Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pandit Kumar Gandharva: The ultimate rebel of Hindustani vocalism

Pandit Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992) was easily the most original, and the most controversial Hindustani vocalist of the 20th century. His music elicited extreme reactions – either fanatical adulation or outright hostility. But, his musicianship was never in doubt. By the time he breathed his last, he had been decorated with the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan, the Kalidas Samman, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, and a Fellowship of the Akademi.

Kumar Gandharva was the ultimate rebel, l'enfant terrible, of Hindustani music. His music bore no obvious resemblance to that of any 20th century vocalist. He defied the structural norms of khayal presentation, created new ragas, new bandish-es, and new styles of voice production and handling melody. His music was refreshing, aggressive, dramatic, and overpowering. But, it was also elusive and mercurial. At the end of his performance, nothing remained for assessment or analysis. The originality of his music could even have launched a new gharana, had he maintained a semblance of architecture in its presentation.

Vamanrao Deshpande, his most sympathetic critic, considers Kumar Gandharva the chief romanticist of Hindustani vocalism. As an artistic movement, romanticism emphasizes the soliciting, rather than merely eliciting, of an emotional response as the primary effort of music. To this extent, Deshpande considers Kumar Gandharva a forerunner of Kishori Amonkar and Pandit Jasraj.

Childhood and grooming

Kumar Gandharva was born Shivputra Siddaramappa Komkalli at Belgaum in Northern Karnataka. Because he exhibited prodigious talent for music, the spiritual head of the Lingayat community renamed him at the age of six. Kumar’s father, Siddaramappa, was a follower of the Kairana maestro, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan, and a close friend of Panchakshari Buwa, one of the most influential musicians of Northern Karnataka. Kumar thus grew up in an atmosphere steeped in music.

Young Kumar was an avid listener of 78 RPM records of classical music, and developed an uncanny knack for memorizing and reproducing the recordings of great masters, faithful to the minutest detail. He did these with deep respect for the quality of the music, and not in the spirit of mimicry or caricature. This talent of his was demonstrated for the first time on a major platform in 1936 at a music festival, with some of the most influential patrons and leading musicians in attendance. Kumar sang for barely 30 minutes, but created an incredible impact on the music community. The 12-year old was himself stunned by the shower of praise and gifts that greeted him as he stepped off the stage.

Convinced of his promise, Prof. BR Deodhar (1902-1989) took charge of Kumar’s grooming, and virtually adopted him as a son. With his modern worldview, Prof. Deodhar proved to be an ideal mentor, and the Deodhar School of Music, an ideal environment for Kumar. Though a Gwalior-trained vocalist and a disciple of Vishnu Digambar, Prof. Deodhar had dedicated his later life to accumulating and disseminating musical knowledge. In earlier years, he had been a pioneering composer and orchestrator of music starting from the silent era in which film screenings were accompanied by live orchestra. He composed music for several films, crossing over into the era of talkies. Ultimately, disillusioned with the film world, Prof. Deodhar concentrated on his school and his academic pursuits. His contribution as an author and musicologist was phenomenal. His school was a major centre of diverse musical activity in Bombay, where the leading musicians of all gharana-s gathered to perform and discuss music. It was in this eclectic environment that Kumar Gandharva’s musical personality was nurtured.

For eleven years, (1936-1947, age 12 to 23) Prof. Deodhar taught Kumar the music of the Gwalior tradition, but allowed him to evolve his own approach to music, unburdened by the aesthetic indoctrination of any gharana. According to some accounts, Kumar was – either during this period or later – also coached by the Bhendi Bazar gharana stalwart, Anjanibai Malpekar. After about five years of training with Prof. Deodhar, Kumar started performing, and began acquiring a following. But, he was still plagued by artistic uncertainty. He had renounced the security of gharana-based music; but did not yet have a grip on music that he could call his own. His search for originality was triggered off soon thereafter by a life-threatening crisis.

In 1947, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It took him about five years to triumph over the disease, which he did by the sheer power of his will. During those years, he was forced to live in the drier climate of Dewas (MP), virtually bed-ridden and forbidden to sing. In virtual exile, he had the opportunity of thinking deeply about music, and indeed, about life and death. At Dewas, he also began responding to the folk music of the Malwa region, and started documenting the songs he heard. As they grew on him, he could extract from them their melodic personalities, and discover their rules of melodic patterning. In later years, many of these melodic frameworks were to become the cornerstone of his musicianship.

His battle against tuberculosis had not only given him new poetic and melodic material to work with, but also an unorthodox way of delivering it. The illness had left him with weak lungs, and a voice with limited tonal range The fluidity of his voice production had also suffered.. (According to some accounts, he also underwent a major surgery which left him with just one lung to work with – a belief he publicly refuted.) By the time he began performing again, his music had totally transformed itself, and Hindustani music discovered the most original vocalist of the 20th century.


