Maestros: Kumar Gandharva

When Kumarji passed away, his lifelong friend and admirer Ramubhaiya Date said:

“Artists go to heaven after they pass away.
But Kumar had already come from heaven.
Where will he go now?”

Pt Kumar Gandharva was an undisputed child prodigy, whose musical genius was recognised long before he’d even entered his teens or had given a public performance. A quest into Kumarji’s life invariably turns into a quest unto oneself. For research scholars and academicians, he is the renowned singer who created new raags, conceived several theme-based programs, and received Sangeet Natak Academy Award and The Padma Vibhushan. 

But for millions of his fans, he is not Pandit Kumar Gandharva. To all of them he is just – Kumarji. His life was a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, and yet he remained consumed by his passion for music throughout. More than two decades post his death in 1992, the number of his followers continues to increase. Pt. Kumar Gandharva, the maverick vocalist who blazed the Hindustani classical music trail, shattering tradition with his stunningly original musical syntax, the singer who refused to be bound by tradition, left behind a vast body of avant-garde music, which even decades after his death, remains a matter of searing debate in music circles.

Born on the 8th of April, 1924 in Sulebhavi near Belgaum, in Karnataka, the journey of Shivputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath was nothing short of spectacular. Even as a child, Kumarji displayed an exceptional ability to reproduce the singing of eminent musicians of that time simply by listening to their records. By the age of eight, he was flawlessly reproducing the khayal records of reigning maestros such as Ramkrishnabuva Vaze, Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaz Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar!

His father recognized this talent early enough and soon Kumarji gained popularity as a child prodigy. It was remarkable that he understood nothing of a raag or taal at that time. “As soon as a record started playing, I would immediately know what would follow.” – an intuitive genius, he was thought to be memorizing music by listening to records repeatedly.

So the then Ruler of Sawantwadi province decided to test the child – so he bought a recently released record of Rahimatkhan’s ‘Chhedo na’ in Bhairavi, and asked the little boy if he could sing it. Barely had the record started playing, that Kumarji reproduced the whole composition without any effort!

In 1935, as an 11-year old boy, he gained popularity as ‘Kumar Gandharva’ (meaning young gandharva) and lived up to this title bestowed upon him. Nobody ever referred to him by any other name after that. Newspaper accounts of his concerts in 1936 bear testimony to his rising popularity. [In Hindu mythology, Gandharva are the heavenly spirits that possess exceptional music skills].

But it was at a music conference in 1936 in Bombay at the age of 12 that he truly mesmerised the discerning stalwarts of the Hindustani classical scene who sat rapt in attendance. His half hour rendition of Yaman Kalyan and Bhairavi sent the press into a wild tizzy and also led the eminent musicologist B. R. Deodhar to take him under his tutelage. However, his father also realized that Kumarji required systematic training under a guru. So he was sent to Prof B.R. Deodhar’s Indian School of Music in Mumbai, where Kumarji stayed for over 10 years. This is where Kumarji underwent rigorous training in the fundamentals of music in the true Gurukul tradition.

This fortuitous association, would dramatically alter the course of Gandharva’s life. If the boy was a natural rebel, his rebellion was carefully nurtured by Deodhar, who, unlike his contemporaries, shunned the rigid shackles imposed by the Gharana discipline, even while keeping his taleem steeped in Gwalior gayaki.

His mastery of technique and musical knowledge was so rapid that Gandharva himself was teaching at the school before he had turned 20. By his early 20s, Gandharva was seen as a star of music and was praised by critics.

“Kumar’s young and impressionable age and Deodhar’s scholarship and unconventional thinking were a fruitful combination,” writes noted critic Vamanrao Deshpande, in his book, Between Two Tanpuras.

Under Deodhar’s eye, Gandharva’s imitative character metamorphosed into a fiercely idiosyncratic style, which remains a matter of searing debate in music circles. It won him both, a cult-like following and equally ferocious criticism.

His music is “novel in form and design and unorthodox in approach; it has sought to spurn the very concept of the Gharana, the tradition that once nurtured and fostered his genius”, said Mohan Nadkarni, a prolific musicologist and biographer to Pt. Bhimsen Joshi in an 1984 article for The Illustrated Weekly of India.

But quite contrary to his iconoclastic image, there are others who firmly believe he was in fact, the true classicist. “He merely rubbed off the thick layers of vermillion that had gathered on the idol over decades, to reveal what god looked like in his true form,” said Deshpande, speaking in metaphors during a lecture demonstration in Dewas.

