Starting out in Tamil Nadu in the outpourings of love for Vishnu and Siva, Bhakti has been a powerful, shaper of the Indian ethos. As A.K. Ramanujan has shown us, early Bhakti poets drew from love imageries in Tamil literature – the hero and lover of those poems became the Lord in the bhakti poet’s expression. And such imagery is very much part of all Bhakti literature. Andal boldly asks the Panchajanya conch which knows intimately Narayana, her beloved: karpuramum naarumo…. How smells HIS mouth? Sharp as camphor or soft as the lotus? Kabir says: remove that bridal veil and you will see Him.
Bhakti is a multi hued phenomenon pervading literature, music, dance, painting. And there are a hundred voices here, a variety not just in the gamut of the nine kinds of bhakti (nava vidha bhakti) or the nine rasa-s or emotive saturations, but also in the very concept of that which is worshipped, that towards which bhakti is directed. That is intensely personal to each bhakta. Meera’s Krishna is not Andal’s Krishna, Tulasi’s Rama and Ramadasa’s Rama are not the same. And then, sometimes there is no diety.
THAT has no attributes, it is nirgun! Kabir was foremost among the bhakti poets who paradoxically sang of the attributeless, formless, nameless ONE.
Chaand suraj jahaan pavana na paani – Where no sun or moon, no wind or water you find, that is my Master’s city.
Bhakti poetry has always found musical expression; indeed it is believed the poems were sung by the poets. Nirgun, and sagun bhajans have always been sung set in raga-s on classical platforms, in religious gatherings, in temples and gurudwaras; nirgun poetry is rendered in Kawwali in Durgahs.
When Pt. Kumar Gandharva sang Kabir, it was as if he pierced through the heart of Kabir’s song. Kumar Gandharva, who challenged sensibilities and expectations in Hindustani classical Music, sang Kabir in an astonishingly original way.
“Nirguni Bhajan” on the face of it harbours a contradiction. If it is nirgun, without attributes, then how can one sing of it, praise it, worship it or love it? But Kabir says:nirbhaya nirguna guna re gaaoongaa – “unafraid, I will sing of the attributes of the attributeless!” And indeed, in such poetry, we find deliberate contradictions, paradoxes provocatively posed.
shunya ghara shahara shahara ghara basti
kona soota kona jaage re?
This town, this house, this settlement-all void
Who sleeps, who wakes?
Given to highly symbolic language, such songs are filled with metaphors. “Town” is one such ancient metaphor for the body.
How does one sing this? Surely not in the same way as maiya mori mein nahin maakhana khaayo – mother mine, I did not eat the butter” as Surdas had Krishna pleading with Yashoda?
Before Kumarji there was no radical difference in the way they were handled musically. His music was infused with the music he heard while in Dewas, in Madhya Pradesh. Even as he was emerging as an outstanding young musician, Kumar Gandharva was struck by Tuberculosis. He retired to Dewas for its climate, forced into a musical exile. Here he soaked in the strains of folk music that Dewas vibrated with, among them the music of the fakirs.
The fakirs, the wandering minstrels sang under the wide open sky, answering to no one, seeking to please no one. It was this singing that Kumar Gandharva drew from in his engagements with Kabir.
“That swara, that note which the fakir sings is different. It is not what we sing in classical music”.
In his Kabir, there is a sheer, intangible quality; the very sound, the very same notes are vested with a different aura and core. Kabir’s words pounce at you carried on powerful, stark notes.
It is said he tried to vest that note with shunya or the void. How can one inject void into the note? One has to hear him, how he evokes infinity and the void at once! Stark, naked notes renting the atmosphere.
Again the body:
Who is this looting the town?
Oh! Yamaraj sits on it
Ties with the world are behind.
Kumar Gandharva left us too soon 25 years ago.
Ud jaayega hamsa akela
Alone, the swan takes flight
“Only when you are truly local can you even hope to be global”, Damon Galgut said in the recent edition of The Hindu Lit for Life festival. And how perfect an example of this is Sadanam Balakrishnan. An artist secure in his grasp of the ethos of his art form, indeed as one who creates that ethos now, his work exemplifies how global an artistic effort can be when it is unapologetically, unflinchingly rooted in the tradition, in the local.
“Kathakali is called a classical dance for of India,” he started after apologizing for his “inability to talk much English”. And then with a casual sweeping gesture he said: “I don’t know what that means. But this I can say – that Kathakali is a highly stylized, traditional dance drama form of Kerala.’ When other dance forms and music forms are clamouring for a status of the “classical”, here was a prominent performer of a dance form with a “classical status” dismissing it. What does it mean anyway to call our music and dance forms classical?