Kumar Gandharva’s musicianship is celebrated for its wide repertoire, as much as it is for its other qualities. He presented a wide fare of khayals in common raga-s, rare and complex raga-s, raga-s created by him, thumrees, taranas, tappas, bhajans, modern poetry, and natya sangeet. Some critics believe that his greatest contribution was to the maturation of the bhajan, to which he gave, for the first time, the character of a distinct genre on the classical music platform. While views differ, it is acknowledged that he infused each raga, and each genre, with his own distinctive interpretation.

An important part of his musicianship was the creation of new raga-s, inspired by the folk songs of the Malwa region which he studied extensively. He argued that all raga-s have folk origins, and that an unlimited resource of “raga-ness” is waiting to be excavated from the vastness of the folk tradition. From such explorations, he created (“discovered”) several ragas – Madhsurja, Ahimohini, Saheli Todi, Beehad Bhairav, Lagan Gandhar, Sanjaari, Malavati, and Nindiyari, to name a few.

Kumar Gandharva combined his fertile melodic imagination with an exceptional poetic sensitivity. In the bandish-es he composed, he achieved a perfect compatibility between the lyrics, the melody and the rhythm. When performing with poetry composed by others, he was brilliant in exploiting its musical function, without doing damage to its literary function. His involvement with poetry went far beyond his interest in classical music. His renditions of devotional poetry penned by Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, Tukaram and Meera Bai, and his compositions of modern Marathi poetry by BR Tambe, are considered amongst the highest artistic achievements of his career.

Another distinguishing feature of his music was his unique style of deploying his voice, characterized by short bursts of energy, unpredictable silences, and dramatic variations in timbre and volume. This was partly necessitated by physical debility. But, he had also cultivated it for achieving the impact he wished to make. He regarded the communication of emotional values (Rasa) as the principal function of music. He enriched the experience of rasa in his music by utilizing silences, and systematically manipulating timbre and volume.

Kumar Gandharva was a thinking musician with a well articulated ideology as the foundation of his unorthodox music. Not surprisingly, he never achieved the popularity of his more orthodox contemporaries. But, though smaller, his following was fanatical. It consisted of connoisseurs involved with musical knowledge and keen observers of new trends in the practice of music. His admirers are mainly residents of Suburban Bombay, Pune, and Northern Karnataka. These communities have also been the most prolific nurseries of talent in Hindustani vocalism. Expectedly, therefore, the younger generation of professional vocalists from these communities admits to having been greatly influenced by his style.

He nursed these communities of admirers with imaginatively conceived, carefully planned, and brilliantly executed theme concerts. Amongst his most memorable concerts were his “Seasonal series”, (Geet Varsha, Geet Hemant, and Geet Vasant), “Triveni” presenting his compositions of the poetry of Kabir, Surdas and Meerabai, “Mala Umajlele Bal Gandharva” comprising his reinterpretation of Bal Gandharva’s Natya Sangeet renditions, “Tulsi – Ek Darshan” and “Tukaram – Ek Darshan”, rendering verses from Ramcharit Manas, and Abhanga-s of Sant Tukaram, “Tambe Geet Rajani” featuring the modern poetry of BR Tambe, composed by him, and a theme concert featuring Thumrees, Tappas and Taranas. A few of these thematic selections were also published on discs.

To the delight of his more serious followers, he published “Anoop Raga Vilas” (1965), a substantial collection of his bandish-es, including many in “Dhun Ugama Ragas” – ragas he had discovered through the analysis of folk songs of the Malwa region of MP. The Foreword to the publication was written by Vamanrao Deshpande, an eminent musicologist of his generation.

Kumar's discography is a good reflection of his popularity and diverse repertoire. Between 1962 and 1965, Kumar released twelve Bhajans on six 78 rpm records. Between 1963 and 1988, he released nine Long Playing discs of classical music which included several ragas of his invention, and six Extend Play records of Marathi Natyasangeet, Bhavageet and Bhajans.

Amongst romanticists of the post-independence era, Kumar Gandharva’s path was thornier than that of the other two – Kishori Amonkar and Jasraj -- because his rebellion against the tradition was more comprehensive. Kumar dispensed with the aloofness as well as the architecture of Khayal vocalism. He was therefore a difficult musician for his contemporary audiences to handle. Kishori Amonkar and Jasraj, on the other hand, deviated on the aloofness factor, while respecting the architectural features of khayal vocalism. Their music was therefore more accessible, and gave romanticism a respectable place in the tradition. Kumar Gandharva deserves his place in history not only as a romanticist pioneer, but also as a radical who forced the khayal tradition to re-examine its moorings, and consider alternative models of musicianship.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2011

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