Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC: November 29, 1998
Where north meets south
The classical arts in this country were protected and promoted in the precincts of temples, in the courts of rajas and nawabs, by siledars and zamindars. They flourished in places of historic significance with centuries of ripened culture.
Dharwar, a sleepy town in north Karnataka, defies this norm. It flowered quite suddenly in the twentieth century into a great centre for Hindustani music. Before the 1880s, the region had Carnatic musicians of local fame. The formation of the Bombay Presidency by the British merged a part of Karnataka, north of Tungabhadra, with Maharashtra. This sparked a dynamic interaction between people of different language groups and wrought changes in the culture of Karwar, Belgaum, Bijapur and Dharwar. Untouched by the rising fervour of nationalism, its peace loving citizens had the leisure to enjoy drama and music.
Marathi drama cultivated a taste for Hindustani music. Sawai Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraj Rajguru had put in early stints on the stage. Gangubai Hangal's humming of natyasangeet made the family decide to train her in Hindustani rather than Carnatic music practised by her mother Ambabai and grandmother Kamalabai.
The love of north Indian music was fostered by the fortuitous presence of several stalwarts in that district. Some exemplars like Bhaskarbua Bhakle stayed in Dharwar to teach at the training college and acquired fans and disciples. Bhakle's teacher Naththan Khan, court musician at Mysore, came often to give advanced lessons to his pupil. His son Dulle Khan stayed close by to train several women singers, among whom Pyarabai's lovely voice is still remembered with pleasure. Badalibai had the powerful personality to meet the demands of the Agra gharana.
North Indian artists, invited to perform in Mysore, especially during the Dussera celebrations, often broke their journey at Dharwar where they found the weather as pleasant as the people. Connoisseurs like vakil Pitre housed them and conducted baithaks to which attendance was free. Zamindars in Jamkhandi and Sangli were equally ready to play hosts and patrons. The ashrams in that region had swamijis with a taste for songs in praise of the Lord. The blind vocalist Panchakshari Gavai set up the Vireshwar Punyashram in Gadag town - a music school which gives precedence to blind pupils. Other maths at Dharwar, Murukhar and Devangere promoted music as a spiritual pursuit.
Inspiration came from another remarkable source: the genius of the celebrity vocalist Abdul Karim Khan. This artist from village Kirana in the north made extended stays in Dharwar and Hubli. On a visit to Kundgol village close by, Khansaheb happened to notice a boy humming the Bhairavi he had rendered the previous evening. This was Ramrao, the son of his host's munim. At the host's suggestion, the senior artist agreed to take the boy as his disciple if he followed him to Miraj, where he taught students who signed an eight year contract to study without breaks and distractions!
Despite his many concert tours Khansaheb made it a point to be at Miraj during the festival of the Khwaja Mirasaheb dargah. Thousands gathered to hear his expansive Todi, Jaunpuri and Bhairavi sung seated under a neem tree beside the tomb.
Ramrao absorbed the guru's magic by listening to him practise and perform more than through formal instruction. The guru honed the sishya's voice to suit the honeyed style even though originally it was not malleable for this purpose. Returning to Kundgol to get married, Ramrao joined a drama company and became a star overnight. He impressed legendary thespian Balgandharva in his role as Subhadra. Hailed as Sawai Gandharva, or as a "Second Celestial", he created a sensation when paired with Hirabai Barodekar, soon to win more lasting fame as a classical singer. All the while the guru looked upon Ramrao's stage career as a waste of time by one destined for higher achievements.
Once when Abdul Karim Khan asked Sawai Gandharva to provide tanpura accompaniment at his concert, the sishya excused himself saying he had a sore throat. But Khansaheb found him performing his famous role of Subhadra that very evening, and cursed him with a permanent sore throat. From that day Sawai Gandharv had to make herculean efforts to get his voice into shape, he had to wrestle with it for an hour before any performance. Detractors of the Kirana gharana like to say that his disciples mistook these throat clearing operations for the raag elaboration, which is why they sing the alaap to this day without rhythm accompaniment.
Sawai Gandharva attracted disciples like Bhimsen Joshi, Firoz Dastur, Basavaraj Rajguru and Gangubai Hangal. He cast such a spell on them that Joshi holds an annual festival in his guru's name in Pune, and unfailingly performs in Kundgol on the master's anniversary. There he is joined by fellow sishyas like Gangubai. Such is the lady's veneration of her guru, that, when a throat operation changed her voice to acquire a masculine tone, she saw it as a blessing. "Now it is closer to my guru's voice", exults this longtime resident of Hubli.
