Music composer, songwriter, and an Indian classical music instrumentalist Abhijit Pohankar is known to do things differently as he’s one of the few Indian classical music soloists who play a raga on a keyboard. An ace composer who has given more than a dozen albums in the Classical Fusion, New Age, Lounge and World music categories, Abhijit Pohankar has many collaborative projects to his credit with top artists including his father Pt. Ajay Pohankar, Us.Ghulam Ali, Hariharan, Pt. Rajan-Sajan Mishra to name a few and have also composed the title track of the 2003 film Boom, by Kaizad Gusted starring Amitabh Bachchan and Bo-Derek.
Abhijit Pohankar talks about his musical journey into playing classical music on the keyboard, his idea about creating a new audience for Indian Classical Music and bringing Marathi Folk to the foreground with his performance at the Paddy Fields Festival 2019 in an interesting conversation with loudest.in.
Abhijit Pohankar comes from a legacy of renowned Indian Classical Musicians being the fourth generation musician himself which goes back from his father Pt. Ajay Pohankar who’s a legendary exponent of Kirana and Patiaya Gharana’s,to his grandmother Vidushi Susheela Pohankar who was a renowned classical vocalist and a musicologist who belonged to both Kirana and Gwalior Gharana to his great grandfather Pt. Bapuram Joshi who was a renowned harmonium player of Kirana Gharana of his times.
Pohankar puts light on the environment he grew up in and his early grooming, “I grew up listening to classical music and did learn vocals in my early years from my father, but my temperament has been such that I did not like serious music much. Ours is a Gharana that respects all the genres of music so we always had maestros in the house who were either singing or discussing music be it Lataji, Ashaji, Mehendi Hassan Saheb, Jagjit Singhji. So I eventually developed an interest in Ghazals, but my voice was not as good as that of my father, so I was always intimidated to be compared with him. Also, since harmonium was in my genres I started playing harmonium at an early age and without any learning. My grandmother suggested me to take up an instrument that no one had attempted to play classical music on, so I took the keyboard as an instrument.”
Talking about the technique of playing Indian classical music tones, semitones and glides (Meends) and how does he manage to produce them on a keyboard, Pohankar says, “Eventually I went to learn the instrumental technique from the legendary Santoor maestro Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma for a couple of years. I follow the Santoor style of playing (Baaz) which includes Alaap, Jod, and Jhala on the keyboard. So what is important is to sustain the note, while I play the Meends on the keyboard using a bender on the left hand and thus have developed a playing skill on the keyboard. So it’s been a journey of the last 21 years so far.”
How has been the experience of working with his father Pt. Ajay Pohankar who is an Indian classical purist, Pohankar says, “Well, I would say that we have had a difference in opinion since the beginning, since he was little skeptical about experimenting with classical music, but finally, I pursued him to sing him for my albums ‘Thumri Funk’ and ‘Piya Bawari’ and when the albums received a grand response he understood how it has helped to take the classical music to a larger audiences other than just the Indian classical music connoisseurs, since it was my attempt to attract more of the youngsters to the form.”
Talking about the idea behind doing Piya Bawri, “ My Idea is to bring Indian music to a newer audience. So,I always thought modern beats were missing in Indian classical music and if added, that will add more beauty to the genre. Piya Bawri was my first experiment wherein I composed the Bandish and also wrote the lyrics along with taking some traditional Bandishes of the Indian classical music repertoire like ‘Kin Bairan Kaan Bhare in Raga Darbari and others. I basically thought of incorporating chords and beats into Indian classical music and thus creating a soundscape which will help to reach out to a broader set of listeners. I feel most of the people are not comfortable listening to classical music as they think they won’t understand it. I wanted to break that image and tried to make it more interesting for them and when the album came out it received a very good response.”
Pohankar makes a point saying, “In fact, I was the pioneer to start it in 2002 and many musicians followed it after my album was released in the classical fusion category. I’m glad now I see a little awareness of the kind of work I have been doing. Unfortunately, media has not been able to do justice in showcasing neither my initiatives nor tried promoting the traditional Indian music as much it deserves.”
Talking about creating new concepts Pohankar says,“ I did a concept called ‘Tu Hi Re’ with Hariharanji and my father amalgamating Indian Classical Music Brandishes and Bollywood songs. Later, I also found my band which is called Bollywood Gharana with which I have done around 45 shows around the world. I take up Bollywood songs and classical bandishes and both are sung on the same line. It is also an initiative to promote new talents who are pursuing classical music as well as Bollywood singing through Pt. Ajay Pohankar Foundation.”
