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The Guru: Pandit Sawai Gandharva

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The Guru: Pandit Sawai Gandharva

Sawai Gandharva, the eminent Hindustani vocalist, was a legend in his lifetime. A renowned representative of the Kirana gharana, who is also remembered for training a generation of singers, he was largely responsible for popularizing North Indian music in the south.

Mohani Nadkarni pays tribute to the genius on his hundredth birth anniversary.


SawaiSawai Gandharva who? There are a good many connoisseurs of Hindustani music of the younger generation who are likely to ask this question. The more knowledgeable among them pretend to know of him, rather ironically, simply as the guru of today’s musical stalwarts like Gangubai Hangal, or Bhimsen Joshi. True, paralytic infirmities compelled Sawai Gandharva to end his eventful concert career nearly a decade before his death on September 12, 1952; but there are still rasikas of the older generation who were lucky to savour his great music. And, in this year of the maestro’s birth centenary, his old-time votaries remember him with nostalgia.

Sawai Gandharva was, by common consent, one of the topmost Hindustani vocalists of his time. He was also the most outstanding disciple of Abdul Karim khan and therefore, the foremost exponent of his Ustad’s vocalism, popularly known as the Kirana gharana. When the Ustad moved from his obscure village, Kirana, in North India, to settle down finally at Miraj, the erstwhile princely state in south Maharashtra, his following increased as he found an ever-growing number of admirers from this part of the country. And Sawai Gandharva was the first among numerous promising youngsters who sought and obtained tutelage under the Kirana maestro.

Sawai Gandharva’s association and enduring shagirdi with Abdul Karim Khan has an interesting background, both historically and culturally. And this is what has led me to regard him, specially in these times of linguistic strife, as the first Kannada musician who pioneered and popularised North Indian music in the south.

It all began at the turn of the century. Hindustani music was not in vogue in that part of the Kannada-speaking region then known as Bombay Karnataka which formed part of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency and comprised the districts of Dharwad, Bijapur, Belgaum and Karwar. Carnatic music held sway for several centuries because of its contiguity to the princely stae of Mysore. The ruling maharaja, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, happened to be a perceptive lover of Carnatic as well as Hindustani music, and he made it a practice to bill top vocalists and instrumentalists of the North Indian tradition side by side with Carnatic veterans, for performances during the famous Dassera festival every year. In time, Dharwad became the halting place for Hindustani music stalwarts during their journey to Mysore or on their way back. The local music-lovers would invite them and organise informal baithaks on such occasions. This became a regular annual feature and significantly contributed to the gradual popularisation of Hindustani music in Bombay Karnataka.

Abdul Karim Khan was one of the most sought-after maestros in Dharwad. It was obvious that they had discovered something new in his gayaki, with all its sweetness of tone and its meditative, introspective touch. Sawai Gandharva (whose real name was Rambhau Kundgolkar) was one of the impressionable teenagers who happened to hear the Ustad at one of the popular baithaks and came under his spell.

Sawai Gandharva had a musical voice and a find flair for singing because of his earlier training in dhrupad and dhamar from a kirtankar of his native village. The Ustad was quick to assess his talent and gladly took him under his wing.

But in the initial stages of his shagirdi with the Ustad, what then seemed a total tragedy befell the budding singer. His mellifluous voice cracked at the age of 16 – as happens with many boys at that age. It even lost much of its mobility, depth and range. Still more demoralising was the growing hoarseness and bluntness in intonation. All this shattered his hopes of a fruitful career.

But this did not daunt the Ustad, who was an acknowledged pioneer in voice culture. With characteristic kindness, understanding and sympathy, he put his disciple on a long and arduous course of swara-sadhana. And it took the Ustad seven long years to effect an improvement. The feat stands out as a rare example in musical history of what voice culture can achieve.

I was privileged to listen to Sawai Gandharva’s live as well as radio recitals till he was crippled by paralysis in late 1942. Those who also had such opportunities will concede that with all his life-long riyaz and dedication, his voice still suffered from some inherent limitations. But he turned these to his advantage. I remember how he was apprehensive about his unpredictable medium of expression and how, to ensure a successful concert performance, he would keep practicing for at least three to four hours before his scheduled stage appearance.

