Pandit Puttaraj Gavai – Making a difference

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)

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