BEST WISHES FOR 2014.
HERE’S A STORY, ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN 2011. IT HAS BEEN UPDATED TO PROVIDE LINK TO MORE RECENT TIMES.
End October 2013.
At a concert organized by the Mumbai-based Khayal Trust, Pandit Venkateshkumar took the stage. A Hindustani classical vocalist, he was assertive, subtle, strong and delicate, the discerning use of these abilities making his interpretation of compositions, engaging. I can’t identify raagas; I simply like or dislike music – any music – as aural experience. In the outdoors, I have tracked rivers – from relatively calm flow in the foothills to turbulent upstream and almost inaudible trickle at source – noticing how their character changes. Venkateshkumar’s singing had something of that. He seemed to be singing from a bigger understanding of subject and not merely indulgence in the specific; it wasn’t a section of the river amplified ignoring the whole, it was the whole. On stage, neither was his support crew behaving like sycophants unto him nor was he synthetic in his encouragement of them. A singular chemistry prevailed – chemistry by music. No drama, no playing to the galleries – the proof of the pudding was my brain, soothed to peace; a connection to its home – the universe – made.
This was the second time I heard Venkateshkumar and the first time I was inside the auditorium when he sang. The previous occasion had been a well attended modest sized gathering in the Mumbai suburb of Chembur. The venue, mere hall and no sophisticated auditorium, was filled to capacity. Chairs outside had also been taken. People stood patiently; listening as attentively as they would, had they been on a seat within. I joined them. Why should anything else matter if the music is good?
The first time I met Venkateshkumar was before I heard him sing.
It was 2011.
Along with good friend Latha Venkatraman, a journalist who has learnt classical music for many years, I was exploring a story in northern Karnataka, way south of Mumbai.
On January 24, 2011, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi passed away.
With that India lost its most famous voice.
His was a mad, rough edged-reaching out; different from other contenders to be India’s voice and certainly quite apart from that other tradition of Indian classical music – Carnatic. I like to let go (it is also what I find most challenging and what I do the least). In contrast, Carnatic seemed perfect and deliberate, a sort of antidote to madness. Bhimsen Joshi hailed from Gadag, next door to Hubli-Dharwad in North Karnataka. Born there, he was bitten by the music bug, travelled through India in search of a guru and was finally directed to Sawai Gandharva in nearby Kundgol itself. The rest is legend amply conveyed by the great man’s music. What intrigued me was Hubli-Dharwad. Music lovers there sometimes called the place a LOC (Line of Actual Control) between Hindustani music and Carnatic. Yet within Hindustani classical, it is unique for not only being the southern outpost of the tradition but also, a reclusive, defiant, academically inclined ambience that cares more for dedication and purity than the market.
Geographically the region bridges that portion of Karnataka which is home to the wet, green hills of the Western Ghats and the start of the Deccan plateau with its imposing flatness. To one side, in the rainy season, the lush vegetation is so pronounced that it contrasts crops like cotton and chilli, typically associated with frugal water intake, grown on the other side. The Hubli-Dharwad region, once part of the Vijayanagar Empire, was subsequently in the possession of rulers from both Karnataka and Maharashtra. Until 1955, it was part of Bombay Presidency. Hubli, the commercial hub of North Karnataka, is a major cotton market and centre for a variety of agricultural produce. At the vegetarian restaurant of Ananth Residency hotel, I asked for North Karnataka food. It wasn’t available; recommended instead was “ Veg Rajasthani,’ something possibly evocative of the region’s place in trade. The leading brands of Dharwad pedha were Thakur and Mishra, neither of them surnames indigenous to the area yet now synonymous with pedha. Hubli was also where the typical motifs of Indian urban life were taking hold. There were shopping malls, stores with walls of flashing TV screens, ATMs and hotels. Then another LOC of sorts divided it from Dharwad, 20 kilometres away. The local transport bus took you through a busy road with 40 kilometre-speed limit. Approximately three quarters of this travel done, at Navalur as people would later tell me, the atmosphere changed to charming old world flavour. You entered Dharwad.
