Mallikarjun Mansur, who breathed his last on September 12, 1992, was a musical phenomenon. Though he was 82 he sang till his last breath. He almost died in harness. He was down with lung cancer. Just 25 days before death he got up from his sick bed, went to Murughamath, Dharwad, and sang raaga Hemant for15 minutes and a vachana. Even when death was stalking him, he didn’t want to miss his musical devotion. It had been his custom for ever so many years to sing at the math on the third Monday of the month of Shraavana.
The year before, he was admitted to Kidwai Hospital, Bangalore for serious kidney trouble. It was thought his singing days were over. But he bounced back as if nothing had happened to him. Not only that. He gave forceful concerts all over India. Dr. Talwalkar, treating him at Kidwai Hospital said one day "Panditji, you are cured. Now, you can go home". "Wait a minute, doctor; I have a method of testing whether I am cured". Mallikarjun Mansur asked for a tanpura and started singing on the bed itself. After testing himself for 15 minutes he said, "Yes, doctor, I am well now". Even in the semi-coma condition he was in, he would ask his son Rajasekhar to sing and guide him as to what he should improve. After he came to, he wouldn’t remember a thing. Dr. Talwalkar was all admiration. "It is literally true that music is in his blood. Were it not for his will to live on for music, no doctor on earth could have saved him". As a mark of gratitude, Mallikarjun Mansur gave a free concert to raise funds for the hospital which had given him a new lease of life.
Mallikarjun was born on December 31, 1910 at Mansur, a village five kilometres west of Dharwad. His father Bheemaraayappa was the headman. Folk-plays and music were his obsession. He would arrange to stage them every now and then. Neelamma was an ideal wife. Countless were the grinding songs, lullabies and devotional songs that issued forth from her sweet voice. It was these songs that sowed the seeds of music in young Mallikarjun. Music so filled his heart that there was no place in it for anything else.
At five, Mallikarjun was sent to a private primary school at Mansur. But his ears would rather listen to the cuckoo’s song from a tree nearby. Bheemaraayappa invited Appayyaswami, a Karnataki musician, to direct the drama Sairandhri. Mallikarjun’s elder brother Basavaraj was in the title role. The songs that Basavaraj was being taught enraptured Mallikarjun and all else was naught.
Mallikarjun was sent to his maternal grandfather at Dharwad to continue school. That was only for a brief spell. One day he bolted to Vamanrao Master’s Vishva Gunaadarsha Drama Troupe camping at Dharwad where Basavaraj was already an actor. No amount of remonstrance would dissuade Mallikarjun from joining the Troupe. The enraged father took him back to school. After four months Mallikarjun was back where his heart was. Who can stop a bee from going to flowers? Thus began Mansur’s association with the stage. Mallikarjun excelled in child roles like Krishna, Prahlaada, Dhruva etc. The stage became his school.
It is one of the rarest of instances of a guru in search of a disciple. Once Vamanrao’s troupe was camping at Bagalkot and there came Neelkanthbuwa Mirajkar. "I have heard, a boy in your troupe sings well", he enquired. Paandobaa, the harmonium player in the troupe was Neelkanthbuwa’s disciple and he produced young Mallikarjun before Neelkanthhbuwa. " Son,will you sing me a song?" said Neelkanthbuwa. Mallikarjun did. Impressed, Neelkanthbuwa advised Mallikarjun’s brother Basavaraj, "Let him not waste his talents here. Give this boy to me. I will make him a great vocalist.’’ What prophetic words! Neelkanthbuwa took Mallikarjun with him to Miraj, made him stay at his own home, treated him as if he were his own son and taught.
Neelakanthbuwa was a disciple of Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjikar of Gwalior Gharaanaa and gurubandhu of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Neelkanthbuwa possessed a melodious voice and great scholarship. He could sing as many as 30-35 compositions in a single raaga. Mallikarjun’s tuition would begin at 4 a.m. He was taught swara and alankaara for two hours, then chchotaa khyaal, gradually badaa khyaal and taala. Mallikarjun was groomed in this fashion for six years and mastered about forty raagas like Bihaag, Malkauns, Bhoop, Kaamod, Todi, Hameer, Darbaari, Yaman, Kedaar, Puriyaa , Maarwaa, Alaiyaa Bilaawal, Lalit. begin at 4 a.m. He was taught swara and alankaara for two hours, then chchotaa khyaal, gradually badaa khyaal and taala. Mallikarjun was groomed in this fashion for six years and mastered about forty raagas like Bihaag, Malkauns, Bhoop, Kaamod, Todi, Hameer, Darbaari, Yaman, Kedaar, Puriyaa , Maarwaa, Alaiyaa Bilaawal, Lalit.