“He brought classical music back to its original ethos from the, straitjacketed dogmas of the Gharana.”

As a man concerned with wholes, his music was in many ways a conflux of Gharanas. As a teacher, he would show his pupils the Kirana approach to a note, which is a bit like a single point stroke, and also the Agra approach which is more a broad-brush technique. And then leave it to them to decide how they wanted to interpret it. It created a whole new idiom that baffled listeners and critics alike.

In 1947, Kumarji and Bhanumati Kans (another disciple of Deodhar) fell in love and got married. However, fate had a difficult test in store for him. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which had no known cure at that time. Doctors forbade him to sing and advised him to move to some place with dry climate.

Kumarji shifted to Devas to recuperate from this life-threatening illness, and Bhanumati nursed him throughout this phase. For five agonizing years, Kumarji silently lay in his bed thinking about music. These trying times proved to be like a penance. Rural folk from Malva would pass by his home, singing folk songs. Kumarji listened to these melodies and contemplated on their relation with classical music. Kumarji’s illness with tuberculosis had rendered one of his lungs completely dysfunctional.

His crippling disease and a strict instruction by the doctors not to sing at the very peak of his prowess – which lasted five traumatic years and got him to Dewas in the first place – brought about a radical change in Gandharva. He became a seer, a student of life, absorbing, studying and silently introspecting about music to fill the void.

Gandharva endured a period of illness and silence. Doctors told him that trying to sing could be fatal, and that there was little hope of recovery. Stories of Gandharva in this period depict a man lying in bed and listening to the sounds of nature around him: birds, the wind, passing street-singers. They also detail how he would hum to himself, almost inaudibly. Hess speculates that this was the beginning of Gandharva’s radical new conception of the nirguni bhajan, which celebrates a formless divinity.

“It transformed him into an intellectual,” says his daughter Kalapini Komkali.

“These years gave him time to profoundly reflect. He began doing things for a reason. He sang, for example, mostly in madhya laya, because it dawned upon him that it was man’s natural pace, as also music’s. ‘How long can one either run or sleep after all’, he would say.”

It was also during this hibernation, when strains of folk music fell to his ear, that he came to a realisation that all classical music, in essence, found its origins in these primordial tunes. And so, when he sang them, he never altered them or set them to any particular raag, but rather found the perception to see that a raag was already hidden somewhere in the pore of each melody.

The magical efficacy of Streptomycin for curing TB came to be known in the early 50s, and to the huge relief of his friends and admirers, Kumarji stepped back on the stage of classical music, and never looked back after that. However, his voice and singing style would always bear the scars of his illness: one of his lungs had been rendered useless, so he had to adapt to singing with a single lung.

His first mehfil after recovery from illness took place in 1953. The illness greatly affected Kumar’s singing in later years – he was to be known for powerful short phrases and his very high voice.

His style of singing attracted considerable controversy. Veteran singer Mogubai Kurdikar did not consider his vilambit (slow tempo) singing interesting and his own teacher Deodhar criticised some aspects of Kumar’s singing but their relationship was strained from the 1940s when Kumar Gandharva married Bhanumati. According to Pandharinath Kolhapure’s book on Kumar Gandharva, Deodhar was against the match. But the criticism mostly centred on his vilambit gayaki. His singing in faster tempos, particularly his mastery over madhya-laya, was widely revered.

Kumar Gandharva’s first son, Mukul Komkalimath, was born in 1956. Tragically, Bhanumati passed away in 1961 during second child’s birth and Kumarji was engulfed in despair. His first son, Mukul, was just 5 years old. In the month following Bhanumati’s demise, he was to perform in Mumbai. When the organizers heard the sad news and offered to cancel the program, Kumarji turned it down and went on to perform – a testimony to his commitment to music even in times of despair.

Soon afterwards, Kumarji married his disciple Vasundhara Shrikhande, another of his fellow-students at Deodhar School and for thirty years after that, she accompanied him in concerts all over the country. Vasundhara Komkali (1930-2015) formed a memorable duo with him in bhajan singing. She also provided vocal support to his classical renditions quite often. Their daughter Kalapini Komkalimath would later accompany both her parents on tanpura.

Some of Kumar Gandharva’s ideology is carried forward by his son and daughter, as well as students such as Madhup Mudgal, Vijay Sardeshmukh, Satyasheel Deshpande, Paramanand Yadav, Shubha Mudgal, Vijay Sardeshmukh, etc. Kumar Gandharva Foundation Mumbai has been formed by his student Paramanand Yadav which works in development of Hindustani and Carnatic Music. Kumar Gandharva’s grandson Bhuvanesh (Mukul’s son) has also made a name for himself as classical singer and continues to carry forward both his father and grandfather’s legacy.

