Monday, June 6, 2011

The Little Sparrow: Pandit Kumar Gandharva

I once referred to Pandit Kumar Ghandarva as the ‘bad boy’ of Indian classical music, which didn’t go down too well with some traditionalists. But I didn’t mean any disrespect to one of the most interesting and enterprising modern singers.  Indeed, anyone who knows anything about Kumar Gandharva could only have the deepest respect and admiration of him as an artist and as a human being. By ‘bad boy’ I meant only that he had a rebellious streak in his character that allowed him to forge a unique path through an ancient tradition that was simultaneously innovative, iconoclastic and intuitive.

Born in the same northern Karnataka region as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi he followed the well-trodden path of musical training but then disaster struck.  Lung cancer was misdiagnosed as TB leaving him with just a single lung and the professional advice that we would never sing again. But with the support of a doctor, who was also a fan, and his wife (whom he married against the advice of his guru; that rebellious streak) he began a long journey of recovery and eventually in 1953, several years after not performing, once again sang in public.

His voice was permanently affected by his loss of one lung. It became fragile and thin. He was henceforth unable to hold forth for long periods and sing the deep resonating runs seen as an essential element of any master singer’s toolkit. Instead he crafted a style that emphasized great short surges and that hungrily swallowed up folk music, bhajans, traditional stage music into his classical singing. In his cheeky way he said he had been inspired by a sparrow that visited his window every day of his convalescence. “It’s a small bird but makes a lot of noise!”  At other times he compared himself to a small fish that suddenly darts with lightening fish, but only for a short distance.

Kumar Gandharva refused to be confined to one gharana (school) of singing and took from several at once to make his point. In some cases he virtually created his own gharana, which raised the eyebrows and ire of the critics. He wrote many of his own compositions and especially loved to sing the bhajans of the great bhakti poets, Kabir and Sur Das.  His plaintive, high pitched voice suited these devotional songs perfectly.

His performances often left his audiences in tears. Or he would quickly wind them up if he felt he was in the ‘groove’ or if he felt his audience was not worthy or appreciative of what he was trying to do.

Kumarji,” writes one admirer “considered words to be very important to the music, quite opposite to the dominant trend in which the words are frequently mumbled and considered to be no more than vehicles for the articulation of musical sounds. Kumarji's enunciation was superb. In phrases like ‘shubha ghadi’, the ‘bha’ and ‘gha’ would carry more weight than these heavy consonants ever did in normal life. In his own compositions, it was always clear that he had been inspired to put some feeling or experience of his own into music, and the words would give us the key to that experience. Undoubtedly classical music (and all music, in fact) started this way, but centuries of stylization meant that in Hindustani music one most often did not associate words with any meaningful emotion -- not to mention that in the Moghul era many ‘darbar’ composers, while creating wonderful pieces of music, had set them to bland words in praise of the emperor, presumably with one eye on their own salaries.

“The fascination with words and meanings, and personal experience, was undoubtedly related to Kumarji's strong beliefs about folk music. He believed (and who can dispute it?) that all classical music is an outgrowth of folk music, where the most basic elements of life and nature are expressed in musical form. In his view, classical ragas are nothing but the distillation of musical essence from a class of folk songs, and this led him to an enterprise to discover ‘new’ ragas by simply listening carefully to more and more folk songs. He called these ‘Dhun Ugam Ragas', and many of his discoveries -- Madhsurja, Ahimohini, Saheli Todi, Beehad Bairav, Lagan Gandhar, Sanjaari, Maalvati -- are now accepted as ragas and find mention in various modern texts such as ‘Raga Nidhi’”. (

Pandit Kumar Gandharva died in 1992.

         Track Listing:
         01 Hirna samajh bhooj
  02 Ud jayega hans akela
  03 Guro to jine
  04 Aau kalandar kesare
  05 Guruji mhara mhane dar lage
  06 Avdhoota gajan ghota
  07 Aho pati so apai kachhu kije
  08 Nirbhay nirgun gurre gaoonga
  09 Piyaji Mhare naina hoge
  10 Nain ghat ghatatan ek ghari
  11 Kaun thagua nagari sa loot layo

Listen here.


bolingo69 said...

Very nice post !
I am very happy for each new Kumar Ghandarva recording that I can find!

Thank you!

ajnabi said...

Thank you. What other ones do you recommend?