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What made Kumar Gandharva one of a kind

As concerts to mark Kumar Gandharva’s birth centenary year begin, Lounge recalls the classical musician's dynamic range and quest for depth of thought and expression

Kumar Gandharva on stage, with his second wife, Vasundhara Komkali, on tanpura for the programme ‘Bhakti Aur Sangeet’ (1987) in Delhi.
Kumar Gandharva on stage, with his second wife, Vasundhara Komkali, on tanpura for the programme ‘Bhakti Aur Sangeet’ (1987) in Delhi. (Courtesy: Avinash Pasricha)

By the time he turned 12 in 1936, Kumar Gandharva, or Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath, had put in several years of hectic travel across undivided India. The centrepiece of “Kumar Gandharva and Party” was the then unschooled lead vocalist, who rendered covers of the great masters he had heard on records with unusual felicity. In fact, the title of Kumar Gandharva was bestowed on him by a seer who was transported by the child prodigy’s recital.

Their travels had taken the group from his home in Sulebhavi village, near Belagavi in present-day Karnataka, to Bombay (Mumbai), Nagpur, Allahabad (Prayagraj), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Lahore, Karachi and Shikarpur (all three now in Pakistan), where they were feted by stalwarts and crowds alike. For, by the early decades of the 20th century, Indian classical music had begun moving from the erstwhile princely states to Mumbai, Lahore and Kolkata, which were emerging as hubs, with the promise of newer opportunities for musicians.

There are stories of the young Kumar Gandharva performing at the Prayag Sangeet Samiti, an important music conference, at the Zamindar Association Hall in Prayagraj on Diwali eve in 1935. Here, by day, he played games with other boys, and by evening, dressed in a silk achkan, ascended the stage to deliver an inspired rendition of the great musicians he had heard. How could an untutored child extend the three-minute 78RPM recordings he had only heard into a riveting concert-length programme? Leading musicians, including Agra gharana maestro Ustad Faiyaz Khan and the popular actor and playback singer K.L. Saigal, were in the first row of the enraptured audience. A few months later, early in 1936, he gave his first concert in Mumbai at the prestigious Jinnah House, where he was accompanied by sarangi maestro Ustad Bundu Khan.

Kumar Gandharva’s was a dramatic life of intense artistry, inventiveness and depth. As concerts and shows to mark his birth centenary year begin, it is time to recall the full, dynamic range of an original artistic quest within the world of Indian classical music, by a practitioner who understood but also questioned tradition with a critical and contemporary lens.

Photographs from the 1930s show an assured, composed child in a dark waistcoat with embellishments and a cap high up on his forehead looking straight into the camera. That directness of gaze and easy, natural self-assurance were to remain lifelong traits, often manifesting themselves in adulthood and in his music as a dogged commitment, not without a hint of obduracy, to doing things his way.

It is this predilection for independent, critical thinking and the volume as well as diversity of his creative output that makes Kumar Gandharva one of a kind. Over the next five decades of intense music-making, he showed, apart from his talent, an intuitive, unusually holistic understanding of the diverse art forms and living cultures of the time.

Kumar Gandharva was born on 8 April 1924; his talent had been noticed by his father and immediate circle of music enthusiasts by the age of six, when he reproduced the renditions of maestros just by hearing their records. By 1936, he had spent time with great musicians, experiencing first-hand the multiplicity of ways in which this complex art form was learnt, taught and transmitted among the elite as he travelled the musical circuit. He would go on to carry out experiments with traditional Hindustani classical music, creating new ragas he called Dhun Ugam Raagas (ragas created from existing folk melodies), like Madhsurja, Saheli Todi, Lagan Gandhar and Maalvati, which are practised by musicians.

From 1966, he also ushered in the era of curated or special programmes with Geet Varsha, a programme on songs of the rainy season, in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, titled Ghan Garjan Aaye. He was branded a rebel because he disregarded the so-called cardinal principles and preferred to be led by his own sense of spontaneous beauty, choosing to use or discard an aesthetic attribute as he wished.