“Kathakali is a very demanding art form and our training takes places over 10-12 years for more than 12 hours a day. So there is no space for schooling and higher education.” He said, perhaps again to indicate what one might expect from him. And yet, it requires a sophisticated and secure mind that can dismiss a State recognized category. Many of our other artists with college degrees may not have this kind of self awareness. And is not self awareness precisely the point of education? And then what sense can we make of the compulsory education drive of the State? Would it not displace, render illegitimate such profoundly rooted and well rounded “education systems” of which Sadanam Balakrishnan and his ilk are products?
Such questions in the mind jostled with admiration for his sheer artistry as he took us through basics of Kathakali. Sadanam Balakrishnan was one of the artists featured in the 2 day “Liberation Through the Arts” seminar organized by the Vishnumohan Foundation in the serene premises of the Theosophical Society. Others featured were Gopika Varma, M.V.N. Murthy, Shama bhate, Yashwant Sharan and Krithika Subramaniam.
How does one address such an abstract theme? Balakrishnan began with a simple principle – “We live in service to the art. When we worship our art, there is no need to worship anything else.”
He demonstrated control of facial muscles to depict the various bhava-s, and went on to “mukharaga” – change in the colour of the face as there is a change of bhava. “We can’t really see the colour of the face since we have heavy make up on the face, but you can feel the change…” Kathakali places equal value on all the four abhinaya aspects as mentioned in the Natyasastra. Angika, vacika, aharya and saativika. Saatvika abhinaya requires control of the mind, he said, and students are trained in this too; this, we know, is the first step towards “liberation”.
Kathakali is out and out natyadharmi – stylized; there is no place for lokadharmi or realism. Everything – the make up, the movements, the costume, and indeed the stories told are grander than life. He demonstrated a lady playing with a ball with magnificent restraint and grace – no woman could have possibly done a better job. “Traditionally, all roles – male and female – are played by men; nowadays we have many girls and women learning the art, so there may be no need for men to play the roles of women. But”, he continued with a smile and eyebrows raised, “women actors actually prefer to play the part of men and this is to be encouraged because that is truly in the spirit of natyadharmi. And men playing women should also continue.”
He wound up his presentation with a riveting performance of a piece from Mali Madhavan Nair’s Karnasapatham depicting Karna’s anguish on the eve of the Mahabharata war. Karna is tormented by doubts of his birth. “Mother Radha and father Adhirathan – I don’t think they are my parents. Tomorrow the war begins and I may die – am I to die without even knowing who my parents are, without meeting them even once?” As stylized as the performance was, as “unreal” as it was, the communication of the universal condition of man came through poignantly.
“A successful performance does not draw applause,” he said gently: “the audience, the actors all become one in the rasa experience. Not applause but tears – that is proper.”
Arts can be liberating – momentarily – as Pt. Nikhil Banerjee said in an interview: “good literature, good poetry, good picture, good music lifts you up and you forget your whole body and surroundings. That is the purpose of art. That it will take us up towards God, you could say, or towards Space, beyond all these things”.
And what is this primal, gnawing need for us to be free of ourselves? That is the mysterious question.
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 takhallus “shok” 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)
Andal and Meera – Loving the Dark Hued God
Just because they were women, and loved the dark hued lord and sang in the idiom of bridal mysticism, do Andal and Meera invite comparison?
ghUnghata kA paTa khol rI, tohe piyA milEnge,
That bridal veil
Move it aside
Your lover you will find.
When Kabir sang this song, it was as if he, like a “ventriloquist, inhabited the body of a fictive woman, shaping her, and lending her the willed voice of his body” (1). But in Meera and Andal it is their own voices and their own bodies. And how different are the two voices.
Meera’s songs seem to come from the dark of the heart(2) – they speak of her defiance, her obstinacy, her mad quest. And always, they resonate with a searing loneliness.
Log kahE mIra bhayI bAwarI sAs kahE kulanAsI rE
paga ghunghuru bAndha mIra nAchi re.
People say Meera has gone mad
Mother-in-law says I bring disgrace to the family.
I, Meera, dance.
She loved as she should not have. Love for the dark hued one was alright but to say:
Mein to giridhar ke ghar jaoon / giridhar mhAro sAcho prItam
I will skip
To his door
By his face (3)
And then to dance among other devotees, other men, even if sadhus! This was beyond disgracing the family’s honour. A married woman, married into royalty no less, and then widowed! What but pious isolation could be her destiny. But she says defiantly:
Now you can’t close me
The wise are now dear to me, lost
Is womanly shame, I ‘ve left
My mother’s house
And the taste of dance is on my tongue. (4)
Defiant! In love! Lonely!
