In Kumar Gandharva’s bandishes, hear the music of the common man

Ajab duniya, jaariya kahan hai?/Jaan paryo na maika aage ke paachhe re,
Baithe jyo guni yeh hain, poochhat inaso mein/ Batayide kahan, ye aage ke paachhe re.

Where is this strange world headed? I can’t fathom, it is moving ahead or going back in time? I see the wise men around me and I ask them/Tell me, is it moving ahead or going back in time.

There is something deeply moving in this bandish, set in the sweet dialect of Malwa and woven into raga Hameer. Who is this traveller? What is the dilemma? Is it a metaphor? A migrant, perhaps, looking back one last time at the parched lands of home?

Listen to Ajab duniya and the wonders start to turn up. An existential bandish when the norm is to stick with themes of gauche love? That is a rare and precious thing. Then there is raga Hameer itself – dramatic and bold, the subject of spring, love and valour. How did it meld gently into a song about the human condition?

The answer lies in the dissenting voice of Kumar Gandharva. The Hindustani vocalist, whose birth centenary year begins on April 8, had declared early in his dramatic but short-lived career: “I am not here to play a coolie to convention.” Whether it was the form, structure or content of khayal singing, you could always expect the unexpected from him, no gospel too sacred to be questioned.

It was not just that one Hameer. There was also the conventionally gambhir (serious) and ascetic raga Shree that he had turned into a sprightly reprimand for his little son who was clamouring for his attention: Karan de kachhu, lala re/Va vo para ja re/Le le levo re/Ikko utthale aakar koi/Ye udham kare, le le levo re (Let me work, child/see that thing lying there, go take it and leave me alone/he is creating havoc).

Upending conventions

Kumar Gandharva was prodigious, crafting over 300 compositions, some of them set to old ragas, some to new ones he devised, and a few to moulded folk melodies. Whatever he did, his compositions almost always uprooted fossilised notions of how a raga customarily unfolds and broke free of tired tropes.

“Light, beloved, song, season, dyer, spring, Shiva, fruits of the neem, eyes, birds, kites, courtyards, sun, verse, jasmine, rose, adolescent, fields of wheat and gram, an auspicious day – if the greatness of a singer’s art is to be measured by the range of life experiences mirrored in it, Kumar Gandharva aces the test,” says scholar Ashok Vajpayee of Kumar Gandharva’s composition in Kaljayee, an anthology of essays in honour of the master.

His iconoclastic bandishes did more than just bring a thematic shift. They also upended how poetics in khayal – referred to as cheez (item/thing) and not kavya (poetry) – was rendered.

“His song texts not only broke through the saas-nanad cliches, choosing to speak of quotidian concerns, but also brought a synchrony between melody and text that you rarely find in historic anthologies. And this had as much to do with their renditions as the text itself,” said Srijan Deshpande, vocalist and scholar whose PhD dissertation dealt with Kumar Gandharva and musical otherness in Hindustani khayal. “He questions the static interpretation of conventions as in Shree or Hameer. Human moods and nature shift and change – why shouldn’t that reflect in a raga’s mood?”

According to an oft-repeated anecdote, listening to Ajab duniya, a rasik once expressed his frustration at not being able to identify it as standard Hameer. Kumar Gandharva’s retort was equally pointed: “He came to hear the same Hameer he has heard hundreds of times, I wanted to sing something different. He wanted its familiar face. I was showing him the side profile.”

It is partly this nonconformity that birthed a common refrain – Hindustani music inhabits two worlds, one before Kumar Gandharva and the other after. Apart from placing an aureole around him, this turned him into the most debated Indian classical musician of all time. If he had legions of adoring fans who brooked no criticism, he also had fierce critics who could not fathom what he was doing.

Fascinatingly, his music turned transformative through a series of accidental shifts in life.

Musical inspiration

Born in 1924 to a musically inclined family in Belgaum, by the age of eight, Kumar Gandharva was an astonishing prodigy who could replicate the voice and style of living and dead legends. Under the tutelage of renowned musicologist and educator BR Deodhar, he honed his incipient talent, turning into a fine, thinking musician who was determined to find his own path.

But in the late 1940s, he was struck by a crippling bout of tuberculosis. This meant a shift to Dewas, nestled in the Malwa plateau. Bedridden and barred from singing, the isolated convalescence was exactly what he needed. In the quiet of Malwa life, he started hearing the strains of music outside his window – the hardworking men and women of the village passing by, singing of their lives, their lands. From a basti nearby he could hear emanating the raw, powerful music of the Nathpanthi jogis, who sang Kabir’s dohas and nirguni bhajans.

