DO RE. . . GA MA

AMBARISH MISHRA
TIMES OF INDIA (Bombay Edition) – FEBRUARY 2, 1997

For Sanjeev Ramabhadran, Mozart, Marathi natya-padas and Mohammed Rafi are all part of his eclectic musical repertoire. Ambarish Mishra meets the 21-year-old US-based vocalist.

He looks a Microsoft person, every byte. A cool guy who would be only willing to announce his allegiance to Madonna and microchips, Coke and Calvin Klein. Yet, it
is when belting out a Rafi number from Baiju-Bawra or Kohinoor that Sanjeev Ramabhadran comes into his own.

With every note he seems eager to drop his Man-from-Manhattan identity and blend with the vastness of India.

The US based Iyer vocalist may have recorded a song for Woody Allen’s forthcoming film, Everyone Says I Love You, but his heart seems set on the vintage Saigal, Manna Dey and, of course, the inimitable Mohammed Rafi. Sanjeev admits that Rafi has altered his agenda at least for now. “Rafisaab has made all the difference in my life,” drawls the 21-year-old who has under his belt a degree in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University. “I really don’t know if I want to make a career in Hindi film music, let’s see. For now, I am just floating around,” says Sanjeev who has earned accolades for his songs in Sa Re Ga Ma, the popular, song-based contest on Zee TV.

A cushy job in a multinational corporation is “very groovy”. But the Princeton payyan is presently on a back-to-the 1950s trip, hopping through the ‘golden era’ of Bollywood when Anil Biswas and Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan and O. P. Nayyar, Madan Mohan and Roshan, Sahir and Shailendra reigned supreme and when film buffs made a beeline for smoke-filled cinema halls to lap up the haunting numbers of Talat and Rafi, Lata and Asha, Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum, Mukesh and Manna Dey.

During his recent visit to Mumbai, Sanjeev enthralled a select gathering of music buffs and close friends with a solo concert, an eclectic blend of hummable ditties from the 1950s and ’60s, a Saigal song, a Marathi natya-pada, two bhajans and a heavy-duty classical composition from Shankarabharanam.

The lanky crooner prefaced each song with a brief remark in English tinged with a Yankee accent, much to the amusement of his admirers. Prolonged applause echoed through the small auditorium of the University club house when Sanjeev’s nimble began to caress the notes of Chhalkaye jaam, aaiye aapki aankhon ke naam on the keyboard. “The song is sensuous, almost evil,” he declared, pausing to take a swig from a Bisleri bottle. In the foyer, canteen boys swayed their hips to the tantalizing Rafi number from Mere Humdum Mere Dost.

Later Sanjeev was besieged by admirers, most of them adoring 40-plus women, his mother’s schoolfriends. “He’s out of this world. Sanjeev has done Rajani proud.” Gushed Dr. Alka Karande, the BMC’s executive health officer and Ms. Ramabhadran’s friend from Parle Tilak Vidhyalaya.

Rajani and her husband Ram Ramabhadran chucked up their jobs in the Bhabha Atomic Research Center and migrated to the U.S. in the early 1970s. They first pitched their tent in Dallas, Texas, the birth place of Sanjeev and later moved to St. Louis. The family is now settled in Connecticut where the erudite couple is engaged in research and teaching.

Sanjeev’s love affair with Hindi film music began in Texas. Every evening Papa Ramabhadran would revive memories of Mother India by playing 78 rpm records of Saigal, Talat, and Rafi. Ramabhadran Sr.’s routine tryst with nostalgia fired young Sanjeev’s imagination and soon he, all of six, was straddling the two worlds of Hindustani and Western classical music, much before East-Western fusion became the rage.

While well-known vocalist Shri Ram Phatak, on his frequent visits to the US, taught him the rudiments of ragas, Sanjeev also began to befriend Mozart and Beethoven. Hours of rigorous practice paid rich rewards. Sanjeev was the concertmaster of New have Symphony Orchestra and a member of the select ensemble. An accomplished tenor he was one of the Guilford High School Madrigals who performed in Europe and at the centennial celebrations of Carnegie Hall in New York. Again while at Princeton, he was a member of the Princeton Nasoons, the globe-trotting a capella musical group.

When Pt. V. G. Jog visited New York a few years ago, the teenaged Sanjeev was only too happy to provide percussion support to the eminent violinist. Sanjeev fondly remembers the chock-a-block concert of Pt. Jitendra Abhisheki, also in New York. “I accompanied Panditji on the violin,” he says with a tinge of pride.

Yet, Sanjeev hates being labeled a ‘prodigy’. “There was nothing precocious about me or my talent. I had a perfectly normal childhood,” he explains. “Even today, a baseball match on television often gets precedence over riyaaz.”

Sanjeev recently spent over a month in Mumbai for a quick recap of Bollywood’s music scene. “It’s chaotic,” he sighs. Though his first compact disc (with noted playback singer Kavita Krishnamurty) was released in June 1995, Sanjeev is not sure if he should hitch onto the ‘private album bandwagon’ of the 1990s.

The lack of professionalism in the recording studios is yet another cause for concern. “I am afraid the music industry is crowded by groupies and fly-by-the-night operators masquerading as music moghuls. Honestly that kind of culture scares me,” he states.

Meanwhile, Bollywood’s loss is the gain of the Mehtas from Mehsana and the Chettiars of Cochin. Every other weekend Sanjeev, armed with his keyboard and kid brother Sachin in tow, hops around the NRI-dominated cities, regaling the NRIs with songs that revive the sepia-tinted memories of a soft-focus era.

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