As pronounced as Hubli’s commercialism, was Dharwad’s conservative, academic tenor. Its prominence in history was as an educational hub, the place where people from North Karnataka, Goa and Southern Maharashtra came to study. According to Ramakant Joshi, Editor-Publisher, Manohara Granth Mala, it was Dharwad’s educational backdrop along with an existing culture of theatre and literature that provided a fertile substratum for Hindustani classical music to flourish. The office of this publishing house founded on August 15, 1933 (those days August 15 signified the birthday of Sri Aurobindo) was lined with Kannada books and located in an old room above Subhas Road. Ramakant Joshi is Bhimsen Joshi’s cousin. Unlike in Hubli, in Dharwad, you found shops that hadn’t changed for decades. You bought classical music CDs at Rajendra Radio House, run by Basavaraj V. Kotur, who informed that the shop started in 1964 had been one of the first four music stores in Karnataka. Only two shops from that four remain. There was also relevant change – the Srujana auditorium, where many concerts are held, had been refurbished with help from Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys and currently chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Dharwad looked peaceful, there was plenty of greenery and the people you spoke to had a conservative demeanour but amazed by their quiet erudition on chosen subjects. Here a musician or music lover might confidently tell you that he or she is known in the neighbourhood. As we discovered, that wasn’t always true but it was a measure of how comfortable you could be, pursuing the classical arts in this town. Neela Kodli was easy to talk to. In between she went to the kitchen to make tea. Like many of us she hummed a tune, except it was a classical composition. Neela Kodli is the daughter of Mallikarjun Mansur. A singer in the shadow of a famous father, she was modest about her abilities.
There were few concerts in Dharwad that June. It was the rainy season. Otherwise, we were told, you found one or two every week. The vast majority of these concerts were free. “ There is no problem doing an early morning practice session here. In fact, if they don’t hear me practise, my neighbours ask – didn’t you practise today?’’ Vijaykumar Patil, an upcoming Hindustani vocalist said. With so many singers and musicians around, it was possible for a music lover to strike a rapport and sit in on their evening training sessions even if all he had was a love for music. `Kansens’ (those with good ear for music) have always been as important as `Tansens’ in Dharwad. This coupled with resident music gurus and new music schools helped create an audience for Hindustani classical music. In turn, that made performing in Hubli-Dharwad, a prized opportunity for visiting artistes. You knew you were singing to those who knew the subject. Applause here became highly valued. Raghavendra Ayi, Secretary, Sitar Ratna Samiti, provided an example of how Dharwad responded to music. Following Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, it was decided to organize an eight day music programme from February 27 to March 6 that year, in his memory. Many of the performers were young artistes. With expenditure projected to touch two lakh rupees (Rs 200,000), the organizers made an appeal for contributions. The amount thus collected exceeded a lakh, most of it donated by individual music lovers. “ To survive, any art requires janaashraya. The days of rajaashraya are over,’’ he said. (Jana in Indian languages refers to people; Raja refers to king and Aashraya means dependence or in the context of art, patronage.)
