Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967)

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, regal in appearance and bearing, dressed in flowing silken robes, and sporting a leonine mane of shoulder-length white hair, accompanied by four tanpuras, two vocalists, and often two melodic accompaniments, is one of the enduring images of the last century in Hindustani music. On stage, Omkarnath was living theatre. But, he was much more than a musician. He enjoyed a rare combination of stature and popularity as a teacher, administrator, theoretician, political activist, and an institution-builder.

For almost three decades, starting from 1930, his was a towering presence in Hindustani music. He rose to national eminence sharing the stage with formidable rivals like Ustad Faiyyaz Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar, and held on to his position even as the next generation of vocalists like Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan and Ustad Ameer Khan were acquiring large followings and building awesome reputations.

Pandit Omkarnath was honoured by the President of India with a Padma Shri, and with several decorations by prestigious cultural organizations. He was amongst the few musicians in whose memory the Government also  issued a postage stamp. He received honorary Doctorates from Benares Hindu University and Vishwa Bharati University. Among his many awards was the title of “Sangeet Martand”, which was most commonly used by the music community as a prefix to his name.

Though trained under Vishnu Digambar, a scholar-musician of the Gwalior gharana, Omkarnath deviated substantially from the tradition, and became a daring innovator. In an era when khayal was still bound by the Dhrupad legacy of formal aloofness, Omkarnath had the courage to adopt an emotionally charged, and even melodramatic, style of rendition. He freely introduced elements of Tappa and Thumree into khayal rendition, sometimes blurring the borders between the genres.  In a milieu in which grammarians were taking over the organization of musical knowledge, he emphasized the esoteric aspects, and even experimented with the healing powers of raga-s.

Omkarnath is often considered a forerunner of the romanticist movement that surfaced in khayal vocalism in the 1970s with the emergence of Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), Kishori Amonkar (Born: 1931), and Jasraj (Born: 1930). As an artistic ideology, romanticism signifies a preference for emotionally charged expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music. Omkarnath exhibited a generous dose of classicism in his musical personality. But, with his emphasis on the explicit communication of emotional values through the khayal, he paved the way for later romanticists.

Childhood and grooming

Pandit Omkarnath was born at Jahaaj in the Khambhat district of Gujarat. His grandfather and father were both soldiers in the employ of the Peshwa rulers. Under the influence of a saint, Omkarnath’s father, Gaurishankar, lost all interest in worldly affairs. Heedless of the material needs of his family, he became a hermit and devoted his life to Pranava Sadhana -- the exploration of the mysteries of “Om”, the primeval sound. This spiritual pursuit led him to name his last child Omkar.

Omkarnath’s mother was cheated out of her husband’s share of the family’s assets, and left destitute, along with her four children. A strong-willed woman, she moved the family to neighboring Bharuch (Central Gujarat), did menial tasks as a domestic servant, and brought up the children. From the age of five or six, Omkarnath started contributing to the family’s resources by working as a domestic servant, as a cook’s assistant, as a laborer in a textile mill, and as an occasional singer-actor in local theatrical productions. When Omkarnath was in his teens, he came in contact with Seth Shahpurji Doongaji, a philanthropist of Bharuch. The wealthy merchant noticed his talent and passion for music, and sponsored him for training under Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Bombay.

From 1910 to 1916 (according to some accounts:1913-1919), Omkarnath learnt the vocal art of the Gwalior gharana and the Pakhavaj (two-faced barrel drum), studied authoritative musicological texts, and served his Guru with devotion. When his Guru decided to open a branch of his music school at Lahore, Omkarnath – still in his early 20s -- was sent there as its Principal. Working tirelessly as a teacher and administrator at the Lahore school, he also launched his career as a performing musician. After three years at Lahore, he returned to Bharuch to start a music school, and to launch himself in political activity. His music school was later shifted to Bombay in 1934, and thence to Surat in 1942.

