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Reflections on a golden voice: D V Paluskar

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Reflections on a golden voice: D V Paluskar

Had death not cut down Dattatraya Vishnu Paluskar in his prime, the course of Hindustani classical music could well have been different.

Even though his concert career was remarkably short, Paluskar created a unique style of music that has withstood the vagaries of time and changing audience states.

MOHAN NADKARNI profiles the maestro who would have been 65 on May 28.

Just a few months before his death, Paluskar visited China as a member of the Indian cultural delegation. This tour was in a sense fateful. He had declined such invitations twice before, in deference to the wishes of his superstitious mother.

paluskarI was in New Delhi in the autumn of 1955 to attend the music symposium and the sangeet sammelan annually organised by All India Radio. In between came the Dassera festivities on October 26. Dassera is a big event, especially in North India. A spectacle unfailingly watched, year after year, by thousands of Delhiwallas with renewed delight, is the burning of Ravana’s effigy on the Ramlila grounds. To me, witnessing this for the first time, it was a sight for the gods.

Back home from the Ramlila grounds, with my young nephews and nieces, in the late hours of the evening, I casually tuned in the radio set to listen to a scheduled programme of instrumental music. Instead, there came a flash announcement. It was the news of the sudden death of D.V. Paluskar, due to encephalitis, around noon that day.

I was a classmate and lifelong friend of Bapu (as Paluskar was affectionately called by his relatives and friends). The instant impact of the announcement on me was inevitably one of shock and disbelief. For a moment, I was overcome by a sense of grief. The next moment, I burst into tears. The bitter-sweet memories of our days at the New English School in Pune and of our enduring friendship came rushing back to me. Specially those moments of my last meeting with him in Bombay, just before my visit to New Delhi, made me all the more disconsolate. For Bapu was scheduled to perform on the final night of the AIR sangeet sammelan, then a few weeks away, and we were happy at the prospect of meeting again so soon.

Bapu, like his great father, Pandit Vishnu Digambar, was a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who was also affectionately nicknamed ‘Bapu’. Old-times may well recall those turbulent times for the freedom struggle, when no session of the Indian National Congress under Gandhiji’s stewardship ever ended without the soulful choral-singing of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram led by Pandit Vishnu Digambar.

Again, like the Mahatma and his father, the younger Bapu was an ardent worshipper of Rama till the last. How ironic that he left this world for another and, that too, on a day celebrated as Seemollanghan (crossing the frontier), which symbolises the Lord’s victory over Ravana. Is there any deep significance in this tragic happening? Or is it a mere coincidence?

Questions such as these continue to baffle me, as many others, even today, although three decades have gone by since he passed away.

Paluskar was only 34 at the time of his death. Merely to say that his premature death brought a musical career of immense promise to a tragic end is to leave much unsaid. Promise is perhaps just not the word for Paluskar. For even within that brief span of life, he had blazed a trail of glory as a pioneer in the post-freedom resurgence of Indian music – as a representative of the new race of young vocalists, ready to shoulder the mantle of departing masters.

Dattatraya Vishnu Paluskar, who was born on May 28, 1921, was only 10 when he lost his father. Bapu, the eleventh and only surviving child of his parents, was, however, deeply aware of his father’s greatness as the only evangelist of Hindustani music who pioneered a cultural revival in North India in the early ’20s. To the manner born, the young son was determined to pursue his father’s mission.

Bapu had his early lessons in music from his father, after whose death he received further training successively from three leading disciples of Panditji. The first was Chintamanrao Paluskar, his cousin, followed by a brief tutelage under Narayanrao Vyas. Then came the fruitful period of training under Vinayakrao Patwardhan which continued till 1942. In between, he received guidance intermittently from Mirashi Buva, the celebrated exponent of the Gwalior gharana, and his father’s gurubhai.

Bapu had made his mark as a major talent in 1935 when he was only 14, with his debut at the famour Hari Vallabh Sangeet Samaroha in Jalandhar, and his subsequent performance at the All-India music Conference in Calcutta. He soon became indispensable at major musical events wherever they were held. He also became a popular broadcaster at the age of 16, and cut his first gramophone disc when he was only 22.

Classicism with popular appeal is a rare thing today, and vocalists who can blend conservatism with catholicity, are getting rarer still. His numerous radio recordings and commercial discs are all we now have as mementos of his musical greatness. We are struck by his compelling, resilient voice, attuned to a high degree of modulation. His grasp of technique was phenomenal; but he used it not for a dry demonstration of its mechanics, but for a true creative purpose.

I cherish haunting memories of his live and radio recitals. They were singularly free from acrobatics or contortions. His utterance was distinct, clear and precise, and he had no use for those sadly familiar superficialities that almost always go with contemporary professional vocalism – that peculiar sophistication; or that fondness for speed, rhythm and sargam; or that obsession with mannerism.

Nor did he reveal in his singing the characteristic abandon commonly associated with great virtuosi. Be it a packed festival audience or a friend’s drawing-room, he was always in his element wherever he sang. It was as though a pure sensuous joy emanating from deep religious faith suffused his music.

Paluskar never displayed virtuosity for its own sake. Instead, he concentrated on the spirit of his raga, so much so, that he would hold his audience spell-bound from the first tentative feel of his swaras.

His vilambit khayals were marked by sustained pace and a meticulous analysis of the musical mode. Then, gradually, there would emerge the whole personality of the raga, shimmering in all its beauty and charm. Equally elegant was the way he shaped his fast-paced compositions, with their uncanny layakari and racy vibrant taans.