At age 23, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told not to sing. He shifted to the small town of Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, with its drier climate. It would be six years before he recovered and returned to the stage. From the 1950s until his death in January 1992, he was often mired in bitter debates arising from the prevailing gharana (school of music or stylistic lineage) system in which rules, grammar and allegiance to guru often trumped individual aesthetic choice.

Kumar Gandharva wanted to know why he was expected, as a classical musician, to offer the same fare in the same way and make his living artistry a museum piece. Although his music did not follow strict grammar rules at all times, the freshness and depth of thought and expression actually proved that his understanding of tradition and received aesthetic principles was far superior to that of his detractors. No wonder he would sometimes stoutly declare that he was the most traditional and orthodox classical musician around.

Kumar Gandharva on a low stage, with listeners on the ground, at a ‘mehfil’ from 1979, Delhi
Kumar Gandharva on a low stage, with listeners on the ground, at a ‘mehfil’ from 1979, Delhi (Courtesy: Avinash Pasricha)

His programmes, created at the intersection of music, theatre and literature, gave Indian classical music a much needed modern outlook in the first few decades of post-independence India. He was, in today’s parlance, a multidisciplinary artist with an abiding interest in the world he inhabited.

Pune, Maharashtra-based Hindustani classical vocalist Pushkar Lele, 43, known for his contemporary approach to classical music, says Kumar Gandharva’s approach changed the way he viewed music. By the time he was in his second year of college in the mid-1980s, Lele, who had begun learning music at the age of seven, had begun to chafe at the rigidity of the music ecosystem. Then he came across the Marathi booklet Mukkam Vashi, on the lectures Kumar Gandharva had given during a residential workshop in 1990 (the videos are now available on YouTube). He was stunned by the openness of spirit he encountered.

“For a classical musician to discover that tradition and the guru can be questioned was a big thing,” says Lele, who attended a Kumar Gandharva concert in Pune as a young teen but never met him. He did later learn from one of Kumar Gandharva’s closest disciples, the late Pandit Vijay Sardeshmukh, in Pune. “He had put forward so many thoughts. In the presentation of a bandish (composition), he asks what should be considered central, raga or taal or bandish, and whether it was always fixed. Nobody else was talking about being able to view these questions from shifting perspectives and the aesthetics that could emerge. What is the centre and what is the periphery, what is yogya and ayogya (acceptable and not acceptable)?” says Lele. Among the list of curated special programmes Kumar Gandharva presented was Triveni, in 1967 in Mumbai, on the poems of Kabir, Surdas and Meera.

This questioning and creative approach often pitted him against the purists. In 1968, he gave his first thematic concert in Mumbai, Mala Umajlele Balgandharva (Balgandharva, As I See Him), in which he presented a portrait of the beloved Marathi natyasangeet (musical theatre) icon of the 1920s-30s. Back then, thematic, curated programmes which explored the close links between literature and music were unheard of in classical music circles. These concerts were based on months of careful study of each poet. Their essential and distinctive aesthetics were distilled and a careful selection of their texts presented as musical compositions. The immediate response from the naysayers came in the form of a particularly acerbic newspaper headline: Kumar Gandharva, As You Don’t See Him.

His grandson, the Hindustani vocalist Bhuvanesh Komkali, says he was mindful of the artist’s prerogative to solitude and reflection. “Every concert was thought through and when he felt the travel and performance might eat into his time, he would decline a concert. I often wonder at the speed and range of his output. Every room in our home in Dewas was full of music practice or discussions on music when he was home. How did he make the time for his concerts across the country, travelling from Dewas when communications were not what they are today, and keep his creative, intellectual quests always at the heart of his artistic self?” wonders Komkali.

In a show of striking artistic integrity, he would move on from each presentation of his curated programmes, refusing to be bound to it after a few shows even when there was the promise of a commercial run. He had other ideas to explore, he would say.