His family circumstances had not permitted him to go to school in childhood. But, in his early years, while he was struggling to help support the family, he had worked for a Jain religious establishment, where the monks taught him to read and write. Later on, by his own efforts, he mastered several languages – Hindi, English, Marathi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu and Nepali. With himself as his only tutor, Omkarnath grew to be the most articulate orator and the most profound theoretician amongst musicians of the 20th century.

In the profession

In 1918, his career took off with impressive concerts at the court of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, and at the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan at Jallandhar. A few years later, he visited Nepal at won the admiration of the King, who could not persuade Omkarnath to accept his patronage. By 1930, Omkarnath’s fame had spread far and wide, and he became a star attraction at every major music festival in India.

In 1931, he was invited to the International Music Conference at Florence in Italy. From there, he traveled to Germany, Holland, France, England, Wales, and Switzerland, giving performances and lecture demonstrations, introducing the beauties of Hindustani music to European audiences. This was an era in which the West knew India only as the land of Gandhi, Tagore, and Uday Shankar. Indian classical music was an unknown entity. It was Omkarnath who ignited a degree of serious interest in Hindustani music amongst Western scholars and audiences three decades before they had heard the Elder Dagar Brothers, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

While earning laurels as a musician, Pandit Omkarnath also involved himself actively in the freedom struggle. He was elected President of the Bharuch Congress Committee, and a member of the Gujarat Provincial Congress Committee. When India made its tryst with destiny at the stroke of midnight on August 14-15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru invited Pandit Omkarnath Thakur to sing the national song, “Vande Mataram” at the Central Hall of Parliament House, from where it was broadcast nationally. In later years, his composition of Vande Mataram became, by public demand, almost a permanent feature of his public concerts.

When Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya was establishing the Benares Hindu University (BHU), he invited Pandit Omkarnath to set up and manage the Department of Music. This could not happen during Malaviya’s lifetime; but it did happen in 1950, and Omkarnath moved to Benares as the first Dean of the Music Faculty to serve there until retirement.. At BHU, he trained a group of outstanding musicians and scholars to build a center of excellence. Amongst his most distinguished students were Dr. Premlata Sharma, whom he groomed as an eminent musicologist, and Dr. N Rajam, whom he nurtured into an outstanding violinist.

During his tenure at BHU, he accelerated work on two major musicological treatises:  Pranava Bharati, published in 1956, is landmark treatise on the theoretical aspects of music – swara, raga, and rasa. Sangeetanjali (in six volumes) published between 1938 and 1962, is a manual on the practical aspects of music performance, including raga grammar and esthetics.

Between 1934 and 1961, Pandit Omkarnath cut over twenty records with HMV in the 78 rpm, 45 rpm and Long Playing formats. On most of these recordings, he was accompanied on the Sarangi by Pandit Ramnarain, the sarangi maestro, who later gave up accompaniment in favour of a career as a soloist. Several of Pandit Omkarnath’s radio broadcasts were posthumously published by All India Radio archives. The repertoire on his recordings consists of  Khayals, bhajans, and patriotic songs. As a result, in the popular imagination, Omkarnath is most widely recognized by his two Meera bhajans – Jogi mat jaa, and Pag ghunghroo band Meera naachi re – and his rendering of the national song, Vande Mataram.

While at BHU, Omkarnath suffered a heart attack, recovered from it, and continued to perform. In 1965, he had a paralytic stroke which claimed his life in 1967.


Omkarnath had been trained only by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a thoroughbred maestro, and pioneering educator, of the Gwalior gharana. With his formidable intellect and erudition, Omkarnath obviously did not have the makings of a conformist. To an extent, he was influenced by the doleful and sweet style of another Gwalior-trained maverick, Auliya Rehmat Khan (1860-1922); but his own deviations from Gwalior were more radical. Critical opinion therefore regards Omkarnath as an original musician, though with firm moorings in Gwalior vocalism.

