Music has the power to curb intolerance, unite people: Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar

IN THESE times of intolerance, strife and uneasiness, music can prove to be a balm and help restore sanity, believes Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar, the maestro from the ‘Mewati gharana’ and an artist of international acclaim in the genre of Hindustani classical music.
“This [the uniting factor] is especially true of the Indian classical music, which has the vibrations to unite people irrespective of their belief systems,” the maestro says, in an exclusive interview with Qatar Tribune.
Should the icons of the country be more vocal about the message of peace, tolerance, co-existence…? “Yes. Surely. But it’s the responsibility of the media to highlight the icons in every field and highlight their thoughts, as this interview is doing,” he quips.
Aside from its potential of uniting people of all creeds, the maestro’s voice is said to have therapeutic, meditative and calming effects on listeners. “Everyone becomes one with the pure musical notes and experiences the divinity. The Indian classical music, because of its ‘surrender approach’, is the strongest medicine for blood pressure and stress-related problems. I receive such feedback every now and then from people who listen to me singing all across the world,” he stresses.

Explaining it further, he says his approach towards his musical practice has been that of a person who has surrendered to music and is not merely an entertainer. “I always sing to please the soul and the entertainment part comes as a byproduct. May be this brings out the purity of the musical notes through my voice as a medium, and this could possibly be touching the minds and souls of the listeners. May be I am blessed with it. The most important thing is that it has helped many with health issues and I thank God for this.”
A well-known figure for music lovers in the Middle East, Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar has performed many a time in the region regaling the audiences. “There are a large number of classical music lovers in Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain etc. Organisations like ‘Beats and Tunes’ in Doha are working very hard to bring quality music to the region. Besides, the local, non-Indian audiences also get an opportunity to understand a different culture and the very unique musical form of ‘Khayal’ – meaning musical imagination within a few notes of a particular raga.”
The Indian classical music, he points out, spreads positivism and receives positivism everywhere and wherever it goes, including in the Middle East.
When asked about the evolution of classical music in the current milieu, the maestro says, “Classical music has evolved through the ages. The performance part has become more compact. Because the pace of life has become faster, patience has seen a decline.
“A stage performer has to keep this in mind and keep the concert flowing. However, as I said earlier, the Indian classical ‘Khayal’ form has the ability to transport listeners to a magical, higher world. So, the musician has to make sure this element is not lost in adjusting with the modern, fast-paced times.
“Otherwise, the soul of music will be lost and what remains is just the entertainment. This music has much more than only entertainment to offer. I try to make my singing to be an experience.”
Born in 1969, Pandit Abhyankar is seen as an inspiration for the younger generation. As for his inspiration, he says, “My foremost creative inspiration is my guru, Pandit Jasraj Ji, and all others of his generation who have traversed the path of not only the traditional repertoire but have also made valuable contributions in terms of extending the quality of presentation and ‘gayaki’, while adding many self-composed material to the already existing repertoire.”
The guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) tradition, he notes, is an inherent part of the Indian culture, and an even more important element in the field of music. “The meaning of guru-shishya tradition is that the student not only learns the basic material in a classroom type setting but also spends as much time with his mentor as possible, observing and learning all the finer nuances that have made the mentor a great luminary in the field of music.
“Giving vocal support to the mentor on stage also teaches you a lot. You observe and learn how the theoretical knowledge is used in the real world; the dos and don’ts of a performance; and many more things. So a full life of knowledge is transferred,” he concludes.
(This article was first published in the Qatar Tribune newspaper on 25th September 2019)

‘Rowing between the Rooftops’: A tribute to Kerala’s flood heroes

KERALA is known for its majestic backwaters – a network of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast. A world heritage site, the serene stretch of lakes, canals and lagoons is a major attraction for tourists. Unfortunately, and ironically, the woes the state has been grappling with over the past few years also relate to water – in the form of devastating, and lately recurring, floods.
With scores dead and thousands displaced in floods this year, it’s been a repeat of last year’s miseries for people in Kerala. The south Indian state had faced the century’s worst floods in 2018. But then, adversities and tragic circumstances often throw up their heroes. In the case of Kerala, it were its fishermen who turned out to be the bravehearts – risking their lives to rescue thousands of marooned humans.
Rejimon Kuttappan’s recently-released book, ‘Rowing Between the Rooftops: The Heroic Fishermen of the Kerala Floods’, is both a chronicle of heroism and a tribute to the enduring courage of a community that battled onerous circumstances to save people from flooded areas in August 2018.
‘Reji’, as the former Gulf journalist is mostly known among his peers (past and present), elucidates how these brave fishermen “spent days and nights soaked to the skin, steering on empty stomachs,” to rescue the stranded people in the Central Kerala which was under water for a full week.
“They [the fishermen] had to navigate the wild flood’s treacherous undercurrents and dive into dirty waters, risking disease and injury. Sometimes, they had to carry people or act as footstools to help them climb into the boats. They even had to swim alongside the boats, so that more people could fit in,” says Reji, in an e-mail interaction with this writer.
2018 floods: A painful chapter
During the first two weeks in August 2018, Kerala witnessed its worst floods claiming some 600 lives and displacing nearly a million people.
“These fishermen ignored the heavy downpours during the rescue operations with their boats repeatedly catching on the rooftops of submerged houses,” says Reji, adding: “Many had to dock their boats on the second floor of the marooned houses and climb into the buildings to find the stranded people.”
What made him write this book? “In the fast-moving world, which is flooded with news anyway, people would’ve forgotten the brave acts of these fishermen very soon,” he replies. “And I didn’t want that to happen. If they had not jumped into the rescue work, the death toll would have been higher. Some newspapers did carry stories of their bravery but other than that nothing happened.”
Citing the Kerala government’s statistics, Reji points out that these heroic fishermen were able to rescue some 6,50,000 people from flood-hit areas, mainly in Chengannur and other parts of Central Travancore.
Published by Speaking Tiger, the book, written in a simple and moving narrative, is based on interviews with fishermen, government officials and flood victims, while also drawing on extensive research. It brings to life the events of those terrible days, the daring heroism and the heart-wrenching sorrow. Reji also shines light on the precarious lives of the fisherfolk communities – threatened as they are by climate crisis, increasing coastal erosion, and a rapidly changing way of life.
The author also delves into the history of these fishermen – for example, how their forefathers played a vital role in helping the Kerala kings in thwarting the Dutch Navy in the 18th century.

Prepared for future exigencies?
When asked if Kerala – after battling these harrowing floods – is now better prepared to meet such exigencies in the coming years, Reji says, “No! Kerala had been struggling financially due to the 2018 floods. The loss was to the tune of Rs40,000 crore. The state has failed to raise enough money. To make it worse, this year [2019] too the floods have caused huge losses. Kerala is a small state, densely populated. This time the landslides claimed lives.
“Experts say the exploitation of land and building resorts in ecologically fragile land in Western Ghats, led to the landslides this time. Even though the disaster was scary, the government has not come up with any plan to curb the land exploitation. So, for sure, if there are floods next year, landslides will repeat, and the toll could be high as well.”
He adds, “Unfortunately, even though a disaster management authority is there in the state, other than issuing alerts, they don’t have any proper effective plans on the ground as yet.”
(This article first appeared in the Qatar Tribune newspaper on 30th August 2019)