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Singing a Lost Tune

Singing a Lost Tune

Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: January 12, 2004

Introduction: One of the last exponents of Manbhat Akhyan struggles to keep this dying Gujarati art form alive

He has mesmerised audiences since he started performing at the age of 18. Today, even at the age of 73, Dharmiklal Pandya, one of the last exponents of Gujarat's medieval art, Manbhat Akhyan, has not lost his magical cadence. So touching is Pandya's rendition of verses from the Mahabharata, Bhagvad Gita and the Ramayana that listeners become totally involved and react instinctively to the episodes he narrates.

The Manbhat or minstrel tradition, believed to be hundreds of years old, was popularised by Premanand, a medieval poet of Vadodara. He composed beautiful Akhyans in Gujarati, based on popular Hindu religious epics. His compositions were lengthy, with even the shorter versions being quite long-winded. Because of their length, a Manbhat would normally take up to a month to sing an Akhyan on the Mahabharata, with performances of three hours every night, usually after dinner. The one-month performances are a thing of the past as most of them nowadays last only a day or two.

There was no dearth of Manbhats in Gujarat till Independence and chief among them was Pandya's father, Chunilal. His performances in his hometown attracted large audiences and were often attended by the visionary ruler of Vadodara, Sayajirao Gaekwad, in disguise. The end of the princely era after Independence also signalled the beginning of the slow death of the tradition. Today, there are only three Manbhats left apart from Pandya-his two sons, Pradyumna, 38, and Mayank, 32, and one of his students at the music school he runs at his home.

Pandya has performed at various festivals in India and abroad, including the US and UK, where he has a faithful band of admirers. He has also hosted programmes at the request of people like Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. So far, Pandya has performed about 2,500 Akhyans, some of them running for a month.

It is not an easy art to master as the Manbhat has to maintain a rhythmic beat on a copper gagar (pitcher) with a silver or copper ring and sing at the same time. While singing a verse to narrate an incident of Vir-Ras (bravery) the Manbhat's fingers play on the upper portion of the pitcher and the verse ends with a final tap on its mouth. In the case of a doha or a saathi (forms of folk poems) he concentrates mainly on the lower part of the pitcher.

Lack of patronage apart, the difficulty in mastering the art is, in fact, one of the main reasons for the decline in the number of its exponents. Besides, not many are attracted to it as they know it is not a lucrative means of earning one's livelihood. "It is a form of sadhana, not a means to earn money. You are bound to earn well eventually. But nowadays people only want to learn those arts which help them earn money quickly," laments Pandya.

The dhoti-clad artist lives in a narrow by-lane in old Vadodara in true Brahmanical simplicity with his two sons. Pandya's dream now is to establish an institute to save this dying tradition. But it is an uphill struggle because finding patrons is difficult. When one sees him in simple surroundings, one can hardly imagine his accomplishments. But once he steps on the stage in his red headgear and lets the artist in him take over, Pandya weaves a magical chord around music lovers.

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