And yet he faced criticism throughout his career. Not every concert was well attended. At one concert in the 1960s at Mumbai’s Shivaji Mandir, there were just 12 people in the audience. Satyasheel Deshpande, his disciple for 18 years and a noted scholar and musician from Pune, says that when Kumar Gandharva’s friend, the Marathi poet Mangesh Padgaonkar, expressed regret at the poor showing, the musician made light of it, saying he never looked outside his self during a concert. “He knew how to take creative failures in his stride and for someone who experimented as much as he did, this was bound to happen,” says Deshpande, son of musicologist and scholar Vamanrao Deshpande.

The individual vs tradition
In the complex universe of Indian classical music, there was always a thin line between the impetus of carving out individual artistic space and the oppressive overhang of the poorly understood word parampara, or the superstructure of inherited tradition.

Writer and musicologist Mukesh Garg conducted one of the most detailed interviews with Kumar Gandharva in 1990 at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Delhi. When Garg began by stating that some people felt he had flouted tradition, he was immediately interrupted. The audio recording captures Kumar Gandharva’s high-pitched voice and exasperation: “Why is everyone so smitten with tradition?”

Reflecting on the maestro’s lifelong stand-off with the purists, Garg tells me the problem lies with the flawed understanding of tradition in classical music. “Purists believe it is inherited wealth and needs to be preserved and produced as received. It is more nuanced than that. All that was good from the past can be kept but there are changes in every age and the idea of what constitutes tradition must be renegotiated in every age by a new set of artists,” he says.

A new musicianship
Arriving in Dewas, in the Malwa region, on 30 January 1948, shortly after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and under strict orders to refrain from singing, he immersed himself in the language, folk music, local ecology and rural rhythms of the region. An intense period of listening, collecting and studying the music, including that of the Nathpanthi sect of ascetic musicians who worshipped the formless, followed during his long convalescence (1948-53). When he returned to the stage in 1953, he had begun to think about the folk music of Malwa both from the lens of a classical musician and as an independent musical entity. Many of his compositions later were created in the Malwi dialect.
His programmes, then, gave Indian classical music a much needed modern outlook in the first few decades of post-independence India.

He was interested in the world he inhabited. This too was a significant departure from the norm. Many senior musicians, to this day, will feign a pious indifference to the world outside and present this disinterest as a virtue, somehow essential for the proper presentation of Indian classical music. Deshpande says: “I didn’t see Kumarji as a rebel but as someone who had understood the tradition and made it his own. Classical music offers the space to mould your personality into the raga and bandish but if there is no quest for developing your musical personality or your path, then it becomes an exercise in grammar and the execution of formulae.”

Deshpande, who first met Kumar Gandharva as a child in their musically vibrant Walkeshwar home, joined him as a student in 1972 at the age of 21 and became a regular at his Dewas home, learning alongside Kumar Gandharva’s brilliant son, Mukul Shivputra, an erratic but inspired musician whose recent performance in Delhi is still being talked about.

Much of the discord that came Kumar Gandharva’s way emanated from his contention that the space for creative liberties inherent in Hindustani music was largely unused. “Khayal is the form which has the most space for establishing mood and making that creative leap. He felt that by reducing the khayal exposition to a means of showing prowess and following aesthetic principles too literally had led to a tremendous predictability,” explains Deshpande.

He steadfastly stood for aesthetics over grammar. On one occasion, during a seminar on the Malhar group of ragas in Pune, a group of musicians sharply criticised his tendency to distort the Raag Miyan Malhar by choosing to dwell on and improvise the Shuddha Nishad (Natural 7) when the standard approach is to emphasise the Komal Nishad (flat 7). The former is only meant to be used as a stepping stone. On another occasion, a group of musicians in Mumbai raised eyebrows at his version of the traditional Gwalior gharana bandish, Barse Meherawa, a composition in Raag Gaud Malhar. Kumar Gandharva maintained he had presented the traditional composition he discovered in V. N. Bhatkhande’s compilations, as recorded by the respected scholar.

