Gaanyogini Passes On

Gaanyogini Dhondutai Kulkarni, who passed away at 87 on June 1, had lived all her life in, by and for music alone. Just think. A little girl of five is regularly taken by her father to the Mahalaksmi temple in Kolhapur to hear Ustad Alladiya Khansahib, the fountainhead of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, sing. The father wants to give his daughter all the opportunities he himself lacked in realising his dream of becoming a musician.

Initially Dhondutai learns music to please her father. But by the time she is 13, she has come to love it for itself. She is training under Alladiya Khansahib’s younger son Bhurji Khan and is spending so many hours practising, that there’s no time left for school. So she drops out. Her father approves. He has already been criticised for sending his daughter to a Muslim guru (who said music has no religion?) and for letting her perform publicly, a most disreputable thing for a young girl from a “good family” to do. But these are mere tremors compared to the seismic wave that’s about to hit the moral brigade. When Dhondutai is 19, she vows never to marry. She wants nothing and nobody to stand between her and her music. Her father supports her in this decision too. “If a woman performing on stage was disreputable in those days,” Dhondutai once said, “Vowing not to marry was sheer blasphemy.”

Bhurji Khan dies in 1950. A disciple without a guru is like a boat without a rudder. Dhondutai is cast adrift. She moves to her brother’s house in Jabalpore, does her matriculation, enrolls in a college and is just beginning to resign herself to life without a guru, when she wins a ministry of education scholarship for music. Back she goes to Kolhapur to study under two leading lights of her gharana –Laxmibai Jadhav and Alladiya Khansahib’s grandson Azizuddin Khan. One day, after she has returned to Jabalpore, Azizuddin Khan sends her a cutting of an interview with Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar that has appeared in a Marathi mainline daily. Kesarbai has never taken a student; so the interviewer has asked her, snidely, “To whom will you bequeath this great tradition?” Kesarbai has snapped back, “To whomsoever is willing to put in the kind of mehnat I have put into my art.” This challenge is like an invitation to Dhondutai who wants nothing better than to learn and practise music all her waking hours. She writes to Kesarbai and receives a reply that is positive enough for her to pack her bags and head for Bombay (as it was then). Her father too sells his house in Kolhapur to finance his daughter’s stay and moves to Bombay.

Dhondutai’s first encounter with her guru-to-be is a two-way test. Kesarbai is scheduled to perform at Birla Matushri Sabhaghar. Dhondutai is there, accompanied by her father and Azizuddin Khan. The latter takes her backstage to meet the great vocalist. Then, out of the blue, he asks her if she will let Dhondutai accompany her in the concert. Kesarbai hesitates for just a moment and then agrees. Dhondutai is excited, but unsure of what to expect. “The first raag Kesarbai sang was Bihagda,” Dhondutai once told me in an interview. “I knew the cheez well and she let me sing quite a bit. But after that she didn’t sing a single raag that I knew.” That was Kesarbai, I said, always guarding her music. “But isn’t it natural,” Dhondutai shot back. “After all, a singer’s compositions are her wealth.”

Kesarbai and Dhondutai made a unique guru-shishya relationship. Two years into training, Kesarbai whisked her off to Lonavala on a month-long retreat to help her develop her voice and stamina for the rigours of the gayaki she was imbibing. The essence of the gayaki lay in the singer’s ability to hold her breath through long, intricate taan patterns while maintaining the broad, deep flow of the voice from the lowest to the highest notes. Dhondutai kept faith with these ideals throughout her singing life, never diluting them to pander to popular taste. Consequently, although she was admired by a coterie of the cognoscenti, she was never wildly popular.   

Dhondutai lived alone in Borivali. Did she ever feel lonely? “Never,” she said. “How can I feel lonely having this great art with me in its purest form?” There was one regret however. Despite years of dedicated teaching, she had produced no musical heir. Now that she’s gone, her music lives only in recordings.

Published On : 25-06-2014