It was peak winter, and evidently he hadn’t had a wash that morning. The fog that lingered around even after breakfast time seemed to match the apparent laziness of Mukul Shivputra. There, at the rugged campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in early 1996, the bearded and dishevelled-looking musician sat on the dais — resi­gned and detached.
There was a stark inelegance in the posture Mukul struck as a classical vocalist. Seated a bit sideways for the audience, hanging his head down most of the time and awkwardly pulling up the sleeve of his crumpled juba as he stirred up to sing a fresh idea. All the same, there was a charm in the subtle rebelliousness of his movements, leave alone the music. It wasn’t just an uninhibited expr­ession of one’s aesthetics — not even his legendary father Kumar Gandha­rva’s. Instead Mukul see­med gui­ded by some sublime spi­rit. Tra­nce, as one would call it.
Nothing in the vicinity seemed to bother Mukul. Not even the drone of the planes that flew not much above the varsity that had proximity to the Palam airport. He was lost in his world, innocen­tly drawn by streaks of grand ima­gination — or ‘khayal’, the very name by which his stream of Hindustani music is known upcountry. I’m not too sure of the raga he took up at that Spic Macay concert more than 13 years ago. Ahir Bhai­rav, perhaps, but that doesn’t matter much in the broader recollection of my first meeting with Mukul in a relatively new city.
Some 18 months later, the capi­tal was celebrating the country’s 50th Independence Day. A variety of quality cultural programmes had lined up in various venues as part of the Swarna Samaroh, ahead of August 15. Delhi University wasn’t near my place of stay, but I knew I couldn’t afford to miss Mukul that evening. Well, not even the weather gods could.
It rained that afternoon. No downpour, but a pleasant spell that was enough to rake up the fresh smell of wet earth. The bus journey to DU was slushy and sluggish, but it was worth the trouble. Mukul sang endearingly — again. Some 90 minutes soaked in that brooding yet breezy monsoon raga, Dhulia Malhar.
Mukul this time didn’t seem given to any of his celebrated
eccentricities. He began dot on time, expanded the contours of the raga in a logical fashion and wound up early enough for the succeeding artiste. The sudden, pleasant change in the weather seemed enough inspiration for him, even capable of disciplining the ‘bad boy’ — whose notorious face one was to see only three days after.
That was at IIT Delhi. His concert was slated to start at 5 pm, but there was no trace of Mukul more than an hour after that. His bohemian ways anyway enjoyed a degree of celebration among young music-lovers — so, many in the audience had no big issue waiting for long. Finally, he did arrive. Around 6.45 pm.
The first thing the Malayali in me noticed was the Kerala mundu he wore around the waist. And the oiled, well-combed hair. (A forced bath for sure.) One that juxtaposed his frail, unsure steps while walking along the aisle left by disciplined onlookers gazing upward at the chief guest. Then on the small stage, he sat, sour-faced. It looked as if he was silen­tly cursing his musicianship.
Mukul found an excuse in the ‘unaligned’ shruti of the tanpura, and began tightening its knobs on the top. This exercise went on for a good 15 minutes amid a lot of loud blabbering — until the audience heard a jarring noise and realised he had broken a string of the instrument. The org­anisers scurried out in search of another tanpura, which they never found that night. Mukul came up with fillers — an even more aimless bhajan after the first. I knew it was time to leave.
A few years later, again in Delhi, Mukul performed a similar act. I couldn’t attend it and was anxious to know if I had missed a wonderful concert. Only to learn from a friend’s SMS sent live from the auditorium: “He isn’t singing, but teaching the tabla man how to play (the instrument).”
In 2007 spring, he was to again perform in the same venue. As the curtain went up, one wasn’t sure what mood had swooped down on Mukul. The initial indications were negative. He was reluctant to even hum. Three tanpuras resonated simultaneously to build up a grand audio-visual ambience, but Mukul just wouldn’t sing. Then, after some 10 minutes, he announced he was to sing a kha­yal in raag Marwah. What followed was an hour-long bliss.
A bit of drama followed after the main piece. Mukul noted Kishori Amonkar sitting in the front row. Impulsively, he got up and walked down to the veteran vocalist to prostrate at her feet. Back he came, and Mukul had lost his form. “Aap ne hamaara taa­kkat kheench li (you drained out my energy),” he said, and as if to prove it, came up with an ordinary bhajan — an anti-climax.
But overall, Mukul the performer never supersedes the art — something I thought was more of a Carnatic trait. Incidentally, he had long ago travelled down to Madras to learn south Indian classical. Under none other than the late M D Ramanathan. Today, all some Chennaiites recall is that he one day went missing from a tiny rented house near Kalakshetra.
In autumn 2005, Spic Macay’s Kiran Seth had asked me to do a piece on Mukul who was then sta­ying at the IIT professor’s reside­nce in Delhi. One morning, my sister in our trans-Yamuna home told me a certain ‘Mukund’ had rung up. A ripple of amazement ran down my body when I realised it could only be Mukul. I returned the ring, only to hear a suave fem­ale voice speak: “Panditji has gone out for a morning walk.”