For a long spell, Kumar Gandharva’s activities as a musician were managed by his friend and tabla accompanist Vasant Acharekar. Acharekar was Vasant Desai’s assistant in the 1950s but later devoted himself fully to his role as an accompanist to classical singing until his death in the late 1970s. His son Suresh Acharekar is also a tabla player, and has accompanied Kumar Gandharva and other artists. Kumar Gandharva had friendly relations with noted Marathi literary couple Pu La Deshpande and Sunita Deshpande.

The 4th movie in the series of 4 movies in the Kabir Project by Shabnam Virmani features the life of Gandharva and his disciples, his career and his journey into “Nirgun” singing. His song ‘Sunta Hai’ actually forms the title of the movie ‘Koi Sunta Hai’.

Hans Akela‘ is a 78 minutes documentary on Pandit Kumar Gandharva made by Films Division Govt. of India with interviews with various people – wife, friends, students.

Mukkam Vashi’ is a book made on notes collected during a two-day workshop of the same name. It collected together the thoughts of Kumar Gandharva on the nature of music at a fundamental level.

Raghav R. Menon has written a document on the quest of Pandit Kumar Gandharva for the meaning behind Swara as told in Marga Sangeet.

The art & craft of his singing:

Kumarji had to adapt his breathing technique to his physical condition – he may have lacked two functional lungs, but what he had in abundance was an inquisitive mind and a fighting spirit that enabled him to create his own unique style.

In his later years, he dared to step out of tradition and experiment with many aspects of classical music. Some examples are:

  1. Presenting one single raag in the whole mehfil (concert). This was unheard of then. And it still is, since nobody has reproduced this after him. In this manner, he would present different profiles of a raag. The raags that he chose to present like this were Kalyan (known popularly as Yaman), Bhairav and Gaud Malhar.
  2. Kumarji was fascinated by the poetry of great Indian saints like Surdas, Meera, Tulsidas and presented many of their compositions with a touch of classical music. But he is best remembered for his rendition of ‘Nirguni Bhajans’ of Kabir. [NIRGUNA, formless, or amorphous is the eternal all-pervading and omnipresent divine consciousness. SAGUNA is the manifestation of God in form. The sun is a graphic simile for this. Sunlight is the Nirguna form of the sun, and the celestial body is the Saguna form. Read more here: Nirguna and Saguna] His Nirguni Bhajans like ‘Nirbhay nirgun gun re gaoon’, ‘Avdhoota gagan ghata gaharani’, ‘Ud jayega hans akela’, ‘Avdhoot yugan yugan hum yogi’, are unforgettable imprints on the canvas of Hindustani Classical music today.
  3. Kumarji sang Bhajans from both the Bhakti streams of Sagun as well as Nirgun. Among the Sagun Bhajans, he sang songs of Meera, Surdas, Tulsidas, Marathi Abhang, all in his unique style.
  4. He caused many an eyebrow to be raised by choosing to present the compositions of Balgandharva, the legendary marathi stage singer. This did not go down very well with many purists, but all the criticism did not deter him from continuing with his experiments.
  5. His rendition of melodies based on seasonal cycles, over 1.5 hours each, viz. Geet Varsha (Monsoon) and Malhar Ke Prakaar – Kumar Gandharva, Geet Hemant (Winter) and Geet Vasant (Spring) are quite unparalleled in the history of Indian music. He presented the passage of each season using folk compositions and his own creations and thoughtfully included compositions that celebrated festivals occurring in those seasons.

It is one thing to present a bandish in a mehfil, and an entirely another thing to actually compose a bandish. Many legendary artists have gained fame as ‘performing artists’ but not as composers. On the other hand, some are known more as prolific composers but not as performers. Kumarji stands out amongst all, because he excelled in both these areas.

He was one of the few musicians who clearly showed the transition of Hindustani classical music from the elements of Deshana-ang (music born out of folk song tradition) and the Bhaasha-ang (lyrics that make use of the local dialect of the region) apart from the already well known Raga-ang (the traditional Hindustani music with its structured scales and groups of notes). Thus he created ‘Dhun Ugam Ragas’ (Raags derived from folk tunes). He used to say that Raags are not created but discovered. His music gave absolute joy to his listeners taking them to a level of divinity. Kumarji’s close contact with the rural folk of Malva and their music stirred his curiosity and he went on to create as many as thirteen new raags. Some of these were based on folk tunes (such as Malavati, Madhusuraja, Sanjari and Nindiyari). Some were variants of existing raag (such as Gandhi Malhar and Saheli Todi) and some were completely his own creation (like Lagan Gandhar).

