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Dattatreya Parvatikar: The musician as a mystic

Musician Dattatreya Parvatikar, the creator of the Datta veena, trained leading figures in the country, including our first president

Parvatikar (left) teaching music to Rajendra Prasad. Photo: Courtesy Pramila Deshmukh
Parvatikar (left) teaching music to Rajendra Prasad. Photo: Courtesy Pramila Deshmukh (Courtesy Pramila Deshmukh)

Encased in a glass cabinet at the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s headquarters in New Delhi is a unique instrument. The Datta veena, which was once played by the country’s first president, Rajendra Prasad, is the only known piece of its kind today. It bears the inscription “1961". The instrument appears to be a hybrid between the vichitra veena and the swarmandal, attached to a Rudra veena—fitted with a built-in harp at the base and a gourd at the top. While there is no known living performer of the Datta veena today, the instrument narrates a fascinating tale of its inventor, Pandit Dattatreya Parvatikar, a musician and a mystic, who has been forgotten over time.

Parvatikar was born in 1916 in Guledgudda village, near the ancient temples of Badami (located today in Karnataka’s Bagalkot district). According to the late scholar musician and music critic Ashok Ranade, who met him once, Parvatikar had shown mystical leanings from a young age. Often, Parvatikar had strange dreams in which he saw mystics inviting him to their abode. In a March 1965 article in the Marathi journal Sangeetkaar, Ranade wrote that as a teenager, Parvatikar once even ran away from home in search of a guru. His family managed to track him down and brought him back. Eventually, Parvatikar graduated from Osmania University, got married and had a son, but his calling was so strong that he renounced family life.

In the same article, Ranade offers an interesting description about Parvatikar: “Dressed like a mendicant, he roamed with musical instruments. He spent several years meditating on the banks of the Tungabhadra river. Staying in different ashrams across the country, he reached the foothills of the Himalayas, giving impromptu concerts outside temples; he gathered a large following over time. He eventually settled in a shack outside the temple of Badrinath."

Among Parvatikar’s many followers was the Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting (1949-52) R.R. Diwakar. With Diwakar’s assistance, Parvatikar was featured in the National Programme of Music on All India Radio, and gained a wider audience. Diwakar eventually introduced the mystic to Rajendra Prasad, who took an instant liking to his music, and decided to become one of his students. Today, one can only imagine the sight of a semi-naked Parvatikar, with dreadlocks and a large Vaishnavite holy mark on his forehead, walking through the corridors of Rashtrapati Bhawan, to give the president lessons on classical music. In August 1951, Prasad invited Parvatikar to perform at the Congress of the World’s Ambassadors in New Delhi.

While Parvatikar regularly visited Prasad in New Delhi, he never stayed in one place for too long. K.M. Munshi, founder of the cultural education institution, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Delhi, mentioned in the Bhavan’s journal (in 1966), that he had seen him once, amid hundreds of monks, playing the Rudra veena outside the Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand in 1953. British archivist and film-maker, Leslie Shepard recollects seeing Parvatikar in the Himalayas on one of his trips to India in the late 1950s. Shepard even stayed with him for six months in 1958, during which time he studied yoga, Hindu metaphysics and classical music. Shepard believed that the rigorous practice of yoga helped Parvatikar repair his lungs, which had been damaged when he worked as a young man at an asbestos warehouse. In a 1962 essay titled, “A Portrait Of An Indian Musician", Shepard wrote: “It may seem strange that this internationally celebrated musician, a man of education, an author-scholar, a successful radio artist, should live in great poverty and simplicity in an old temple, but this is India! In this land of contrasts, ancient religious doctrines exist side by side with the new morality of industrialization and the hard business deal."

In 1955, Parvatikar founded the music institute Naadananda at The Divine Life Society in Rishikesh. Spiritual teacher Swami Sivananda inaugurated the institute and bestowed on Parvatikar the title of “Nadayogi" (a yogi of music). Parvatikar also published a quarterly bilingual magazine in Hindi and English that kept readers up-to-date with his research in music. In 1966, he released Raga Sudha, a book which encapsulated over 90,000 variants of aarohan-avarohan (the ascending and descending notes of a melodic scale) of different ragas.

The Datta veena, one could argue, might have been invented around this time, during one of his many research experiments in music. Unfortunately, there are no available preserved recordings of this instrument being played, but scholars like Ranade have written rave reviews on the instrument’s musical quality.

There are, however, recordings of Parvatikar playing other instruments, including the Rudra veena. French musicologist and Indologist Alain Daniélou, who toured India from 1932-60, recorded many of Parvatikar’s performances. These recordings are now preserved as part of the Unesco Collection of Traditional Music of the World. In 1997, as a tribute to Daniélou, Unesco reissued them in an album titled A Musical Anthology Of The Orient. These are probably the only surviving recordings of Parvatikar’s work.

The musician, who died in 1990, spent his last days in Pune. Last year, his birth centenary passed unnoticed. All we have of his legacy now, are a few scattered images and the lone Datta veena locked up in a museum. This particular instrument, which belonged to the late president, was donated to the Akademi later. In the modern history of Indian classical music, Parvatikar’s research in music therapy and allied areas (yoga, for instance) is underrated. According to Ranade, Parvatikar believed music and yoga can heal. No other modern-day Indian classical musician has been a wandering mystic, spreading classical musical awareness as a service.

Note Worthy is a spotlight on the world of Indian performing arts.

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