‘Pt. Kumar Gandharva internalised every phrase’

In a talk about the legendary Kumar Gandharva, Pt. Satyasheel Deshpande made his music and philosophy come alive

It is a challenge to introduce Pt. Satyasheel Deshpande. Even if it sounds tame, here is an attempt: son of renowned musicologist Pt. Vamanrao Deshpande, Pt. Satyasheel is a musician, musicologist, composer, writer, music collector, and curator. Founder of the Samvaad Foundation — that has over 8,000 hours of archival recordings of Hindustani classical music and 3,000 pieces of unpublished music material — Pt. Satyasheel is the disciple of the redoubtable Pt. Kumar Gandharva. He has intimately studied the music of and interacted with leading Hindustani musicians, who had a close relationship with his father and regularly visited their home. Uniquely creative, with an unusual vision and eclectic taste, Pt. Satyasheel Deshpande is one of those rare musicians who can speak about music as competently as he can sing it.

Multiple influences

Suranjan Trust, Thane, which works for the promotion of Hindustani music, recently organised the first episode of ‘Insight’, a study of some of the recordings of Pt. Kumar Gandharva by Pt. Satyasheel. “I am not here to give a final opinion,” he began, “but I want to discuss the merits (guna charcha) of this extraordinary musician’s music.” He recalled the “multiple influences” of music in his own life: Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Suresh Mane, Mogubai Kurdikar, and several other musicians frequented his home, giving him the opportunity to listen to their music closely. But why did he choose to study under Pt. Kumar Gandharv? “They were all great musicians, phenomenally talented. It was possible to understand their music, whereas Pt. Kumar Gandharva’s music was unpredictable, not something that one understood easily. I decided to learn what I did not easily understand,” he explained.

He moved to Dewas, stayed there for a couple of years, sharing the classroom with the maestro’s son, Pt. Mukul Shivaputra, and his wife, Vasundhara Komkali. Speaking about the ‘ashtanga’ of the khayal form — the tools of improvisation — he spoke of it as appearing in a sequence in the music of every great musician, an adherence to the rules of the form. Pt. B.R. Deodhar, who had great regard for Kesarbai Kerkar’s music — “every mehfil of hers was so exciting that the listeners would be in a kind of trance when they dispersed” — also recognised a pattern, a similarity of approach in it, said Pt. Deshpande. Not that Pt. Kumar Gandharva did not deploy tools of improvisation, but he never turned them into a template. It came spontaneously with his creative overflow. “In the 60s, I have seen my guru sitting with his book of bandhishes almost every single day, thinking, revisiting, reinterpreting them. In his revisits, a bandish probably began to speak to him,” recalled Pt. Satyasheel.

Taking this forward, Pt. Satyasheel played a khayal rendition in Behag and added a story to it. He remembered how during one of his visits, the great Pt. Vasantrao Deshpande had rendered this. Singing it exactly the way Pt. Vasantrao had, he spoke of the immense possibilities of his voice. However, on listening to the striking rendition by Pt. Kumar Gandharva, one couldn’t disagree with Pt. Satyasheel’s words that “he used to work in very great detail on each bandish and none of his contemporaries did what he did. It was haunting…” It indeed took extraordinary courage for a musician who lived among other legends to sing without the predominance of the ashtanga.

Kumar Gandharva’s music was ‘dhun pradhan’; through his music he searched for his self and his music. Critics felt he seldom adhered to gharana rules. “But if you listen to Gwalior gharana music before it was formalised by musicians like Pt. Krishnarao Pandit, you notice that what became a rule later was never in practice by earlier musicians,” said Pt. Satyasheel.

Pt. B.R. Deodhar got Kumar Gandharva to study the shastras and he was a “paramparapriya”, but not once did he propagate his aesthetics. “That was how he sang, something that had emerged from his own engagement with music. He took the music of Pt. Deodhar futher, he improved and refined it.” As the recording of Raga Kalyan played, Pt. Satyasheel turned the audience’s attention to the phrase “yaar…”, and remarked, “he is searching for gandhar and rishabh, and this is in a concert that has about 800 people!” He explained the influence of Ustad Karim Khan and Ustad Fayyaz Khan on Kumar Gandharva’s music and pointed out portions in the recording that are reminiscent of those masters.

Ramakrishnabua Vaze was another stalwart of the Gwalior school who influenced Kumar Gandharva. “There is a three-minute recording of him rendering the famous ‘Sakhi Mukha Chandra’ (raga Khambavati). Panditji had heard him live, so when he sings this piece he captures Vazebua in spirit and not in mere imitation. Vazebua was old, and sang short phrases. Panditji could easily sing taans, but he refrains from it, since he’s trying to relive Vazebua as he understood him.”

Kumarji believed in the repetition of phrases over and over again. In one recording, the phrase ‘Mandarva mein’ was sung over 25 times, in different ways. “It’s easy to label artistes. But a more mature approach is to understand their artistic process,” said Pt. Satyasheel before playing a Bhairavi tarana and tappa that Kumarji sang at Sawai Gandharva Festival in 1977. “You will not find the cascade of ‘dhirdhirdhirdhir’ in Kumarji’s rendition. He did not believe in anything cosmetic. Every phrase was internalised.”

The presentation not only sensitised listeners to the artistic process of the inimitable Kumar Gandharva, but discussed the music of other musicians of his times and earlier. The conversational mode kept the listeners hooked till the last.

The Bengaluru-based journalist writes on art and culture.

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