Kumar Gandharva: An artist, a trailblazer, a rebel?
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Kumar Gandharva: An artist, a trailblazer, a rebel?

While battling Tuberculosis, he’d listen to the folk music of Dewas

Kumar Gandharva: An artist, a trailblazer, a rebel?

Kumar Gandharv is that blazingly bright star in the galaxy of Hindustani classical musicians who dominates purely through his virtuosity, talent and trailblazing tradition bending reinterpretation of established principles of classical music. This is one star you cannot afford to ignore even though many are blinded by his sheer brilliance.

There were several purists who questioned and criticized Kumar's reinterpretation of Hindustani Classical music, still, there are many experts who believe that Kumar in fact brought Hindustani Classical Music back to its true form. It was indeed folk music and the music that emerged from nature that eventually inspired Hindustani classical music. Some disciples of Kumar argue that he brought the music back to its roots.

A maverick maestro of Hindustani classical music, Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath, popularly known as Pandit Kumar Gandharva,  was born on this very day, some ninety-eight years back. Born in a family of musicians, music perhaps came naturally to him. However, the mastery he had over the grammar of classical music was a product of his genius, his love for music and rigorous training under the able tutoring of B.R. Deodhar.

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It wasn’t until he was eight that he started singing to the tunes of two Tanpuras and left everyone at his home mesmerized. Those who listened to him were left awestruck and at a very tender age, he was given the title of ‘Gandharva’, the celestial spirits with divine singing abilities. Kumar’s father was himself a fanatic of Bal Gandharva, a Marathi stage actor, and a singer. In Kumar’s voice, people would find reflections of Bal’s voice and his musical brilliance. People were awestruck with how such a young child was hitting such high notes and that too, with absolute accuracy. His prodigal abilities were soon recognised by everyone and he was sent to the Deodhar School of Music. It was there that he flourished into a celebrated virtuoso. It was also there that he met his first wife, Bhanumati.

Apart from being an accomplished Hindustani classical singer, Kumar also garnered the reputation of being a rebel in his own right. His own renditions of old ragas and his defiance of the singing within the confines of Gharana tradition are to be credited for this. However, his status of being a nonconformist is still a matter of opinion.

Kumar’ s battle with Tuberculosis is nothing short of a tragedy. He was struck with the disease at what could have been the peak of his career. Pandharinath Kolhapure, a contemporary of Kumar, when went to see him in Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, was moved to tears by looking at him. He recalls in the documentary ‘Hans Akela: Kumar Gandharva’, “Kumar was lying and couldn’t speak when I went to see him. Just through gestures, he told me that he was okay.” Above everything, singing was declared fatal for Kumar’s health. The fate had taken such an ugly turn that an artist was robbed of something very beloved, his art. However, even when he was in bed, he kept his connection and love for music alive.

During his days in Dewas, while battling Tuberculosis, he’d listen to the folk music of the region. The simplicity of the life in Dewas, and the everyday nuances of life struck a chord within him. As his health was getting better, he’d sit with his Tanpura and play ‘lok dhun’, inspired by folk music. This was when he gave a new direction to his music.

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In 1953 was his first post-recovery performance in Allahabad. His performance followed Bhanumati’s performance and he started off with ‘Raag Lankeshwari’, leaving an electrifying effect. His one compromised lung did affect his singing but being the master of his art, he made the best of his circumstances. Chandrashekhar Rele, a contemporary of Kumar Gandharva said in an interview, “Kumar used to sing in the ‘madhya taal’ (medium speed) very well, while no one could even comprehend madhya taal.”

Whether Kumar was a rebel or not is and might remain a matter of debate, however, it is very certain that he liberalized the art of classical singing, at least for himself. That too, without giving a single chance to question his proficiency and command over his art. It takes a great artist to go beyond the norms and create something unique and beautiful out of one’s expertise and Kumar Gandharva had that greatness in him.

Over the years, Kumar was also drawn towards Kabir and steeped into devotional singing. His bhajans became very popular and continue to be so. Shailesh Kumar, a classical singer from Dwarka, Delhi, says, “Along with being a pioneer of ‘Shastriya sangeet’, Kumar’s music also had folk influences. He sang Kabir’s nirgun bhajans, which no classical singer had done before and even after him. He sang as he pleased. There was something very different and very beautiful about how he sang. His songs such as ud jaega hans akela, sunta hai guryani, jheeni jheeni chadariya, hirna samajh bujh ban charna leave people mesmerized even today. Such songs can only listened to today, no one can sing them the way he did.”

Madhup Mudgal, a disciple of Kumar, says in the documentary ‘Hans Akela: Kumar Gandharva’, “I don’t know why people call him a rebel. In my opinion, he was orthodox and traditional in his musical approach. To all his students, he taught traditional raags such as Todi, Bhupali, Bhairav and Kalyan.”

According to Satyasheel Deshpande, another disciple of Kumar, in the same documentary, “He has a deep understanding of the grammar of Hindustani classical music. He’d maintain the purity of raag and taal and present a pleasing and mysterious world of art. With his singing, he’d surpass the boundary between grammar and art.”

Kumar’s music was known to be an amalgamation of expressionism and sensitivity, credited to his musical literacy. The technicalities of his singing never took a back seat. He had a firm belief in the traditional principles of raag and taal. What set him apart from other rule abided Hindustani classical singers was his ability to create something new from the old compositions. He’d mould the structures of compositions, discover new ways to sing old bandishes and had a way to give a different dimension to traditional music. In a way, he liberated the ‘pure’ art form of Hindustani classical music.

Credit: Music Tales

Madhumita Ray, a well-known classical singer from Delhi, says, “Kumar Gandharva was such an expert of his art that his music transcended the boundaries of gharanas. In my opinion, he was simply great. What differentiated him was that he developed his own style. He delved into bhakti music but even when he used to sing classical music, it was something very different. He was a little unconventional. There was a lot of intensity in his singing. His defiance of gharana tradition evoked criticism from the purists but it must be understood that it was his style that made him such a great artist. However, he was also a musician who was very correct in his approach.”

“His music certainly influenced my artistry. He used to visit Gandharva Mahavidyalaya when I was a student there and we’d listen to him. He inspired me to think on my own and I got that independence of thoughts from him. Even when he’d sing folk or devotional music, there was so much purity in that. He was a purist, but on his own terms. When it came to singing and rendering of the rags, it was pure classical music. I had the great honor of singing in the same concert as him in Delhi on Vishnudigambar Jayanti during my earlier days.”