Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dhondutai Kulkarni – “Kesarbai was like the Niagara Falls”

Dhondutai spoke to Deepak Raja on May 4, 2003

My father was a schoolteacher in Kolhapur and trained in the Gwalior style of vocal music. His greatest regret was never becoming a credible performer. The Alladiya Khan family was the most respected clan of teachers in those days. So, he decided to give me – his only surviving child -- their training, whatever the cost.

During my childhood, the morning service at the Mahalakshmi temple in Kolhapur commenced with a musical offering to the Goddess by Alladiya Khan’s nephew, Natthan Khan. We met him regularly at the temple. One day, my father made bold to request him to teach me. Initially, Natthan Khan had little interest in teaching a beginner of five. But, finally, by a rather convoluted route, I became his disciple. I learnt fast, and by the age of eight, I was singing on the radio. The Natthan Khan tutelage ended in three years, when he left for Bombay.

After that, Bhurji Khan, Alladiya’s son, took over duties at the temple. When my father made the proposal to him, he quoted a fee we could not afford. So the matter rested there until one day, when I was 13, Bhurji Khan turned up suddenly at our house to announce that he would teach me for whatever my father could afford to pay him. So, it started – a daily routine for several hours after I returned from school. Bhurji Khan also taught me the sunrise exercises for maintaining the voice in perfect condition, and made sure that I did them regularly.

I dropped out of school two years short of graduation in favor of full-time music. Bhurji Khan then started visiting us twice a day. In the mean while, my younger sister also started studying with him. I had received 10 years of intensive training with Bhurji Khan when he died (1950).

For seven years thereafter, I had no guide. By this time, I was already performing professionally – solo as well as duets with my sister. In 1957, Lakshmibai Jadhav, a distinguished disciple of Hyder Khan, retired from the service of the Baroda State, and returned home to Kolhapur. I received a Government scholarship to study with her. She taught me in the mornings, and Bhurji Khan’s son, Azizuddin Khan, took evening sessions. This lasted for three years, until we left Kolhapur. Another two years passed before I found my fifth, and last, Guru.

In 1962, Kesarbai Kerkar issued an open invitation through a newspaper interview to any vocalist willing to submit to her training. So, I wrote to her, certain that nothing would happen. I was surprised to receive a welcoming reply. After putting me through an acid test, she assured me that though old now, she would do her best for me. And, she did -- without ever accepting any remuneration or consideration of any kind.

My father sold his house in Kolhapur to finance the move, and hired an apartment in Bombay for us to live in. Kesarbai was a stickler for punctuality and regularity. Each training session lasted three to four hours, in which we would cover two or three ragas. In addition, I had to continue workouts with the music I already knew, and with sunrise exercises. It was an exhausting routine.

Two years after I began training with her, she took me on a month-long retreat where she started my voice cultivation using the Alladiya technique. The training enhanced lungpower, improved stamina, perfected the AA vowel articulation, and sustained the timbre of the voice through two full octaves. Thereafter, back in Bombay, the routine continued. In addition, of course, I accompanied her at concerts. She announced her retirement in 1965, and I continued learning with her until 1971 – she was over 80 then.

In popular belief, my music is closest to Kesarbai’s. This may be true. But, not many people know how Bhurji Khan and Lakshmibai sang. So, the truth is more complicated. I cannot assess the impact of Natthan Khan’s initiation. It is Bhurji Khan who shaped the fundamentals of my music – from the age of 13 to 23. He started with alankara-s (symmetric practice exercises) and shaped me into an “A” grade radio artist. Lakshmibai, Baba, and Kesarbai had just to build on the Bhurji Khan foundation.

All my Gurus sang and taught the same music; but each had an original way of interpreting it. To begin with, they came from different streams of the gharana. Natthan Khan and Lakshmibai belonged to the Hyder Khan stream, while Bhurji Khan and Kesarbai came from the Alladiya stream. More significant for me was the contrast between the voices and temperaments of Kesarbai and Lakshmibai. Kesarbai was like the Niagara Falls, while Lakshmibai was tranquility personified. I had to sort out and integrate a wide range of musical attitudes because, in the ultimate analysis, my music had to be mine.

© Deepak S. Raja 2003
Read a detailed profile of the artist in: "Khayal Vocalism: Continuity within Change".
The finest recordings of Dhondutai Kulkarni have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd.