Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pandit DV Paluskar and the Paluskarite tradition

DV Paluskar, through his father, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, belonged to the Maharashtra stream of the Gwalior gharana, founded by Balkrishna Buwa Ichalkaranjikar.

The Gwalior gharana is considered the fountainhead of Khayal vocalism in Hindustani music. It was founded by Natthan Peer Baksh, an eminent vocalist of Lucknow, who migrated to Gwalior in the early 19th century. His grandsons, Haddu Khan and Hassu Khan crystallized the Gwalior style, and achieved eminence at the feudal court.

Amongst the eminent students of Hassu Khan were two Maharashtrian Brahmins, Ramakrishna Dev Paranjpe (Devji Buwa) and Vasudev Buwa Joshi. In succession, both these musicians trained Balkrishna Buwa. According to some accounts, Muhammad Khan, the elder son of Haddu Khan, also trained Balkrishna Buwa. With this intensive training in the art of the gharana, Balkrishna Buwa returned to Maharashtra, and laid the foundations of the Gwalior style in his home state. Amongst the outstanding vocalists he groomed was Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.


Vishnu Digambar (1872-1931) belonged to a family of Haridasi-s, a community engaged in Harikatha -- reciting the Hindu epics, giving religious discourses, and singing Bhajans. Haridasi-s were trained in classical music, but their art was subservient to their evangelical profession. Vishnu Digambar’s father was a Haridasi, who enjoyed the patronage and personal affections of the feudal chief of Kurundwad in Southern Maharashtra.

At the age of 15, young Vishnu damaged his eyes in an accident with firecrackers, after which he was pronounced unfit for academic pursuits. The Kurundwad ruler arranged for Vishnu to be trained in music in neighboring Miraj under the tutelage of Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjikar. After more than a decade of rigorous training, Vishnu Digambar launched his career, traveling from place to place demonstrating his musicianship.

Everywhere he went he was generously rewarded for his art, and was even offered patronage by some of the most powerful of princes in colonial India. He turned down the comfortable life of the courts in order to pursue his missionary dream. His compelling concern was to elevate the status of musicians in society. In his era and context, this was possible only by creating a community of musicians, connoisseurs, and teachers, independent of the feudal courts on the one hand, and the world of courtesans on the other.

His mission required a large-scale formalization and institutionalization of music education which had, for long, been managed under highly personalized relationships. This meant the development of a new teaching and evaluation system, a comprehensive documentation of the musical tradition, preparation of teaching materials, and grooming a band of dedicated and competent teachers drawn from non-traditional backgrounds. But, along with all these, his mission required massive funding, because it aimed at attracting those social segments that were, at that stage, either unwilling or unable to pay viable fees. Vishnu Digambar decided to manage every one of these activities personally.

Thus was born the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, a chain of music schools, which is now a full-fledged university, and a major force in ensuring a place for classical music in the mainstream culture. The institution was launched from Lahore, and spread speedily to Bombay, Pune, Nagpur, and several other cities. Vishnu Digambar traveled the length and breadth of the country giving concerts, and diverting all the proceeds to the institution. Predictably, at some stage, the cash requirements of the institution outstripped his funding capacity. In 1922, Vishnu Digambar started constructing a new building in Bombay to house the institution, and soon found himself deeply in debt, with creditors at his doorstep. Despite all the prestige and goodwill he enjoyed, his wealthy admirers could not bail him out because of legal hurdles. He was a broken man when the building had to be auctioned in 1924 to repay debts.

Thereafter, he donned saffron robes, almost gave up performing as a classical musician, and revived his ancestral profession – Harikatha. Though originally a devotee of Lord Dattatraya, he had, by this time, become an ardent follower of Lord Rama, and was much in demand as a presenter of religious discourses based on the Ramayana epic, and songs in praise of the deity.

A musician who could have died a very rich man, finally died a near-hermit, bequeathing to his son only his knowledge, his art, his religious, spiritual and ethical values, and a princely sum of Rs. 100 – in those days, just enough to cover household expenses for a couple of months. But, to the nation, he bequeathed his priceless work as the renaissance man of Hindustani music.

Vishnu Digambar’s son, DV Paluskar, lived a life worthy of his parentage in every respect. His desire to repurchase and donate his father’s ill-fated building in Bombay to the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, however, remained unfulfilled.


Pandit DV Paluskar (1921-1955) is the only vocalist of the 20th century to have achieved national stature by the age of 20, and to secure his place in the Hindustani music Hall of Fame before his death at the age of 35. The prodigious singer was a disciple of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, and his two protégés, Pandit Naraynarao Vyas, and Pandit Vinayakrao Patwardhan.

DV Paluskar, better known as Bapurao, and sometimes called just “DV”, rose like a meteor on the musical horizon in the sunset years of the Faiyyaz Khan era. He built for himself a formidable reputation and following while sharing the stage with the likes of Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, Amir Khan, and Omkarnath Thakur. In his short performing career, he attained a rare combination of stature and popularity.

He was amongst the most successful recording artists of his generation. Starting from 1945-46, and through the 1950’s, his 78 rpm recordings were to be found in every music loving household. His renditions of Bhajans by Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas, and Meerabai remain, to this day, the standard notation for every verse he sang. His duet in raga Desi with Ustad Amir Khan sung for the film “Baiju Bawra” (1952) made him a household name amongst moviegoers. He did not live to record for Long Playing discs. But, every posthumous release of his radio broadcasts on concert length storage media has been devoured by a hungry market.

Bapurao was the only 20th century musician, with the exception of his father, Vishnu Digambar, to have been revered like a saint. One of Bapurao’s admirers once invited him all the way to Lucknow supposedly for a concert at his daughter’s wedding, with fees settled in advance. On arrival, Bapurao found that there was no concert, and he had been invited merely to bless the couple. Bapurao’s son, Vasant recalls his father’s visit to his school, when he was about eight years old. When Bapurao entered Vasant’s class, the teacher vacated his chair, offered it to Bapurao, and prostrated himself before him. Many years later, Vasant – by then a merchant navy officer -- visited the well-known Kairana vocalist, Malavika Kannan in Calcutta to find photographs of Vishnu Digambar and DV Paluskar at the family altar, being worshipped along with those of gods and goddesses.

In these phenomena, we could be seeing a reflection of veneration that his saintly father, Vishnu Digambar enjoyed in society. We could also be witnessing a subtle response to the devotional fervor in Bapurao’s music. But, it was substantially a recognition of the humility, honesty and dignity with which he lived his life. He was incapable of greed, lust, and every kind of pettiness. His life remained unblemished by the licentious lifestyles common amongst musicians in his times. He remained single-mindedly focused on his music,  his obligations towards his audiences, students, and family.

Childhood and grooming

DV Paluskar was the twelfth child born to Vishnu Digambar and Ramabai, after eleven of their children had died in infancy. He was named Dattatraya, as a gesture of gratitude to the family’s presiding deity. In childhood, he was affectionately called “Bapu” and later, respectfully, “Bapurao”.

The first ten years of his life were spent in Nashik, where Vishnu Digambar had built a hermitage. In true Brahminical tradition, Bapu’s training started after he received his sacred thread (1927, age 6). Vishnu Digambar died in 1931, with less than five years of training given to Bapu. For five years thereafter, Bapu was trained by his elder cousin, Chintamanrao.

At the age of 15 (1935), Bapu was sent to Bombay to study with one of his father’s eminent disciples, Pandit Naraynrao Vyas. Soon thereafter, Pandit Vinayakrao Patwardhan, another senior disciple of Vishnu Digambar, who ran the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Pune, took charge of Bapurao’s grooming and shifted the Paluskar family to Pune under his direct care.

With his amazing capacity for hard work, Bapurao’s personality flowered at Pune. While under the care of Patwardhan, he attended school for formal education, studied and taught music at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, gave private tuitions out of economic necessity, received personal guidance from Patwardhan every night, and took occasional lessons with the visiting maestro, Mirashi Buwa, an eminent disciple of Balakrishna Buwa. While doing all this, he also burnt the midnight oil for four hours every day for his own practice, finished editing several of his father’s unpublished books on music and arranged their publication.

He spent seven years at the institution, obtained his Sangeet Praveen qualification (equivalent of a Master’s degree), and continued to teach there till the demands of his career forced him to leave.

