discerning incredulousness on the face of her guests,she adds"our philosophy of life is to take every moment as it comes.My thinking about the world has been chiefly moulded by him and both of us have learnt to find a centre within ourselves as a validation point,rather than to rely on the out-side reference points."
    But,is it not too much of self-effacement of her own personality ? "Where is the self-effacement? He is a staunch believe in khadi and wears nothing but khadi.But he has never imposed ,or even sought to suggest,I should emulate him. I merrily go on with what-ever I like ,man-made fibres, China silk,cotton,whatever."
    A former assistant commissioner of Income Tax,Vibha is an indi-vidual in her own right,a singer of top quality."She has more self-confidence and consistency in her singing",says her hus-band,unabashed,and rather proudly.On her part,she says"I am only a singer.I need direction.I depend on him to show the direction, even to identify a sur,correct it.I can sing,but that is all.He is much more than a singer. He is a composer too. He creates, I only fol-low."
    In their musical passage through life ,what are the moments of performance they cherish the most ? Rasbihari quickly recalls two occasions, once in India and and the other abroad,years apart when Vibha's rendering of a spiritual piece brought tears to the eyes of the audience.Now that is self-effacement.He does not re-member any of his own, though his admirers can tick off any num-ber of occasions when they remember Rasbihari having excelled. But, he does not. It is a typical modesty,and it is totally genuine.As for Vibha,she just cannot place her fingers on any such memory of a single occasion.
    This again is no false modesty;it is a reflection of her husband's attitude towards life and self.Rasbihari comes across as a man de-tached even from his own self,often referring to himself as Rasbi-hai, as if he were talking to a third person.The gaze from behind the clack-framed glasses is so piercing that for a moment or two one feels,the man is not looking at,but through his visitor.Actually,it may not even be that.He is there,in body and mind,but spiritually he may not be there even as chats animatedly with his guests.This is no hypocritical mask Rasbihari is wearing;strangers,long time friends and his family,all sense this,and respect it.
    Both have rich voices,and yet have resisted all temptations to turn professionals.As amateurs too,they have not been artists of the mass variety.They have,many feel,been rather niggardly in giv-ing out the music they possess.Personally,in the form of cas-settes,that is. Both have a legendary following of people who have trained in singing with them in the Shruti organisation over the years. They have been generous with the new com-ers,understanding to a fault and helpful a lot.Both are neither of the show-biz world nor in it.Rasbihari has a first rate voice, a superb kharaj,and Vibha has a deeply melodious one,and both sing with their heart and being.To them,music is neither a career nor a hobby."It is a spiritual activity,sadhna.Says Rasbhihari:"To me,music is not something that comes from your vocal chords,or hands or any instrument that you play. It comes from the heart,is channelised through the body ,kept in the trim through arduous "ri-yaz".Both of us treat ourselves as students of music forever."
    His spiritual bend of mind came from his aunt, Mrs Nirmalaben V.Desai who not only set him on path of spiritualism but also incul-cated in him a love for literature,language,and the much-noticed self-effacement of his own self.
    Says Rasbihari: "We -- that is Rasbhai and Vibha -- believe that it not I - the ego of I in the capital letter form -- but some un-known,divine element that sings through us.It is such a deep-rooted belief that every public performance of his always begins with a prayer to that element in a being.The initial seeds of spiritu-alism planted by Nirmalaben were given a further help by Rasbi-hari's acquaintance with Madhusudan Maharaj, a yogi in the early sixties.
    He was initially reluctant to have his 60th birth day celebra-tions,but was literally pestered into it by his fans.The result is that it being celebrated as completion of 60 years.Yet, he would not go for pomp and public adulation.Instead,he and Vibha and a few other friends like Kshemoo Divetia,Gaurang Vyas,and Ashit and Hema Desai,have gone in for making two cassettes of songs and bhajans,serving as landmarks in Rasbihari's musical pro-gress.Since,it can never be a solo effort for him,it is is inevitably with Vibha and ,not stopping at that roping in others too.The out-come is a pair of audio-cassettes,Sayujya I and II; sayuyja means togetherness.For 28 years,the couple have helped train hundreds of enthusiasts in what is called Gujarati sugam sangeet,light mu-sic.Though light,it is not a musical pursuit of light-heartedness. It is damn serious in its rigourous training, rendering,and even re-cording,and it is with a purpose. So,here in Sayujya is a bhajan Rasbihari had heard in his childhood,wayback in 1941,"Chyam ra-hiye guru vana,finding a place in the collection. There also is the first composition that brought him into sugam sangeet in 1952-54-- "Madhav tun betho deva",composed by late Suryakant Dave of Visnagar.So is in it, the song sung by Vibha,"Najarunna kanatani bhool",that was eventually to bring him and her togther.There is a rustic bhajan,"Ramranankar vage",composed by Rasbihari's grand-mother Mrs Mahalaxmi Desai,herself an unlttered person but highly musical.There also are modern compositions of poets ranging form Narsinh Mehta to late Sundaram,late Harindra Dave,late Avinash Vyas , Anil Joshi, Suresh Dalal, Mariz, Vinod Joshi,Adil Man-suri,Rajendra Shah,Manoj Khandheria,Amar Palanpuri to Bhag-watikumar Sharma,spanning the period between 1941 and 1995.
    The fete is not intended to get money for the Desais."We will love to divert everything to organising music camps every year in order to nurture and give philip to the new talent in different cities in Gujarat."
    Rasbihari recently underwent a heart bypass surgery in the US,but has lost none of his verve and vigour.His voice is as firm,deep and sonorous as ever.Money-making had not been among the goals he set for life.One could say he has achieved it;he has not made much money.He does not seem to seek any-thing,and accepts whatever life brings him.His wife too shares his values .They are a value-based couple,above prices and pricing.

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