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The virtuoso: Krishnarao Pandit

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The virtuoso: Krishnarao Pandit

Krishnarao Pandit is the doyen of the Gwalior gharana. An artiste who has enchanted audiences with his ingenious singing style in a concert career that spanned 70 years.

Mohan Nadkarni pays tribute to the stalwart of Hindustani music, who turned 93 on June 26.

Krishnaraoji was a maestro of whom it could be truly said that his music was eloquently reflective of his personality. Indeed, the singing showed to full advantage the many facets of his individual style. Basically it was a rare blend of ingenuity and craftsmanship – the result of long, arduous deliberation.

Krishanrao Shankar PanditGwalior. The very name conjures up a variety of images – of historical splendour, architectural magnificence, a great musical heritage and, of course, the vestiges of royalty, in whose heyday the art and culture of north India reached its high degree of efflorescence.

But to Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, who turned 93 on July 26, Gwalior has been his karmabhoomi. As it has been for his forbears for three generations. And something more, too. To Panditji, Gwalior remains India’s musical capital. Simply mention the name and the maestro will hold you spellbound with an inspiring account of Gwalior’s dedication to Hindustani music, of the efforts of its successive princes, as much as their subjects, to carry forward the classical tradition of north India.

He will tell you how music has been part of every home in Gwalior, quoting a popular saying that when a child from Gwalior cries, it cries in tune. He would declaim, in his profound, stentorian voice, that even in the changed context of today, an average Gwaliori can easily distinguish one raga from another, whatever his status.

Krishnarao Shankar Pandit happens to be one of the very few professional musicians whose life and career is marked by an extraordinary series of lucky breaks. His father, Shankarrao Pandit, whom he describes as the first professional musician in his orthodox Brahmin family, was a disciple of Haddu Khan and Natthu Khan, who were among the pioneers of the Gwalior gharana. Later, Shankarrao underwent rigorous grooming in khayal, tarana, tappa, thumri and ashtapadi and such other styles of classical singing for 12 years under the tutelage of Nissar Hussein Khan, son of Natthu Khan, who was also another leading light of the gharana.

Krishnaraoji had his initiation into music from his father at the age of six. At 11, he made his first public appearance on the concert platform in Bombay to lend sangat to his distinguished father and guru. He was only 20 when the erstwhile prince of Satara, in Maharashtra, commissioned him to teach him classical music. But he left this coveted assignment within a year to return to Gwalior.

In 1914, Krishnaraoji established a music school. In between came the sudden and premature death of his father. That was how Krishnaraoji named his new institution Shankar Sangeet Vidyalaya after his father. The Vidyalaya, in the course of 62 years of its existence, has come to be regarded as one of the pioneering music teaching institutions in the country.

Behind the setting up of a modern-style academic institution by one groomed in the age old guru-shishya-parampara is Panditji’s awareness of the changing times. He also drew up a curriculum for teaching music to his students, engaged a team of teachers and authored a series of text-books dealing with vocal music and also instruments like the harmonium, the sitar, the jaltarang and the tabla.

But he did not neglect his role as a concert musician. In fact, his early rise to fame as one of the leading Hindustani vocalists of the country, the acclaim he enjoyed in the field for almost 70 years and, finally, the patronage he earned from the Gwalior darbar and several other ruling princes from different parts of the country, is a tribute to his exceptional qualities as a musician as much as his personal dynamism.

In the post-independence period, too, public appreciation for Panditji was abundant. He was on of the early recipients of the President’s Award for Hindustani vocal music, way back in 1959. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1973. India’s only chartered music university, the Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwa Vidyalaya at Khairagarh, in Madhya Pradesh, conferred upon him an honorary doctorate in 1962. A regular broadcaster since 1940, he has been Producer-Emeritus of AIR and Doordarshan.

In recent years, the government of the reorganized Madhya Pradesh has honoured its own stalwart with a number of state awards from time to time. Although Bharat Bhavan, the prestigious arts complex in Bhopal organized a three-day special musical event to felicitate him in November last year, the highest award for classical music, Kalidas Samman, instituted by the state government in 1982, has yet to come his way.

