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Music is his faith – not merely a career

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Music is his faith – not merely a career

The Sunday Standard, February 25, 1973

The article as it first appeared.

The article as it first appeared.

The author interviewing Pandit Arolkar much after this article first appeared.

The author interviewing Pandit Arolkar much after this article first appeared.

A MAESTRO who wanted to be a recluse but became a musicians – and having become one, related his art to the spirit and abhors concert appearances; these are some of the unusual traits of Pandit Arolkar’s personality.

But whenever this great Gwalior veteran condescends to perform, the spirit seizes him as it were in his creative ecstasy.

Advancing age and chronically indifferent health just to not matter. Indeed, to watch the frail 60-year-old master sing is to watch the triumph of the spirit over the body.

One is amazed by his effortless singing. It is marked by grace and facility, immaculate intonation and an unerring sense of style, rhythm and dynamics.

One is struck by his innovative acumen as he conjures up newer and newer patterns in the process of unfolding his melody.


Rhythm is so much an integral part of his singing that he compels the listeners to mark the beat. It is sheer delight to see him swoop hawk-like on the sam (which, according to Panditji, is the highest emotional point in music) in umpteen ingenious ways.

As the singing moves in a faster strain it is a treat to watch his taans rise and fall with natural grace- some of them with lightning speed, others with sparkle and colour and still other with a kaleidoscopic variety.

Listening to him, one never becomes conscious of technicalities.

His phenomenal breath-control, uncanny aesthetic sensibility and unfailing comprehension of the fundamentals, pose a combined challenge to the younger generation of classical singers, most of whom (like their quiescent listeners) seem obsessed with the shallow superficialities of technique rather than the deeper realities of presentation.

Needless to say, Panditji is at cross purposes with the contemporary trends in traditional music – in point of both performance and appreciation.

A traditional musician, Pandit Arolkar is in a strange predicament today. Around him have emerged new conditions in which both demand and supply are fiund to be of a different character.

He has either to undergo, with uncompromising dignity, the ordeal of keeping his tradition alive, or realign his practices to the varied tastes of his vast and capricious audiences.

Often, he is at a loss to decide what to cater, for whom, and how. Oftener still he succumbs to the temptation of a compromise in an attempt to please every one which, in effect is pleasing to none.

This explains Panditji’s isolation from the contemporary musical activity, but he has no regrets.

He is a dedicated artiste steeped in the tradition of old masters. He is above any falsification of music by virtuoso ornamentation and caprice!

This however, does not mean that he has completely renounced the world of music. He is willing to oblige those who care for pure, wholesome music – be they serious-minded youngsters seeking to benefit from his guidance, or earnest connoisseurs.

He can often be heard in informal gatherings in compact halls.

It was in the congenial atmosphere of a private drawing-room that I first heard Pnadit Arolkar. That was some five years ago.

He sang for nearly four hours before a small but discerning audience which included many distinguished musicians, musicologists, writers, connoisseurs and critics.

The fare was truly representative of his hallowed tradition, and he presented it with an inspirational fervor rarely found among his confreres.

The repertoire was not only rich but also varied in its imaginative revelations. The variety of his ideas showed itself as much in the tappa, dadra and thumri improvisations as in the khayal and tarana presentations.

It was music of changeful patterns, unfolding in its formal manifestation an instinctive feeling for the artistic and the beautiful.

What moved me most was the fact that each of the themes had the character of an intense, ardent mood ; so much so that the whole performance seemed to be consecrated as an object of illumination.

This is the mystical element that marks Panditji’s approach to his art. This is the virtue that inspires his evocative singing.


This mystical element, this quality of detached intensity – as I came to know when I met him later has been inherent in him, ever since he decided to seek musical faith more than a musical career.

Sharadchandra Atmaram Arolkar was born in Karachi on December 2, 1912.

His father was a military official who had no ear for music but who sought relaxation in philosophical reading. Sharadchandra, however, had a passion for music which asserted itself in many ways.

As a boy, he tried his hand skillfully at the harmonium and the tabla and never missed an opportunity to attend a music concert.

The recording of Ustad Rehmat Khan, the great mystic-musician, once made a profound impact on him, when he was still an impressionable youngster.

Much against the will of his elders, he sought musical guidance from Pandit Lakshmanrao Bodas, a local musician and disciple of Pandit Vishnu Digambar.

His inquiring and inquisitive mind also made him a voracious reader at that young age. His family owned a tidy library of books of philosophical interest and it was not long before he found himself in an altogether new field.

