A movement for music

Print edition : June 17, 2005

Veereshwara Punyashrama, a unique institution of Hindustani music in Gadag in north Karnataka, uses the power of classical music to bring about economic empowerment and social transformation.

PARVATHI MENON in Gadag

Students practising at Hindustani singer Puttaraja Kavi Gavai's residence.-PICTURES: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

THE squat yet rather imposing figure of Puttaraja Kavi Gavai leans gently forward from a high bed on which he is reclining. Rows of thick rudraksha necklaces hang from his neck, and a saffron turban in the traditional Veerasaiva style sits atop his head. He listens keenly and with concentration, murmuring instructions to two young student-musicians seated on the floor, as they synchronise the notes of a sarangi and harmonium. Silence falls in the room in deference to the intense musical engagement taking place between the teacher and his students. It is hard to believe that Puttaraja Kavi Gavai - the head of Veereshwara Punyashrama, a unique institution of Hindustani classical music - is 92 years old. Or that this living legend of the Hindustani music tradition is blind, for he appears to know exactly who else other than his students are in the room. An aide whispers into his ear. "Journalists?" he asks, turning his attention to us. "What have I done wrong?" He leans back and smiles broadly, eyelids twitching rapidly over empty eye sockets.

The modest ashram located in Gadag, a relatively obscure little town in north Karnataka, has perhaps done more for the dissemination of classical Hindustani music than any institution of music in the country past or present. On a rough estimate, over 15,000 students, the majority of them from poor backgrounds and a sizable number of them visually impaired, have passed through the ashram since its formal inception in 1944. For the majority of these students, music is a source of economic sustenance. Less quantifiable, but perhaps of greater long-term significance, is the role of these students as agents of cultural transmission. They have nurtured, preserved and transmitted the classical music tradition through their links with schools, colleges, homes and performance halls.

Puttaraja Kavi Gavai.-

Veereshwara Punyashrama is fairly well known in its own catchment region, comprising the districts of northern Karnataka. Dharwad, a great centre of Hindustani music that nurtured the Kirana gharana, is not far away. Several leading musicians of the Dharwad school have had close associations with the ashram. The 61-year-old ashram is undoubtedly one of India's great institutions for the teaching and dissemination of classical Hindustani music.

Classical music as an instrument of economic empowerment and social transformation - this unusual philosophical ideal drives Veereshwara Punyashrama. It is an ideal that was set by its founder, Panchakshara Gavai, Puttaraja Gavai's teacher and mentor, when he established the nucleus of the institution in 1914. The socially radical teachings of Veerasaivism were a source of inspiration for Panchakshara who determined early in his musical career that as a practising Veerasaiva he must use the power of classical music to change the lives of poor and underprivileged children. This became his calling.

Panchakshara Gavai's life was an unusual one. Born blind in a poor but musical family in Hanagal taluk (Bellary district) in 1863, both he and his brother were musically gifted children. Hanagal Kumaraswamy, a wealthy patron of music, once came to their village and heard the blind brothers sing. Impressed with their talents, he told their parents that he would train them. Panchakshara's older brother died a few months later. Panchakshara, however, went through formal musical training, both vocal and instrumental. He studied under competent musicians of his time - Sadigappa Gavai from Siralkoppa and Neelkantbua Mirajkar. He learnt Carnatic music in Mysore.

Veereshwara Punyashrama.-

To growing critical acclaim, the young Panchakshara was soon poised for a conventional though illustrious career in music. Only a few recordings of his exist today, but it is said that he had a fine voice and played a range of instruments with great proficiency, including the tabla, which he could play with his left hand. He, however, opted for a life of musical service, teaching music to socially and physically disadvantaged children.

Aware that poor children would not come to him of their own, he decided to reach out to them instead. He did this by starting a sanchari pathashala (travelling music school) in 1914. It was a life of struggle for him, and often enough, of great privation. He moved from village to village through the districts of north Karnataka, sometimes on foot, or by bullock cart, bus or train. He would stop at a village or small town where he would gather musically talented children and teach them. He made a special effort to draw blind children to his school. The school stayed in a location for a few weeks, and if necessary for a longer period. He asked for contributions to keep the school running. Grateful parents provided him a place to stay and contributed what little they could to keep the children fed and clothed.

It is of particular significance that in his socio-musical project Panchakshara challenged the powerful institution of caste frontally. Classical music was the cultural preserve of the upper castes. Gavai consciously broke that nexus. Children from all religions and castes, including Dalits, joined his school. This is a practice Veereshwara Punyashrama upholds even today. Discarding the hidebound caste practices and religious prejudices of the society from which they come, children from different religious and social backgrounds live, eat and sing together in the ashram.