Andal’s seems a brighter world. She is surrounded by a family where love, and love for Narayanan was the most precious gift. She was fierce in her love and no one stopped her. She wanted to be wed to Him, and even that was not a problem. Her father, Visnuchittar, describes the 108 manifestation of Narayana and asks her which of these she wants to marry.
But she too suffered – an unrelenting lover, and her obstinacy that she would wed nobody but Him. The Nachiyar Tirumozhi depicts her intense journey of love, suffering separation, pining for Him, observing the Manmatha vratam who, as the god of love, she pleads, must unite her with her lord. Yearning, hoping, pleading with the cuckoo and the clouds to carry her message, imploring her relatives when she is too weakened by suffering to take her to where He danced on that serpent’s hood, to the banks of Yamuna, to the courtyard of Nanda, asking for a piece of His clothing to be wrapped around her to soothe her burning desire, despairing, wilting away, hoping again… Such is her agony.
How could she pray to another god? Manmatha? Orthodox Vaishnava commentaries have agonized over this, tried to brush it aside, explain it with a hundred sophistries. But Andal cared not for canon. Flying into the mythic world of Brindavan she asks Kannan not to destroy the sand castles she and the other gopi-s have built for Manmatha. What paradox this! She prays to Manmatha for union with Kannan and yet when He is there she chides Him to leave intact her sand castles.
It is only in the world of myth (she and her friends in Brindavan protecting their sandcastles from the playful Krishna) or in dream (a thousand elephants herald the coming of Kannan to marry her) that she meets Him. Flitting between the worlds of her own unyielding reality and myth and dream where she meets Him, her inner world appears almost fractured.
Meera, astonishingly, has almost nothing to do with Krishna’s mythic persona – the cowherd who teased the gopis, slayer of Kamsa, friend of Arjuna and Sudama – she has very little to do with those. It is as if she has claimed Him for herself, not for His prowess, His pranks and His conquests, but simply for His form – the beauty of his form. And of his mythic persona it is only these that she appropriates. That alluring dark hue, that teasing peacock feather, that rich yellow garment, that maddening flute, those dancing earrings…. His bewitching form and her hungry eyes tell the story of her love.
AalI rI mhAre nainA bAN paDI
My eyes have been pierced
That beautiful form
Ensconced in my heart…
For Meera this is whom she waits for – her Giridhar Gopal, not of any particular temple or manifestation, but perhaps that which, as legend has it, she sees and holds everyday in the form of the idol she has loved since her childhood.
Andal pleads with the myriad forms of Narayana – Venkatan of the Tiruvenkadam hills, Sundararaja Perumal of the TirumAliruncholai – in the true tradition of Vaishnavism. She also draws imagery, motifs and metaphors from the passionate Sangam poetry – erotic imagery too.
O clouds spread like blue cloth
Across the vast sky –
Has Tirumal, my beautiful lord
Where cool streams leap
Come with you?
My tears gather and spill between my breasts
He has destroyed my womanhood
How does this bring him pride? (5)
She rebukes the peacock for dancing in front of her reminding her of Him, the Kovai fruit for reminding her of His red lips, of the clouds for reminding her of His majestic form and she pleads with the panchajanya, the conch, to tell her
karpuramum narumo kamalpoo narumo
How does it smell?
Is it of camphor?
A fresh lotus?
While Meera’s songs lay bare her heart, her desire, they are bereft of overt sexual imagery of the kind Andal freely employs. Meera had enough battles to fight without inviting censure on another count!
What is it to love Krishna the way these two did? Is it possible to get under their skin – even for a moment? Pleading to Krishna to come to them, like a lovelorn woman would her lover, waiting for Him, and when He doesn’t come, setting off in search of Him? What is it to be like this? What is the mystic’s call? Can one snatch even a mere glimpse of this or does one have to die to this world and take that leap of faith where the only things certain are the world you are dying to and the fire of desire in your heart?
kathina saawaliya kI priita
Laage so hi jaane
What is it to be hurt?
You know when you are hurt.
What is it to burn in the jauhar?
You know when you burn.
What is it to love sanwariya?
You know when you love.
It is difficult.
To love Him.
It is difficult.
Restlessness – that is the inescapable fate of mortals. Some cannot take it. And set off in mad, impossible quests. In the real world God “is present only in his absence” (6) and nowhere is this more poignantly, and variedly, brought home than in these songs of Andal and Meera.
