Music for the Masses
By MOHAN NADKARNI writing as GURUDEV SHARAN
Times Weekly, February 6, 1972
Vishnu Paluskar, whose birth centenary was celebrated yesterday, was the first to rescue traditional music from the bonds of state and private patronage.
INDIAN music has a fine record of development over the centuries. But the extent of neglect it suffered under British rule was truly appalling. This period marked the gradual elimination of the old and cultured nobility. The growing indifference of the ruling princes to art and culture was becoming quite evident (except, of course, in a few states which continued to patronize musicians in their courts till the advent of India’s freedom). The rising middle class, profoundly obsessed with the problem of earning its daily bread, had neither the means nor the will to do its bit for music. To the poorer sections, traditional music had long remained a sealed book.
However, the early years of this century, which synchronized with an important phase in the freedom movement, witnessed a resurgence of intellectual activity aimed at a rediscovery of our cultural ideas. One significant feature of this activity was the attention paid by many savants to the resuscitation of ancient music.
The name that comes easily to mind in this context is that of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, whose birth centenary is being presently celebrated all over the country. The nation remembers him as the evangelist who made the first great attempt to revive traditional music on modern lines.
An eminent exponent of the Gwalior vocal tradition, Panditji believed that no art could survive in the absence of state or private patronage, unless the artists looked to public patronage. At a time when the masses had alienated themselves from their own art and culture the very idea of an artiste pursuing his vocation on public patronage sounded preposterous.
Panditji’s was undoubtedly an uphill task, beset with many impediments. He was a Brahmin. The bigoted Hindu shuddered at the very thought of a Brahmin taking to music and that, too, in the true tradition of a missionary. He braved all threats of social ostracisation by his co-religionists and with characteristic foresight, set upon a career that was long and arduous but destined to be finally rewarding.
Panditji realised that the permeation of traditional music among the rank and file through the medium of jalsas (public concerts) would alone enable the masses to love and patronize it.
The uniqueness of his country-wide mission lay as much in his saintly personality as in the philosophic and devotional fervor with which he worked. Panditji was born in a respectable orthodox family of Kurundwad, a former princely state in South Maharashtra. Young Vishnu had a gifted voice and a weakness for singing. Meanwhile, a serious injury to his eyes brought his school education to an abrupt end and he took to music as a profession. He followed in the footsteps of Tulsidas, Surdas, Haridas and Mirabai and he preached their message by singing their devotional compositions.
Panditji reinforced his missionary movement by establishing music school all over North India to promote mass education in music and he evolved a compact system of notation to facilitate instruction in music through these schools.
The success of his missionary movement is borne out by the vast network of these institutions, known as the Gandharva Mahavidyalayas. Scholastic education in music has now reached university standards and Panditji was the visionary who made it possible. The numerous music festivals and public concerts which have become an integral part of our cultural life today also serve as monuments to his great work.
Mahatma Gandhi had deep respect and admiration for Panditji and his art. The celebrated bhajan Raghupati Raghav RajaRam high-lighted the annual session of the Indian National Congress. Thousands of men andwomen led by the Mahatma and other leaders used to stand spell-bound as Panditji rendered the Ram-Dhun in his inimitable voice.
Panditji’s life and work have greater significance in our own times. He lived at a time when an indifferent authority and a complacent populace failed to regenerate art and culture. His greatness has to be evaluated not only in terms of his contribution to the revival of music on modern lines, but also in the context of his self-less services to the masses who he considered the true patrons of art. There may have lived better exponents of the art, but hardly more sincere missionaries.