After studying music he returned to the same Troupe in 1929. Now he was music director and main actor. ‘‘Encores’’ galore came his way. Veera Abhimanyu saw 80 performances at Hubli alone. Not a small part of the credit was due to Mallikarjun Mansur.
About the same time Eraashi Bharamappa started Vaani Vilaas Drama Company with great fanfare. Basavaraj Mansur and Goharbai Karnataki were doing lead roles. Mallikarjun also was invited. He said he would join if his guru Neelkanthbuwa Mirajkar was also paid remuneration. Bharamappa agreed. Mallikarjun played Maadhavaachaarya in Varapradaan and Dilaawar Khan in Kittur Rudramma. But the troupe soon met with a fire accident and folded up in blazes as suddenly as it had appeared. That was the last of Mallikarjun’s association with the stage. Now he concentrated on music. But it must be said that what the A.I.R. is doing today to propagate music, the dramatic troupes did in the bygone era.
Mansur returned to Dharwad well-versed in all branches of singing, especially gamak, meend and khatkaa as a result of being taught several asthaayis in different raagas. As it happens in teenage, his voice cracked. But Mallikarjun Mansur practised, like a man possessed, from 10 at night to 6 in the morning. Such rigorous practice lent his voice stability, strength and finesse.
Invitations to concerts began to flow in. The H.M.V. Company invited Mallikarjun Mansur in 1933 for recording. Discs of Gaud Malhaar, Shankaraa, Maalkauns, Kaalingadaa, Gauri, Todi as also a couple of naatyageets, bhavageets and thumris reeled off the throat of Mallikarjun Mansur and sold like hot cakes. Teraneleyataara tangi of Shishunal Sharif, the mystic folk poet, rendered by Mansur was on everybody’s lips.
On the heels of the popularity of the discs came an invitation from Mumbai A.I.R. This set off a chain reaction. Invitations poured in from other A.I.Rs. and music organizations, culminating in an invitation for the mammoth conference in Shikaarpur of Sindh Province. He also worked as Adviser to A.I.R. from 1960 to 1969. To date, Mansur has given hundreds of hours of recordings of uncommon raagas for the A.I.R. archives, gratis.
Anybody else would have been complacent with this success. Not so Mansur. He yearned to delve deeper into the ocean of music and bring up pearls. When he was yearning thus, Manji Khan, the eldest son of Alladiya Khan, the founder of Jaipur- Atrauli Gharaanaa, took him under his wings. It was as though the ocean bared its bosom. The tutelage lasted only a year and a half. But the guru seemed to say, "Look, here is the key to the treasure. Take as much of it as you can". Mansur with his single mindedness learnt in that brief period what others would have taken ten years. He mastered raagas like Asaavari, Bhairav, Shivamat Bhairav, Deskaar, Gaud Saarang, Nand, Bihaagdaa, Bhimpalaas, Natbihaag, Saawni, Jait Kalyaan etc.
With the death of Manji Khan in 1933, Mansur felt rudderless. The benevolent Alladiya Khan directed him to his other son, Bhurji Khan who was at Kolhapur. Mansur would go and stay there for 3-4 months, come back to Dharwad for a month or so and then go back. This went on from 1937 and ended with the sad demise of the esteemed guru in 1950. If Mansur learnt from Manji Khan the infinite variety of complex swaras, he learnt from Bhurji Khan the subtleties of short taans. Training under Manji Khan and Bhurji Khan brought about a sea change in Mallikarjun Mansur’s perception of music. Mallikarjun Mansur was the doyen of Jaipur Gharaanaa and was known as a musician’s musician.
When Mallikarjun Mansur was yet 20-21, he was given the titles of Sangeet Ratna and Gandharva Ratna. In 1962 came Karnataka State Sangeet Academy Award. In 1968, Karnataka Rajyotsava Award; in 1970, Padmasri : in 1972, Central Sangeet Natak Academy award; in 1975, Honoris Causa from Karnatak University; in 1976, Padmabhushan. To crown it all came the Kalidas Samman in 1981. It is the highest award in India for fine arts. Mansur was the first ever recipient of the prestigious award. Vishwa Bharati University honoured Mansur with Desikottam in 1988 and in 1992 has come the Padmavibhusan. Mansur has taken all this with equanimity. ‘‘Does the cuckoo sing expecting somebody to appreciate?’’ he used to quip with a glint in his eyes.