Kumar Gandharva – a Life in Music

Belgaum and Dharwad, on the cusp of Maharasthra and Karnataka, have thrown up musicians that have defined their age. And this has always been in the world of Hindustani music, understandably since Maharashtra has very much been the centre of Khayal since the late 19th century.

Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkali, known to the world as Kumar Gandharva, belonged to the tiny village of Sulebhavi in Belgaum. Born with a prodigious musical mind that could grasp and reproduce any music he heard, he grew into a musician who sang unlike anybody before him.

Kumar Gandharva’s music and life were astonishingly dramatic. A child prodigy who flowered into a singer of great skill and promise under the caring tutelage of Prof. B.R. Deodhar, stricken with a dreaded disease, and that twice, pulled out of death’s jaws by a devoted musician wife who later died in childbirth, a rather quick second marriage, beleaguered with weak health throughout a career that won him fanatic admirers; all the while a music evolving and growing in undreamt of directions; Khayal music given a new life and form, raga-s shining with a strangely different hue but unmistakably the Bhairav or Kedar or Bageshree that we all know, familiar compositions delivered with a frenzied obsession with the words and the syllables, retrieving ancient forgotten links with folk music, creating raga-s drawing from folk tunes, renting the skies with the eerie sound of Nirguni bhajans, presenting the music of Bal Gandharva and poetry of Meera and Surdas, folk songs,…

His life was dramatic but from all accounts, he himself was completely collected even in moments of utmost turbulence. What life threw at him he absorbed it calmly, with confidence in himself and his destiny. In a quiet corner, however, he reminds us what his life has been – his takhallusshok” quietly acknowledging the lows of his life. He signed off some of his compositions by incorporating the word “shok” – sorrow.

His music was startlingly dramatic. Sudden bursts of powerful notes and phrases and sudden softening, pouncing on a phrase or just a word of the composition, playing with it endlessly, there is high drama in his music. But if there is a singer whose music is completely untouched by sentimentalism, it is Kumar Gandharva. There is an immense drama of light and shade in his music- the powerful and the soft, the dense and the lonely – but never does it lapse into sentimentalism, so that even his softened phrases are never just soft – they have a gripping vigour and rigour.

His music has been described as “aakramak”, aggressive. And despite a deliberate aggressiveness, there is a deeply cultivated “surelaapan”, a sheer tunefulness. As has been pointed out, musicians and schools of music that are known for their aggressive style often suffer in respect of tunefulness. But in Kumarji’s music we see them co-existing as if it were most natural.

How does one assess the contribution of a musician – by the number of his fans or by the number of his disciples or by the number of concerts and awards?

“It is completely irrelevant – to ask how I felt when I received an award, say the Padma Vibhushan. People ask me Kumarji, how did you feel? Well, I felt nothing. It is not a right question to ask me. If you were to ask me how I sang in a particular concert, that I will answer. I will answer – what I was able to say, what I was unable to, what mischief I did, how I managed treacherous parts of it… Yes, I will say all this. But what do I feel about an award? Don’t ask me, for I feel nothing.”

This response of his to a peripheral issue contains what he has meant to the musical world. A musician should be just that – a musician and nothing else. He himself was intensely preoccupied with every aspect of music as art and profession and brought them under intense, and original, analyses. Beginning with sur or the musical note, how one may approach it, how to understand sruti, and laya – that most subtle aspect of music, to gharana, music teaching, the tanpura, the microphone, accompaniment, the literary aspect of bandish, the tarana, every raga of course, to catch its soul as reflected in each bandish, how to “throw” words, about Meera, about Surdas and of course Kabir, folk song – he thought about each issue deeply and his ideas on these issues were reflected in his music.

“What is tarana? It is not just throwing in gibberish words like tanana or dhirdhir dheem. Why tarana? It is like this: when we take up a raga, there is so much to be said – so we sing bandishes and explore it through aalaap, taan etc.. But even after this sometimes something remains to be said and that we can say through the tarana…. It is a magnificent idea.”

If we were to talk of his contribution, we can list many. He created new raga-s but not just by mechanically working out novel scales, but by working around expressive phrases, sometimes derived from folk tunes (Dhun Ugam raga)

He brought the nirgun swara into the classical platform so that now there is no other way to sing the nirguni bhajan. “That is a different swara”, he said, “when I heard that singing one night as it wafted from the streets outside, I realized it was a different swara, not the swara of Raga Music”.

His taan-s can be a subject of study in themselves, his handling of laya, of creating phrases during badhat – every aspect of his music can be studied and much can be learnt from it. He himself studied the music of Bal Gandharva and was an ardent admirer of Narayanrao as he referred to him. And indeed, that study itself can be studied – how does one study a musician?

But above all, Kumar Gandharva sought Raga out in a novel way, pushing aside tired ways that generations of musicians have tried and tested.

What is a raga? A set of notes? A movement of these notes according to a grammar? How do we sing a raga? One sings a short introductory alaap, and then launches into the vilambit khayal, sings alaap systematically, and then builds up increasing the density of phrases and range of the phrases, until we go on to bol taan and taan and then launch into the Chota Khyaal… the works! Kumar Gandharva’s music has taught us how to unshackle ourselves from this conventional approach to Raga.

Saastrabaddha sur raaga ho gayaa; gaanaa tab hoya sAstra bin sur. Saptak mein rehte huye bhii raga ekdam svatantra hai.

Notes sung according to grammar become raga; but even though it lies within a scale, the Raga is completely free.

Raga is no doubt constrained by expectations of grammar and presentation. But an artist has to internalize them and then ride free. His riding cannot be a following of these rules. One must just ride, joyfully, feeling the wind in the face. Sing naturally!

A Bageshree of his will capture the throbbing essence of the raga and yet, astonishingly, a shuddha gandhara which grammar does not allow, is used easily, naturally! How did this man do it? The mystery of the man and his music remains. He would say – think about the raga, about the bandish, about its swara-s…

Teeratha to saba kare

Deva puja saba kare

Vaasanaa na mare

Kaise ke bhava tare

Pilgrimage – everyone does it

Pray to god – everyone does it

But vAsanA does not die

How will deliverance they find?

This composition has been rendered memorably by him and it explodes into Tilak Kamod tearing into its very essence. But I see the bandish, its import, as defining Kumar Gandharva’s musical work.

VAsanA, according to Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics is the reason for bondage, for the state of “not being liberated” – desire, acting out of instinctual cravings.

VAsanA means knowledge derived from memory, present consciousness of the past. It is a behavioral tendency derived from past impressions.

Tweaking this bandish, it could be Kumarji’s life’s work.

Raga – everyone sings it

Bandish – everyone sings it

But with memories, piled up expectations, choking…

How will you find your own way in this vast ocean that is music.

riyaz ke saath vichaar chahiye, vichaar ke saath lagan, prem chahiye, iske atirikta in sab par aaroodh hokar gaayan ko aatamsaat karnaa chahiye – phir gaanaa maano bacchon kaa khel ho jaayegaa.

You need to think about your art, not just put in hours of practice; and love your art, and merge with it – and then singing becomes child’s play.

But for an adult to engage in child’s play is precisely not child’s play. Kumarji spoke of svAbhAVikatA – to sing naturally, without any stress, without vAsanA, without feeling the pressure of what has been and what is expected.

That indeed is his lasting contribution – that he showed us Raga again shorn of the vAsanA of established practice, so that we know what it is to sing and hear Raga like a child would play. Naturally! SvAbhAvikapaNe!

(Published in Saamagaana, the First Melody)

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