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Crossing the Sound Barrier: Kumar Gandharva

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Crossing the Sound Barrier: Kumar Gandharva

Prodigy, poet, innovator, rebel – Kumar Gandharva is all this and much more. Blazing new trails in the tradition – bound field of Indian classical music, he is one of the most controversial vocalists of our time.

His genre, novel in form and unorthodox in approach, evokes extreme reactions – fanatical adulation from fans and consistent hostility from purists. Yet he compels attention. Always.

MOHAN NADKARNI profiles the singer on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, April 29, 1984 

Kumar-gandharvaKumar Gandharva, who turned 60 on April 8, hit the big time when he debuted at an all-India music conference in Bombay while only 12. This was in February 1936. The venue was the historic Jinnah Hall in the central part of the metropolis. Those were the times when music conferences were events to look forward to with keen anticipation – unlike today’s mammoth sangeet sammelans that cater to mass audiences. Leading lights in the field vied with one another to give of their best to the shared delight of the audiences which comprised not only connoisseurs and lay appreciators but also musicians of standing.

It was in the presence of such an august assemblage that Kumar Gandharva made his bow to give a start to the conference proceedings. He sang barely for half an hour. But he hypnotised his audience by the very first flourishes of his sonorous, vibrant voice and then proceeded to intensify the spell by the matter and the manner of his musicianship. The innocent boy from faraway Belgaum was stunned, in turn, by the way he was showered with gifts in cash and kind by the admiring listeners. He was too young and simple to understand what all the ado was about!

Almost half a century has since rolled by and this enfant terrible of Indian music has emerged to rule supreme as the most generative talent of our time in the Hindustani tradition – and something much more. He is rightly hailed as the harbinger of the avant-garde movement.

But Kumar also happens to be the most controversial vocalist of our time, because he has blazed a new trail in the field. His genre, so ingeniously evolved, represents a free style of his own. It is novel in form and design and unorthodox in approach; and it has sought to spurn the very concept of gharana tradition. The tradition that once nurtured and fostered his genius. Yet it has in it an ingenious amalgam of all that is subtle and beautiful in North Indian music – both classical and folk.

And it is this uncanny fusion of lively folk finery into the classical fabric that lends charm and variety to his singing. The effect is at once refreshing. Added to this is the expressiveness of his voice, with its bouncy spirit and rich melodic sensitivity. Small wonder, then, that his music makes for a truly mesmeric impact on present-day audiences.

No less prodigious are Kumar’s imaginative gifts, so brilliantly reflected in his self-composed but folk-based ragas and musical interpretations of devotional poetry. And so total, indeed, is his involvement with his music that he purveys his gifts to his listeners in a manner few others can.

Predictably, Kumar’s music has always evoked extreme reactions. It has earned him the fanatical adulation of votaries as well as the constant hostility of purists. He has also with him the cautious admiration of most critics, among whom I count myself. Some call him a prodigy, others dub him a rebel. In fact, he is both, which is why he compels attention.

Kumar Gandharva, to my mind, is an artiste with four distinct “identities”. He is a classicist by training, innovator by temperament, poet by feeling and thinker by inclination. And it is the interaction (or is it the clash?) of these “identities” that has made him what he is today. A phenomenon that has simply come off. But to understand and appreciate its significance to the future of Indian music, one must go back and recount the grand saga of a child prodigy who was destined to be cme a rebel genius.

Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkali was blessed with the title of Kumar Gandharva by the religious head of his Lingayat community while he was only 6. He was born in a musical environment. His father was a great fan of Abdul Karim Khan and a vocalist by choice, with a repertoire of rare raga bandishes to his credit.

Shivputra showed an amazing flair for imitating the style and the nuance of almost every vocalist of the time. To nobody’s knowledge, he had picked up their singing quietly by listening to their records.

But it was not long before his father and other members of his family chanced to hear the boy render a raga composition. It was a perfect replica of a khayal sung by the veteran Ramakrishnabuva Vaze in one of his commercial records. The family, taken by surprise, took the lad to the community mutt to seek the blessings of the presiding swami. From that time, the boy came to be known as Kumar Gandharva to the music world.

Kumar was encouraged by his father to attempt such imitations of several other reigning masters of he time. They ranged from Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaz Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Master Krishnarao to Kesarbai Kerkar, Sawai Gandharva and Mallikarjun Mansoor. Kumar’s perception was so acute that, while presenting his imitations of the diverse vocalisms of these celebrities, he would depict even the subtle differences and angularities he had discerned in their singing without any intention to mimic them.