The Vijayanagar Empire had a strong role in the evolution of South India’s Carnatic music. The famous composer Purandara Dasa was born in modern Shivamoga district and spent his final years at Hampi, next door to the Hubli-Dharwad region. His compositions are sung by Hindustani classical vocalists. One version has it that Swami Haridas, teacher of Tansen, was a disciple of Purandara Dasa. Thus music was always around in these parts. Hubli-Dharwad’s ascent in Hindustani classical music happened with the decline of the Mughal Empire up north. As the empire weakened, the singing tradition of its court moved first to princely states in North India. Then as British influence gained in those princely states, the drift to the south started. Abdul Karim Khan was a famous singer of the Kirana Gharana, one of the schools of singing within Hindustani classical music. He was court singer in Baroda state. On his way to the court of the Mysore kings, who were patrons of classical music, he regularly halted in Hubli-Dharwad. In his book `Karnataka’s Hindustani Musicians,’ author Sadanand Kanavalli has particularly noted the role of the Mysore king, Krishnaraj Wodeyar IV. Mysore continues to this day as a major centre for Carnatic music. It was that less known intermediate halt en route, Hubli-Dharwad, which developed into the southern outpost of Hindustani classical music. Through the years music researchers have wondered what worked to Hubli-Dharwad’s favour. In a November 2009 issue of `Sangeet Natak,’ a newsletter from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Tejaswini Niranjana, outlining her proposed research into these questions noted that some of “ the common and (uncommonsensical) answers’’ included Abdul Karim Khan’s visits, the pleasant weather in Dharwad, the large number of Maharashtrians there who were music patrons, the influence of Marathi culture in the form of Marathi plays having Hindustani music with Kannada plays subsequently derived from them and even the chillies and spicy food of North Karnataka that cleared the throat. “ The answers are inadequate even on their own terms. If Abdul Karim Khan’s final destination was Mysore and he went there frequently, why did he not teach disciples there?’’ she asked.
Among the most important institutions that patronised Hindustani classical music was an old house at Kundgol, once part of the princely state of Jamkhandi. Not far from Hubli, Kundgol and several other surrounding villages used to be under the control of the land-owning Nadgir family, who were patrons of music. Abdul Karim Khan visited here. More importantly for North Karnataka’s music, Abdul Karim Khan’s most famous student Ramachandra aka Rambhau Kundgolkar was born in Kundgol. Later called Sawai Gandharva, he had a pivotal role in the history of North Karnataka’s Hindustani music. His life was entwined with the Nadgir family. He taught music at the old house; this was where Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal learnt. We met Babasaheb Nadgir and his son, Arjun Nadgir, who live there. Every year since 1952, the family has been organizing a music festival currently
called the Nanasaheb Nadgir Smrithi Sangeeth Utsav. Hundreds of people turn up to hear this 24 hour-performance, which lasts through the night. The house is as it used to be, so much so that an entire audience crammed onto its many floors to hear the concert has triggered worries of the 400 year-old building collapsing. The architecture is typically old fashioned featuring a courtyard within. The musicians practise in an inner chamber and then perform on stage inside the house, adjacent to the courtyard and below a bust of Sawai Gandharva. It is tradition kept alive purely through family initiative and at considerable cost. The Nadgir family and a few close friends spent up to one and a half lakh rupees (that was the figure when I visited); they didn’t seek donations. Arjun was working on proper institutional shape for the funding so that it self-sustained. The family had dreams of starting a music school. Kundgol also had another music festival in Sawai Gandharva’s memory. Several noted Hindustani classical artistes – Bhimsen Joshi, Basavaraja Rajguru, Gangubai Hangal, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, Pandit Jasraj, Prabha Atre, Feroz Dastur, Puttaraj Gawai – they have all performed at Nadgir Wada. For many who go to sing there, the very act of performing in a house where legends lived is overwhelming. The artistes are paid for travel cost; they get nothing else. “ The ambience is special,’’ Jayateerth Mevundi, a prominent vocalist from the younger generation, said.