The intimate outsider
Back in 1936, he had been fortunate to find the perfect guru in B.R. Deodhar, a musicologist and an educationist who founded the School of Indian Music, which still exists in south Mumbai’s once culturally vibrant Girgaum area. Deodhar had learnt from V.D. Paluskar, the founder of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, but had also had a formal education and had learnt Western classical music too.

By the 1930s-40s, gharanas had become watertight but Deodhar encouraged the 12-year-old to listen to all styles and find something to appreciate and criticise in each, setting up his future as a fearless artistic pioneer. He made Kumar Gandharva read all the important texts and treatises on music, including the six volumes of notations and compilations of compositions by Bhatkhande, many of which he had heard performed by the great gurus as a child star. “Kumarji became the artist he did because Deodhar did not have an overpowering musical personality, nor did he harbour stage aspirations. He was scholarly and able to receive and transmit knowledge without imprinting his personality on his students,” says Deshpande.

The artist and his first wife, Bhanumati
The artist and his first wife, Bhanumati (Courtesy: Kumar Gandharva Pratishthan Archives Collection)

The next seven years at the School of Indian Music flew past in study, travel, performing and listening. By the time he was 20, he was also teaching. A romance with a fellow student, Bhanumati Kans (also a badminton player from St Xavier’s), was followed by marriage on 24 April 1947. Just months later, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Family and friends found the young couple a piece of land in Dewas and a job for Bhanumati as a schoolteacher.

In 1952, streptomycin became available in India. Finally, the doctors had some good news for him and although he was left with one irreversibly scarred lung, he gave his first public concert in 1953 in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. In 1952, he had sung for then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru at his invitation in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh.

The second coming
In Mumbai’s Shivaji Park area, where a passion for Marathi natyasangeet, classical music and cricket ruled, a group of ardent music lovers came together with muted excitement.
Suresh Haldankar, a natyasangeet and classical musician from Goa, invited Kumar Gandharva to perform at the Hari Mahadev Vaidya Hall in Dadar in late 1953. Vilas Godbole, 80, a former state-level cricketer and coach, was 11 and remembers his music-mad father and elder brothers returning from the concert in a daze. For weeks, they could speak of nothing else but the sheer power and freshness of the musician everyone had given up for dead.

Curiosity drove Godbole to the next concert and he was smitten for life. A regular at all Kumar Gandharva concerts thereafter, Godbole says there were times when the sheer brilliance and range of the music made it difficult for him to absorb the artistry after a point. One of his favourite memories is of an impromptu concert in a Shivaji Park home attended by just seven people, including film star Dilip Kumar and Hindustani vocalist Manik Varma. Kumar Gandharva presented Kalyan Ke Prakar, or a cluster of close variations of the evening Raag Kalyan or Yaman Kalyan.

In 1968, as part of his thematic/curated programmes, Kumar Gandharva presented Tappa Thumri Tarana (forms of Indian classical music) at the Sachivalaya Gymkhana in the newly reclaimed southern tip of the city, Nariman Point. “The brilliance, one after the other, was too much for me. After the interval, when he presented Raag Shree, I got up to go. I told Suresh Haldankar I could not stay but he forced me to,” he says.

An ardent group of fans had started organising home concerts, or baithaks, in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi. In Mumbai, Rajni Patel and her husband, Shirish Patel, were early devotees who regularly invited the maestro to their south Mumbai home for concerts; he usually stayed with them. “We went everywhere with him. He was a man of great discipline and integrity,” says Shirish Patel. “He would perform in a cramped one-room flat in the suburbs with as much passion as he would in a south Mumbai home. In those days of difficult train travel, he would make it a point to arrive a day early for a concert in another city. As soon as a concert was finalised, he would decide the playlist, taking care to avoid repeats and to add something new he was working on.”

He restricted himself to six-eight programmes a year, saying he needed time to reflect. His disciple, Madhup Mudgal, remembers him looking very pleased with himself during one of his frequent visits to Delhi. When he asked why, Kumar Gandharva said he had just signed a deal for a couple of concerts which would let him meet his expenses for a year. In today’s ecosystem, where a small clutch of super branded celebrity musicians has turned the music into a stage spectacle meant to dazzle the audience, these stories sound quaint.