Nor had Kumar, at that age, any understanding of music, much less an awareness of swara, laya, tala or raga. It would, therefore, seem that he reeled off his imitative melodies through sheer instinct.

Kumar’s debut at the music conference in 1936 changed the course of his musical quest. Prof. B.R. Deodhar, the eminent musicologist and musician of Bombay (who had, incidentally, organized the conference jointly with Vamanrao Deshpande, also a noted scholar-musician and author), took Kumar in his charge for systematic grooming. This studentship lasted 11 years, during which the erudite guru encouraged his precocious shishya to develop an eclectic attitude to classical music. The object was to make the youngster understand the merits and the demerits of the different contemporary gharanas and their masters, whom Kumar had all along idolized in the spirit of an ardent devotee in his early impressionabl years.

At the same time, Prof. Deodhar exposed Kumar to concert performances of these masters for a number of years. The impact of this exposure on his mind was decisive. He began the process of picking and choosing those elements of various gayakis which suited his talent and genius. But, while doing so, he resolved never to imitate any of the masters.

Kumar soon began to undertake concert assignments which took him from place to place all over the country. He made his mark wherever he performed and many a budding musician looked up to him as his model. Yet he remained restless. As Vamanrao Deshpande puts it, he was torn between a distaste of imitation and an inability to strike out on his own.

Meanwhile, Kumar got married to Bhanumati Kauns, who was learning music at Prof. Deodhar’s school. The happy couple was not, however, destined to lead a life of wellbeing and contentment. By a tragic irony, Kumar was liad up with a serious tubercular infection. On medical advice, he had to move with his wife to Dewas, in Madhya Pradesh, for long rest and recuperation. That was in 1947. Kumar was confined to bed for five years till 1952, during which he was medically prevented from even touching his tanpura.

Kumar’s recovery and return to his professional career is a case of the triumph of the spirit over the body – and more. All throughout his long period of convalescence, he had to remain along at home while his wife went away to teach in a local high school. It was as though his agile mind tuned itself to the pervading solitude and enjoyed the bliss of introversion. For, even as he lay recuperating in his bed, Kumar was fascinated by the strains of folk songs that kept wafting into his room from outside.

In time to come, he found himself exposed to the vast and varied repertory of the folk music o the region. As he says, it was folk music which filled the void in his life. He made it a habit to listen to the songs and their tunes with a perceptive ear. So quick and complete was his involvement in this new field that, by the time he completely recovered from his illness, his music also underwent a marvelous transformation. Even as it lent a new dimension to his creativity, it also set a new trend in traditional music.

Kumar studied and analysed the unpretentiousness, form and content of the folk music of the region, collected 300 odd songs, cast them in notation and kept humming the tunes he so composed. The outcome was the variety of his now famous dhun-ugama ragas, which find place in his magnum opus, Anoop Raga Vilas, published in 1965, a collection of independent compositions. It contains 136 bandishes, of which 107 are in 57 old ragas and 17 composed by Kumar himself in 11 ragas. In addition, he has composed a bandish each in 12 ragas, which embody a manipulation of two or more old melodies – a stupendous achievement this, by any standards, much more so for one who has had no formal academic education.

This is not all. Looking back, one will find that Kumar’s output in the course of the next 13 years, in terms of his special stage presentations, is even more staggering in its immensity – in point of variety, depth and range. The first to come, in a row, were his Geet-Varsha, Geet-Hemant and Geet-Vasant, all in 1966. These were all based on the cycle of natural seasons. Triveni, featured in 1967, was a composite programme of choice bhajans from Kabir, Surdas and Mirabai. Kumar’s passion for the stage music of the inimitable Bal Gandharva, Maharashtra’s greatest actor-singer of this country, found eloquent expression through a programme which he conceived and presented at various places in Maharashtra in 1968. This was followed by a concert in 1969 high-lighting his versions of thumri, tappa and tarana, the styles in Hindustani music now steadily going out of vogue.

In 1970, Kumar’s presentation of folk tunes of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh and the self-composed raga Gandhi Malhar, a centenary tribute to the Father of the Nation, created a stir in the musical milieu. The year 1973 market the centenary of the Marathi poet laureate, B.R. Tambe, and also the quarter-centenary of the Tulsidas epic Rama Charita Manasa. The two events inspired Kumar to conceive and present special shows.

It would seem that 1973 was the high point in Kumar’s creativity – with the staging of his Rituraaj Mehfil, based on songs of the spring; raga Darshan Mala, comprising vignettes of melodies from the Malhar group; and a concert, giving his musical interpretation of selected abhangs of the Marathi poet-saint, Tukaram. A similar programme, based exclusively on the bhajans of Surdas in 1978, marked the end of what may possibly be the most significant phase of his “voyage of discovery”. For an artiste like Kumar Gandharva, who has devoted his life to relentless experimentation towards achieving something new, one hopes that his “voyage of discovery” still goes on.