- Susan Stewart: Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, quoted by Archana Venkatesan in “A Woman’s Kind of Love: Female Longing in Tamil Alwar Poetry; Journal of Hindu Christian Studies.
- Shama Futehally: Songs from the Dark of the Heart; Harper Collins
- Futehally, ibid
- Futehally, ibid
- Archana Venkatesan, ibid
- Suguna Ramanathan in an eloquent foreword to Shama Futehally, ibid.
Published in Aalaap.
A fundamental philosophical query is concerned with the nature of the ultimate good that man ought to pursue. Freedom, truth, God realization, authentic existence, moksha, and so on have been proposed in myriad garbs.
When hard nosed British philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries proposed that man’s ultimate goal is, simply, happiness, and – the bedrock principle of democracy – the greatest happiness of the greatest number, their more pensive counterparts on the continent cringed. Happiness was too banal for them; certainly too banal a conclusion of lofty philosophical enquiry. One great man said with obvious contempt: “Man does not seek happiness – only the Englishman does.” In England itself there were questions – if it is only happiness that ought to be pursued as the ultimate good, then is pushpin (a popular game of chance and skill) equal to poetry and, one may ask in our context, classical music?
This would be the question to agonise over in these times when the classical arts are getting less and less support. Is there in the classical arts something of value so great that they should be pursued and supported, even though when administered the democratic test they might well score abysmally?
How does one describe the experience of seeing a great painting, or reading a luminous piece of prose or listening to powerful music? It is best if one does not! There is an ineffable quality to this experience as has been recognized across cultures. The Kashmir thinker Abhinavagupta said it was alaukika – not of this world, not of the world of practical cares and fulfillments… of pushpin.
There is technique –the initial mystique of a musician’s music or a writer’s writing wears off when we are able to put a finger on the techniques employed and the organizing principles used. Yet the music is never a sum of technique and repertoire and what have you. A writer is always more than his vocabulary. Much more.
The essential thing perhaps is the mind of the artist – her mind during the performance, the creation. Beyond technique and skill and virtuosity, the quality of inwardness that he or she manages to attain makes for the difference between very competent music and great music. And this, in a magical way, communicates itself even to the “layest” listener – in a hush, unfathomably.
Our best musicians get into this frame of mind – empty until the moment the music begins to flow out. Very rarely, almost never, an entire concert can carry this quality; more commonly, there are a few such moments in some concerts.
It is such music that makes wading through lesser music worthwhile. It is the possibility of such moments that sets the classical arts apart. We sit through an entire concert for those fleeting moments when all – the musicians and the audience – are merged wondrously into one consciousness. It puts us in touch with the deepest and quietest parts of us, and that is its value.
And what is this creation? Especially in something like Carnatic music that is so rooted in tradition? The musician draws from a tradition, has had years of training and practice, and yet when he attains that state of inwardness, the creation springs spontaneously – not out of any deliberate effort of memory and cleverness. Even if the form and content are well known, there is still the quality of freshness – like that of spring blossoms which year after year come out in the same well known colours and form and texture, but…. timeless beauty!
And if we don’t value the fragile beauty of our mallipoo and kanakambaram, so what? Nothing really – and everything!
(Published in The Hindu)
When Pt. Puttaraj Gavai, Padma Bhushan recipient, and Head of the Vireshwara Punyashrama in Gadag (Karnataka) attained Samadhi on 17th September, all of Karnataka went into mourning. A blind musician with a spiritual stature that few saints command, Pt. Puttaraj Gavai had been a teacher of music of the rarest kind and commands fervent respect and love from his many students. The Gavai was also a writer and dramatist, having authored over 80 books, and a social worker, touching the lives of many. He and his guru Swami Panchakshari Gavai are worshipped and revered as saints by many in Karnataka.
The story of Puttaraj Gavai is also the story of Swami Panchakshari Gavai, his guru and founder of the Vireshwara Punyashrama in Gadag. Gadag is a small town in Karnataka, incidentally, the birth place of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi. Panchakshari Gavai was well trained in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. By some twists and turns of fate, guided by a saintly disposition, he took upon himself the mission to impart musical education to young boys, many of them blind, from the villages in Karnataka. He was himself blind. Many of these students came from families struggling with grinding poverty. For these boys their guru not only gave them sangeeta-vidya but also two meals a day.
The going was not easy but the Swami persevered, moving from village to village with his protégés until largesse from some wealthy people enabled him to set up an ashram at Gadag. The Veereshwara Punyashrama was formally established in 1942, and since then more than 15,000 students have passed out from it. In fact, the students receive free boarding and lodging besides education. Many students in the ashram would be unable to summon any resources to offer guru dakshina in any material form.