Given Abdul Karim Khan as the historical prompter for Hindustani music’s arrival in Hubli-Dharwad, the region became the southern home of the Kirana Gharana, a style with origins in Uttar Pradesh. But you also find in Hubli-Dharwad other styles like the Jaipur Gharana and the Gwalior Gharana. They co-exist. From Abdul Karim Khan down, we hear of several important names. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories – the legendary performers from Hubli-Dharwad and the great teachers like Sawai Gandharva. For a tradition of music to grow you need both these categories. As you ask around, you realize that great performers were not necessarily great teachers just as great teachers were not necessarily great performers. The great performers were five – Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva (he was born near Belgaum and later moved to Madhya Pradesh) and Basavaraj Rajguru. Of them, one – Gangubai Hangal – was a phenomenon. Her influence exceeded the world of music. In Hubli, we just had to ask for the late singer’s house and the autorickshaw driver knew where to go. Her house had become part museum. Gangubai Hangal had to overcome many social challenges to become the renowned singer she was. In later years, she did not hesitate to be a social activist for causes she believed in. It was exceptional in that, it took a classical vocalist out from the conventional image of exclusivity and singing for patrons, to being one with the masses. Consequently if anyone from the legendary five has become close to an institution in Hubli-Dharwad, it ought to be Gangubai Hangal. There was however one problem. With Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, the last of those five greats passed away. Further, except for Basavaraj Rajguru, none of the others were credited with robust teaching. They left behind few disciples. That’s why Hubli-Dharwad was suddenly important for anyone interested in Hindustani classical music, like me. The phase of the legends was over. Will the region continue to maintain its strong position in musical tradition?
The Veereshwar Punyashram in Gadag appeared a blend of religion, community and music; an official brochure informed that the presiding pontiff was seen by devotees as “ a walking God on the Earth.’’ Looking past its prime when I was there in 2011, this institution was founded by Panchaxari Gawai, a blind prodigy in classical music. Over the years, the ashram accepted many poor, often visually and physically challenged children and trained them in classical music. Basavaraj Rajguru was Panchaxari Gawai’s student. Following Panchaxari Gawai’s death in 1944, Puttaraj Gawai took charge. He became blind through treatment for an eye problem in his childhood but later amazed as vocalist and musician.
Venkateshkumar – he teaches at a music college in Dharwad and is acknowledged to be among the finest Hindustani vocalists today – was Putturaj Gawai’s student. Born in Lakshmipur village near Bellary, Venkateshkumar was thirteen years old when he was brought to the ashram in 1968. He studied there for eleven years, maintaining a rigorous training schedule and learning 25-30 raagas from his guru. Even after Venkateshkumar left the ashram his interaction with his guru continued till Puttaraj Gawai was ninety years old. Puttaraj Gawai died in 2010. In 2011, across the school and the college on its premises, there were nearly 800 students.
Following their studies, some students of the ashram had become teachers at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya. Begun by Agathe and Mathieu Fortier, a Canadian couple who liked India and its tradition of Hindustani classical music, the school was located almost an hour away from Dharwad in geography that was the exact opposite of the Gadag-Kundgol belt. Here the land was hilly with red earth muddied by heavy rains and densely vegetated to the point of seeming forest. The school was in the woods, a collection of eco-friendly structures with 185 students and 43 full time staff. According to Adam Woodward, Director, the admission process tried to ensure that only the neediest students got through. The students paid no fees. They did a mix of music, dance and formal studies. Many of the children we met spoke Hindi and English (at any given time the school has about a dozen
volunteers from overseas), something useful to link training in classical art forms to the outside world. Its present location was second stop for the school. Previously it was at a leased farm in Kalkeri. The owner wanted to sell the property. Seeing its good work, the local village authorities granted it the current land. With time and growth, this had become inadequate and the school was looking for bigger, more permanent premises in the region. The Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya is part of a unique organizational structure authored by its founders. Mathieu and his brother Blaise set up Young Musicians of the World (YMW) in Canada. Every year, as of 2011, it managed two fund raising concerts abroad to collect funds for the school in Kalkeri. This aside, the objective was to open similar schools elsewhere in the world; there were ongoing talks in France to start a music school for the Romany gypsies. Another location interesting YMW was, Mali in Africa. The eventual idea was to have music exchange programmes and concerts. To enable this, YMW required the Kalkeri school, indeed any school it started, to slowly become self reliant in funding. Moves were afoot to make this happen.