It was the song of a jogi seeking alms at his door and singing Kabir’s Sunta hai guru gyani that revealed to Kumar Gandharva the enviable effectiveness of this “phenk (throw)”.

This was pure music – guileless, rough-edged, spontaneous and joyous – and it was sung into emptiness, with no intention to impress anyone. Musicologist Vamanrao Deshpande, who traces Kumar Gandharva’s rise as a rebel in Between Two Tanpuras, maps Malwa’s huge impact on his musical thinking, especially the realisation that in the free music lay the seeds of the highly systematised classical form. “He was inspired to create new compositions and his entire musical development was stimulated and enriched by it,” he writes.

When he emerged back on the concert stage, he was a new musician – he no longer conformed to diktats about a khayal’s progression; used his voice with unusually dramatic effect, alternating forcefulness with silence; and experimented with tempo. “I am not a riyazi (pedantic) singer…music is not like some joyless dand baithak (exercising),” he declared. He brought great emotionalism into a music system that positioned itself as aloof and cerebral, as Vamanrao Deshpande points out. This threw traditionalists into some confusion, if not rage.

Satyasheel Deshpande, his student and a profound analyst of his work, has written with moving intimacy and warmth about the evolution of Kumar Gandharva’s music in an essay: “Traditional artistic values aren’t static, they are coloured and changed by individual creative interpretation. Kumarji didn’t cover his head with a blanket of rudhi (tradition) and the rigidity of the gharana system but deepened its aesthetics and chose to drape it around himself.”

In 1965, Kumar Gandharva put together his first and acclaimed collection of bandishes set to traditional ragas and those he crafted afresh, Anuprag Vilas. The anthology also included new ragas he had hewn out of folk melodies, that he named dhun-ugam (born of folk songs). He followed it soon with another volume. Together these offer an insight into how words, letters and phonetics can shine a new light on an art that could become clichéd through pedantic repetition of ideas.

Vocalist and student Madhup Mudgal points to the instances of the common man and everyday speech finding their way into Kumar Gandharva’s bandishes. His delight at seeing a station named Binjana in Madhya Pradesh gave him a new word for a bandish – binjana (unknowing). The sighting of an ancient temple from a train window is strung in raga Shree: Paavan main doora se daras tero. And a glimpse of a tiller taking a breather under a tree while looking to slake his thirst on a baking summer day is coupled with raga Madhmadh Sarang: Rukhwa tale aaya, aaya tale aaya/baitha batmara tapana kari door/arre vo baaji aavo, pyaas bujhale tora.

Kumar Gandharva pooh-poohed with characteristic bluntness the secondary role assigned to the bandish in khayal music. “It has become an empty boast now to say words and their meanings are insignificant in a bandish,” he says in an interview with Poorvagrah, Bharat Bhawan’s literary journal. “It is a means of escape for singers who do not get the importance of words. Of course, this music is formless but to take it to great heights, words and letters have to be understood. For me, words are Brahma, they should be precise, few, make the suggestion and leave the rest to the singer.”

His daughter and disciple Kalapini Komkali recalls how his new compositions would emerge organically. On a walk, he would observe something that sparked a musical thoug,ht, the call of a bird, the cry of a child. He would then hum a melody all day, as he went through the most mundane chores. At some point, the thought, swaras and composition would merge into a song.

“There is no denying that Kumarji had a kavi man (be a poet at heart) and he understood the place of great poetry in music,” said Komkali. “He didn’t believe in the accepted theory that a bandish is a hook to hang a raga. But he didn’t let words overwhelm his music, did not pile words on words to make it seem like a kavi sammelan. It had definite nadmayata (musicality). He also offered poetry with great effect as a means of showing us different shades of the raga.”

Kumar Gandharva preferred tempo was madhyalaya (mid-tempo), ideal for allowing breathing space for bandishes. The slow and ultra slow tempos (vilambit and ati vilambit) and the fast pace of drut, both tended to distort words.

It wasn’t just his own poetry Kumar Gandharva sought to explore. There was also the poetry of Meera, Surdas, Tulsidas and even, more notably, the deeply spiritual works of nirgun poets Kabir and Machhindranath. The emptiness (shunyata) in the writing of the nirgun poets pulled him in deeply. Here he was particular that words reigned supreme, notes served their cause and the persona of the writer was preserved with immense care. It was Kabir who impressed him the most, he would say, never a supplicant for divine graces, but fierce and free.

His nirgun ouvre, and its overarching concept of shunyata, drew him an unusual fan base – architects, poets, artistes, scientists, philosophers. It inspired poets to write about his poetry. Here is UR Ananthamurthy on hearing him sing Kabir:

You were so pleased!/You swelled with pride/That such a vagabond would choose to ride/On your back for a while/Singing, you laughed and smiled.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.

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