After the initial classes with Krishnacharya and Dattopant Desai, Gangubai was lucky enough to find favour with the Kundgol maestro, known for his no-nonsense severity. The awestruck disciple was trained well, but did not dare to ask questions. Raga followed raga without her being told their names! Once she was scolded for singing raag Bibhas in a radio programme, because, having picked it up from notation, she had used a note which was foreign to Gandharva's tradition.
She cut many discs early in her career. The recording company changed her name to a more familiar Hublikar, and her first name to a more romantic Gandhari. Soon Baiji reached a stage where she needed no catchy props to gain attention. She has recorded thumris and bhajans but on the stage she sings only khyals. She has remained a greater purist than her guru.
Gangubai recalls her first concert in Calcutta before musicians and the cognoscenti when a stranger, patted her with a "Wah, Bai, wah!". It was Kundanlal Saigai.
In Gangubai's home I find four generations of women sitting in a circle, shelling peas. Baiji sits in the hall, listening to her student and suggesting phrases now and then. An octogenarian now, she continues to perform selectively. Her daughter Krishna has been her accompanist, the grand daughter has stopped singing and gives tuitions in English. There are hopes of the great granddaughter though...
Two eminent singers from Dharwar started with the same guru from the Gwalior gharana, and worked in drama companies, but developed their own original music.
Mallikarjun Mansur was born in a family of agriculturists in Mansur village. His exposure to music came from brother Basavaraj of Wamanrao Master's drama troupe. Nilkanthbua was so impressed by his talent that he took him on as his disciple. Mansur returned to acting for his livelihood, but dreamed of becoming a classical singer. It was suggested he take further training from Sawai Gandharva, but Mansur did not rate his music high. At a friend's shop in Bombay, he chanced to meet Manji Khan, son of maestro Alladiya Khan. The friend played a record of Mansur to persuade Manji Khan to teach the Dharwar man. Followed rewarding lessons, which continued after the master's demise under his brother Bhurji Khan. The bristling complexities of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana fascinated Mansur. He revelled in its challenging rhythm patterns, its vast repertoire of raags, in the techniques of khyal singing. It gave him freedom to improvise in the grand manner. His treatment of the antara came in for special attention.
Son and disciple Rajshekhar Mansur, a vocalist who teaches English at the Dharwar University, reminisces, "Our house of two rooms had to hold us eight siblings. We woke to father's morning riyaz, returned from school to hear him practise, and went to sleep at night with his voice ringing in our ears. No, he did not encourage me to take up music as a profession. He had faced too many problems in his career".
Many thought Mansur was difficult, haughty. Certainly he had few disciples compared to those who crowded the Rajguru home. "Father was impatient," admits Rajshekhar. "He never praised me. Today I am glad he didn't. It kept me growing". Disciple S. V. Bhirdikar reasons that perhaps Mansur's sishyas simply did not meet his standards. "He was totally engrossed in his music. Were we as passionately committed, I wonder..." A friend repeats Mansur's rueful admission in old age, "People flock to hear me now as they never did when I was at the peak of my powers".
The vocalist could be sharp tongued. When an old timer complained he did not sing like Alladiya Khan, Mansur demonstrated that style and said, "This is Khansaheb'e method, but am I his stenographer?" Scholars surmised that Mansur's highlighting the tar shadja was the influence of Rehmat Khan of Gwalior. Rajashekhar sums up, "Unlike Rajguru, my father never tried to please the audience. Rather, he tried to raise them to his level". Mansur is remembered for introducing the highly philosophical Kannada vachanas of Basava and Mahadeviyakka in Hindustani music. The idea was mooted by Kannada novelist A. N. Krishnarao on a stroll by the Shalmali river.
A restless spirit was Basavaraj Rajguru who spent his lifetime learning from as many sources as possible. An astonishing twelve gurus from many parts of India and several gharanas tell their own tale. He went to Lateef Khan in Pakistan, managing to escape with his skin intact during the Partition years. When bandits attacked the Frontier mail near Amritsar, young Basavaraj hid under the train on the steel shafts. He was wholly without guile. "I found this cheez in the Agra gharana", he would announce on the stage and proceed to sing it. On his boltaans the impact of Carnatic music was evident, especially of swaraprastara.
