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Celebrating Kumar Gandharva

BySumana Ramanan
Apr 02, 2023 12:26 AM IST

Vocalist Mukul Shivputra reflects on the music of his father, Kumar Gandharva, whose birth centenary year begins on April 8, and on his own journey

When the vocalist Kumar Gandharva once travelled to Shikarpur, in present-day Pakistan, for a concert, he noticed that the local tonga drivers sang as they ferried passengers around the city. Ever alert to music of all kinds, Kumarji spontaneously absorbed the tonga-wallahs’ tunes, which he later learnt expressed a poetic form called baint.

Celebrating Kumar Gandharva
Celebrating Kumar Gandharva

Back at home, in addition to rendering khayal compositions in various raags, Kumarji sang the folk tunes that he had picked up on his travels. He also spent years mining the folk music idioms in the Malwa region in western Madhya Pradesh, where he lived for most of his adult life.

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“My father was special because he sought out the folk tunes that evolved into raags, and tried to understand all stages in the process of this evolution,” said Mukul Shivputra, Kumarji’s eldest son, using mostly Hindi, with a smattering of English and Marathi. “He searched for the seeds of various raags, and traced the phases of each seed’s germination – as it grew from sapling to plant, which then flowered to yield fruit. He was a rare musician who could present all these steps of cultivation.”

Improvisation is central to Indian classical music, and it is the concept of the raag that provides the framework for improvisation. Khayal, in which Kumarji trained, is one of two north Indian classical music forms; the other is dhrupad. Resembling human language, the raag is an ingenious engine that can generate infinite and infinitely varied melodies from a finite set of rules.

Many folk tunes had variations. Over time, a set of rules associated with a raag probably encoded the ways in which the original folk tune could vary within bounds, so that the melodic link with the basic tune was preserved. Many of the folk tunes continued to be sung in parallel with the raags they inspired. It was this slow process of abstraction from a tune and its variations into a set of rules that Kumarji spent a lifetime tracing for many raags.

Now in his late 60s, Shivputra spent a leisurely afternoon on Wednesday in Pune, where he lives, reflecting on his father’s art and his own journey, more than thirty years after Kumarji passed away and ten days before the start of his birth centenary year. The milestone will be commemorated on April 8 by a day-long event, culminating in a recital by Shivputra. (See box at the end).

“My father not only looked for the origins of raags, but also created new raags, compositions and taals,” Shivputra said, speaking softly and restating his thoughts in different ways, including using similes and metaphors, to get to the heart of the matter, almost as if he were exploring a raag to bring out its essence. “He was a complete personality. I did not see him only as a father, but also as a creative wellspring. During his birth centenary year, I am celebrating that fount of creativity.”

Natural iconoclasm

Kumar Gandharva was born Shivputra Siddharamaiyya Komkalimath in Belgaum, Karnataka, acquiring the name by which the world knows him because of his precocious talent – a gandharva being a musician from the heavens and the epithet ‘kumar’ referring to a young boy. His father, recognising his son’s talent, sent him to stay with and train in Mumbai, then Hindustani music’s epicentre, under B R Deodhar, of the Gwalior gharana, the oldest stylistic tradition of khayal.

Deodhar’s home and school in Opera House, which still exists, was like a salon where musicians from all over stopped by to perform and mingle with one another. There, Kumarji heard the music of performers from a variety of gharanas, such as Anjanibai Malpekar of the Bhendi Bazaar gharana, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala tradition, and Faiyaz Khan of the Agra style. Possessing a natural catholicism and curiosity, Kumarji eagerly absorbed influences from different musicians, especially those from the Agra and Jaipur gharanas, Shivputra said. He recalled his father also talking about Baba Sindhe Khan, of the Gwalior tradition, and Wajid Hussain Khan, of the Sahaswan gharana.

“My father picked up whatever he liked from various musicians,” Shivputra said, proceeding to sing a composition of Baba Sindhe Khan’s in raag Bhoop, whose first line, Neendaria na aaye – I can’t sleep -- began with a taan, or run of fast notes. “See how unique it is,” Shivputra said.

