Giving India a voice

Singer Pushkar Lele brings the ‘living art’ of Hindustani music to Jerusalem’s Confederation House.

PUSHKAR LELE’S mother spotted his gift for music early on. (photo credit: AMBAREESH PITTIE)
PUSHKAR LELE’S mother spotted his gift for music early on.
(photo credit: AMBAREESH PITTIE)
When it comes to sonic panacea, there are few disciplines more likely to calm the nerves and lift the soul than Indian music. Pushkar Lele has been charming audiences all over the world for nearly three decades, and will display his practiced vocal dexterity here this week, when he plays two concerts at the Confederation House in Jerusalem on Wednesday and Thursday (both at 8:30 p.m.).
Despite still being on “the right side” of 40, Lele has been displaying his natural and developed gifts to appreciative music lovers since he could just about look the proverbial grasshopper in the knee.
His earliest performances were, Lele recalls, a good start to his performing career.
“It was a lot fun,” he says. “There was no stage fright or audience fright.”
The venue ambiance helped to calm any nerves the youngster may have had.
“It was at a small temple that is very close to my house, so it was a comfortable setting. It was not an alien space to me.”
Already at the age of seven, singing was a familiar exercise for the lad.
“I sang songs my then-teacher taught me and, as the concert went on, the audience was applauding me so that probably extinguished any nerves I may have had.”
Lele’s precocious musical talent was first noted when he was four years old, although his initial line of expression was instrumental rather than vocal.
“I started playing the harmonium. It was a sort of toy harmonium that was given to me by one of my aunts. I was in kindergarten and they taught us all those nursery rhymes and national songs. I used to try to play those things on the harmonium.”
But it wasn’t just a matter of tinkering on the keys and having fun with the ensuing notes. The boy wanted to make some cogent sense out of the sounds that were being magically produced on his diminutive pump organ.
“If I didn’t get a line correct, I wouldn’t look at the next line,” he explains. “It would trouble me.”
That early earnestness was duly noted by the tot’s mother.
“She felt that this was not something normal and that I seemed to be a different child in music,” says Lele.
He may not have been blessed with the musical genetic baggage of say, world-famous Indian tabla player Zakeer Hussain, who presumably inherited some of his gifts from his tabla-playing father Alla Rakha. Among many other notable achievements, Rakha helped to introduce Western ears to the hypnotic vibes of Indian music alongside iconic sitar player Ravi Shankar at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, in California. Even so, Lele did get some crucial parental support.
“Fortunately, my mother spotted my talent. She thought I seemed to be gifted for music. If my mother had not spotted that, my gift would probably have been lost, or discovered too late. My mother thought I was a child prodigy. That’s how my musical journey began.”
The harmonium soon fell by the musical wayside and Lele quickly began focusing on vocals. A teacher was procured – an elderly gent by the name of Pandit Gangabhar Bua Bimbalahare, who initially was a little reticent about taking the then eight-year-old under his wing. Bimbalahare intended to refer the youngster to one of his disciples for tutoring. Mrs. Lele responded by asking the teacher to at least allow the boy to sing for him, after which it was a done deal – the impressed Bimbalahare began coaching the youngster himself, first as part of a group and later one on one. It was, says the singer, a game changer.
“In India we always say that to get the right guru at the right time in your life is something that is a sign for you – either you get it, or you don’t get it. If you don’t get the right teacher, that can ruin everything for you. I was very fortunate to get this man early in my life, as my first guru.”
Lele was thrown in at the deep end.
“The other people in the class were in their 30s or 40s,” Lele recalls.
Bimbalahare clearly thought the boy was made of the right stuff.
“He taught me really complicated things. He never made things easier for me. He didn’t take into consideration that I was a child. He never simplified things for me.” It was to be a lasting boon for the singer.
“Later on in life, I never thought I shouldn’t sing something because it’s too complicated for me.
As he grew up, other sounds and rhythms entered musical hinterland, although he says they did not color his mindset.
“I heard Western pop and rock, but through friends – sort of like secondhand smoking,” he laughs.
Western classical music left a more lasting, and favorable impression.
“I listened to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and all the others. I thought it was very picturesque. It moved me. It seemed royal and dramatic, but it is very different from Indian music – the harmonies and everything else.”
Lele hails from southern India, where Hindustani music rules the roost, while the northern part of the subcontinent is the home of the Carnatic genre.
“They are different in terms of the vocalization and Hindustani music uses a lot of stable notes, the kind of note you don’t find in Carnatic music. You also have very slow elaboration [in Hindustani music]. In Carnatic music you have short items.”
Actually, both styles stem from the same source, but bifurcation began in the 12th century, as Persian and Mughal influences insinuated themselves in the north. The Hindustani style also offers greater improvisational leeway.
Although Lele is keenly aware that he is upholding a tradition, he is more than happy to go with the personal flow.
“It is a living art and a transient art. It is born at the very moment you sing it.”
Here’s to rebirthing at the Confederation House this week.
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226, and