So how is it creating classical music fusion versus lounge fusion music tells Pohankar, “If we see regular classical music fusion, it has instrumentalists coming together and improvising thereby singing bandishes and doing taans with drums which have become very cliché. How I compose is with a melodic thought and a soundscape with every track as I have a very different taste to explore and create music, which has enriched over the years as I listen to a wide range of music. Thus, my compositions have my own style and are original in thought while one thing that stays constant is that I stick to my classical roots.”
So, what kind of music does he listens to says Pohankar, “I have been listening to pop music a lot Michael Jackson, Madona, Phil Collins, so I like the music of 70s to 90s, while I also like Yani and Enigma which is new age. I somehow don’t connect with the present generation of musicians as it doesn’t touch my heart since I’m quite an old school for that matter.”
Talking about experimenting with Bhakti and Sringara Rasa in his album ‘Albela Vithal’ and designing his presentation at Paddy Fields Festival 2019 on the same lines, Pohankar said, “I tried incorporating the bandish in raga Ahir Bhairav ‘Albela Sajan Ayo Ri’ with a Marathi devotional Folk ‘ Vithala’. In fact, it is my observation that Marathi folk has never been taken seriously, as for us folk only means only Rajasthani, Punjabi or Gujarati folk. We live in Maharasthra which itself has a very strong lineage but which is only confined to the remote areas in Maharashtra and not even in Mumbai.”
Elaborating on the same Pohankar adds, “There are many forms like lavani, Abhang, Gajar, Gawaran in the Marathi folk music repertoire which are still very popular but only in the regional music market of Maharashtra but our Marathi musicians only sing it in their respective circles and are not thinking of propagating the art form to a broader audience. Paddy Fields Festival has a cosmopolitan audience and it doesn’t have only Marathi people attending it, so I wondered do they know anything about ‘Sant Eknath’ and ‘Sant Naam Dev’ and how will they know it, when they have no exposure to it. So I thought of taking this initiative to promote this traditional music across the regional frontiers and paddy field is my first attempt where i will be presenting different forms of Maharashtran Folk Music to the Mumbai audiences this year.”
His presentation at paddy fields festival was indeed spellbound wherein Abhijit Pohnakar brought 4-5 forms of Marathi folk genres. The first piece ‘Gajar’ which means an alarm signifies the beginning of a concert,so the concert began with the famous Marathi ‘kirtan’ ‘Jai Jai Ram Krishna Hari’ a beautiful composition in Raga khamaj presented by Suranjan khandalker who accentuated the composition with his soothing Alaaps and pronouncing the lord’s name to create a spiritual enigma characteristic of the kirtan repertoire accompanied with fast Sargams towards its climax. Khandelkar is the winner of the Spic Macay Classical Music Competition and happens to be the disciple of Pt. Ajay Pohankar while he also belongs to the Vatkari Sampradaya of folk musicians which reside near Pune and Panderpur areas, who dedicate their music to Lord Vithala.”
The next composition in the set was a popular folk form ‘Lavni’ from the Marathi film, ‘Pinjara’ presented by Kartiki Gaikwad who has been the winner of SaReGaMa little champs in 2008, her sharp vocal tonality and fluent brisk ‘Murki’s and taans’ mesmerised the audiences with her articulate rendition of the form. Then came the famous ‘Abhang’ ‘Tirtha Vithal’ which has been popularly sung by Pt. Bhimsen Joshiji, was rendered by Suranjan Khandelkar who again embellished it with his vocal finesse and exotic tankari. Padmanabha an 18-year-old boy presented the ‘Guwaran’ as a tribute to ‘Sant Eknath’ who had written them in the praise of Lord Krishna depicting his interaction with the Gopis, the song was an interesting mix of sound, ideally, a rock song in Marathi as Abhijit Pohankar called it.”
The entire soundscape of the act included classical music amalgamation of different raga pieces composed on the keyboard with modern music fused with drums and traditional orchestration with Dhol, Tashe Dholki, Manjira, creating an experience heard never before. The finale included a Thumri piece by legendary Pt. Ajay Pohankarji who brought the Midas touch to the entire ensemble by paying a tribute to the doyen of Patiala Gharana legendary Us. Bade Gulam Ali Khan Sahib with his mesmerizing rendition of ‘Naina more taras gaye, aaja balam pardes’. The piece began with Abhijit’s fluent Alaap of Raga Mishra Khamaj, as his fingers ran on the keyboard with excellent mastery, while the concert reached its crescendo with heavy percussion, drums, tabla, and keyboard amalgamation. Watching Abhijit Pohankar and his talented troupe of musicians was indeed a treat for the listeners and that’s what the Paddy Fields Festival is known for to bring to the table every year a bouquet of a diverse set of genres to enthrall the audiences.