In an art form that fostered fierce gharana loyalties, Kumarji began standing out for his refusal to remain within the narrow confines of one style. In his early 20s, by which time he was already a mature vocalist, he entered a new phase. He contracted tuberculosis, collapsing on stage in Kolkata a week after India won independence. A few months later, as recommended by his doctor, he moved to a drier climate, putting down roots in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. He recovered, but not before losing one lung. Undaunted, he began exploring the musical traditions of the region.

“When Kumar Gandharva arrived in Dewas in January 1948, he knew only his mother tongue Kannada and the Marathi he had learnt in Mumbai,” said Sopan Joshi, an independent journalist in Delhi who has just written an abridged biography of Kumar Gandharva that’s under publication. “The extraordinary effort he made to learn Hindi and Malwi during his sickness gave him access to folk singing traditions, including teams of rural artists that sang compositions of the great Bhakti saints of northern India like Kabir and Surdas. He immersed himself in these folk traditions. His impassioned interpretation and rendering of these forms made him immensely popular in northern India.”

Kumarji’s characteristic sketching of raags in short bursts of phrases also harks back to this period, necessitated by his reduced lung power. He attracted criticism from some purists, who said his presentation of vilambit, or slow, compositions, the centrepiece of a raag rendition, lacked gravitas. But even his detractors had to admire his tunefulness, his voice often merging with that of the tanpura’s; his lilting but taut improvisations in the medium tempo, which became his hallmark; and his creativity in exploring raags through the innovative use of melodic inflections influenced by the folk genres he was exploring.

The son rises

In such a household, Shivputra began learning music right after he was born -- without being taught.

“What you learn early on without making a deliberate attempt is of utmost importance,” he said. “It is like children learning Hindi or Marathi before they have set even one foot in a school. After this, when you mature, you can make a more conscious effort to learn, but this early acculturation is indispensable.”

Shivputra inherited his father’s broad musical vision. Early on, he developed a burning desire to explore the relationship of khayal with other genres. In his late teens, taking his father’s permission, he began visiting Mumbai regularly over a period of about two years to learn from other musicians. Staying with Vamanrao Deshpande, a leading musicologist, he learnt dhrupad from K G Ginde, thumri from Baburao Rele, and pakhawaj, the percussion instrument used in dhrupad, from Arjun Shejwal, among others.

Like many children of brilliant parents, a young Mukul on the cusp of adulthood tried to balance respect for his father with becoming his own person. Despite his father’s scepticism, he spent another year and a half in Chennai learning from the Carnatic singer M D Ramanathan.

By the age of 30, he had developed his own musical personality, but had also been worn down by tragedies. After all, at the age of five, he had lost his mother, who had died while giving birth to his younger brother; in his teens, he had lost a trusted family friend who had become an anchor after his mother’s death; and in his 20s, he had lost his beloved wife in a stove accident. As someone who experienced life intensely, he went through dark phases, seeking solace alternately in spirituality and alcohol. He wove in and out of the concert scene, but eventually emerged from the tunnel.

Not a singer who can mechanically produce music on demand, Shivputra sometimes takes time to settle into a groove. When he does, he produces sheer magic. He has a supple, rounded voice, with a more base timbre than that of his father’s. He is hyper-tuneful. Because of this, even when he sings rapid phrases and taans, his music radiates serenity. His raag elaborations are often relentlessly creative. He beautifully enunciates the lyrics in the Hindi dialects used in khayal compositions, which enhances the overall effect of his delivery.

For his recital on Saturday, he plans to sing common raags that will resonate with a wide swathe of listeners. “Today, we live in a world of images and colour,” he said. “Very few people are immersed exclusively in the world of sound. As for music, it has to be enjoyed in the moment because making music is like drawing on water. Unlike when a sculptor makes marks on stone, musical lines disappear as soon as they are drawn.”

BOX

WHAT: Kumar Gandharva birth centenary celebration

WHEN: Saturday, April 8

WHERE: Ravindra Natya Mandir, Prabhadevi

ENTRY: Free passes available at venue from April 5

PROGRAMME:

3 pm to 4 pm: Jugalbandi between violinist Yadnesh Raikar and flutist S. Akash

4:30 pm to 5:30 pm – Kathak by Rujuta Soman

6 pm to 8 pm – Discussion on Kumarji and his music

8:30 pm to 11 pm – Recital by Mukul Shivputra

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