Hear the delightful duo with Raag Kedar here in an almost “daadra” style folksey rendition:

सखि नीके कै निरखि कोऊ सुठि सुंदर बटोही।
मधुर मूरति मदनमोहन जोहन जोग,
बदन सोभासदन देखिहौं मोही॥
साँवरे गोरे किसोर, सुर-मुनि-चित्त-चोर उभय-अंतर एक नारि सोही।
मनहुँ बारिद-बिधु बीच ललित अति राजति तड़ित निज सहज बिछोही॥
उर धीरजहि धरि, जन्म सफल करि, सुनहु सुमुखि!
जनि बिकल होही को जाने कौने सुकृत लह्यो है लोचन लाहु,
ताहि तें बारहि बार कहति तोही॥
सखिहि सुसिख दई प्रेम-मगन भई,
सुरति बिसरि गई आपनी ओही।
तुलसी रही है ठाढ़ी पाहन गढ़ी-सी काढ़ी,
कौन जाने कहा तै आई कौन की को ही॥

sakhi neeke kai nirakhi kooo suthi sundar batohee.
madhur moorati madanamohan johan jog,
badan sobhaasadan dekhihaun mohee.
saanvare gore kisor, sur-muni-chitt-chor ubhay-antar ek naari sohee.
manahun baarid-bidhu beech lalit ati raajati tadit nij sahaj bichhohee.
ur dheerajahi dhari, janm saphal kari, sunahu sumukhi!
jani bikal hohee ko jaane kaune sukrt lahyo hai lochan laahu,
taahi ten baarahi baar kahati tohee.
sakhihi susikh daee prem-magan bhee,
surati bisari gaee aapanee ohee.
tulasee rahee hai thaadhee paahan gadhee-see kaadhee,
kaun jaane kaha tai aaee kaun kee ko hee.]

Amongst many of the distinguishing features of his singing, the ones that stand out are:

  1. Emphasis on words of the bandish – quite antithetical to the slurring and garble that defined Khayal singing’s indifference to poetry, Gandharva’s forceful accentuation of words and the strong emphasis on literature and philosophy, also became, in many senses, one of the defining qualities of his music.
  2. Singing in madhya laya – which is like a tightrope walk – a little slip on either side can make it sound like vilambit or drut. A simple glance at all bandish sung by him is enough proof of Kumarji’s supreme command on madhyalay. 
  3. Kumarji gave importance to his tanpuras like no other singer did. This can be best elaborated by quoting his own words, “Tanpuras are my canvas. Just like a painter carefully stretches the canvas before beginning to paint, I prepare my canvas carefully. If that is not done with utmost care, the painting is bound to suffer.” 
  4. He was a strict disciplinarian in his approach to concerts. He would prepare detailed notes well in advance about what he planned to sing, and disliked any last minute requests from fans. He is known to have said, “In my notes, when I write the bandish that I plan to sing, I even mention how long each aavartan (one rhythmic cycle) would be in terms of seconds”.
  5. “He freed us of the saas, soutan, piya obsession of classical bandishes,” said Pt. Satyasheel Deshpande, a noted vocalist and Gandharva ‘s foremost disciple. His music, it is widely acknowledged, is a triveni sangam or triad of sur, laya, and bol. Hear his Raag Nand – Teentaal here!

It was the simplicity of everyday life in and around the villages of Malwa that endlessly nourished Gandharva’s creativity. Tired farmers taking shelter under the expansive medlar in his garden as they returned home from the Friday market inspired Rukhwa tale, a composition in the afternoon Raag Madhmad Sarang.

Once while passing a small hamlet called Binjana on his way to a concert, he wouldn’t stop thinking about how beautifully the word rung on his lip, and so he wrote Binjana Sughari.

Similarly, even when composing Kabir’s Jhini Jhini Bhini Chadariya, he is known to have spent days with a weaver, carefully absorbing the sound of his loom.

It was this deep, brooding absorption with the origins of saints in and around the rural life of India that furnished his nirguni bhajans with a pure, minimalist intensity.

