Kumar Gandharva: Timeless icon who redefined khayal

Kumarji’s radical reinvention of classical music continues to captivate a century after his birth, as a series of events at Ahmedabad University illustrates.

Published : Apr 07, 2024 20:34 IST - 8 MINS READ

Kumar Gandharva

Kumar Gandharva | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Urdhvordhvam aaruhya yad arthatattvam dheeh pashyati sraantim avedayanti / Phalam tad aadyaai parikalpitaanaam vivekasopaanaparamparaanaam. (Having climbed higher and higher the stairs of discrimination created by and received from the tradition, the mind is able to grasp the essential truth.) Abhinavagupta (Abhinava Bharathi)

“His destiny was to be elusive of (conventional) orders... He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.” — James Joyce (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

Kumar Gandharva would have turned 100 today. A star who burned so bright and so different that decades after he left us, we are still trying to understand his music. Belonging to a generation of khayal musicians, many of whom questioned aspects of the tradition, Kumar Gandharva was perhaps the most radical of them in striking his own path, learning “his own wisdom”.

He shook the world of Khyaal by critically examining every aspect of this music—the tradition; its performing practices; its walls and paths; the very fundamentals…. In this act of questioning and seeking answers, he drew deeply from parampara, the tradition itself—not just of khayal, but all music, and indeed all sound, around him.

And so both Joyce and Abhinavagupta quoted above might have been speaking of Kumarji. While the world of khayal was sent reeling by the new sounds and his new ways of music making, he asserted that it was an older tradition that he was reclaiming.

Born with prodigious talent, Kumar Gandharva emerged as a musician of great promise after training under B.R. Deodhar and Anjanibai Malpekar.

Just as he was beginning to soar in concert circuits, tuberculosis dealt a severe blow—it was destiny at its cruellest, though not the last such blows that he would have to endure. His decision to move to the dry but musically studded environs of Dewas in the Malwa region to recuperate, however, yielded unimagined treasures.

He was exiled from music. To allow his lungs to heal, he was not permitted to even speak. But that exile meant a kind of engagement with the music and sounds around him and with the music in his own mind that would have been otherwise impossible. When someone rued his sickness and the six years of silence, Kumarji said: “If I had not fallen sick, I would not be the musician I am today. I would have been too busy with a performing career to stop and think as deeply as I have about music. Meri dukaan zabardast chal rahee hoti (my ‘shop’ would have been doing great.).”

It was a fortuitous destiny too that he trained under Deodhar and Malpekar. While Deodhar had drunk deeply on the tradition of khayal under his guru V.D. Paluskar, he was also a widely travelled man who encouraged the young Kumarji to listen to the music of all masters. Indeed, Deodhar’s School of Music at Girgaon, Mumbai was a melting pot where musicians from every gharana (stylistic branch) came, sang, taught, and conversed. That exposure was definitive in the making of Kumarji and something that Kumarji probably chewed upon during his periods of silence.

Satyasheel Deshpande giving a lecture demonstration at Ahmedabad University for Dhun: Celebrating Kumar Gandharva.

Satyasheel Deshpande giving a lecture demonstration at Ahmedabad University for Dhun: Celebrating Kumar Gandharva. | Photo Credit: Ahmedabad University

Anjanibai Malpekar, his other guru, had withdrawn from a performing career to sojourn the path of music as a lone seeker. Her engagement with the sur is said to have left a deep impact on Kumarji. Sur is not just pitch, it is the journey to attain it and the quality of being in it and with it.

Birth centenary celebrations at Ahmedabad University

This last year has rightly seen many events taking place to mark the centenary birth year of this epoch-making musician. And among them, Ahmedabad University organised a uniquely conceived series of nine events titled “Dhun: Celebrating Kumar Gandharva” to celebrate his music.

Also Read | A currency called Kumarji: Celebrating the centenary of Kumar Gandharva

For Kumarji, tradition was not just the tradition of khayal or dhrupad—regarded “classical music”—but folk music too—lokdhun. Folk songs punctuated the serene atmosphere of Malwa—like flowers of varied hues and fragrances in an untended garden. Folk song is not cultivated like the song of khayal—it is a dhun, hummed to oneself, a simple tune, not more than three or four swaras repeated over and over to cast a spell.

“Dhun daad nahin maangataa”—Satyasheel Deshpande quoting Kumarji, his guru, said. “A dhun is not a performance, not for applause from another. It is everyday music—the lullaby of the mother or the song of harvest.” Deshpande said that these dhuns were an integral part of Kumarji’s bhaavlok—they penetrated and embedded themselves in his innerscape as he lay sick.

Parvati Dutta, giving a Kathak recital at Ahmedabad University for Dhun: Celebrating Kumar Gandharva.

