Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Kumar Gandharva I knew

An illustration of the legendary musician Kumar Gandharva.

An illustration of the legendary musician Kumar Gandharva.
| Photo Credit: Illustration by Joseph Gnana Satheesh

I would sing all the time then, at the age of nine or ten. I didn’t feel like singing the classical music that I heard at home. I loved singing film songs. . In a vain attempt to tame my incessant humming, my father, musicologist Vamanrao Deshpande, sent me to Professor Deodhar’s school to study shastriya sangeet, and I did enjoy learning there. But the bandishes I would hear from Kumarji when he stayed at our house while visiting Bombay, or the Malvi lokgeet he would sometimes sing would embed themselves in my voice more easily, and my father, full of admiration for my skills, would ask me to sing for visitors.
There were also other famous musicians visiting us at that time. They would come to discuss points of musical import with my father or to sing something for him, and I’d be a fly on the wall, taking it all in. But I remember thinking, every time I’d meet Kumarji, that there was something very different about this man. The first time this struck me was when I requested him to sign my little autograph book.
In those days, I’d go around asking my father’s accomplished friends for a sahi and a sandesh — an autograph and a message. .

Hirabai Barodekar wrote ‘Maintain the sanctity of gharana-music’, and I was left wondering which gharana she meant. Someone else wrote ‘Practice for eighteen hours every day’. The poet Raja Badhe’s sandesh was the best: ‘Giving sandesh is so passé. But you must eat one everyday’.
When I went to Kumarji however, he thought about it, pen in hand, for a good two hours, and then wrote: ‘The savouring of art depends upon the company one keeps. Even creating art is easy, but understanding the essence of it is very difficult.’ This is a sandesh I still haven’t been able to fully digest.

Gestures such as these made Kumarji stand out for me among other musicians. The freshness of his music and his e personality had begun to cast its spell on me. In 1963, when I was 12, he took me along on a concert tour. We travelled by first class to Nagpur, Amravati, Rewa , Jabalpur, Bhopal and finally Dewas. I’d hum unceasingly but Kumarji made me perform for 15 minutes before his audiences in each of these towns.

Mont-long stay in Dewas

What fun it was to be in Dewas! In the month I spent there, Kumarji never brought out his tanpuras to give me or anyone else a formal lesson. Instead, what I heard there was Kumarji’s humming — while doing his gardening or travelling by tanga, and most often on the dining table. How beautiful his humming was! His tarana in Bhimpalas and the lokgeet ‘Suno sakhi sainya jogiya hoi gaya’ are etched in my memory. I already knew my father’s version of the Shuddha Kalyan bandish ‘Batiya dura’, but there, on Kumarji’s dining table, I learnt that the actual words were ‘Batiyā daurāvat aiso sughar banā’ [he repeats sweet nothings, my beautiful beau]. His manner of singing this bandish, and the lilt with which he spoke these words in song, still gives me goosebumps.
From everything I saw and heard in Dewas, I realised that music was a way of life for Kumarji. . He did not believe in the idea that music was meant only for the stage, that it was something to put on display, and that one did one’s riyaz only to make it concert-worthy. I also realised, during this stay, that music is the process of revisiting a raag, of unpacking the dhun that lives inside it anew each time. It is not a fixed product that you formulate once and for all. You can memorise a bandish, but the music in it must keep flowing like the water from a spring. You cannot fill a pot with a spring. You can only fill it with water. A spring is an outburst in flow.
All the musicians I had seen — the popular ones, who’d perform often, and the others who’d spend their days waiting for the opportunity — their riyaz was an effort to shape their music for the stage.

Kumarji was an exception to this. He once told me, ‘Beta, not all singers are blessed with the ability to hum!’ Many singers acquire voices suited only to the stage. Their speaking and singing voices are very different, and many cannot hum atl all. . But with Bade Ghulam Ali Khansaheb and Kumarji it was not so. They were both fond of humming and, could also bring their full, roaring voices to the concert stage. I believe that singers who can do both are able to inhabit a much wider field of sensitivity.
Kumarji made me and his son, Mukul listen to 78 rpm records of the senior singers then, and developed in me a passion for listening that has stayed with me ever since. Faiyyaz Khan, Rahimat Khan, Roshan Ara Begum, Barkat Ali, Kesarbai — the unique flavour of each of these voices stamped themselves on our young minds. In a letter from Dewas to my father, Kumarji wrote, ‘Satyasheel and Mukul’s riyaz of listening to music is going very well’.
During that month-long stay in Dewas, Kumarji’s music and childlike persona had me in thrall. His infallible aim when playing marbles, his clever moves during a game of chess, his affinity for language, and the inimitable way in which he used it, his unexpected and spontaneous responses to things people said.

In Bombay, the ceiling fan in our 58/B Walkeshwar Road flat was as steadfast and stoical as my father. Its speed hadn’t wavered for years. I grew up under this fan, and it was only in Dewas, in Kumarji’s company, that I woke up to the vicissitudes of day and night, and even to the seasons. I had, for the first time, come into the company of a man, who savoured so much and lived with such relish. I returned to Bombay overwhelmed not just by Kumarji’s music but by his entire personality, by the man himself.

The writer is a renowned Hindustani vocalist. Gaan Gunagaan, Rajhans Prakashan, 2023, edited and translated by Srijan Deshpande.

#Kumar #Gandharva #knew

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