Kumar’s creative output is remarkable. The kind of talent and imagination that has gone into its making is mind-boggling. Any detailed evaluation of his contribution would involve long and arduous research. That is because the new aesthetics he has evolved for his creativity are equally baffling.

The first tenet of Kumar’s aesthetics is based on the assumption (which is now widely accepted) that all stylized music has its genesis in the folk tradition. The diversity of climate, language, religion and custom is charmingly mirrored in the folk songs of different regions. They range from ceremonial songs, women’s ditties and occupational refrains to devotional numbers and seasonal melodies – all warmly expressive of the whole gamut of emotions. And, by their variety in point of content, design, structure, tone and rhythm as much as their natural manner and spontaneous expression, the folk songs have the power to sway even the present-day sophisticated audiences.

The intellectual and the visionary in Kumar is seen at its best in his ascetic study and incisive analysis of the entire folklore of Malwa during his long years of illness and loneliness. That was also probably the period when he grew acutely aware of the life and the arts around him. In the process, it must have also kindled his poetic instinct. The result is the unmistakable impress of folk music on his art which was, in turn, influenced by what he could hear, see and deeply feel. Be it the manner of presentation (swar lagav), mode of presentation (dhang) or hawk-like swoops (aaghaat), his vocalism carries that unmistakable Kumar mystique.

If Kumar still finds himself at the centre of controversy, It is because of the second tenet of his aesthetics. It expounds his approach to classical music and also the rationale of his self-composed melodies, both folk-based (dhun-ugama) and compound (jod) or complex (mishra) ragas, which are combinations of two or more old ragas.

Kumar justifies his quest for new directions in classical music on several grounds. First, he firmly holds the view that all our ragas have sprung from folk moorings and that any folk-tune with a distinct form and character can be shaped into a raga. Secondly, he maintains that ragas are not made, but exist already, waiting to be discovered. To find them, he says, one must search where the celebrated but anonymous creators of our classical music looked for them – in the fathomless ocean of our folk music. Thirdly, he discerns a woeful lack of research and experimentation which his threatened to make classical music stagnant. And, finally, he emphatically feels that tradition should stimulate creativity and not act as a deadweight to progress.

Kumar’s new aesthetics have understandably evoked a spontaneous response, even acclamation, from his fans and admirers, which includes a significant proportion of the younger generation, intellectuals and those active in other creative fields like painting, sculpture, architecture and literature. In their view, he is one artiste who has ventured to cross “the sound barrier” and, while doing so, takes them to a new world, the world of classical articulation rooted in the elemental folk music.

At the other extreme are the uncompromising purists who are sad “to see this genius wasting his undisputed talents on worthless experimentation”. They aver: “strictly speaking, in this world of 12 swaras, there is nothing ‘new’ to be discovered.”

Apropos Kumar’s assumptions about the nature of origin of ragas, what is more to the point is that only those tunes evolved alon the classical lines which lent themselves to the basic concepts of form, design and strucuture (like jati, aroha, avaroha, vadi, samvadi, etc) and came to be styled as ragas by the great aesthetes who formulated the concepts centuries ago. The process involved was simply one of observation and experiment. Hundreds of such ragas find mention in the old treatises. And, as we know, barely 300 odd ragas have come down to us. This shows that the prerequisite for their assimilation into the mainstream of the raga tradition is neither their novelty nor their structural authenticity but their aesthetic excellence and entertaining power.

I have been an avid listener of Kumar Gandharva’s music for almost three decades and I understand and appreciate his passionate urge to popularize his own raga innovations. That is natural and unexceptionable, too. Nor need one have any quarrel with the current movement for the creation of new ragas. Even melodies like Yaman, Bilaval, Kedar, Shankara and the whole range of what are known as Siddha ragas, were also “new” when they were first brought into vogue by our great creative giants.

In this respect, Kumar’s dhunugama ragas provide a contrast, although he has taken care to classify them in accordance with the age-old concepts mentioned earlier. Yet, with all this and the amazing variety seen in their shape and structure, not all of them would seem to qualify for pariety with the time-honoured ragas.