Kumarji was an explorer in every sense of the word. Never remaining content to rest on his laurels, he continued to look beyond the present. For him, his musical quest became an endeavour to reach the horizon, with the awareness that the horizon would only keep getting further, and that the journey was greater than the goal. 

Khayals, thumri, tappa, tarana, bhajan, bhavgeet, natya-geet, lokgeet – Kumarji didn’t hesitate to explore all of these. 

Here is an interesting incident related to his performances:

Kumarji once arrived at the concert hall an hour earlier and checked all arrangements like audio video coverage as well as the air conditioning. Ten minutes before the start of the program he said: “Please ensure that the air-conditioning is not disturbed. Whatever temperature you have set now, keep it unchanged throughout the program. If you change the temperature during the program, it affects our music instruments and will adversely affect my singing. You must follow this strictly”.

Unfortunately during the program someone may have walked to the AC control room and altered the temperature and lowered it by a degree. This was immediately sensed by Kumarji on the stage. He stopped singing! Truly enough, someone had reset the temperature. Once it was rectified, Kumarji then continued the concert unhampered!

Sample a medley here:

  1. Track: Raga Bhoopali – Drut khayal, teentaal
  2. Track: Raga Malkauns – Drut teentaal
  3. Track: Raga Shuddh Shyam – Drut Khayal, teentaal
  4. Track: Raga Shree – Drut Khayal, teentaal
  5. Raga Hameer – Drut khayal, teentaal
  6. Track: Raga Bhimpalasi – Drut khayal, teentaal

Vallathol, a malayalam poet, said (as described by Raghava Menon in his book):

“To desire to look away from men like Kumar Gandharva when they appear on the horizon is a natural reaction of the human being not wanting to be reminded of the existence of his own existence.” 

Raghava Menon accords Kumarji a unique place in history when he says:

“It was like a meteor that he passed across the Indian sky and cut in his wake the body of Hindustani Music in two neat halves, one half before Kumar Gandharva and one half after him, a kind of a BC and an AD in Indian music.”

Quoting from the book ‘Singing Emptiness, Kumar Gandharva Performs Poetry of Kabir” by Linda Hess:

“On Guru Purnima in July 2002, the Komkalis invited me to their home and showed some videos of Kumarji singing. At one point, he spoke before beginning a composition. Kalapini paraphrased his Marathi for me:

Music does not mean repeating like a parrot. You don’t learn something, then sing it the same way over and over. Each time I sing a Bandish, no matter how many times I have sung it before, for no matter how many years, it should be born anew in that moment. For example, I learned this Bandish when I was eight. But it will be born now”.

The legendary singer and composer was awarded with the Padma Bhushan in 1977, India’s third highest civilian honour and the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour in 1990.

The most succinct summation of the stupefied unsettlement Gandharva’s prodigious aesthetics aroused at the time came from Govindrao Tembe, a harmonium player and stage actor, who simply said Kumar remained but ‘a question mark in Indian classical music’.

Sharp, asymmetrical bursts, an emphatic throw of voice, short, crisp taans, a result perhaps of a grave illness that left him with only one lung, and in turn affected his tonal range, a preference for the medium tempo vis-à-vis the established norm of unfolding a raag at an unrushed, mellifluous pace are some of the strikingly obvious characteristics of Gandharva’s music. Yet, these apparent deviations from norm do not fully explain his phenomenal singularity and the distinct mood that his music had the ability to create.

“No other singer in the pantheon of Hindustani classical music but Kumar Gandharva crafted a voice that howled like the wind, carrying shades of joy, lament, love and loss, modelling it on the sounds of the folk music that he had introspected on for years.

At times there is an awe-inspiringly eerie quality to the voice, which defies description,” writes vocalist Shubha Mudgal, in a sharply perceptive essay in Kaljayee Kumar Gandharva, a hardback volume on his life.

“This aspect of Kumar Gandharva’s singing voice is not so much a result of endless hours of riyaaz, but is, in fact, a much deeper philosophical observation of, like nature, the vagaries of the human mind and heart, and a study of silence, symmetry and asymmetry.”

It would not be an exaggeration to say that there have been many greats in the field of classical music before Kumarji, and there will be many more in future, but there will be only one Kumarji.

References, suggested reading, listening & viewing:

  • A documentary titled ‘Hans Akela’, which narrates his extraordinary story for about 78 minutes, was made by Films Division, government of India.

This is part of my older website which I am in the process of shifting here! All my write-ups can be found under the Category of “Indian Classical Music”!

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