Arati Ankalikar on the importance of hard work, gurukul, and the listeners Hindustani classical music deserves

  • Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar is revered for her distinctive high-pitched and emotive singing.

  • She’s committed to being a dedicated guru, with students living in her own house, thereby perpetuating the ancient gurukul tradition.

  • She acknowledges that while classical music won’t have a large audience, it certainly demands a dedicated, educated group of listeners and critics.

Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar — Hindustani classical vocalist virtuoso, two-time National Award winner, and dedicated guru — has a uniquely musical way of experiencing the world. “I think as a musician whenever I listen to even the sound a table-fan makes, my musical brain starts working. It’s not only the musical notes, any sound gets processed beautifully in my brain, which I really enjoy and sometimes I’m surprised at the way my brain reacts,” Ankalikar tells Firstpost in an interview.

 Arati Ankalikar on the importance of hard work, gurukul, and the listeners Hindustani classical music deserves

Arati Ankalikar. YouTube screenshot.

On 21 June, Arati Ankalikar delivered a talk at Mumbai’s Kitab Khana, organised by Junoon, where the 56-year-old, known for her distinctive high-pitched, emotive singing, spoke of her fulfilling relationship with Hindustani classical music, one that is far more intimate than a mere companionship. “I think music and me are one. It’s something like my breath. I don’t feel that music is something separate from me, it’s very much inside me, and I’m very much inside the gubbaara (balloon) of music," she says.

The foundation of this oneness was laid early in her life. Born in 1963, Ankalikar was first introduced to classical music at the age of 10, when her father would coax her to attend concerts with the bait of vada pavs during intervals. However, the experience of listening to legends like Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Malini Rajurkar, Dr Prabha Atre, Pt Jasraj and Gaan Saraswati Kishori Amonkar among others, proved to be transformational. She describes the concerts as episodes of seeing skeletons of ragas acquire faces and find embodiments, and attributes her understanding of the abstract, intangible concepts constituting music to this early induction. Young Ankalikar quickly became an avid listener, and thereby began her musical quest.

The artiste has fond memories of her gurus Pt Vasantrao Kulkarni, Pt Dinkar Kaikini and Kishori Amonkar. She recalls her time with Amonkar, whom she started training with at the age of 18. She remembers waiting for her "Amonkar ji" to enter the room, likening the excitement of seeing her to that of catching a glimpse of deities when the curtains were rolled back in the morning at temples. "Woh humare liye bhagwan thee, hain, aur hamesha rahengi (She was, is, and will always be like god for us)," the singer asserts with pride.

Ankalikar's gurus. (L-R)Pt Vasantrao Kulkarni, Pt Dinkar Kaikini and Gaan Saraswat Kishori Amonkar.

Ankalikar's gurus. (L-R) Pt Vasantrao Kulkarni, Pt Dinkar Kaikini and Gaan Saraswat Kishori Amonkar.

Ankalikar’s experience of listening to Amonkar was immersive, to say the least. She not only felt that the artiste literally personified the raga, but that the entire world was built on that raga, and that she — a part of this phenomenon — was also the raga. “When I heard Kishori tai’s yaman, the different shades of [the same] yaman, every day in the morning and evening, I would become [the] yaman.”

Her gurus taught her important lessons on Indian classical music — about how it did not live in the points or the notes, but in the bridges, the transitions that joined two notes. That’s what an artist in this discpline makes their own, whose navigation can only be learnt through a guru, not a textbook, according to Ankalikar.

Overall, the vocalist has a methodical approach to her craft: first, you learn the technique and the physical skeleton of a raga, then you think about it critically, analytically, and bring your own interpretation to it; and finally, you emote, – something that she says gets better with age and a few heartbreaks – which is when a song finally belongs to the singer. As a guru herself, these are the important lessons she strives to pass on to her students, since given the immensity of the subject, one cannot hand down the tradition in its entirety.

“Indian classical music is a very, very vast subject, it has tremendous depth and it’s like a maha sagar (ocean). Woh ek mutthi mein nahin aa sakta hai (It cannot be contained in a fist).” She’s committed to being a dedicated guru, so much so that some of her students live with her in her own house. Proudly perpetuating the ancient gurukul system, Ankalikar ensures her students don't have to worry about anything besides music.