Like the later romanticists, Pandit Omkarnath’s repertoire consisted only of Khayal and Bhajans. He never sang Tarana-s, Tappa-s or Thumree-s in public, although all these were part of the Gwalior repertoire in his times. His Khayal repertoire had a substantial representation of common ragas like Malkauns, Desi, Shuddha Kalyan, and Komal Rishabh Asavari, and a moderate presence of uncommon raga-s like Devgiri Bilawal, Sughrai, and Shuddha Nat. He adapted a few Carnatic raga-s so comfortably, that they virtually lost all traces of their Carnatic origins. He selected them for their emotional content, and rendered them in his own unique style.

There are clearly three facets to Omkarnath’s personality as a musician. The first is his pre-occupation with mystical aspect of musical pursuits, inherited from his father, who renounced the world to unravel the mysteries of the primal sound, “Om”. The second is the scholarly facet, steeped in ancient musicological texts, whose wisdom he attempted to translate into performance. The third is the dramatic, even theatrical, facet which explicitly sought to create an impact amongst his audiences. How comfortably these facets cohabited in the same person is a matter of opinion. The combination, however, made him a colorful, and even, controversial musician.

The Pandit Omkarnath had cultivated a monumental voice in terms of volume, range, and pliability. His faultless technique enabled him to cover two and a half octaves without any sacrifice of musical value. He made very effective use of volume and timbre modulations in order to heighten the emotional intensity of his renditions. He had strong views on the emotional personality of each raga. In pursuance of these perceptions, he composed a large number of bandish-es in various raga-s under the pen-name “Pranav Rang”, published them in his six-volume work, Sangeetanjali, and performed them regularly at concerts. He tailored all aspects of his rendition of each raga based on his perception of it, drawn mostly from ancient and mediaeval musicological texts. This approach could sometimes lead to unorthodox architecture or apparently libertarian interpretations of raga-s as currently understood.  But, most of the time, it was compelling music.

His explorations in the melodic and emotional personalities of raga-s were informed by his experiments with their non-musical applications. For instance, in Sangeetanjali (Vol.IV), he narrates how he was able to cure a child of insomnia by singing to him the vilambit alap of a variant of raga Puriya in the lower octave around sunset continuously for a week. Though Omkarnath did not claim scientific validity for such successes, he was unjustly derided for having made such claims. While the scientific value of these experiments may be questioned, there is no doubt that Omkarnath enriched his own insight into mysteries of the raga-s through them.

Omkarnath had a rare ability to deploy the poetry of his khayals in a variety of ways and for achieving a variety of effects. While rendering the bandish, he treated the poetic element with great respect as literature. In rhythmic play, however, he could mutilate the words, treating them, effectively, as clusters of meaningless consonants. And, as evocative expressions, he could use them virtually in conversational deployment. The various ways in which he enunciated selected phrases, along with melodic variants, almost approached the lyrical sophistication of the Thumree genre.

Not surprisingly for his stature, Omkarnath’s khayal architecture was impeccable, except in a few raga-s, like Nilambari, in which the emotional content of the raga was suited only for slow-tempo compositions and improvisations.  His virtuosity was formidable. His tan-s were epitomes of effortless agility and complexity, comparable to the best in his era. Occasionally, there was an element of exhibitionism in them. But, even conservative audiences accepted this as a part of the total package that was Omkarnath Thakur.

The recording companies gave him the importance he deserved. But, most of his published recordings came out before the advent of the LP format.A sizable number of his surviving concert recordings have been published posthumously on audio-cassette and CD. It is reliably learned that his entire legacy of recordings -- other than what remains unpublished from the All India Radio Archives -- is, by now, in the public domain.

© Deepak S. Raja 2011

Selected discography
33ECX 3252 Raga Todi; Raga Malkauns 1964 
33ECX 3301 Sangeet Martand 1971 
33ECX 3303 A lecture on raga Bilawal). 1973
33ECX 3751 Devgiri Bilawal; Raga Bhairavi
EALP 1272 Ustad Bismillah Khan, Omkarnath Thakore
EALP 1455 Desi Todi / Mishra Bhairavi 1986