Rajeev Taranath: The tallest intellectual who came to music from literature

Such a legacy can be burdensome, but Rajeev carried it lightly. He was too talented to be overawed.
Rajeev Taranath: The tallest intellectual who came to music from literature

In his last years, sarod maestro Rajeev Taranath’s music reached sublime heights. After one of his concerts in Bangalore, I said to him, “Rajeev, you were not playing for the audience, you were playing for yourself.”

I was playing for my guru; he said, “Now I play only for him.”

This is what set him apart; even Bhimsen Joshi pandered to the public, for which he was chided by Gangubaiji. Like Gangubai Hangal, whom he always addressed as Akka, Rajeev never compromised. He was too gifted and committed for that.

Rajeev was one of the tallest intellectuals of Karnataka. He came to music from literature. He was a peer and friend of UR Ananthamurthy, Gopalkrishna Adiga, Keertinath Kurtukoti, the whole Navya group of writers, and if one may add, filmmakers. He had topped the university in MA English, did Ph.D on TS Eliot’s poetry and was a champion of modernism. He promoted his friends by writing about them and translating their works into English.

But that was then. Later, he moved away from that kind of western inspired modernism. About three months ago, talking to me over the phone, he trashed all the writers he had championed earlier. “No one would read them a hundred years later,” he said, “Only the writings of Dalit writers like Devanur Mahadeva would survive.” He praised their quality of Kannada. Was it because he could not relate to the increasing Sanskritisation of culture and language?

He could be trenchant in his criticism, of literature as well as music. But there were those whom he respected greatly like Gangubai Hangal, Annapurna Devi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Basvaraja Rajaguru, and others. He was always deferential towards his seniors in music. In such matters, he was traditional.

His devotion to his guru Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was touching. He would become very emotional talking of his guru. Rajeev had lost his father at a young age. He was only 10 when his father Pandit Taranath died. Pandit Taranath’s achievements were remarkable. Like Rabindranath Tagore, he was multifaceted: Ayurveda, literature, drama, music, acting, yoga, social service, education, Tantra Mantra, chemistry, social reform, nothing seems to have been beyond him. And, he was a freedom fighter. Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders were his admirers. Mahatma Gandhi even wrote the foreword to his play on Sant Kabir. This was Rajeev’s inheritance. His grandmother’s social service was legendary. Rajeev was named after her. She was Rajeevi Bai, called Rajeevamma. Rajeev said that had his grandmother been a Catholic, she would have been made a saint.

Such a legacy can be burdensome, but Rajeev carried it lightly. He was too talented to be overawed. It was to his guru that he bowed. Was the guru a father figure, a surrogate for the father he had lost as a child? Without indulging in pop psychology, the fact is that devotion to guru lies at the heart of Indian culture. For all his unconventional ways, he had deep respect for Indian cultural traditions. While taking his guru’s name, he never failed to touch his ear, the traditional mark of respect. One’s cultural grounding is revealed in such small gestures.

Culture and tradition were preoccupations of TS Eliot, as they were of his Indian acolytes. Having done his doctorate on TS Eliot, Rajeev was well aware of what was happening in the name of modernism. He could see through phoniness and sham. Was he outspoken!

Any conversation with Rajeev was enlightening. He would come with fresh insights, give a new perspective. He was a perpetual outsider. His father was a Konkani Brahmin, mother a lower caste Tamil. He considered himself beyond any caste and yet identified himself with all the oppressed. He was a perceptive social critic. The kind of questions TM Krishna is raising about the caste dimension in music and dance, Rajeev had spoken about them years before him.

Rajeev started learning sarod at 21, when he came under the spell of his guru, Khan Saheb Ali Akbar Khan. By then finger joints are hardened. He had to do punishing riyaz. He practised sometimes for 18 hours at a stretch till his fingers started bleeding. Sarod is a difficult instrument; Rajeev mastered it.

Music is a jealous mistress. Rajiv paid the price. Divorce happened. His ex-wife and son settled in America. On two occasions, I was with Rajeev when his ex-wife called from America about some work. It was like two old friends talking. Rajiv was large hearted and generous. The rough exterior held a sensitive heart, ready to help others. He was essentially a ‘Hyderabad-Karnataki’, who found the Sanskritised Old Mysore culture amusing. He made fun of it. “What is this business of acronyms,” he said, “Anakru, Kuvempu, BM Shri. I know a Hoovina Hadagali Siddappa Danappa. How would they call him?”

He had an impish sense of humour.

(The writer is the former Indian Ambassador to UNESCO)

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