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12 songs to understand Kumar Gandharva

The essential Kumar Gandharva playlist curated by musician and musicologist Satyasheel Deshpande

Kumar Gandharva in concert
Kumar Gandharva in concert

Bandish: Yaar Ve Na Ayo Re

Raga: Kalyan

A great example of how Kumarji gave the bandish precedence over the traditional format of presenting a raga. In this 25-minute madhyalay, there is no clear sequence of alap-bol-alap-bol-tan-tan or of expanding the raga linearly note by note. His performance is oriented towards exploring the bandish continually and making it flower.

Bandish: Pihar Na Man Lage

Raga: Nat

This would be on my list of the top five bandishes composed by Kumarji. It takes the complex, intricate nat and turns it into an evocative song, a feat that is only possible when you have truly digested the many possibilities of a raga. He can be heard saying in the recording, in Marathi, that “a secret is being told here”. The text has the nayike telling her sakhi, in confidence, that mera man pihar mein nahi lagta—naino mein piya bas gaye hain!

Bandish: Aap Ke Bulava

Raga: Desi

A bandish composed by Kumarji that brings in textual themes, largely absent from Hindustani music. Kumarji composed this when he was reminded of an invitation to sing at a friend’s place that he had forgotten about. When his friend, Damukaka, reminded him, Kumarji turned the reminder (sthai) and his own response to it (antara) into this bandish. Loosely translated—Sthai: “You have an invitation! Do you remember, my friend? They’re all waiting for you there!” Antara: “Oh yes, I completely forgot! Good of you to come and remind me. Let’s go there together now.”

Bandish: Sakhi Mukha Chandra

Raga: Khambavati

A bandish made famous by Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze. A great example of how connected Kumarji was to his buzurgs. Here, you can hear him inhabit vazebuwa's idiom, his asthma-induced terse, expressive phrasing, and vocal power, asar.

Bandish: Sapat Sur Gave

Raga: Nat

My father, Vamanrao Deshpande, observed that this is one of the bandishes Kumarji composed as representative of his understanding of the Jaipur gharana. The tala (teental) and lay are typical of Jaipur, and he adds very specific accents to the melody line like jaipur singers do—but this is done using bandish text rather than aakaar, so that the performance always stays close to the bandish

Bandish: Ho Miya Janewale

Raga: Kafi

Kumarji showed us how a tappa doesn’t need to be a performance of never-ending vocal acrobatics but can contain solid musical design. This performance is laden with the most precarious tappa-taans but remains a stable, uncrowded bandish and makes the tappa a genre of musical contemplation rather than a medium to display virtuosity.

Bandish: Kaun Thagava

Raga: Nirgun Bhajan

Kumarji was known for his passionate uchcharan. Also seen in this video are Kumarji’s long-time accompanists, Vasantrao Achrekar, whose theka had become an inseparable part of Kumarji’s music, and Govindrao Patwardhan, whose restrained and sureela harmonium gave Kumarji just the canvas he needed.

Bandish: Lagi Re Mori Nai Lagan

Raga: Kamod

An example of a traditional bandish that had become stale from oversinging, rejuvenated by Kumarji, by relying on Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande’s notation of it rather than following conventionally sung versions.

Bandish: Nain Ghat Ghatat Na

Raga: Surdas Bhajan

Surdas’ inimitable mastery of alliteration (Nain ghat ghatat na ik ghari) is made all the more poignant by Kumarji’s rendition of it. Kumarji had a unique ability to inhabit the Bhakti poets, to choose the most evocative works from their canon, and a sensitive, literary understanding of poetry.

Bandish: Jamuna Ke Teer

Raga: Bhairavi

Kumarji famously performed this bandish, a Kirana gharana staple made famous by Abdul Karim Khan saheb, at the Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune in 1976. I am on tanpura in this video, and I witnessed him preparing for this performance. I procured the recording of Rahimat Khan singing this thumri for him, to aid his preparation. I call this performance “A study of Abdul Karim Khan saheb in Kumarji’s voice”.

Bandish: Tod Lai Raja

Raga: Dadra

This is a good example of how Kumarji brought lilt and lightness into the Benares thumri that had otherwise started to become heavy.

Bandish: Banu Re Balaiya

Raga: Kalyan

This is one of the old, “big” Gwalior khayals, known for its weight, heft, and how it "contains the whole raga". Yet Kumarji is able to make even this vilambit khayal sound like a lilting song, and instead of stuffing it with all the Kalyan he knows, is able to draw out of it a particular “profile” (Kumarji's term) of the raga that is different from the Kalyan he reads into other bandishes in the same raga.

As told to Devina Dutt.


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