Memory Still Sings

On Monday it will be 23 years since Pt Kumar Gandharva departed this life, leaving behind a voice, a musical thought and what was, in his opinion, an unfinished project. “I have meditated much, studied much,” says a song he composed in raag Ramkali; “and yet have not plumbed the depths of this abstract thing called music. Its raagas are a challenge, its swaras unyielding. My attempts at reaching its essence through complex taals have proved futile. The ultimate destination has kept eluding me.”  

It is most appropriate that the introduction to a recently released book entitled Kaljayee Kumar Gandharva, should begin with this song of regret by a true seeker. Dedicated to “All those who seek truth and the essence of their beings”, this beautifully designed, two-volume set, published by Rajhans Prakashan, has been meticulously compiled and edited by Kalapini Komkali and Rekha Inamdar-Sane. The volumes feature selected writings on Kumar Gandharva’s music in three languages --Marathi, Hindi and English. Together they form a full-bodied narrative that addresses the enigma suggested in Rahul Barpute’s cryptic statement, “Kumar Gandharva is a question mark on the music world.”

Question mark he was. While his admirers delighted in the freshness and stimulation that this brought to the concert stage, purists dismissed him for not being a true classicist. The late music critic Mohan Nadkarni straddles both sides of the line. While admiring the maverick musician’s compositions based on folk music, he finds his unfolding of raagas “loosely knit, even patchy.”

That’s not surprising. Kumar Gandharva was unfettered by loyalties to gharana rules and gurus. His sole guru was the music he heard around him, undivided by borders and hierarchies. He brought the discipline of classicism to his folk music compositions and the lilt and freedom of folk music to his classical presentations. His most moving compositions were of saint poetry and of the songs of Nath Panthis, whose philosophical ideas he strained to absorb into his music. Shubha Mudgul puts her finger correctly on the centrality of the voice in this project. “The sense of uniqueness that his followers found so remarkable and his detractors frowned upon,” she says, “was created by an unabashed and superbly crafted use of the voice.”

Kumar Gandharva dwells on this point himself in the exhaustive interview he has given to C S Inamdar, asserting that the flexible use of the voice was vital for a musician to fulfill all the demands that his art made on him. “You want to say many things. You want to create the right mood. How can you do that if you sing in a uniform, uninflected voice? When you sing a word set to a particular note, how can you forget resonance?  A musical note is not square. It is rounded and malleable.  A word must be uttered in such a way that it becomes one with the note. They must resonate together.”

Linda Hess picks up on the other feature that marks Kumar Gandharva’s music -- his use of the eloquent pause.  “Often he stops suddenly, unexpectedly. In the series of notes, he leaves an empty space. The space may be empty but he is present. In empty space absence blooms.” Equally though, he also explores ways to evoke the presence of material phenomena in their various forms and shapes. When his disciples tried to copy his musical phrases, he would say to them, “Why do you do that? Here’s a glass. Why does its shape not conjure up other similar shapes before your eyes? We have the ability to make things present. Gild this glass in gold or plate it with silver, bring it close or push it away. Each time it will be a different glass.”

An example of what he meant is demonstrated in the enticing forms he gives to the koel’s voice in the monsoon song, Ghana garaje barakha ayi. After a flurry of shimmering taans, he lingers over the word koyaliya, approaching it in a myriad ways, embellishing it, feeling its every consonant and vowel on the tongue, giving the bird’s voice a sensuous presence through his own. What makes this evocation poignant is the transience of both voices. “I’m a practitioner of the most perishable art,” Kumar Gandharva would say. “Every day I die singing.”  And yet, Ashok Vajpeyi movingly asserts, “When Kumar Gandharva’s voice falls silent, the tanpuras continue to play. When they too fall silent, memory sings. Nature sings.”

I don’t know about Nature. But certainly, memory is still singing.

Published On : 07-01-2015