If Sawai Gandharva emerged as the most outstanding disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, it was because he was not content to be just a mindless imitator of his mentor’s vocalism. He reshaped it in many ways and elevated it to the status of a traditional gharana – a recognition denied the Ustad by the purists of his time. According to them the Ustad was an unorthodox vocalist, who would not even care to sing a composition through. They alleged that his raga expositions were not only not true to form, but also lacked coherence.

According to those who had attended the Ustad’s concerts there was an element of truth in these allegations. Obviously, Sawai Gandharva, too, was aware of the shortcomings of his Ustad’s gayaki. Intelligent and imaginative, he heard and studied the various contemporary singing styles in order to incorporate them into his mentor’s style. He went even further to seek and secure the guidance of contemporary senior gharana stalwarts like Bhaskarbuva Bakhale and Nissar Hussein Khan of Gwalior. Much to the chagrin of Abdul Karim Khan, he never hesitated to express his gratitude to these maestri for the impact their styles had on his singing.

With all this, Sawai Gandharva had kept his moorings firmly in the Kirana genre. Even though his voice did not have the natural ease and spontaneity of utterance so characteristic of Abdul Karim Khan, it was something of a miracle that he could cultivate the introspective quality in his style. There was the unmistakable Kirana plinth, just visible enough, so to speak, that held the grand edifice of his own gayaki.

Sawai Gandharva was rightly acclaimed the ‘king of mehfil’. The sense of massiveness or the quality of dignity that marked his music was his distinctive individual contribution to the linear grace and almost feminine charm of his Ustad’s vocalism. He mostly presented only those ragas which were simple and familiar to his audiences. His asthayi recitations revealed a leisurely pace and meticulous exploration of a chosen raga. The quiet, unhurried progressions, punctuated by a variety of brief, soft swara-alaps, showed his fine sense of the subtle and the beautiful. What finally stood out was a masterpiece in sculptured sound, majestic in form, immense in proportion yet ornate with gamak, bol-taan and taan patterns, all perfectly integrated into an exquisite design.

As briefly mentioned earlier in this article, Sawai Gandharva also made his mark on the Marathi stage as an actor-singer when the great thespian, Balagandharva, ruled supreme. His raga-based Marathi pads had become he rage of the ‘20s, when Marathi musical drama was at the height of its popularity. His preeminence as an actor-singer and as a classical maestro on the mehfil platform, was hailed as a double distinction. And that was how Rambhau Kundgolkar came to be known as ‘Sawai Gandharva’.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who were lured by the Marathi musical stage and eventually forsook their concert careers, mehfil music to Sawai Gandharva was his first love – and his last. He never neglected it even during his two decades of involvement with the Marathi stage.

Sawai Gandharva cut a number of commercial discs at different phases of his eventful career. These are all old 78 rpm records which are still cherished as a precious acquisition by old-timers, though they cannot be said to do full justice to the greatness of his genius. In 1969, the Gramophone Company of India was persuaded to bring out a long playing dis (ECLP 1430) presenting reproductions of 11 ragas and thumris selected from the old repertoire.

The maestro is remembered by a dedicated group of disciples, friends and admirers, who hold a mammoth sangeet sammelan in Pune every year to mark his death anniversary. The event, sponsored since 1953 by the Arya Sangeet Prasarak Mandal (an off-shoot of the Arya Sangeet Vidyalaya founded by Abdul Karim Khan in 1918), has come to be regarded as symbolic of the country’s reverence for a maestro of the eminence of Sawai Gandharva. In point of planning, organisation and billing, the sammelan has now acquired a national character.

Sadly, however, precious little seems to have been done towards widening the scope of this laudable activity beyond holding the annual event. This centenary year of the maestro was the most opportune time for the sponsors to make the event more meaningful by initiating, among other things, suitable schemes to provide for systematic training, under established masters, for deserving students seeking to pursue classical music. It is a pity that no such plans are in sight.