Among his many students was Pt. Basavaraj Rajaguru who rose to great heights as a musician. As a tribute and dakshina to his guru, it is said Basavaraj taught many students with a missionary zeal. This was the guru dakshina demanded by the Gavai.
If Basavaraj Rajaguru made a great name for himself as a singer, Puttaraj Gavai, another student of the Swami, gained great respect and following as a worthy successor of Swami Panchakshari Gavai in heading the Veereshwara Punyashrama.
Puttaraj Gavai had lost his vision as a young boy and also his father. His Uncle took him to Panchakshari Gavai who took him in and taught him music. He learnt to sing in both styles (Carnatic and Hindustani), and also play many instruments like the harmonium, the tabla, violin, etc. with great skill. He soon became a favourite student and the mantle of heading the ashram passed on to him when Panchakshari Gavai passed away. Eligibility for heading the ashram is brahmacharya (celibacy), sound musicianship and spiritual leanings, all of which Puttaraj Gavai possessed. His daily puja would run for at least four hours. After he became the leader of the ashram, Pt. Puttaraj Gavai worked intensely to take forward his guru’s mission. He continued and gave added impetus to his guru’s revolutionary idea of working for social uplift through music dissemination. Classical music is seen as the preserve of the wealthier classes. Those who cannot afford two meals a day, what music will they learn! And that too classical music! But this is precisely what these two blind saints achieved. It is nothing short of a quiet social revolution.
His many students testify to his commitment to the cause of the ashram. He worked tirelessly to raise funds to run the ashram better. Today, due to his hard work and inspiring leadership, the ashram has a huge building donated by the Lion’s club and is comfortable on funds.
In 1991, he established the Andara Shikshana Samity, a trust that 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 perhaps the finest music school in the state.
Money for all this poured in from many sources as it usually does when the cause is noble and there is a selfless and committed personality at the helm such as Puttaraj Gavai. Puttaraj Gavai made an interesting variation on the ancient ritualistic practice of tulabharam. His devotees could contribute cash and silver equal to the Gavai’s weight which was then used for the ashram expenses. There have been over 2000 such tulabharam-s of which two have been offerings in silver.
In a poignant tribute to his guru, noted Hindustani vocalist Venkatesh Kumar said in an interview to the Hindu: “Ulakunte Hanumantharaya is our community God. But the god of my home is guru Puttaraja Gavai. He looked after orphans and destitute children with such affection and kindness”
Each year, till date, during punya tithi (death anniversary) of Panchakshari Swami, thousands throng to the ashram for a darshan of the guru and invoke his blessings. The shraddhanjali is marked by all night music concerts, with old and new students participating in it as also outsiders. And it is a sight to behold with thousands of villagers from near and far soaking in the music, waiting through the night for the guru’s darshan. This writer had the privilege of participating in one such all-night musical offering. When Venkatesh Kumar, took the stage at the end just before his guru, he was introduced as Pandit Venkatesh Kumar. At this he roundly ticked off the person for such impropriety. Speaking in Kannada, he said that when Pandit Puttaraj is around he – and only he – may be addressed or referred to as Pandit. No body else.
Such devotion to the guru is what our musical lore is filled with and it is not just one or two students who have such devotion towards the Gavai. Every student of his, small and big, has this utter gratitude and reverence for their guru, it has to be seen to be believed.
Besides Venkatesh Kumar who is well known, Pt Puttaraj Gavai’s students include Siddharam Swami Korwar, Somanath Mardur, Arjunsa Nakod, Viresh Madri, Guruswamy Kalkeri and many many other grateful musicians.
(published in Sruti)
The tiger seemed agitated and was snarling menacingly at the eight of us perched on two elephants. Can’t blame the tiger – it was 10 AM, bedtime for him and he had found a nice shady spot under some bushes. But the mahouts had found him too and he had to give darshan to more than a hundred wild life tourists like us coming in bunches of four on elephants. Good business for the mahouts, disrupted sleeptime for the tiger, a moment of epiphany for me. I was trembling as I dismounted the elephant to get back into the jeep, such was the splendour of the tiger.
“Tiger show” as it is called in wild life jargon is actually a diluted version of the experience of seeing the tiger in the wild, but to be practical, the only sensible way….. It is not for the connoisseur but for the lay wild life enthusiast. The mahouts set off early in the morning on their elephants to try to spot any tigers. If they do, word goes out to the forest rangers or guides who ritually congregate with their respective tourist customers to a spot somewhere in the middle of the forest. The tourists are then taken on elephants to the spot where the tiger is – for a fee of course! The tourists would have woken up early and driven through the forest, an experience in itself – driving in an open jeep through the silence of the forest with its sights and smells and sounds. Desperate for a “successful” safari, it is normal for the first timer to miss out on these….