Students of Puttaraja Kavi Gavai, (from left) Kallaiahajjanavaru, Subash Gowda Patil and Sukru Sahib Mullah, practising.-

"I will sell the strings of my tambura to nurture my students. I will never let them down," he is reported to have once said when he found that he had absolutely no money left to keep his endeavour afloat. He started a drama company, the Sri Kumareshwara Kripa Poshita Natya Sangha, in order to be able to finance his music school. Two friends and music patrons came to his help at this crucial juncture - Channaveera Shastry Hidkimath, who donated a piece of land in Gadag to set up a school, and Basadigidada Veerappa, who donated the ashram. Panchakshara's music school finally sank roots. In 1944, just a few months after the ashram was established in Gadag, Panchakshara Gavai died. He had chosen his favourite student, Puttaraja Gavai, as his successor.

Puttaraja Gavai had seen the school through its many phases of growth under his teacher. As musically multi-faceted as his teacher was, he, however, took Panchakshara's musical project in new directions. In 1991, he established the Andara Shikshana Samity, a trust that started a number of educational institutions catering to children from the ashram as well as the surrounding area.

Over the years, the trust has started around 10 educational institutions. It runs a primary school and a high school, a pre-university college, an arts college, a teachers training college and a Braille school. It also set up the Pandit Panchakshara Gavai Music College, said to be the best in the State.

Like his teacher, Puttaraja Gavai continued the practice of being an itinerant musician for a part of the year. He travelled and gave performances to raise money for the ashram. He also brought more children to his school. As the ashram's circle of students, former students and well-wishers grew, so did the flow of donations. Puttaraja Gavai put the ritual practice of the `tulabharam' (an offering equal to one's weight) to interesting purpose. He gets himself weighed against cash donations made by his followers. This sum goes towards running the ashram. He has conducted over 1,000 such tulabharams so far.

The Panchakshari Gavai Music College.-

The ashram today has around 800 live-in students who study music at virtually no cost. Of these students, around 150 are blind and another 50 are physically disabled in other ways. With a range of colleges run by the Trust, the ashram can now offer better general education facilities.

"We also offer the Junior, Senior and Vidwat music exams, as well as Alankar Visharada for the children in the ashram," said the present manager, Basavaraj Chennaveerayya Hidkimath.

Ravindra Jakati, Principal.-

Seated in a small room in the ashram, surrounded by a cheerful group of young men, Puttaraja Gavai's chosen successor, Uttaradhikari Kallinath Swamiji, an accomplished musician who came to the school as a child from Koppal 15 years ago. His specialisation is the tabla, although he also learns the violin and vocal music. Like his "guruji" and several others in the room, he too is blind. "My guruji's dream which I hope we can fulfil one day is to make this a university of music," he says.

"Whatever I say about our Guruji will never do justice to what he has done for us," said Nagappa Shirol, 35, an alumnus of the ashram. "He is our mother and father. Without his guidance, where would we all be?" Shirol, who is blind, came to the ashram when he was two years old. He now works as a music teacher at the Government Girls School in Gadag. He also gives performances, and has sung for All India Radio (AIR) and on Doordarshan. Subhash Gowda Patil from Bagalkot lost his sight when he was in Class VII. He was brought to the ashram by a relative. He has passed the first year examinations in B.A. (Music). "I am very happy here. Guruji has given me a future. I would like to start a music school in my town," he says. Sukru Sahib Mullah, from Bijapur district, has completed his Vidwat examination, the equivalent of a post-graduate degree, and has specialised in playing the harmonium. He too is blind. "My uncle brought me here when I was 15. I don't think anyone would have looked after me in this way at home," he says. Mullah will try for a government appointment as a music teacher. He also plans to teach at a music school started by his grandfather.

Shivamoorthappa Alavundi, the blind headmaster of the tabla department of the ashram.-

The conversation ends, and the group settle down on the floor and briskly begin tuning tablas and harmoniums for a music session. Shivamoorthappa Alavundi, the blind headmaster of the tabla department of the ashram, who came to the ashram in 1954, joins the group.

So does Ravindra Jakati, the Principal of the Pandit Panchakshara Gavai Music College, and a well-regarded vocalist. After his formal education in music in Dharwad University where he studied under Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal and Basavaraj Rajguru, Jakati trained with the legendary Hindustani vocalist Kumar Gandharva for several years. Each person in the group is given a chance to sing or play an instrument in the uplifting session of music that follows. The modesty of this gifted group of performers is as striking as their remarkable talent.

The Panchakshari Gavai Shilamantapa at Veereshwara Punyashrama.-

"Our institution was born in music and lives in music," said Rajeev Hiremath, lecturer in sitar at the Pandit Panchakshara Gavai Music College, and the author of several books on music. "You cannot see a movement like this anywhere in the world."

HIS morning session with his students and other inmates of the ashram over, Puttaraja Gavai is helped to take the short walk from his living quarters to pay obeisance at the samadhi of Panchakshara Gavai. It is 11 a.m. and time for his puja, a five-hour session of solitary meditation that he performs in a small room in the basement of his home. This will be followed later in the day by two more such sessions of three hours each. As he descends into his underground chamber, a full-fledged orchestra comprising a vocalist accompanied by two tambura players, and two players on the tabla, begin a riaz in the hall above that will last the entire duration of his prayer session. Puttaraja Gavai sinks into meditation, encircled by music.

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