Parvati Dutta, giving a Kathak recital at Ahmedabad University for Dhun: Celebrating Kumar Gandharva. | Photo Credit: Ahmedabad University

It was Kumarji’s conviction that ragas are traceable to lokdhuns many of whose links are now forgotten. He arrived at this not-unprecedented theory after an intensive documenting of these folk songs of Malwa which he and Bhanumati, his first wife, carried out during his period of sickness.

His renditions of ragas swirl with dhuns—well-known ragas gleam with uncanny colours. His raga explorations are in short and sharp phrases working the dhuns that lie at the raga’s heart. Unlike say, the Amir Khan style with a slow and systematic build-up, lingering on each note. A Bageshri of Kumarji’s simultaneously evokes ancient memories and glows with a mysterious unfamiliarity. He dismantled expected ways of presenting ragas in khayal and reassembled the parts in stunningly impactful ways-which is the way of modernist art.

Transformative art

Music for Kumarji was kala (art). His astonishing artistry was sprung from the modernist idea of art that Deodhar exposed him to. Kala kehte hi vichaar chahiye. Aavaaz achee hai tho use lekar kyaa kare? Koyal ki avaaz bhi acchee rahati hai. Par wah gaayak hai kyaa?Art means reflective thinking. What is the use of just a good voice? A cuckoo has a sweet voice but do we consider it an artist?

His play with the pure sound of the texts of songs, his sudden attack on a syllable here, a sudden softening there, a phrase thrown like a dice on a chess board, repeating a phrase with bewilderingly minute variations as if he were looking at it from different angles—all this and much else were disruptions in the traditional order of khayal.

Kumarji crafted a completely novel and astonishing way with sound in his nirguni bhajans—he attributed this to the sur of the wandering fakirs whose music too rent his world in Dewas. Again, while the sounds of his nirguni bhajan renditions smell of the earth, they do not let us sink into complacency of easy familiarity.

Kumarji was a prolific composer. He composed sparkling bandishes like “rang na daaro shyamji” and “sira pe dhari ganga” in old ragas like Sohoni and Shankara. And he composed bandishes as carriers of new ragas that he created. Possibly, he created more new ragas than any other musician in recent history. The impulses to create these ragas were varied, all fascinating revelations of the artist he was.

Also Read | Ustad Rashid Khan (1968-2023): Maestro whose music transcended time and genre

Take, for example, raga Chaiti Bhoop and the lovely bandish nimorika with a surprising, throbbing madhyam in it. In an insightful lecture demonstration, Keshavchaitanya Kunte explored the inspiration behind this and other ragas and bandishes. Chaiti Bhoop bears the name of the month of Chaitra when, as summer sets in, the neem flowers and fruits let out an intoxicating fragrance into the air. That madhyam, Kunte suggested, captures the “baurana”, that inebriating quality of the summer air in Malwa. Kunte also demonstrated that the inspiration behind the many jod ragas (ragas created by fusing two or more old ragas) Kumarji created, often lay in the poetry of the bandish.

“One can understand the true impact of raga Bhimpalasi only if one has experienced the relief of stepping under the shade of a tree in Malwa’s afternoon heat.” Kunte argued that Kumarji drew his inspiration and strength from Malwa—its music, its flowers and trees, its searing heat and piercing cold, its neem and its mango trees. Kumarji, Kunte pointed out, didn’t perform much in the US or Europe because he felt our ragas are not meant for the diurnal cycles and seasons of temperate countries: another set of ragas would work there, not ours.

Brajeswar Mukherjee of Sangeet Research Academy giving a Khayal concert at Ahmedabad University for Dhun: Celebrating Kumar Gandharva.

Brajeswar Mukherjee of Sangeet Research Academy giving a Khayal concert at Ahmedabad University for Dhun: Celebrating Kumar Gandharva. | Photo Credit: Ahmedabad University

Kumarji’s tribute to Gandhiji, raga Gandhi Malhar, has another interesting story and inspiration. Why Malhar? Malhar celebrates life-giving monsoon—nature as nourisher, as compassionate. Parvati Dutta, who inaugurated the series with a refined Kathak performance, could not have made a more apt choice to dance to a rendition of a raga in tribute to a Mahatma who lived and worked not far from where the Ahmedabad University is today.

Other singers such as Brajeswar Mukherjee of ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Pritam Nakil and Bindhumalini too participated in the series at Ahmedabad University. The corridors of the University were abuzz with Kumarji’s music this past year, impacting students, faculty and guests from outside the University in a collective celebration.

Long after these and several other centenary celebrations across the country have died down, we will still marvel at the music of Kumar Gandharva.

Lakshmi Sreeram is a musician and teaches at Ahmedabad University.

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