I just couldn’t get these wild life enthusiasts before this: what’s the big deal? Egged into a safari by Akhil, an IIT – IIM guy whose childhood ambition it had been to become a zookeeper and whom I might have intiated into a Bhairav and a Yaman, I was not without misgivings at the early wake up call. With two young kids in tow, I was tired from our journey from Chennai via Mumbai to Nagpur and the late night drive to Pench in Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh boasts of many tiger reserve forests and the three on our itinerary were at Pench, Bandhavgarh and Panna. We had to give the beautiful forests at Kanha a miss.
When we finally set off in our jeep at Pench, it was quite bright. We wanted to see a tiger, who wants anything less! “It’s a little late in the morning,” the guide said; Akhil nodded grimly. We set off into the jungle and the first happening sights were droppings – tiger droppings no less! I couldn’t share Akhil’s enthusiam. “Oh, oh! How many days old would those be?” he goes. Oh Please! And then, pug marks! What? Foot prints of the tiger, stupid! “How fresh are they?” The tiger has been here, walking right along this path. We saw plenty of spider webs, really huge ones; and trees – teak trees with a very diseased appearance. “Oh that is nothing. The trees will be fine” comes the nonchalant reply. Where is the tiger – any tiger please? Suddenly there was a filthy stench – more excitement. “Oh, it is a kill!” A tiger must have mauled some creature a couple of days ago somewhere here and the flesh is rotting. A monkey gives a sharp cry. “Is that a normal cry Bhaiyya?” asks Akhil. If the monkey has seen a tiger in the vicinity, it will not be a normal cry – so that is the point of the question, I later learn.
So, we saw the tiger’s droppings, pug marks, gaped at scratch marks left by the tiger on trees to mark his territory, smelt the rotting flesh of a kill, tried to hear any warning calls that deer or monkeys give out when there is a tiger in the neighbourhood – but we saw no tiger. Some gaurs (wild bisons) sighted many meters away had Akhil more sad than excited – if we had come in just a little earlier we would have had them crossing our path. Ok. At Bandhavgarh we will be up real early I promise him.
Bandhavgarh, where Sri Rama is said to have built a fortress for Lakshmana (Bandhav – brother, Garh – fort, house), still has a fair tiger population and has been the home to many legendary tigers like Charger (he who would charge at tourists!) and B2 (Chargers’s son and later, challenger and killer; for tigers are territorial creatures and two males cannot cohabit in the same territory!).
Our guide was a strong, silent man – silent definitely. We saw a bird caught in a spider web. It was a paradise fly catcher! A lovely, if slightly puzzling, name. And the fly catcher was caught in a spider web – what irony this. Many jeeps stopped, the tourists clicked away at the hapless bird (only man is vile), and went on their way to the spot where information about tiger sighting would be available and where we would have to join a long queue, if one had been sighted. “Can you not release the bird?” I ask fearing that I would be given a contemptuous dismissal. The bird was going to die for no reason – the spider was not going to eat her! Akhil warns me – “Don’t play with nature Didi!” Release the bird the guide did and we went on to see the tiger. I think it was that good deed done that fetched us the tiger darshan.
As one leaves the Bandhavgarh tiger sanctuary, there is a board with a painted tiger saying: Don’t lose heart if you have not seen me – for I have seen you. Many tourists have to leave with that small and eerie consolation, but the gods were on our side and we actually saw a tiger a few feet away from us.
It was later in Panna where we were more relaxed, having seen a tiger and all that, that the real joy of wild life hit me. It was a common peacock with his feathers downsized (happens during the monsoons, informed my guide) which was just roaming among some tall grass. It was so beautiful – just the experience of seeing it like that. We have left some for other creatures too, even if it is too little. The peacock was there not because we had put him there, like in a zoo, but because – that was his home.
“It is Panchali Sapatham” said one lady to her companion who enquired just before the show what the dance was going to be about.
(Panchali being Draupadi and Sapatham being vow, it refers to Draupadi’s vow to bring about the end of the Kauravas when she is humiliated in an open court. It is a popular theme for “dance ballet” in Bharatanatyam.)
“But I thought it is Odissi or something?”
“It is Manipuri; surely Panchali Sapatham can be depicted in Manipuri as well, no? pointed out the lady.