The third institution we saw was expected to formally start work from July 1, 2011. Named after Gangubai Hangal it was a modern gurukul set up by the Karnataka government on the outskirts of Hubli. It could accommodate 36 students and their teachers. The gurukul pattern finds considerable respect among musicians in Hubli-Dharwad as one of the ingredients separating the performing artiste from the merely trained artiste. As many people pointed out, the music schools and colleges were important to create a learned audience for Hindustani classical. The performing artiste however needed a guru who knew him or her well; understood the student’s abilities, role modelled and confronted them with challenges. It was one-on-one education, an apprenticeship. According to Manoj Hangal, Gangubai Hangal’s grandson, the government announced five crore rupees (Rs 50 million) and five acres of land for the project in 2005. “ All approvals came within three days,’’ he said. Six gurus of different gharanas were each planned to teach six students for 3-4 years. The teachers expected at the gurukul included Prabha Atre and N. Rajam. There would be visiting faculty from other universities. The emphasis was on creating performing artistes; that meant a student cannot enrol for any other academic programme. Total government expense for the impressive campus had touched eight crore rupees (Rs 80 million) and there would be recurrent expenditure of Rs 15 lakhs (Rs 1.5 million) to maintain it. “ We want public access to the gurukul,’’ Manoj Hangal said pointing out how that only fit in with the reputation and legacy of Gangubai Hangal in Hubli-Dharwad.
So would these training schools, music colleges and the large number of students, ensure that Hubli-Dharwad continued to generate fantastic performing artistes?
Between talent and recognition lay the market.
Hubli-Dharwad is an intriguing symbiosis of dedicated training away from market forces and giants born from that discipline who became icons in the far away markets of Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. With Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, the days of those legends had seemingly ended. There was a robust new generation in Hubli-Dharwad. “ I am confident we will be able to fill the vacuum,’’ Kaivalya Kumar Gurav, an established vocalist and teacher, said. But for many others, with so much of change authored by not just music, the market loomed in the distance like an inorganic entity speaking a different language. If you looked back to the previous three generations or so of Hindustani classical performers, each generation had found the proverbial wind beneath the wings in factors ranging from royal patronage to the ascent of radio and recorded music. The first now belongs to a bygone era; the latter two are now past their prime. What survives is the impact of all this on the market – better awareness of classical music with the masses and support of music by the `classes.’ Opportunities are available. Question is – who gets them in these years of survival through smartness? Does smartness constitute music and how smart should Hubli-Dharwad be when its beauty, perhaps uniqueness, is that it has been distant from the market?
One problem you hear is how major public performances have got dominated by the same, few names. Sponsors rule the big concerts in the metros (although Hubli-Dharwad has a tradition of concerts organized by aficionados willing to contribute for the purpose, sponsorship has arrived here too). Big ticket sponsors, seek the maximum bang for their buck and it often means, correspondingly less concern for upcoming talent within the music world. Result – they plonk for the established names, setting in motion a vicious cycle of promoting the same names, even their children. Travelling through Hubli-Dharwad, this new age networking and success by successful networking saddened me because North Karnataka not only produced great musicians in the past but some of them – like Gangubai Hangal – questioned tradition and confronted the social networks and privileges of their era. The citation for the 1989 Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Award, given to Gangubai Hangal, began with this sentence, “ you are among the legendary group of women who braved social scorn and ridicule in establishing classical music as a noble profession for women in modern India.’’ Now as we celebrate the age of the social network and as the social network becomes the new tradition, talent has become secondary again. We haven’t changed; we seem to simply reinvent the old. At Gadag, we ran into young Ayyappaiah Halagalimath who learnt classical music at the Veereshwar Punyashram and went on to complete his MA in Music with top honours. A student of Venkateshkumar, he was guest lecturer at the same college where the maestro worked. Like many who studied at the ashram, Ayyappiah hailed from a poor family. He has performed in big cities. But lacking good Hindi and English, he was hemmed in by his inability to tap the social network. That worry was writ large on his face. Between talent and recognition, there is the market; there is that network. It plagues every field and as the network grows in importance, I wonder – are the best in every field necessarily what the commercial network showcases as the best, the most successful?
