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"Padmini Rao is now acknowledged as one of the most gifted voices to emerge from the Kirana gharana, a style that has produced such legends as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal."
Suchitra Lata in The Hindu, July 18, 2002

When Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar asked Padmini K. Rao to go look at the moon, she unquestioningly did so. The next day he explained a musical nuance she will never forget.
The beautiful Padmini K. Rao could have continued as an actress, or taken up a career as a chemist. She had done some experimental work on the Mumbai stage, and was contemplating a B.Tech when music embraced her fully into its fold. She is now acknowledged as one of the most gifted voices to emerge from the Kirana gharana, a style that has produced such legends as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal.

Dr. Gulvady, Padmini's father, specialises in industrial medicine. The Konkani-speaking family hails from Karnataka and has lived in Mumbai for many years. Padmini now lives with husband Kishore Rao in New York. She performs, teaches, and conducts lecture demonstrations.

Initially Padmini thought she didn't have the voice to be a singer and started learning the sitar. But when she discovered that singing was her first love, she took rigorous lessons in voice culture from Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, the dhrupadia and rudra veena maestro revered by discerning audiences the world over. The family was so attached to the ustad that they named their flat, a stone's throw from his, Guru Chaya (or guru's shadow).

While her talent flowered under the care of the ustad, Padmini obtained her master's degree in music from SNDT University. That course laid the foundation for a long and fruitful association with the famous vocalist, Dr. Prabha Atre. Padmini has learnt from Dr. Atre for over 16 years. Her music is thus a blend of two of India's most enchanting musical streams: the dhrupad and the khayal.

Her first classical album, with ragas Bhoop, Kirvani, and Desh, will be released in Mangalore on July 26. After a hectic recording and mastering session in Bangalore, she spoke about her life and art.

How did you get into music, and how did you meet and learn from two virtuosos?

As a child I was not interested in music at all. I did not even listen to music. I don't come from a musical lineage. My father is a doctor. My mother was a teacher, but they were deeply interested in music. In fact my father started learning the sitar, just so I could get to listen to music. My parents believed that way there would be no generation gap because a love of classical music transcends generations. It forms a binding factor when my grandmother, mother, and I can sit and listen to the same artiste and enjoy it.

I started learning when I was 15. We were in Chembur in Bombay. My guru Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Khan Dagar, and his brother, Ustad Zia Fariduddin Khan Dagar, used to live there. Every Sunday we used to have musical soirees at their place. I was unwillingly dragged to them. I was eight or 10, and I couldn't sit in one place. When I was 15, I started learning the sitar with Pramila Dagar. I also learnt some vocal with Pt. Manohar Otavkar. The Dagar brothers were not in the country then. I went back to my guru when I was 19.

You were very good in studies. Did you have to make a choice between music and academics?

I finished my graduation and then I didn't know which way to go, whether to do my B.Tech. I was also involved in theatre with Jayadeva and Rohini Hattangadi. That was for a short time. To decide, I took a year off, and my parents were so patient. I studied the B.A. syllabus for music and went through the entrance test for the M.A. course at SNDT. Dagar Saab pushed me into it; he valued education. He was a very learned man, but not educated, and it was important for him that I do this. This was when I started learning from Dr. Prabha Atre, again at Dagar Saab's insistence.

What do you remember most about your guru, as a musician and as a person? For most people who know him only from the outside, he is a very strict classicist, a musician of musicians.

I don't know how this sounds, but he was the closest I have come to god. He never led you, he walked with you. Even if you faltered, he inspired faith in you to go on. Like a father holding out his hands to his child and asking it to jump. It was an act of faith on the child's part and it would jump blindly. His teaching method was so natural. It was like learning one's mother tongue. Once you learn it, it always stays with you, but you don't know how you learnt it. One day, he was teaching me the difference between ragas Puriya and Marwa, in which the second note is the same and only the vaadi and samvaadi swars make a difference. He said at the end of class, "Ek kaam karna beta, aaj chand ko dekhna" (Do this, child, see the moon tonight).

"Accha, aaj chand ko dekhna hai." (Ok, I will see the moon tonight).

When I returned the next day he asked, "Kal chand ko dekha tha?" (Did you see the moon yesterday?)

"Zyada dikha nahin mamaji, badal bhi the." (It was not very clear, there were clouds.)

"Tumne dekha badalon se chand kaise nazar aa raha tha. Puriya ka rishab aisi hi hai, abhi dikhayi diya ab nahin!" (You saw how the moon looked from among clouds? Puriya's rishab is like that, now you see it, now you don't!)

And then he said, "Marwa ka rishab to bilkul saaf nazar aatha hai." (Marwa's rishab shows up very clear.)

I will never forget it all my life. At the same time he would say never believe anything just because I say so.

Was there any training that taught you to realise each note with precision? Even when you sing your taans and fast phrases, each note can be discerned individually.

That is again his teaching, I had had my first child and he came to look me up. He said now that you are a mother, you will understand the tenderness you feel when you look at your child sleeping in your lap. Look at every note the same way you look upon your child! Especially in the alaap. You should have that komalta when you sing the alaap. He has left behind such a legacy of respect and love. My mother Sita was depressed that I had not taken to music. He told her not to worry and to let me be. He said that when I turned 19, I would learn on my own and be very immersed in music. And that is exactly what happened.

You are equally close to Dr. Prabha Atre, and I hear you also had some lessons from Sheila Dhar.

Dagar Saab told me to go to Prabhatai. And she welcomed me with open arms. No looking askance that I was learning from him. She gave me her all. It was up to me to do what I could. I learnt so much from her. She was not in the least possessive about her knowledge of music. Almost all compositions I sing are hers. Another person in my life was Sheila Dhar. I was entranced by a Shuddh Sarang composition she was singing and asked for her permission to write it down. She said, of course, what use is music otherwise, like perfume shut up in a bottle, of no use to me or to you?

How do you combine the dhrupad and khayal styles? Do you feel there is a conflict in approach?

Actually I see dhrupad as straight lines. The curls and curves of khayal are not there. I put them together. My basic voice production is from the Dagars, straight to the note. I have also learnt how to go gently to the note. The way you modulate your voice is the difference. I am not a practising dhrupad singer. But I can relate as fast, if not faster, to instrumental music because of my sitar learning. Sometimes my taan structures are influenced by that, and some listeners ask me about my instrumental approach.

Where do you see classical music going?

A minimum amount of hard work is non-negotiable. That hard work is for the teacher and student. It is getting more difficult, finding gurus like mine, or even dedicated students. The tastes of the public have changed. People want fast taans and pyrotechnics. Dagar Saab used to say, "Drut mein tayari nazar aathi hai, alap mein samajhdari nazar aathi hai". In the fast composition you can see the preparation, and in the alaap, you can see the understanding. Our music is supposed to makes us feel calm and good, but sound levels today inspire you instead to go and jog. Anyway that is ultimately an individual's choice.

(Padmini Rao is performing at Canara Union, 8th Main, Malleswaram, on July 21, at 6 p.m.)

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