Kalakshetra organised a series of dance concerts to commemerate Rukmini Devi’s birth anniversary; she was born – rather quirkily – on 29th February. Throw of Dice by the Anjika group, headed by Preeti Patel was presented on the last day. It proved to be somewhat more than what the title promises. The dance presentation was vocal in its political message, bemoaning the fate of Manipur, that Pearl of a country. “Today Manipur has become a playground of vested interests robbing the land of happiness and peace” said the voiceover, and not just once.
The stage lighting showed a dice board across the stage and in came two sutradhars who spoke in Manipuri about an earlier pristine life of man when he played no games, but led a life of “simplicity, happiness and love”. Male and female dancers wove together dainty steps characterestic of Manipuri and masculine movements drawn from other forms to present a vivid recreation of that idyllic, if possibly imaginary, world when “Man played no games”.
The idyllic world is soon lost and as Man steps into more complex lifestyles, he starts to play games of lust and power. The dice game of the Pandavas and Kauravas is “perhaps the most famous of the games Man has played”. Yudhishthira wagering his wealth and belongings, his kingdom and army, even his own valourous brothers and losing them all – and the violence of those very acts, were depicted with freshness and vigour. The dancer playing the role of Duryodhana gave a stunning display of agility and control while exulting over his victory. Even though it stood out as a separate segment with the clear intent of impressing the audience with its exotic nature, it did not rankle too much. Finally, Draupadi (Preeti Patel) makes her appearance and while that interlude somewhat dragged down the pace of the presentation, we still waited with bated breath for the presentation of the epiphany. (Strangely and a little disappointingly, Draupadi is shown as placatory. None of the righteous anger and rage that we associate with her character was depicted). The epiphany was vividly presented with two bales of sheer white cloth being held diagonally across the stage with Draupadi at the centre. Thankfully, no flute sounded. It is good to have one’s intelligence respected and not have everything spelt out.
And then comes the fate of Manipur. Male dancers rushing across the stage in choreographed movements with all kinds of weapons, the sound of the drums, the sutradhars shouting across the stage without any respite, created well the sense of intense turmoil. Finally, “Manipur” lies impaled on the stage. A dancer propped up on an inverted stool, with others pointing spears and such weapons at him, accompanied by some brilliant lighting, was a macabre and too explicit image.
This is when it struck me that it is all too easy a target for an artist. One hears that the plight of Manipur has been presented by other artistic groups too such as Ratan Thiyam’s. Plato wisely observed that it is only the bad man who is interesting in art and so he famously banished poets from his Republic. Another famous actor said, there would be no art if we just got along perfectly with each other… The question artists have to face when raising political questions is about their sincerity. Even Satyajit Ray was accused of selling India’s poverty abroad. In this case, do the artists go beyond their art to tackle the situation in Manipur? Do they even need to? Does sincerity demand that they go beyond just presenting their art?
Again, how does one take the development of the story from the idyllic world to the world of ugliness and games? Can one question its veracity? Or is it insulated from such questions because it is art? Immanuel Kant said it does not matter whether a work of art represents correctly, whether it is the result of much or little labour, whether it took a few years or a few minutes to complete. The artistic product is an aesthetic object whose appreciation is entirely free of such extraneous considerations. But then, when art is a comment on a real situation, what happens?
The dance presentation worked fabulously at various levels. The choreography, the dancers, lighting, costumes, music – all maintained high professional standards. It kept my two kids aged 8 and 5 rapt. “Will you give it an ‘A’ or an ‘A star’?” I asked my 8 year old. “A hundred stars”, she said without any hesitation.
It drove home the poignancy of the human situation in Manipur in a way only art can. One comes back from such a show and wants to know more about Manipur and what is happening there. And yet distrubing questions remain about art itself.
The Musical Journey of Kumar Gandharva by Raghava Menon is one man’s attempt to grapple with the musical genius of Shivaputra Komakali, known to the world as Kumar Gandharva (KG). That KG was a genius, very few dispute. He assimilated music traditions and genres in a way never dreamt of before to come up with an astonishingly original style that few successfully imitate.
A genius, according to a dictionary, is one who posseses exceptional intellectual and creative power. Kumar Gandharva was that – even those few who may dislike his music cannot deny the creativity of the man and his music. “Genius” also means one who wields enormous influence on others. And that too he was – the musical world was shaken by the phenomenon that was Kumar Gandharva when he entered it and today when he has left it, it is a much richer place for his contribution. It is indeed no exaggeration when Menon says that KG split the world of Hindustani music into two halves – one before him and one after him – “a kind of BC and AD in music”.