In the profession

In 1936/37, at the age of 16, he won the first prize at the prestigious Palnitkar Trophy competition for budding talent in Pune. In 1938, at the age of 17, he exploded upon the music scene as an empanelled artist of All India Radio (AIR), Bombay. Through the chain booking system of AIR, he broadcast from radio stations in all parts of the country. Gandharva Mahavidyalaya branches started inviting him to perform under their banner. These appearances stimulated the demand for his concerts amongst impresarios from all over. By 1940, Bapurao, barely 20 years old, was a musician of national stature. He spent the next 15 years of his life performing and teaching as tirelessly as he had lived his early life.

He had no inhibitions about accepting concert invitations from anyone. He was equally happy performing for major music festivals, small music circles, private gatherings, religious congregations, radio stations or recording companies. For every platform, he had the appropriate repertoire, and on every platform he invariably made an impact with his music.

Bapurao’s approach to his life as a musician and teacher was totally devoid of commercialism. He was averse to bargaining for his fees, often gave free concerts, and readily offered fund-raising concerts for worthy causes. Once he had committed a concert for a certain fee, he would never renege on it even if someone else came with a bigger offer for the same day. In an era when accompanists were ill-treated and exploited by lead musicians, Bapurao treated them with respect, and paid them well. Even in his early years, when he taught music for the income it generated, he never bothered about collecting fees from his students on time, and often waived them for students who were going through a difficult period.

His thoroughness and dependability were exemplary. Every letter sent to him was replied by return of post. He replied personally to every letter, either in English or Marathi. In his time, he was a rare musician to have invested in a typewriter to ensure that his letters were neat and legible. He personally addressed every envelope in excruciating detail. He planned his travel well in advance to ensure arrival at every destination a day before the event. Even when unwell, or when climatic conditions were hostile, he delivered brilliant concerts. His consistency rating as a performer was on par with the best in his era.

He maintained a diary in which he entered his planned repertoire for each appearance, in anticipation of concert conditions and audience profiles. He even had standard “sets” of ragas and bhajans, which he would schedule at different venues without risking repetition. There was always scope for last minute changes in response to the situation. And, indeed, these were occasionally necessary.

On one occasion, he found his concert sandwiched between violinist Prof. VG Jog accompanied by Samta Prasad on tabla before him, and the Kathak danseuse Sitara Devi after him. He feared some difficulty in holding audience attention under such circumstances. With his characteristic charm, he persuaded Jog and Samta Prasad to stay on after their concert, and joined them in a duet. Uncharacteristically, he chose a lively madhyalaya piece for the first item. When that was over, Bapurao received a thunderous applause, and then held the audience firmly in his grip until he had finished.

He always had appropriate repertoire for every occasion and every audience. In 1954, he was performing at the Shanmukhananda Society in Bombay. The audience was primarily of rasika-s attuned to Carnatic music, and he was the only Hindustani musician featured at the event. After rendering a Khayal in Yaman, accessible to Carnatic rasika-s as raga Kalyani, Bapurao sang a  kriti in the Carnatic raga Simhendramadhyamam, delivering the text in chaste Telugu – a language he did not know. Faced with such situations at other venues, Bapurao loved performing the famous Muthuswami Deekshitar kriti – Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje in the Carnatic raga Hansadhwani.

While his radio broadcasts gave him his launching pad starting from 1938, a further boost was given by the release of his gramophone records, starting from 1944. His first 78 rpm release of six raga-s was a sensational success. Later came his Bhajans that made him a household name all over the country – Chalo mana ganga jamuna teer, Thumaki chalata Ramachandra, Payoji maine Ram ratan, Jankinath sahay kare, and Raghupati Raghav Rajaram. Recording company executives were thrilled with his meticulous planning and perfect execution of music for the discs.

In 1951, the famous music director, Naushad Ali, was looking for a voice to sing playback for Baiju Bawra in a film of the same name (released 1952), with Ustad Amir Khan singing playback for Miya Tansen. In the visualized sequence, Tansen is challenged, and defeated by Baiju in a singing contest. Amir Khan reportedly insisted that, he would be willing to lose a singing contest – even in a fictional context – only to DV Paluskar. Bapurao feared the cramping of his style under instructions from a  director. Naushad Ali assured him of total freedom. All his apprehensions vanished when he and Amir Khan established an easy rapport at the first rehearsal. As was his wont, Bapurao wrote down detailed notations for his part, and the immortal duet between the two was recorded flawlessly in one sitting.