Especially the vilambit renditions of a large number of thse dhunugama ragas often abound in stereotyped, repetitious patterns, particularly if their development is very slow. And, precisely because they are based on folk tunes, they do not lent themselves to slow and steady elaboration. Interestingly, the drut pieces of the same ragas sound positively lively and enjoyable, too. This shows that he charm and appeal of dhun-ugama ragas lies as much in their swift tempo as in their brevity. Many of these melodies are available through commercial records which serve to support my view. This is equally true of the other group of his self-composed ragas, like Sohini-Bhatiyar, Gouri-Basant and Kamod Nat, each of which presents an ingenious fusion of two traditional melodies. And he aptly renders them in fast tempo.

Kumar’s voice is indeed his fortune. He is also musical to the core. But he has to sing with only one lung. This disability has put severe limitations on his tonal range. The very opening shadja, with its power, euphony and luminosity has an instant, hypnotising effect on his listeners. His high notes have a feathery feel, while the middle range is creamy. But the lower register is so weak that he cannot delve effectively into mandra saptak. He does not sing in thaaya laya (which is the sine qua non of vilambit khayal). His emphasis is mostly on medium tempo and fast compositions. Bol-taans are also conspicuous by their absence even in his medium-tempo singing. Even when he chooses to sing in vilambit tempo, he seldom repeats the opening refrain (mukhda) of his cheez (composition) and instead, goes on rambling and meandering over several cycles continuously, which results in a loosely knit, even patchy, unfolding.

This is a feature common to his renditions of all ragas – traditional or folk-based. His penchant for giving folklore-ish flourishes to old ragas tends to dilute their classical element. His weakness for tinkering with the modal fidelity of traditional ragas infuriates die-hard purists. There are times when he is known to ignore the vadi and samvadi swaras of a raga which is a blatant violation of one of the accepted norms.

Kumar’s view that there is lack of research and experimentation in the field and that tradition has acted as a deadweight to progress and caused stagnation is equally debatable. To ay such a thing is plainly to ignore the very facts of our musical history, the many phases of its evolution through the centuries. We have inherited a treasure of styles and vogues from dhrupad and dhamar to khayal and thumri with its regional varieties. This art of musical swunds has been handed down by oral tradition, recognized by the ear and refashioned by the mind into everfresh forms. And look at the fine varieties of its ragas, the complexity of its talas and the rich overtones of its myriad musical instruments. Aren’t these all reflective of a musical evolution? There has been no semblance of stagnation whatever here. But the process of assimilation, adaptation and creation has always had its roots in the classical past.

Classical music, by its very nature, has cherished and observed certain norms of dignity and discipline which are reflected in its practical performances. On the other hand, folk music, known for its naturalness of manner and spontaneity of expression, is not bound by such values. The new idiom that Kumar has evolved in the classical field is an attempt to mould these contradictory values in his vocalism. It is too varied and too slick to classify. Which is why it poses a problem for his admirers and detractors alike.

Which is also why reviewing a Kumar Gandharva concert often proves to be a ticklish job. In saying this, I have in mind his classical recitals comprising khayals, tappas and thumris. On most occasions, they evoke mixed reactions. Often, my evaluation of such recitals would seem to be at cross purposes with the views and the opinions of his fans and admirers.

On the other hand, I have liked most of his other concert presentations. I enjoy them as experiments which may well grow more and more popular independently of the conventional solo concerts and without any pretensions to replace them. But it is in this rendition of devotional concerts that I find Kumar truly great. Whoever the saint and whatever the lyric, every line, every phrase, every pattern that Kumar sings is the utterance of a deeply moved soul.

In the final analysis, joy lies in appreciation, not analysis – as one perceptive rasika once said. And Kumar is one artiste who exudes joy even with his very presence. He has managed to retain both his name and fame without losing his head. He remains calm and unconcerned about the controversies that continue to rage around him. He endears himself to his confreres as much as to his audiences by his humility and dedication to his Muse.

Kumar’s home at Dewas, foundly named Bhanu Kul, after his first wife who died at the birth of their second son in the early 1960s, nestles amid a lovely garden at the foot of a hill and away from the madding crowds. When he is not on his concert outings, Kumar keeps busy with his research, experimentation and teaching. His second wife, Vasundhara, is his chief disciple, who also shares his involvement in his relentless endeavours. Mukul, his elder son, and Satyasheel Deshpande, the youngest son of Vamanrao Deshpande, are among his other disciples who, given certain conditions, should make the grade sooner rather than later.

I last heard Kumar at Pune three months ago. It gave me a glimmer of yet another turning-point as a classical musician. And, as I came away, an observation of T.S. Eliot sprang to my mind: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”

Kumar Gandharva has many more years to go, and may he continue to enrich and perpetuate the musical traditions of India, classical and folk, by his many-splendoured genius.



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