My early familiarity with Panditji music was through the radio, as is probably the case with most music lovers. As a teenage radio buff, I seldom missed his broadcasts or disc music from AIR Delhi. It was much later – in 1949 – that I had a chance to hear him at a regular concert sponsored by a music circle in Bombay.

Nearly six feet tall, lanky and dressed in his usual long coat, dhoti and embroidered cap, Krishnaraoji looked every inch an orthodox, aristocratic, Brahmin, with a stern, slightly forbidding visage that sported a well-groomed moustache. Erect as a walking-stick, he took his seat on the stage in an austere yogic posture and started off his recital without even the customary preliminary tonal flourishes. The effect was electrifying. The three-hour concert, at which Ram Narain and Alla Rakha lent instrumental support on the sarangi and the tabla respectively came to me as a treat.

Here, indeed, I felt, was a maestro of whom it could be truly said that his music was eloquently reflective of his personality. Indeed, the singing showed to full advantage the many facets of his individual style. Basically, it was a rare blend of ingenuity and craftsmanship – the result of long, arduous deliberation. He was endowed with a loud musical voice and his mode of articulation was massive. His taal and laya were incisive. Be it khayal, tappa, thumri, hori and ashtapadi, he could depict them with practised ease and originality.

The last time I heard the maestro was in December 1972, when he came down to Bombay from Gwalior, to attend the 6oth birthday celebrations of Sharadchandra Arolkar who is possibly his senior most disciple. Arolkar, incidentally, is not only a maestro in his own right, but also a musician’s musician. But he is reclusive by temperament and has chosen to remain away from the concert platform. The appearance of the 79-year-old guru and his equally fast-ageing shisya on a common platform was truly symbolic of the guru-shishya parampara, of a hallowed but rapidly vanishing tradition. The spectacle was at once ennobling and moving.

What is more, Krishnaraoji, though well past his prime, offered to provide the finale to the nightlong programme. In the small hours, he reeled off vilambit, drut and tarana numbers in the raga lalit, followed by lilting jogia-mand composition and a thumri and tarana in bhairavi to round it off.

It was disconcertingly evident from this concert that old age had begun to take its toll on his performing abilities. Understandably, one sensed more physical vigour than musical expression in his effort. Even so, we had many glimpses of his undoubted musicianship, showing us how rigorous discipline could well score over age.

Besides Arolkar, Krishnaraoji has groomed a large number of disciples. They include his four sons, Narayan, Laxman, Chandrakant and Sadashiv and his grand-children. Among his other disciples are Vishnupant Choudhari, the Saptarshi brothers, Dattatraya Joglekar, Keshavrao Surange, Amritphale Sarolkar, to name a few. Ironically, almost all of them have branched out as erudite teachers and not as concert artistes. All that can be said about them is that they are carrying on the parampara according to their lights. Inevitably, the Gwalior gharana, acknowledged as the forerunner of all other Hindustani khayal gharanas is on the verge of total oblivion and Krishnarao Shankar Pandit is the oldest surviving representative of the old parampara.

Panditji’s approach to traditional music was a matter of controversy when he was active on the concert stage. He had as many critics as he had votaries. As one who has been singularly lucky in having savoured the music of three generations of top exponents of different gharanas, the controversy to my mind, boils down to the question whether classical music is intellectual or emotional. In other words, it is the never-ending tussle between what is known as classicism and romanticism.

What I have said many times before bears repetition in this evaluation of Panditji’s music. I firmly believe that music (as, indeed, any other art), specially classical music is of two types. It can be purely intellectual or classicist, or purely emotional or romantic. In rare cases, it can be an uncanny blend of both.

In saying this, I nostalgically recall the kind of great music I have heard in all its variety, depth and range over the last four decades and more. Most of the old maestros, who passed into oblivion long ago, were, in my opinion, exponents of intellectual music. By and large, there was more of cerebral skill and physical ability that inspired them to create marvels of sculptured sound. Every note, every phrase, every pattern, as also the rhythmic felicities which went to vivify their chosen theme, provided unimpeachable proof of their life-long dedication and discipline. Against this background, the music of Krishnaraoji, the long survivor of the old guard can be fairly summed up as intellectual in its content and approach. Therefore, its appeal has always been cerebral, but fulfilling.