A wide circle of friends
Naturally, he formed close ties with several practitioners of other art forms, and even in the sciences and engineering. He was close to some of the finest litterateurs of independent India, including Marathi poet Vinda Karandikar, writer P.L. Deshpande, Hindi writers Raghuvir Ashok Vajpeyi and Kannada writers U.R. Ananthamurthy and D.R. Bendre. A photograph from that time shows him on a picnic at the Bhimbhetka caves, near Dewas, with Bendre and fellow artists.

In 1966, his great interest in architecture drew him to Chandigarh, where photographs show him poring over Le Corbusier’s master plans for the city. When Maharashtra’s largest hydroelectric project, the Koyna dam, was commissioned in 1964, he was part of a guided tour led by engineers at the site. A few years later, he wanted to explore the sonic possibilities of the Ajanta and Ellora caves, near Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar (Aurangabad), and a concert was arranged there. In the 1970s, the renowned architect Balkrishna Doshi, who took inspiration from his music, invited him to visit the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad.

The interiority of his being
Udayan Vajpeyi, the noted Hindi poet, met Kumar Gandharva as a 17-year-old medical student in Bhopal. He says diverse writers and practitioners of other art forms were drawn to Kumar Gandharva because he was that rare Indian classical musician who had a very intuitive and fine understanding of literature and other art forms. He was also able to use his emotions as artistic material. When his first wife died in childbirth in 1966, he composed this poem on the cycle of life and death:

Fir Aayi More Ambua Pe,
Ajab Golai Rang Ayo, banao
(Once again the mango tree blossoms
Strange is the spirit of circulatory (time)

In 1989, Mumbai-based theatre director Sunil Shanbag remembers looking for a piece of music to use in Shanta Gokhale’s play Avinash, on the pain of a family with a son with mental health issues. On a trip to Mumbai’s Rhythm House music store, he picked up a cassette of Kumar Gandharva’s Nirguni Bhajans, based on the music of the Nathpanthi sect of wandering musicians in Dewas. Within five minutes, he had found his music. “The staccato, passionate intensity of his singing was just what I needed,” says Shanbag.

The musician at his work desk, Dewas, circa 1983
The musician at his work desk, Dewas, circa 1983 (Courtesy Avinash Pasricha/Kumar Gandharva Pratishthan Archives Collection)

Art historian B.N. Goswamy remembers listening to the Tulsidas composition, Aaj Mujhe Raghubir Ki Sudh Aayi, on the radio at home in Chandigarh in the 1970s. “It was magical, the pacing of the words, the stifled pain with the shifting emphasis,” he writes in Kaljayi, the book that documents the life and music of Kumar Gandharva.

Goswamy goes on to say that after he got to know Kumar Gandharva, his music became a recurrent motif in his own field. “On seeing a group of Virakta Sadhus, suddenly I hear yugan yugan hum yogi (in every age a yogi). Or on seeing a stark painting of an old fakir by Abu Hasan, a barefoot indigent man leaning on a stick, I am reminded of the fragility of life in Kumar’s Baalu ki bheet, Pawan ka Khamba (walls of sand, the wind as shelter).”

Vajpeyi says Kumar Gandharva was that rare Indian classical musician who was conscious of his identity and responsibilities as a modern, contemporary artist. “He knew how to use and lay bare the interiority of his being, while being well-tuned to the pulse of the times. He was able to provide an intellectual reasoning for his many creative pursuits, which made for a modern, evolving idea of creativity that struck a chord with a wider circle of people,” says Vajpeyi.

This is a perfect summation of how Kumar Gandharva’s artistic influence transcended the confines of the Indian classical music ecosystem. More than three decades since his passing, his music and ideas continue to pose critical questions that musicians and listeners must pay heed to.

Devina Dutt is a writer, arts curator and co-founder of performing arts companies First Edition Arts and Kishima Arts Foundation in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Also read: 12 songs to understand Kumar Gandharva

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