A currency called Kumarji: Celebrating the centenary of Kumar Gandharva

Published : May 04, 2023 11:00 IST - 12 MINS READ

Presenting a small playlist of classical renditions by Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992) from across the genres he favoured.

April 8 flagged off the birth centenary year of Kumar Gandharva. Fittingly, given the force of nature that he was, the date seemed to signal a marked shift in the season too. Everything around seems to have become imbued with his personality, his approach, his notes, and his silences.

Across media, there have been fertile and illuminating outpourings of thoughts, emotions, memories, analyses, conversations, performances, known and less-known anecdotes and information about the phenomenon, the singularity that is Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkali, known to the world as Kumar Gandharva, the title that referenced the appearance of this child prodigy and his celestial singing in the Hindustani music firmament. 

Part of paying homage to someone of this stature involves people repeating oft-repeated biographical information. Sometimes simply for the joy of going over those details, almost as if in prayer. A devotee never tires of describing a deity, a lover the loved one: how the Ganga flows from Shankar’s head, the vakra-tund (curved trunk) of Ganesh, the pranks of Krishna, the demon-head necklace and fearsome visage of Durga, the smile of Madhubala, the betel-juice flowing down Mastani’s translucent throat, the child R.D. Burman crying in pancham sur. It is all part of the legend of art and song that we love to revisit and rearticulate. The highs and the lows in the lives of those we adore and venerate are recalled and recited. To assure ourselves that indeed one such as this did live amongst us.

I, too, have my “when I met Kumarji” story. It was in the home of Dr Ashok Ranade, where I saw him a few times, and once I shared a taxi with the two of them, a youngster too star-struck to utter a word. But with enough wherewithal to listen to every word and watch out of the corner of my eye as the legend spoke about all manner of things from the mundane to the sublime.

At the inaugural concert of the 18th Radio Sangeet Sammelan at the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi on September 23, 1972. 

At the inaugural concert of the 18th Radio Sangeet Sammelan at the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi on September 23, 1972.  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Stories about Kumarji’s music-making are inextricably linked not just to the uncanny abilities of his child-singer days, but also to the gurus who nurtured him, to his deeply considered iconoclasm, to the years in health-enforced exile. Every fan has a mental picture of him lying quietly in bed, plucked from his rightful position on the national stage, convalescing in Dewas, absolutely forbidden from singing. The music of passing tribals, itinerants, workers falling on his ears and permeating his musical consciousness. This was a time of deep cogitation for him, his mind doing the soundless inner work that would fuse these influences with his early classical training.

There are many stories and memories about Kumarji’s grand return to the stage once he was cured of tuberculosis (albeit with the loss of one lung). His comeback, it is said, created a pan-Indian stir. Legend says (and his family confirms) that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi cycled house to house in Pune, inviting people to Kumarji’s return concert. After Kumarji’s passing, Bhimsenji would refer to him as an ashtapehelu kalakar, a multifaceted artist.

Not easy listening

As many have said and experienced, listening to Kumarji is not “easy”. He demands that you listen afresh to old established raags and open your mind to never-before-heard ones. On top of that, he brings a genre fluidity that leaves the purists stupefied, by weaving the weft of folk music into the warp of classical music. Listeners and critics who refused to be open simply got left behind, and those who were startled into listening anew were richly rewarded by hanging on to the tail of this game-changing comet. 

Critics, listeners, record companies, and academics, when they encounter Kumarji’s music and musical thought, were and are simply not allowed to take the easy road and get lulled into settling down with the familiar. Those looking to attend a hum-along concert, in which a Yaman will remind you of 10 other Yamans and film songs and natyasangeets and bhajans, will not be allowed that indolence when listening to him.

