Omkarnath Thakur – an appreciation
By MOHAN NADKARNI*
The Illustrated Weekly of India January 21, 1968
The death at 72 of Pandit Omkarnath Thakur truly marks the end of an era; the era of “monarchs’ in music. One of the most colourful personalities in the music world, he had in his long and eventful career realised singly the ambitions of many of his contemporaries.
Both at home and abroad, public recognition came naturally to Omkarnath Thakur. At home, he was the recipient of prized laurels, awards and titles before and after independence (he rarely cared to use them with his name). He was probably the only Indian musician to have gone abroad as far back as in the early ‘thirties and won acclaim in the soirees held in many world capitals. He performed before King Amanullah of Afghanistan and Signor Mussolini of Italy. He rendered “Vande Mataram” and devotional songs at political conventions and recited Vedic hymns at literary conferences. He wrote authoritative books on music and taught hundreds of students.
Omkarnath was steeped in the old sastras and claimed that he was orthodox in his art. He firmly believed in the time theory of ragas and raginis and in the miracles and mysteries of music. With all this, his approach to music sounded unconventional – it was in a sense impressionistic. The novel shape he gave his melodies evoked much controversy in the musical world.
Omkarnath’s was the music that pleased yet perplexed the mind. Yet he was one of the few vocalists who successfully combined tradition with imagination, technique with grace, and classicism with popular appeal. This indeed was the secret of the tremendous vogue he enjoyed among the people.
And it looked as if Omkarnath himself reveled in the controversy over his music. He kept it alive until he was stricken with paralysis three years ago. This is borne out by the growing fondness he had shown in his later years for theoretical argument and caustic comment to supplement his music wherever he performed. His spicy verbal interludes drew wild applause from his audience; but they sometimes hurt the musical sensibilities of connoisseurs.
Omkarnath’s rise to fame was dramatic. His forbears were military men, but he was born in penury and orphaned at the age of 14. He earned his living as a cook and then as a mill worker. The vicissitudes of life hardly dampened his spirit and his burning passion for music asserted itself in many ways. A good swimmer as a youngster, Omkarnath even braved the swirling waters of the Narmada for the sake of music, and he never missed an opportunity to present himself wherever visiting musicians gave concerts. He tried to learn music from temple musicians and street singers.
A wealthy Parsi gentleman, Shapurji Mancherji Doongaji, soon discovered in the struggling youngster the makings of a future maestro. Through his support, Omkarnath came to Bombay and joined the Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya under the personal care of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Omkarnath’s association with the great evangelist of Hindustani music (who pioneered a cultural revival in North India in the early years of this century) was destined to prove extremely fruitful in the years to come. Vishnu Digambar found in Omkarnath a disciple of promise, prepared to pursue his vocation with tenacity and courage. The disciple zealously followed his master during the latter’s countrywide missionary tours. And by the time he was 20, he began receiving invitations to give recitals before music conferences.
Omkarnath was just 50 when I first heard him at a morning concert. Despite his age, he was still in fine fettle. I was struck as much by the leonine grandeur of his personality as by his stentorian voice. His was a sturdy figure, with a massive chest, square shoulders and unkempt locks of curly, silvery hair. Dressed in a flowing white silk robe, he made a great impression on his audience by his very presence. His compelling resilient voice, with an amazingly wide tonal range, seemed to blend perfectly with the dignity of his bearing.
The fare he offered was rich and varied, and he showed in his singing the diverse aspects of his consummate artistry. I particularly remember his opening item in the raga Devgiri Bilawal and the Mirabai bhajan “Jogi, mat jaa” in Bhairavi with which he rounded off his recital.
With four tanpuras and two accompanists, Omkarnath unfolded the nature of the placid but rarely-heard melody-Devgiri Bilawal – with an uncanny insight into its beauties and with precise command over its design and structure. The progression of the raga was measured, steady and sure. He traversed the saptakas with ease and every taan emerged with luminous clarity as he moved up to the taar saptaka. His vilambit khayal was marked by a wealth and variety of ornamentation, while short, jerky but sparkling taans flowed out in profusion from his drut piece.
The concluding “Jogi, mat jaa’’ was equally a treat in devotional music – an experience to cherish for long. Omkarnath revealed in it his penchant for voice modulation in all its plenitude. We were treated to a variety of shakes, tremolos and staccatos designed to bring out the full emotive content of the bhajan.
These elements in Omkarnath’s music have come in for some hard, unkind criticism from diehard purists. He was accused of importing Western airs into Indian melody. Omkarnath, on the other hand, maintained that Indian music recognised as many as fifteen gamakas and that quite a few of these were similar to the tremolos and shakes employed in Western music. His use of these devices, he asserted, had the full sanction of tradition and he would quote chapter and verse from the sastras to drive home his point.
Omkarnath was an uncompromising exponent of the Raga-Ragini (or the Nayaka-Nayika) Bhava theory. He held that each raga or ragini personified a male or female character. He pointed out how the masculinity of a raga and the femininity of a ragini should be fully portrayed in their melodic delineation.
According to him, the differentiation between a raga and a ragini came from the emphasis on rasas (moods or sentiments). In his view, the sequence of svaras in the aroha and in the avaroha was always in consonance with dominant moods. An artiste could easily depict them in his presentation if he carefully avoided vocal gymnastics. The dominant sentiment of ragas like his favourite Nilambari, Bageshri, Pilu and Todi, in his opinion, was karuna (pathos); Hindol, Shankara, Hamsadhvani, and Adana depicted the vira rasa (martial mood); and Desh, Jhinjhoti, Khamaj and Tilang symbolised the sringara rasa (erotic mood).
Music to Omkarnath was not a mere “recreation” but an expression of deep faith and devotion, conducive to peace of mind, if not divine bliss. A widower, he shunned publicity and was curiously allergic to the press. He did not easily condescend to sing in public. Forthright and temperamental, it is probably characteristic of the man that he died almost in self-imposed isolation. His recorded music is all that we now have to cherish and preserve as memories of his greatness as an artiste. His was the voice militant, and he has an assured place in the annals of music as one who came to initiate a conscious aesthetic movement and blaze a new trail in the traditional domain.
*Written under the pseudonym Gurudev Sharan