Needless to say, this kind of music can no longer command popular appeal in the present era of innovation, experimentation and the avant garde. True enough, the conflict between classicism and romanticism has acquired a new and sharper edge in the wake of the emergence of luminaries like Kumar Gandharva and Kishori Amonkar. But this hardly justifies the kind of criticism against the old classicist approach advocated by Krishnaraoji and his departed contemporaries.

And the pity of it is that it comes from cognoscenti of the present generation, who could never have heard the old masters, and can only evaluate them on the basis of recordings which, in most cases, were done when the maestros were long past their prime.


Mohan Nadkarni recalls conversations with the maestro.  

The aggressive – looking Panditji is altogether a different man when encountered off-stage. During one of his visits of Bombay, I also had the privilege of playing host to him. Here are excerpts from a series of conversations I had had with Panditji during my meetings with him in Bombay, Delhi and Bhopal.

Q. Panditji, you have often said that the khayal gayaki of Gwalior is the forerunner of several other gharanas which came into prominence during the last 200 years or so. You have also emphasized that none of the later styles has the character of the Gwalior vocalism. Will you please elaborate?

A. Only my gharana can rightly claim to be ashtanga-pradhan in its character. The word means that the style has eightfold musical virtues. These are alap, bol-alap, bol-taan, varieties of taan and layakari, meend, gamak and murki. It is an intricate, complex style, although exponents of other gharanas call it simple, often rudimentary. It might sound simple because it naturally pleases the ear. But it also baffles the mind of een a top veteran, you see. Khayal is presented in two tiers, that is, in slow tempo followed by a faster one. But I find that most exponents of your gharana render their vilambit (slow) composition to medium tempo (Madhya laya). How come? Khayal, as you know well, is a song-form, a composition. If it is rendered in too slow a tempo, it is bound to lose its significance and meaning. The song-text would be deprived of its character.

Q. How then, can you hope to achieve that homogeneous fusion of shabda (words), dhun (tune) and theka (rhythm), which together constitute the hallmark of the gharana? How have you contributed to the enrichment of the gharana’s vocalism?

A. I have tried to lend a greater degree of tayyari (virtuosity) to the traditional style. I have also made an effort to blend several new variations of bol-taan in the general scheme of improvisation. Panditji, you have enjoyed pre-eminence as an exponent of khayal music. But you have also specialized in tappa and thumri styles. These are very different singing genres and have almost gone out of vogue.

Q. Your tappa, specially, sounds different from the Varanasi variety.

A. Yes, the difference is certainly there. Our tappa is khayal-oriented, while the Varanasi type is thumri-oriented. Our repertoire, besides, includes varieties like chaturang, hori, trivet and ashtapadi – all of which form part of the rich treasure of my gharana.

Q. What are the attributes of a good musician? To be a good vocalist, he must first cultivate his voice.

A. He should also have the gift of talent and imagination, coupled with enormous listening power. Above all, he has to pursue his art in the true spirit of a seeker and never deflect from his daily practice.

Q. How do you view the contemporary music scene? Was the older generation of musicians better than the present one? If so, how?

A. We now live in a fast-moving world in which the degree of understanding and appreciation of classical music is getting less and less with each succeeding generation. Our old values are also undergoing a radical change in all walks of life. All our great masters have gone and no new generation of stalwarts has emerged to fill the vacuum. Exceptions are there like Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal and others. But they are very few. Don’t you reckon tremendously popular artistes like Kumar Gandharva, Kishori Amonkar and Jasraj? They are good, no doubt. But in the name of changing old concepts and values, they seem to be indulging in innovations and experiments. As a purist, I cannot but view these trends as gravely detrimental to the very survival of the classical tradition.



The Illustrated Weekly of India, October 5, 1986

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