At one time, many popular artists of the highest stature would wearily succumb to the audience’s insistence that the Malkauns sung or played that day remind them of the Malkauns on the long-playing record or cassette they have listened to loyally, over and over again. One stalwart even began to say, in a tired and sarcastic tone, in Marathi, when such requests for tried-and-tested khayals and bhajans would come in: “Gaato, agdi record madhli ek-ek taan gheun, ditto same gato (Yes, of course, I will sing it exactly like in my record—taan for taan, ditto).” The irony was lost on those audiences, who instead clapped in approval, ready to hum and nod along at all the familiar spots.

“Kumar Gandharva would unapologetically demand that his audience do the hard work of listening to something new, different, and grow (and grow up).”

Kumar Gandharva simply did not countenance this kind of farmaish (request). He would unapologetically demand that his audience do the hard work of listening to something new, different, and grow (and grow up). Listening to Kumarji, whether during his time or 30 years later, and for all time to come, means becoming reacquainted with something known but with a fresh insight, or listening to words, the play of notes, and voice production that you have never encountered before, or being pleasantly shocked by the counter-intuitive curveball he may throw. Often, this means that nothing that he has sung is understood and absorbed fully in one sitting; its beauty and its intent, its thought, its words, its notes, its silences give of themselves to us gradually, released and realised over many listenings. 

Every Kumarji listener has a “When I first became conscious of Kumar Gandharva” moment, bound up with a raag or song. The question “When did you first ‘meet’ Kumarji?” is a question which people are eager to answer, as it is an important marker in one’s listening (and learning) journey. I remember my first sense of his singing, distinct from anything I had heard before, from a time when I was certainly not a conscious listener. Almost before jabse hosh sambhala (I grew up). A pre-cognitive time.

A playlist

Perhaps a small playlist of personal favourites from across the genres he traversed would be one way to enumerate the Kumarji multiverse into which one gained entry over the years. With the disclaimer that making “listicles” of the works of a singer or player whom you love and whose repertoire (and luckily for us recordings) is of oceanic width and depth always ends up as a Sophie’s Choice. Those that “make it” to your list are not by any chance the only pieces that captivate you, and the list can shift and change as you plumb the depths of this ocean.

1. This was a record of Kumar Gandharva that came out in the late 1960s, bought by my parents, who until then had a collection of the usual suspects (no offence intended). One side had a Bageshree, a traditional, well-established and much-sung raag. From the throw of that first word, “Sakhi…” you become aware that the approach and treatment are like nothing you have heard before. (Malini Rajurkar sings the same bandish with a hat-tip to Kumarji, by beginning with the same anguished “Sakhi”.) Even more intriguing for me is his Sanjari on the other side of the record. It is a raag that Kumarji composed, part of a repertoire that he called “dhun-ugam raag”, born from a folk origin. It is a raag without any history or precedence. (The composing of a raag is itself an utterly fascinating phenomenon, like Ravi Shankar’s Parmeshwari or Ali Akbar Khan’s Chandranandan, given that it must set itself apart from hundreds of others.)

In every listening of Sanjari is reflected the union of Kumarji’s highly trained classical sensibility and the folk idiom that he absorbed. There is a twilight inwardness to this piece that touches your core in unfamiliar ways. Including its Malwi language lyrics, with words that we have to dwell on, to tease out their meaning. Intriguingly, possibly no one else has recorded this iconic raag. As if it would be blasphemy or forgery of Kumarji’s signature to do so! The famed silences embedded in his swaras, in his notes, are there for us all to be drawn into, to contemplate. He had once said that “someone who did not know the nature of silence can neither speak nor sing.”

Raag Sanjari:

Raag Bageshree:

2. To zero in on any one of his Nirguni bhajans as a favourite is a near impossible task: “Sunta hai”, “Heerana”, “Avdhoota”, “Bhola mann janey”… However, for a while now, “Sakhiya wah ghar sabse nyara” has been my pick, an outstanding rendition that you can listen to on loop. Kabir’s mysticism, that sense of shunyata, emptiness, the cleansing of the human mind of all the dichotomies of life, is conveyed by Kumarji in an elegiac Bhairavi. The sense that his rendition, his musical interpretation gives, in keeping with the poetry, is of being released from this-worldly polemics into a non-obstructive space.