One student, who wishes to remain anonymous and has been living with her for four years, describes her as a dedicated teacher with a friendly nature. “Besides having a student-teacher relationship, we also share a mother-daughter relationship," she says.

The veteran artiste talks about a "healthy competitive spirit" prevailing in her gurukul. "For me, it’s really wonderful to be with the youth and the kind of energy they have and [their] enthusiasm, it’s wonderful. I think teaching is also learning, so I enjoy it," she says.

Ankalikar ranks hard work above talent, defining an ideal student as one who invests more in the former. “I think that really gives your sur the tej (sharpness), your music starts shining actually. So I think hard work is the key." For her, showing keen interest in learning fares higher than one's giftedness too. “So, it’s a mix of talent, interest, and hard work,” the artiste says.

Ankalikar remembers being a sincere and hard-working student herself. “First you work hard, you start getting opportunities, then the opportunities teach you so much.”

The vocalist recalls an instance in her early twenties, when she was set to perform at the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Annual Festival held in Pune, and was given a 9 pm slot initially. However, her turn kept getting deferred, until she finally took the stage at 3 am. Having prepared the 9 pm raga – Hindustani classical music has specific ragas for specific hours of the day – she ended up singing a different raga that she hadn’t rehearsed as thoroughly. This, with the added pressure of being a young singer performing in front of an audience of 10,000 to 12,000 seasoned, educated classical listeners, was certainly a challenge. But Ankalikar put her best foot forward. “I think I did pretty well that day,” she remembers fondly.

Arati Ankarekar. Photo credit:

Arati Ankalikar. Photo credit:

This moment went on to become a milestone in her career. “When you achieve something, that gives you confidence, and then you can proceed further and do better… This continues, it’s a journey. At every step you feel like you can do better.”

On that note, Arati Ankalikar looks back at another momentous event in her life, one that came while recording music for Shyam Benegal’s 1996 musical drama, Sardari Begum. “If it was pure filmy songs, I may not have sung any, but because these were light classical I sang for the film and I enjoyed it,” she says. Even though the music itself was fun, the speed of the process surprised her.

She explains how she normally sings a song multiple times, paying close attention to different aspects like the voice, tune, beat, and their interweaving: “All that my intelligence scans and I understand the design and then I sing it, and then the emotion comes into the picture," Ankalikar explains. But for the film, she remembers how Benegal would discuss the scene for the song with her and lyricist Javed Akhtar, and composer Vanraj Bhatia, following which she would learn the song and record it. The entire process took about three to four hours. Performing successfully in this fast-paced, unusual environment solidified Arati's conviction in her own abilities. “I really thought that I can learn a song and put my soul into it, heart into it, and give my best in the studio. That was wonderful," she says.

Ankalikar's illustrious career spanning decades is studded with many such accomplishments. But even after a lifetime of singing, learning, and practising, her early experiences as a listener continue to hold sway over her development as an artiste. Nothing excites her more than listening to a new song even today. “I think music has many dimensions, the sound has many dimensions. There is a tune – which in classical music is the raga, there are words and there is taal (beat). The song we hear is woven, all three aspects become very important in it. So whenever I listen to any music, my brain processes all this.
In addition, also how the voice has been – the application of voice, the voice modulation and the spaces used for the production of voice. Also emotionally, the emotions can be expressed through voice – and that skill has to be developed, you cannot just have emotions and not the skill. So all that, I scan it and process it and it’s a very, very enjoyable thing," she explains.

Ankalikar takes pride in being a good listener, clearly stating the importance of such an audience in the making of an artist. “To have quality artists, we also need quality listeners,” she says. The singer acknowledges that even though classical music won’t garner a large audience, it certainly demands a dedicated, educated one. The listener must surrender any idea they have of the music, and simply listen to the way the artiste is singing a song. In her view, learning about classical music is just as crucial as training oneself to listen to it. For her, both skills are indispensable while learning how to appreciate the craft.

In this conversation with Firstpost, Arati Ankalikar explains how a person can educate oneself about Indian classical music, and why such lessons are important for a listener:

Updated Date: Jul 06, 2019 10:13:14 IST