Firoz Dastur, Gangubai Hangal and Bhimsen Joshi are Sawai Gandharva’s celebrated protégés. Mohan Nadkarni recalls the days when these illustrious singers were the maestro’s students. Sawai Gandharva was one of those creative geniuses, who excelled equally as a performing artiste and an erudite guru, who gladly shared his vidya with his shishyas. He groomed several students, of whom, Firoz Dastur, Gangubai Hangal and Bhimsen Joshi have emerged as his outstanding disciples, each in their own way. Gangubai, at 73, is the senior most disciple of the maestro. Next comes 67-years-old Dastur, while Bhimsen Joshi, three years younger than Dastur is, in a manner of speaking, the juniormost pupil. But in terms of the years of studentship, and also chronologically, pride of place goes to Dastur.

It was during the maestro’s temporary stay in Bombay in the early ’30s, that he used to go to Dastur’s residence to teach him. Two years later, when the maestro returned to his home village, Kundgol, nine miles away from Hubli, he began teaching Gangubai at his residence. She would travel all the way from Hubli for her lessons. Only Bhimsen Joshi had the privilege of learning from the guru at the latter’s residence by staying with him, in the age-old gurukula manner, for nearly five years. It is therefore interesting to have them reminiscence about their student days. According to Dastur, he started his lessons with his guru in a rather unconventional way, in that the maestro chose the raga bhairavi to teach him. As is well known, this raga is always conventionally rendered to mark the end of a performance in Hindustani music. Why then, did the guru choose this raga? Thereby, Dastur says, hangs a tale.

It so happened that when Sawai Gandharva wanted to assess the gradation and quality of Dastur’s voice, Dastur sang a film song which was based on a bhairavi tune popularised by the great Gohar Jan. As he puts it: “My guruji was evidently impressed by this ‘test’ performance and he began teaching me that raga rightaway.” About his guruji’s method of teaching. Dastur has this to say: “Guruji came to my residence on all days except Saturdays and Sundays. I learnt from him for about five years intensively and without interruption. He taught me a number of ragas and while doing so, he also gave me thorough training in the vocalisation of sargams, taans and paltas. He was thorough in his methods but extremely lovable. In the course of my learning, I received nothing but love, sympathy and understanding from the great man.”

Gangubai Hangal, like Dastur, had her basic training from two local veteran teachers, K.V. Hulgur and Dattopant Desai of Hubli, before she sought studentship with Sawai Gandharva. A young woman and mother of an infant daughter, she undertook a laborious rail journey from Hubli to Kundgol for her daily tuition. According to Gangubai, evening hours were fixed for her tuition by her guru to suit her convenience. There were no frequent rail services in those days, and there used to be an interval of three hours between the trains connecting Hubli and Kundgol. Her rigorous training lasted three years during which time she learnt seven to eight ragas. The guru would tell her to practice a given phrase, sequence or pattern till she mastered it to his complete satisfaction. There were occasions when she had to practice a single palta for the duration of the entire evening’s sitting!

Bhimsen Joshi sounds more forthright when he reminisces about his days with the maestro. According to him his guru did not teach him for a year and a half; instead he entrusted him with domestic work. But when the guru’s talim began, it began in right earnest. His day started at 4 o’clock in the morning. The first two hours were devoted to mandra-sadhana, so vital to voice cultivation. Then, for three hours, the guru taught him Todi. This was followed by a long break till 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when Bhimsen was given talim for another three hours in the exposition of Multani. The final sitting again of the same duration, which would last till midnight, was set apart for a thorough grounding in Puriya.

Bhimsen pointedly says that in addition to the daily teaching hours, the guru himself would choose to sing for his shishya, whereby the protégé would just keep listening to his mentor with utmost concentration and try to absorb as many of the finer points of his gayaki as he could. At times, the guru would even wake him up as early as 2 o’clock in the morning, if he was in a mood to teach him! Todi, Multani and Puriya were the only ragas he could learn from his master during his residential studentship with his guru. How come? It was the considered view of his guru that mastery over these three ragas was not only essential for cultivation of a steady and tuneful voice, but it also helped greatly in improving its volume, depth and range. Indeed, the example of these three outstanding disciples of Sawai Gandharva resoundingly serves to bring home the validity of the method of their guru’s teaching.

Illustrated Weekly of India, October 5, 1986


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