Paluskar had lent his voice to the silver screen only once – in the duet with Amir Khan in the film Baiju Bawra. The jugalbandi did bring an element of glamour to his popularity. But that made no difference to him. He was a traditionalist who, unlike many of his contemporaries. Never succumbed to the clamour of his mass audiences or changed his practices to suit their capricious tastes.

Where, then, did the appeal of his music lie? It lay in his versatility as a concert performer. I remember how, even as he captivated his highbrow connoisseurs with a pensive Multani or a profound Malhar, he could also sense the mood of his not-so-highbrow listeners and move them with a soulful bhajan, not a thumri or a geet. He had for his model such great musician-saints as Mirabai, Tulsidas and Kabirdas and, above all, his worthy father who, in his time, swayed the massas as much by the devotional fervour of his singing as by his saintly personality. Bapu, likee his father, was a classicist who sang for the common man.

Although Paluskar was steeped in the khayal gayaki as exemplified by the Gwalior gharana, he emerged as the first classical musician to overshadow the gharana concept and initiate the trend of eclecticism in the traditional domain in the post-freedom era. Significantly, his countrywide professional tours brought him into constant contact with many leading lights of other gharanas from time to time. These served to broaden his catholic outlook and also widen his musical horizons. The result was a rare synthesis of some of the best virtues of the classical singing styles of Norh India. This explains why the rich variety of bol-taans and taans of the Agra and Atrauli-Jaipur gharanas also found such eloquent expression in his khayal improvisations, while the feeling with which he sang, which was typical of the Kirana manner, lent so much devotional sensitivity to his bhajans.

Yet another facet of Paluskar’s musicianship was that even though he was basically a product of scholastic education, he managed to steer clear of its dangerous limitations. Long years of training from the first three teachers at their music schools did not blunt his creative propensities, nor could it formalise his performing ability. This was truly his singular distinction, if we go by the performance standards of those who come out of the portals of music universities, academies and colleges, armed with diplomas, degrees and doctorates.

Paluskar’s recitals were tremendously popular even in the South and he shared with Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan the coveter honour of being invited to participate in the sangeetha sabhas in the South. It was during such a Carnatic music festival in Bombay in 1954 that this Hindustani vocalist rendered a Tyagaraja Kriti, Needu charana mule, in the raga simhendra-madhyama, in his own individualistic manner, to the amazement and admiration of the South Indian cognoscenti.

Paluskar was never against sensible innovation in music which was rooted in tradition. He was firmly of the view that the aim of scholastic education in music should be to encourage every promising artiste to express his creative impulses fully. He even took a kindly view of the emergence of film music, the joys of which they would never have come to know or share otherwise. He hoped that films would eventually take to classical modes for their musical fare.

Just a few months before his death, Paluskar visited China as a member of the Indian cultural delegation. This tour was, in a sense, fateful. He had declined such invitations to foreign tours twice before, in deference to the wishes of his old, superstitious mother, who abhorred the very idea of her only surviving child crossing the seven seas. When the government renewed its invitation for the third time, he accepted it to avoid possible official displeasure, but only after obtaining the grudging consent of his mother.

What, however, deepened the sense of tragedy was that according to expert medical opinion. Paluskar contracted infection while in China and that caused his sudden death.

On the face of it, even a casual mention of his Chinese tour might sound out-of-tune in today’s context. Culturally speaking, however, Paluskar’s impressions of a neighbouring Asian country have as much relevance today as they had in 1955. Indeed, they provide many fascinating glimpses into yet another great system of Oriental music.

According to Paluskar, music in China, like in India, had an ancient tradition. But it varied with different regions in keeping with the vast expanse of that country. I remember he told me that music in Kashgar province, for example, showed a subtle blend of tonal graces of the Afghan, Persian and Kashmiri vogue, with an accent on rhythm, while folk tunes reminded him of our own ragas like bhairavi and bilaskhani todi. Rabab, in his view, was a popular instrument with folk singers in that region.

At the same time, Paluskar had also discerned considerable Western influence on contemporary Chinese music. He thought that choral singing and orchestral music enjoyed great popularity. Solo performances were a rarity, while the piano was the most popular instrument in all musical ensembles.

Striking an optimistic note, Paluskar had told me that China’s musicologists, under the new set-up, were alive to the new trends and initiated a movement for the revival of traditional and folk music.

Summing up his personal experiences with the Chinese listeners, he had told me that they not only evinced a keen interest in our classical music, but also seemed to appreciate its finer points. Paluskar’s classical and devotional repertoire and, more particularly, his khayal renditions in bahar and malhar, were very popular with the audiences. On several occasions, he was privileged to give repeat performances in response to their animated encores.

Paluskar would have been 65 on May 28 this year. Despite his young age, he had a place of honour among the great exponents of Hindustani music. A man of plain living and clean habits, his simple and shy bearing often perplexed strangers, but he endeared himself to his friends by his innate courtesy and disarming disposition – as much as his music endeared him to this audiences. Professional tours and his youth possibly afforded him no opportunity to groom many disciples. His son did not take to music even as a joyous hobby. But he is well settled with a job in the merchant navy. His daughter, too, chose to settle down as a housewife. There are a few singers like Sharad Sathe, Kalindi Keskar, Kamal Ketkar, Sharad Apte and Shanta Hemmady who received guidance from Paluskar though they never took to music as a profession.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, June 1, 1986 

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