Menon traces the twin careers of KG. The early Kumar Gandharva burst into the musical world in Mumbai as a prodigious boy of nine years with an unbelievable aural memory and vocal capacity. The child could remember and reproduce with astonishing accuracy the music of the greatest stalwarts then as recorded in long playing discs. It was uncanny and could be dismissed as a freak talent, but not by all. Menon recounts the poet Vallathol’s reaction to the boy’s music who, among others, knew the boy was destined for greater things. The early KG later came under the tutelage of Prof. Deodhar, a teacher with an almost missionary zeal, where he learnt the “rules” of raga-s and was clearly emerging as a very competent musician. As Menon puts it, he came to that stage of competence all too easily and was restless, looking for more, or as Menon would have it, looking for the source of raga music.
And KG did turn out to be much more than a competent musician-he blazed new trails. And this was on his return to the scene after a life threatening illness from which he took 6 years to recover. And how he sang then! The music of the later KG was unlike anything heard before and yet, as Menon puts it, seemed to capture the very essence of the thing that we call raga music. KG now had a completely original style that could not be explained by referring to any one or more gharana-s (styles of Khayal music). It was certainly not eclectisism. Every major singer today has an eclectic style, but KG’s music was not some elements of this gharana, some of that and some of yet another gharana. It was radically original. This is the tantalising mystery of the man’s music. How did he sing the way he did? The answer always given to this question – and Menon gives it too – is that KG drew from the resources of folk music; but if one looks for any details on this “drawing from folk music” theory, one is disappointed.
One is tempted to compare the career of KG with that of the Cambridge philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like KG, Wittgenstein had two completely different phases in his career (he is always studied as the early Wittgenstein and the later Wittgenstein). Wittgenstein’s early philosphy was taking Bertrand Russell’s logical atomism to its logical conclusion-inexhorably and saying this is not to belittle it; in his later philosophy Wittgenstein completely repudiated his early theories and came up with a brilliantly original philosophy, one that was to have a lasting impact. Brilliant it was, it was also seemingly simple – Wittgenstein said he arrived at the basic idea by looking (at language use), rather than thinking about it as he did in his early phase. One of his famous exhortations to fellow philosophers was “Look, don’t think.” Where Wittgenstein looked (at language use) KG listened – to the folk music of Dewas, the town in Madhya Pradesh where he spent 6 years fighting a deadly disease. Drawing from this experience his style of singing had something that could profoundly tug at very raw musical instincts that lie latent in everyone as also the refined ones.
Menon offers other insights into KG’s music such as his total disdain for exhibitionism of any kind in music – technical virtuosity or vocal power… He did not leave you flabbergasted by holding on to a note for an eternity or spanning the three octaves in one taan…. In fact, his vocal range was pretty limited and he could not be bothered to extend it. That, as Menon puts it, had not any place in his vision of music. KG’s music was mesmerising despite – and because of – disturbing elements in his music. The bandish or the composition that is often sidelined in the music of other masters (so much so that often one can barely discern the words) erupts in KG’s music forcing attention to a sudden syllable here and a word there. Again, there was none of the leisurely, slow-paced vocalising of notes that is so characterisitic of Khayal music. There are instead phrases (much like in Carnatic music) delivered with a sharpness that is only miraculously not harsh – short staccato phrases delivered with intensity in perfect pitch. Surprisingly, while Menon talks of the Southern accent in KG’s music, he does not touch upon the Carnatic music’s engagement with musical phrases rather than notes. If KG sought an alternative to what Menon calls the “scalar exploration of raga-s”, it was already there – in Carnatic music – and the possibility of his being influenced by it is not touched upon.
The book is no routine biography – it itself is a quest, a journey. There is no chronological tracing of the major events in KG’s life; they do find a place in it but only in so far as they are relevant to Raghavan Menon’s quest of understanding the music of the man. Menon says it is not so much to understand KG the man and his music but to understand ouselves that we need to try to place KG and his music. The very fact that despite being so different KG could capture the imagination of thousands of music lovers and students does say something about them. Yet does the book answer any question about KG or about ourselves as Menon would have it? Engaging ideas are thrown here and there but never explored completely. Converstaions with KG, and about him with Aldous Huxley, Vallathol, Krishna Chaitanya and not to forget —-the household cook in Dewas – all interesting tid bits, but all serving to heighten the mystique of KG and his music, not to analyse it. Menon’s style of writing is anything but Kumar Gandharvesque – nothing is short and brief here. He loves the long winded, picturesque sentence, and flirts frequently with ambitious, metaphysical ideas.
The quiet and beautifully understated production of the book, intense black and white photos of the master in concert by Avinash Pasricha, nearly impeccable editing all make for extremely fulfilling reading.