A review of a book on Kumar Gandharva

The Musical Journey of Kumar Gandharva by Raghava Menon is one man’s attempt to grapple with the musical genius of Shivaputra Komakali, known to the world as Kumar Gandharva (KG).  That KG was a genius, very few dispute.  He assimilated music traditions and genres in a way never dreamt of before to come up with an astonishingly original style that few successfully imitate.

A genius, according to a dictionary, is one who posseses exceptional intellectual and creative power.  Kumar Gandharva was that – even those few who may dislike his music cannot deny the creativity of the man and his music.  “Genius” also means one who wields enormous influence on others.  And that too he was – the musical world was shaken by the phenomenon that was Kumar Gandharva when he entered it and today when he has left it, it is a much richer place for his contribution.  It is indeed no exaggeration when Menon says that KG split the world of Hindustani music into two halves – one before him and one after him – “a kind of BC and AD in music”.

Menon traces the twin careers of KG.  The early Kumar Gandharva burst into the musical world in Mumbai as a prodigious boy of nine years with an unbelievable aural memory and vocal capacity.  The child could remember and reproduce with astonishing accuracy the music of the greatest stalwarts then as recorded in long playing discs.  It was uncanny and could be dismissed as a freak talent, but not by all.  Menon recounts the poet Vallathol’s reaction to the boy’s music who, among others, knew the boy was destined for greater things.  The early KG later came under the tutelage of Prof. Deodhar, a teacher with an almost missionary zeal, where he learnt the “rules” of raga-s and was clearly emerging as a very competent musician.  As Menon puts it, he came to that stage of competence all too easily and was restless, looking for more, or as Menon would have it, looking for the source of raga music.

And KG did turn out to be much more than a competent musician-he blazed new trails.  And this was on his return to the scene after a life threatening illness from which he took 6 years to recover.  And how he sang then!  The music of the later KG was unlike anything heard before and yet, as Menon puts it, seemed to capture the very essence of the thing that we call raga music.  KG now had a completely original style that could not be explained by referring to any one or more gharana-s (styles of Khayal music).  It was certainly not eclectisism.  Every major singer today has an eclectic style, but KG’s music was not some elements of this gharana, some of that and some of yet another gharana.  It was radically original.  This is the tantalising mystery of the man’s music.  How did he sing the way he did?  The answer always given to this question – and Menon gives it too – is that KG drew from the resources of folk music; but if one looks for any details on this “drawing from folk music” theory, one is disappointed.

One is tempted to compare the career of KG with that of the Cambridge philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Like KG, Wittgenstein had two completely different phases in his career (he is always studied as the early Wittgenstein and the later Wittgenstein).  Wittgenstein’s early philosphy was  taking Bertrand Russell’s logical atomism to its logical conclusion-inexhorably and saying this is not to belittle it;  in his later philosophy Wittgenstein completely repudiated his early theories and came up with a brilliantly original philosophy, one that was to have a lasting impact. Brilliant it was, it was also seemingly simple – Wittgenstein said he arrived at the basic idea by looking (at language use), rather than thinking about it as he did in his early phase.  One of his famous exhortations to fellow philosophers was “Look, don’t think.”  Where Wittgenstein looked (at language use) KG listened – to the folk music of Dewas, the town in Madhya Pradesh where he spent 6 years fighting a deadly disease.  Drawing from this experience his style of singing had something that could profoundly tug at very raw musical instincts that lie latent in everyone as also the refined ones.

Menon offers other insights into KG’s music such as his total disdain for exhibitionism of any kind in music – technical virtuosity or vocal power…  He did not leave you flabbergasted by holding on to a note for an eternity or spanning the three octaves in one taan….  In fact, his vocal range was pretty limited and he could not be bothered to extend it.  That, as Menon puts it, had not any place in his vision of music.  KG’s music was mesmerising despite – and because of – disturbing elements in his music.  The bandish or the composition that is often sidelined in the music of other masters (so much so that often one can barely discern the words) erupts in KG’s music forcing attention to a sudden syllable here and a word there.  Again, there was none of the leisurely, slow-paced vocalising of notes that is so characterisitic of Khayal music.  There are instead phrases (much like in Carnatic music) delivered with a sharpness that is only miraculously not harsh – short staccato phrases delivered with intensity in perfect pitch.  Surprisingly, while Menon talks of the Southern accent in KG’s music, he does not touch upon the Carnatic music’s engagement with musical phrases rather than notes.  If KG sought an alternative to what Menon calls the “scalar exploration of raga-s”, it was already there – in Carnatic music – and the possibility of his being influenced by it is not touched upon.

The book is no routine biography – it itself is a quest, a journey.  There is no chronological tracing of the major events in KG’s life; they do find a place in it but only in so far as they are relevant to Raghavan Menon’s quest of understanding the music of the man.  Menon says it is not so much to understand KG the man and his music but to understand ouselves that we need to try to place KG and his music.  The very fact that despite being so different KG could capture the imagination of thousands of music lovers and students does say something about them.  Yet does the book answer any question about KG or about ourselves as Menon would have it?  Engaging ideas are thrown here and there but never explored completely.  Converstaions with KG, and about him with Aldous Huxley, Vallathol, Krishna Chaitanya and not to forget —-the household cook in Dewas – all interesting tid bits, but all serving to heighten the mystique of KG and his music, not to analyse it.  Menon’s style of writing is anything but Kumar Gandharvesque – nothing is short and brief here.  He loves the long winded, picturesque sentence, and flirts frequently with ambitious, metaphysical ideas.

The quiet and beautifully understated production of the book, intense black and white photos of the master in concert by Avinash Pasricha, nearly impeccable editing all make for extremely fulfilling reading.

Lakshmi Sreeram

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