Jan 13, 2007

Kumar Gandharva

Kumar Gandharva Kumar Gandharva expressions

I discovered Kumar Gandharva in my 30s. I grew up listening to his music in the background, but as a child I had never paid any attention to it. I was amused by the vigorous expressions and hand gestures that classical Indian singers would make during their performances.

Today, his music nourishes me. It clarifies things for me. It is like a mental centrifuge that separates essential from non-essential for me. I have picked up bits and pieces about him over here. I would urge you to take a listen, perhaps along with someone who can teach you what to listen for. And if you have grown up as a Marathi person in the 60s, 70s, 80s in Mumbai, then just like me, Kumar Gandharva's music might be the music to which your harmonic frequency is tuned to.

Kumar Gandharva

Kumar Gandharva (real name Shivaputra Siddramayya Komkali) (April 8, 1924 – January 1992) was a famous Hindustani classical singer, famous for his unique vocal style, refusal to be bound by the tradition of any gharana, and his innovative genius. The name "Kumar" is a title given to child prodigies, while Gandharva was the god of music in Hindu mythology.

Shivaputra was born in Dharwad (Karnataka, India). As a child, he was stricken with tuberculosis, and left with only one functioning lung. This greatly affected his singing – he was to be known for powerful short phrases and his very high voice. He may not have reached the same heights of popularity as contemporaries like Bhimsen Joshi, but Gandharva always enjoyed the love and support of dedicated and connoisseur enthusiasts. His singing was also true to the Indian Classical Music tradition of dialogue with the listeners, of impromptu creation and interactivity.

Kumarji also experimented with other forms of singing such as Bhajans (Devotional songs), folk songs, and with both ragas and presentation, often going from fast to slow compositions in the same raga, something rarely done by any other North Indian musician. One of the most inventive singers in recent years, he is remembered for his great legacy of innovation, questioning tradition without rejecting it wholesale, resulting in music in touch with the roots of Indian culture.

He was never "easy" to listen to, in part because of his thin and occasionally harsh voice, a consequence of an illness in his youth which left him with only one lung. He overcame this setback by developing an original style of singing, which relied on short, sharp bursts of music rather than the deep, sonorous, slow and long phrases that characterize Hindustani vocal music. He was known to say that during his convalescence after the illness, he had been inspired by a sparrow which visited his room and which, despite its diminutive size, could produce an impressive volume of music. On another occasion, he said that while musicians who were steady, powerful and grave could be compared to the large fish in an aquarium, he thought of himself like one of the tiny fish that dart around, changing direction rapidly and moving in short bursts.

To watch Kumar tuning his tanpuras perfectly and tunefully is an enjoyable and memorable experience. Only those who are able to distinguish the finest subtleties of different notes are able to tune the four strings of the instrument so that they will blend perfectly. The two middle strings are required to be tuned to the tonic or shadja note, the last string also to the shadja note an octave lower - kharja, and the first string is tuned to pancham the 5th note, madhyama the 4th note, or nishad the 7th note, whichever may be in consonance with the compositions of the ragas the artist intends to present. The process of tuning the tanpuras is sometimes a lengthy one and may be a little boring to most listeners. Sometimes this instrument is as whimsical as the artist and refuses to stay steady. The strings resist attempts to blend them into a homogeneous unity, but a formidable musician like Kumar or Bhimsen can force them into submission. When the strings, perfectly blended in unison, resound and reverberate in the concert hall, the tense atmosphere suddenly becomes relaxed, and when Kumar blends his own voice so identically with the swara of the tanpura, the audience experiences a sensation divine and beyond description. After a lot of hard work and practice Kumar has mastered the technique of tuning this wonder instrument. Apart from the two tanpuras, one on either side. the only accompaniment Kumar uses is that of a soft harmonium and a tabla played in a tranquil, straightforward manner and in a tempo - laya - with perfect precision. Kumar's concert is therefore absolutely free from unnecessary gimmickry and acrobatics. It has a soothing effect on the audience whose whole attention is riveted on Kumar's singing that very soon envelops them in its magic.