With the release of the film Baiju Bawra, and the duet in raga Desi, DV Paluskar achieved iconic status. After that, every concert of his was widely publicized with the billing – “DV Paluskar of Baiju Bawra fame”. At concerts, he was often requested to sing his Baiju Bawra song, but steadfastly refused to oblige, arguing that every piece of music has value only in its proper context.

In 1955, Bapurao visited China with a cultural delegation, and performed in several Chinese cities. After his return in August, he spoke and wrote widely about his experiences of the visit and his impressions of Chinese classical music. Two months later, he succumbed to an attack of encephalitis, an infection he had contracted in China.


DV Paluskar was gifted with one of the finest voices in 20th century khayal vocalism. His was also one of the earliest truly microphone friendly voices to emerge in the post-amplification environment. It had a velvety sweetness, astounding pliability, and effortless agility through more than two octaves. With his powerful, yet gentle vocalization, laser sharp intonation, and confident command over raga grammar and rhythm, he was as well-endowed a musician as Hindustani music has seen in recent history. As described by his contemporaries, Bapurao’s music caused a curtain of peace and tranquility to descend on the hall, creating a “heavenly” atmosphere. His music had a sincerity, nobility and dignity, which were effortless expressions of his qualities as a human being.

Despite his grooming entirely in the Paluskarite stream of the Gwalior gharana, his music had an original spark. He was not a Xerox of any of his Gurus; nor was he an obvious  rebel against his stylistic legacy. He advised his students to study the recordings of musicians of all gharana-s and absorb what appealed to them. In his personal diary, Bapurao expressed reservations about the gharana system in Hindustani music. He was concerned that its stylistic indoctrination might have made the tradition resistant to change. He wondered how all the gharana-s could be brought together and welded into a unified musical tradition.

Like most Gwalior maestros of the era, he was a scholarly musician. But, he performed music as music, and not as a demonstration of scholarship. He greatly admired the music of Faiyyaz Khan (Agra), Anant Manohar Joshi (Gwalior), Omkarnath Thakur (Gwalior-trained original), Mirashi Buwa (Gwalior), Amir Khan (Indore/ Bhendi Bazar), and Bade Gulam Ali Khan (Patiala). He was an enthusiastic learner of Bandish-es, irrespective of gharana source, from anyone who would share them with him. He was an avid collector of recordings of great musicians of all gharana-s, and studied them carefully.  His collection also included a large number of Carnatic music recordings. Had he lived longer, the world of music could have expected to see a more complete flowering of this catholic musical vision.

His concert repertoire consisted largely of popular raga-s, and Bhajans of Meerabai, Tulsidas, Kabir, and Surdas. Judiciously, he also performed some of the “patent” raga-s of the Gwalior gharana, like Khambavati and Malgunji, which were not commonly heard from vocalists of other gharana-s. He had a ready stock of Khayals as well as Kriti-s in a few raga-s of the Carnatic tradition, and performed them with great facility. He performed only Khayals and Tarana-s, and stayed away from Thumree and Tappa-s, both of which were traditionally part of Gwalior repertoire. On rare occasions, and on public demand, he performed Dhrupad and Dhamar with as much competence as Khayal and Tarana.

Except when bound by time-limits, Bapurao’s concerts were planned for a duration of three to four hours. It was common for him to enter the stage to a thunderous applause, which could easily take three minutes to die down. After checking on the tuning of the instruments, he always began with a prayer to his Guru-s. The performance would start with a bada khayal, chhota khayal and a Tarana in a major raga. That would be followed by a Bhajan, and then an intermission. After the interval, he would render a Chhota khayal, followed by a Bhajan, followed by a Madhyalaya bandish, and end with a Bhairavi.

Like every other aspect of his life, DV Paluskar’s music was highly disciplined. His khayal architecture was impeccable, with every movement in its place, and with no blurred boundaries between them. His raga grammar was unimpeachable, and gripped audiences with a sense of immediacy. If his treatment of raga-s lacked contemplative depth or an axiomatic individuality, it is probably because, in Hindustani music, these qualities generally surface around the age of 40, which he did not reach.

DV Paluskar is considered a musician of exceptional, but unrealized, potential. This assessment is fair. The magnitude of his potential cannot, however, diminish the magnitude of his accomplishments. More than 50 years after his demise, his music retains its youthful freshness as well as unique appeal, defying all notions of aesthetic obsolescence. This is sufficient to earn him a place in the history of 20th century music.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2011