Kabir nirguni:

3. Kumarji brings a plaintive devotion and simplicity to Sant Tukaram’s abhang “Lahanpunn dega deva”, setting it to a tune and rhythm that immediately brings to mind an itinerant singer walking down a lane singing to his god. Kumarji sings it in the upper register, so fitting for this abhang in which Tukaram urges his god to give him the gift of a modest life, even insignificance, to avoid the trappings of wealth and authority. Equally riveting is his rendition of Chokhamela’s anguished abhang “Johar Mai-baap Johar.”

Tukaram abhang:

Chokhamela abhang:

4. In this film song from the Marathi film Zaakol, Kumarji plays himself singing on stage. The song by Kavi Anil (A.R. Deshpande) expresses the frustration of a tongue-tied man who unexpectedly bumps into the woman he loves. He can only look on helplessly as he lets the moment get away from him without saying a word. Kumarji brings just that rueful quality to his singing. His lament makes us smile and empathise with the poet who seems to be ambushed by his own hesitation and confusion, letting slip the chance to make contact! (Interestingly, the little girl sitting next to the actor Shreeram Lagoo in the film is Urmila Matondkar.)

Film song “Aaj achanak gath paday”:

“Kumar Gandharva’s legacy is alive and well, coursing through the veins of his immediate family of singers, his prime disciples, and their disciples. ”

5. Another Kavi Anil poem sung by Kumarji. On the surface, the words and the tune are apparently about a lovers’ tiff, with the woman steadfastly refusing to speak. Only towards the end does the poet’s hidden pain dawn on us, the listeners, with a subtle shift in mood that the singer brings about: that the poet is lamenting the passing of his loved one, lying inert and unresponsive.

“Ajuni rusun ahay”:

6. Kumar Gandharva’s album of stage music, natya sangeet, was what today we call “singing covers”—his tribute to the great Bal Gandharva. It is titled “Mala Umajlele Bal Gandharva”. Umaj is a word hard to translate—it is a bit like samaj, which is to understand. However, it also carries within it the sense of wondrous discovery and deep appreciation. One Gandharva paying homage to another Gandharva. Perhaps the most poignant song in this collection is “Prabhu aji gamala mani toshala”. A Bhairavi in fast tempo, almost feverish in rendition, from the play Ekach Pyala that takes us through the tortured life of its young hapless protagonist Sindhu.

Natyasangeet (“Prabhu aji gamala”):

7. Kumarji’s lively, generous, and larger-than-life personality is seen in the way he composed this raag Madhuvanti drut bandish (from the point 18.05 in the recording). His friend and singer Vasantrao Deshpande sent him a letter from Pune asking if he could visit him in Dewas, with the playful question: “Mai aau toray mandirawa? (Can I come to your temple?)” Kumarji replied with a “Mero maddhaiya tora aahay rey (My humble abode is yours)”. And to this he added the words that translate to: “Why should you touch my feet, come clasp me, my true friend!” This became the drut bandish, which can be interpreted also as a dialogue between man and god.

Raag Madhuvanti Drut (“Mai aau toray mandirawa”):

8. The link below has Kumarji performing as a 10-year-old. How fortunate that this clip where he sings with such aplomb is available to us.

As the year of his centenary year unwinds, and beyond it too, we live in happy anticipation that we will continue to deal in that unique currency that Kumarji cast during his lifetime. A currency that continues to get stronger as newer generations of musicians and listeners join his dominion. His legacy is alive and well, coursing through the veins of his immediate family of singers, his prime disciples, and their disciples. All of them aware that they are carrying forward different and essential parts of Kumarji’s gayaki, but that there will never be another such as him.

Gouri Dange is a writer, book editor, and family counsellor. She grew up in a family and neighbourhood of music lovers and saadhaks in Mumbai, Singapore, and Pune. She had occasion to associate closely with musicologist Ashok Ranade as an editor, a music lover, and a close family friend.

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