So tremendous was the influence of the spiritual reading on his mind, that he forsook his schooling and music lessons and ran away to Lonavala while he was only thirteen.

His meeting Swami Kuvalayananda, the eminent authority on yoga and himself a great mystic, was momentous : it was Swamiji who asked him to pursue his musical quest which he assured him, would also bring him spiritual fulfillment.

Arolkar soon moved to Gwalior, rightly acclaimed as the nursery to North Indian music. There he had the benefit of guidance from eminent maestros like Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Eknath Pandit and Krishnrao Mulay.

From them he learnt the technique and aesthetics of khayal, tappa, thumri and other allied singing varieties.

To the master’s touch he added an unstinted industry and an unequalled determination.

If, over the years, his music could achieve a complete subjugation of technique in the service of a higher spiritual and intellectual purpose, it is because it has crystallized after a long arduous process of ascetic study.

In the course of his ascetic studies he has acquired an extensive repertoire of 600 rare and authentic compositions, ranging from classical Dhrupad and Khayal to light classical tappa, thumri and dadra. He has also to hiscredit about 350 self-composed themes.

Arolkar’s versatility as a performer has brought him encomiums from some of the greatest musical stalwarts of our time like Vilayat Hussain, Kesarbai Kerkar, Shamsuddin Khan and S.N. Ratanjankar, to name a few.


Bombay has been Pnnditji’s Karmabhoomi for nearly three decades. A bachelor, he lives a strangely secluded life.

There is a withdrawn and introspective streak in him. He shuns publicity and is curiously allergic to music critics.

Some call him an enigma while to some others he is an obstinate theoretician and uncompromising purist. He is in fact neither but he is as much a crusader of faith as he is a pilgrim of melody.

I have known Panditji very intimately for the past few years. While it is in the nature of his personality to be an introvert, few musicians could be livelier conversationalists (he speaks fluent English) given, of course, the right mood and context.

I asked Panditji a few interesting questions. For instance regarding his claim that the Gwalior gharana is the only authentic tradition of North Indian music, which has come in for much hard, unkind comment. I asked him what he had to say in this regard.

A: I know what my critics and detractors say on this point. However I owe my devotion to the Gwalior gayaki not as a gharana, but because I find in that vocalism a perfect blend of the basic ingredients of traditional singing, namely, shabda, dhun and laya.

I have no quarrel with any gharana. But mere imitation of mannerisms do not make a gharana.

Q: What then is good music?

A: This is a controversial question. For me, its essential quality is the ability to touch the finer chords of emotion, and in so doing enrich the humanity of the listener.

Good music, to my mind, is that which, because it gives one pleasure, enriches one emotionally, intellectually or spiritually and adds to the totality of one’s pleasure in living.

Q: What do you think of the future of khayal singing?

A: I feel sad about it. Khayal is Gwalior’s precious bequest to North Indian music; but it is rapidly deteriorating.

The tendency to evolve a music that is a curious mix-up of the techniques of khayal, thumri, ghazal and pahari will kill its genius.

Q: What should be done to reverse the trend?

A: An unwritten code of attitude and behavior must guide the musician to educate the listener in the values of art and promote his active participation through enlightened listening and balanced judgement.

In fact critics, musicians and listeners have all to play a collective role in this scheme of things. Only then can music vindicate its past and make real contribution to cultural integration.

A man of simple living and clean habits, Pandit Arolkar is also a strict disciplinarian. His daily routine is rigid and covers spiritual sadhana, riyaz (musical practice) and teaching students.


Today’s popular vocalists like Kishori Amonkar, Jetendra Abhisheki and Sharad Sathe have received the benefit of his valued guidance.

He also devotes much of his time to philosophical reading and is an ardent devotee of Shri Sai Baba of Shiradi.

He also retains his childhood interest in sports, games and several other recreational activities. But music to him is religion – a yaga, an expression of deep faith and devotion, conducive to peace of mind.

It will be no exaggeration to say that Pandit Arolkar truly typifies the scriptural dictum: Sangitam vai yogah (music is yoga).

1 Comment

  1. Neela Bhagwat & Sharad Sathe were good students of his, dont know more names of his students, but there certainly must be many more. I was very fortunate to digitize a lot of his concert recordings from Sharadji’s collection. Even though being from the time he must have been quite aged, they are a treasure any musician of the gwalior gharana could listen and benefit.

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