Rajguru's home in Dharwar is unpretentious. We are welcomed by his son who runs a grocery shop at the entrance. Soft spoken Prabhavati Devi is proud to share her memories of her late husband. "He was from a family of priests who served kings, but I always saw him as a raja. Begum Akhtar called him Sur ka Badshah (king of melody)."
We piece together the facts of Rajguru's career from her account. Beginning with Carnatic music at six, and initial training under Panchakshari Gavai, Rajguru went on a cross country pilgrimage of learning. Not satisfied with khyal, he studied dhrupad, dhamar, tappa, thumri, ghazal, qawwali and bhajan. He cut several popular discs, acted in plays which touched his concert renderings of natyasangeet with a verve all their own. With an amazing collection of 12,000 compositions, he shaped his individual style. And though he failed to train his children in music he had many disciples who remember him with love and gratitude.
Shantaram Hegde who teaches at the Karnatak Music College bursts out, "He was everything we wanted in a guru. He gave us affection and no holds barred training, often correcting our mistakes with a joke. As accompanists we could not follow him on his soaring flights in the upper octave. He would smile at us with sympathy as he hit the high notes. He encouraged us to try many things, gave appreciation when it was due."
Since this discussion takes place at the radio station in Dharwar, we attract staff members eager to share stories about this colourful artist. Raghunath Nakod, who accompanied Rajguru on the tabla starts describing Rajguru's lovable eccentricities. "He carried 24 pieces of luggage, including a wooden crate which held his VIP suitcase". Some of the trunks contained a whole kitchen of vessels and provisions. Rajguru cooked his own food which he shared with his party. He would ask Raghunath to practise as long as he cooked - in order to drown the noise of the kerosene stove, banned in lodges!
He carried drinking water in pots placed in buckets. When the water got over between two concerts in Delhi, Rajguru thought nothing of journeying back to Dharwar for a refill. His love of milk made him take the train everyday to Hubli, to a special vendor who supplied it. In Bombay he would go to Victoria Road from his Dadar lodge, just to treat himself and his accompanists to milk at a particular halwai's place. They were pressed to enjoy the delicacies of each town at the guru's expense. Rajguru invariably halted at Pune on his way to Bombay to spend a few days at his favourite Badshah Lodge. There, late at night, he recorded some of his vast repertoire. "Generous to a fault, he spent lavishly," sighs Hegde.
Dharwar has not made any notable contribution to instrumental music. But two families settled in the town have produced three generations of sitar and tabla players. Arjunsa Nakod took music lessons to work in a drama company. Son Raghunath and siblings took up the tabla and perform as a trio. They are much in demand as accompanists to leading artists. Grandson Ravikiran is a talent to watch for.
The sitar family's oldest living member is A. Karim Khan, with a vocalist grandfather and a beenkar father Rehmat Khan. "He had to transfer the been technique to the sitar to make a living. His guru forbade him to take money for playing the been," says the bedridden Khansaheb. His seven sons play the sitar, including Bale Khan at AIR. The family orchestrates several sitars for the occasional show.
Dharwar has no star musician today except for Gangubai Hangal. The department of music at the university and the Karnatak Music College have turned out only degree holding teachers. But the town has something of immense value. It has dedicated teachers of the Gwalior, Jaipur and Kirana gharanas like the gentle, sweet voiced Chandrasekhar Puranikmath; and Sangameshwar Gurav, a direct disciple of Bhaskarbua Bhakle and Abdul Karim Khan. His ancestors were Carnatic musicians, which explains his son Kaivalya Kumar's introducing its flavours in his gayaki. To father and son, Abdul Karim Khan's words have become a litany, "Music must reach not the ear alone, but the heart".
Such teachers are not without hope for Dharwar's future in music. "There is excellent talent here," says Puranikmath. "It may take a while to mature. And there are earnest listeners to encourage it". Gurav concedes that the eagerness of youngsters gets dissipated because Dharwar does not offer them a future. There are no industrialist sponsors, no media attention.
But Kaivalya Kumar's obvious vocal skills prove that, with commitment and sound training, such drawbacks can be overcome. Young Hafiz Ali Khan who is being groomed by father Bale Khan in the sitar has the last word. "Dharwar is a great place for learning music without the distractions and tensions of city life. Artists are respected here. A career can be pursued anywhere; the important thing is to complete my training".
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