A common way of introducing upcoming music talent to the market is by clubbing their performance with that of a big brand musician. So you have that half hour or one hour at start by a mid-level artiste and then a performance by the big brand who the sponsor thinks is the real talent. According to musicians, although intended to help, this practice simply institutionalises upcoming talent as secondary to established names. Because it is presented as upcoming talent requiring a walking stick (the established big musician), it reinforces the paradigm of sponsor deciding talent as opposed to the audience doing the same. Differently put, in the name of the market we may be belittling the intelligence of the audience in the age of janaashraya. Why not let the audience choose? But then how perfect are choices by audience? At stake amidst sponsors and the market compulsions of media formats (like reality TV shows) claiming to represent popular tastes, are entire crafts. “ One of my students topped a reality show. Now all his singing is for the channel. Reality programmes make you a success prematurely,’’ a senior artiste and teacher, said. Arguably, all media – including this blog – is imperfect, to the extent that an article or a photograph or a TV programme is usually a slice of something, never the evolving whole or the whole in the context of everything else. And if, for alternative, you choose to merely stream real life as media, you miss intellect – which is a serious drawback in today’s media filled-world. Reduced by media to voyeurism, abject competition and consumerism, we succeed more and more with lesser and lesser dimensions in the head. We become dumb? I suspect so.
A point that frequently surfaced in discussions on what shaped the performing artiste was how the legends became what they were despite few raagas taught by their gurus. The rest was dedicated, hard work. Over eight years, Abdul Karim Khan taught Sawai Gandharva just three raagas. His rationale was – if the student understood those three well, he would pick up the rest. Sawai Gandharva taught Bhimsen Joshi three raagas. Nothing happens without personal drive. “ There can be many students but there is only one disciple,’’ Professor Vasant Karnad, well known musician, music critic and teacher, and elder brother of Jnanpith Award winner-Girish Karnad, said. Legends are not born from a market state of anything. How long will it be before the next Gangubai Hangal or Bhimsen Joshi?
Between the two, the next Gangubai Hangal would be a litmus test for Hubli-Dharwad. It was a question nobody could offer convincing explanation for – why haven’t there been great women singers from Hubli-Dharwad other than the legendary Gangubai Hangal? Some cited marriage, family responsibilities et al. At least one school official that we spoke to confirmed that convincing families in villages of the practical use of an education in music was difficult and within that, getting the girl child enrolled was more so. It seemed the other side of conservative society, which by virtue of its conservatism steels an individual’s resolve to pursue his or her talent but also leaves many in the dust. Finally, there was the concern over where the general drift in the world was headed and what that meant for Hubli-Dharwad. “ With the growth of industry, the cultural milieu will fade. Formerly we used to say that food and knowledge should never be bargained or sold. Today, they have become the most important items of business,’’ Ramakant Joshi said.
I got back to Mumbai. Freelance journalist’s article was published. In August 2011, Professor Vasant Karnad passed away. He had been a delight to talk to during the brief while we met him. We remain grateful for that conversation, the opportunity to meet him. End-October 2013; backstage in Mumbai, Pandit Venkateshkumar recognized us from the old visit (in 2011, we had gone to his house in Dharwad). We exchanged greetings. Established singers, aspiring ones and students of music had already flocked to him after the concert. I am none of that. I identify with his music thanks to what is at once a restlessness and peace, found in the outdoors. It inhabits many fields and I suspect that the word in English which comes closest to describing the condition is – seeking. A mind cast so finds peace in sense of universe.
Music, the outdoors – it is all One.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the help provided by Latha Venkatraman, journalist and student of Hindustani classical music, towards writing this article. A portion of this article pertaining to the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya was published as an independent piece in The Hindu Business Line newspaper. A slightly abridged version of the entire story was published in Man’s World magazine.)