Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lord of the Primal Sound: Pandit Omkarnath Thakur



The traditions of Hindu India give encouragement to those who need to drop out of ‘normal’ society and follow an inner path.  Unlike contemporary Western society (and perhaps westernizing urban India, too) people are respected, even elevated, for taking long pilgrimages to holy sites, retreating to the forests to meditate or simply taking leave of earthly responsibilities in pursuit of brahman.

Of course, what becomes of those left behind to deal with the mundane world, is a less glorious chapter in the story. And the beginning of our story for tonight.

The time is the very early years of the 20th century in western India where the father of our hero is a soldier in the employ of a local noble. The man, Gaurishankar, crosses paths with    a ‘saint’, an encounter that irrevocably changes the direction of Gaurishankar’s life. He abandons his family, including our hero, who is still very young, to spend the rest of his days exploring the depths and mysteries of OM (ॐ).

Nearly destitute, our hero, who goes by the name of Omkarnath, moves with his mother and siblings to Bharuch, another western Indian town where he labors for a few coins to support his mother who works as a domestic to people richer than herself.  The boy likes to sing (perhaps because it is a way to stay connected with his absent father who is lost in the Lost Chord) and finds work as a bit actor in street theatricals. A local worthy believes the urchin has potential and sends him off to study in the big city of Bombay under the guidance of Pandit V.D. Paluskar.  For six or more years young Om, absorbs the secret science of singing in the style of the Gwalior gharana and learns to play the drum as well.  When he is barely into his twenties, Pt. Paluskar dispatches his star pupil to the other side of the country, to the ancient Punjabi city of Lahore, with instructions to be Principal of a new music academy.

After some time in Lahore, Omkarnath moves back home and ripens his voice as a performer across western India, Punjab and Nepal.  Still poor, he nevertheless is an autodidact and teaches himself several regional languages, including English.  Over the course of his life our hero will transform himself not only into one of the greatest singers of India but an authoritative scholar of classical music. In particular, two works, Pranava Bharati, published in 1956, a landmark treatise on the theoretical aspects of music – swara, raga, and rasa, and Sangeetanjali (in six volumes) published between 1938 and 1962, a manual on the practical aspects of music performance, including raga grammar and esthetics, are considered classics.

So well regarded and admired does Omkarnath Thakur become that he is asked to sing the nationalist hymn Vande Mataram on the occasion of India’s Independence.  This was not simply recognition of his status as an artist but also of his active participation in the movement to rid India of the British. He was an elected member of the Gujarat Provincial Congress Committee as well as President of his local branch.

In the latter years of his life he set up and was Dean of the Music Faculty at Benaras Hindu University, one of India’s premier universities.  The city of Shiva has claimed him as one of its own ever since and it is where he died of a stroke in 1967 at the age of 70.

For an outstanding article on Pandit Omkarnath Thakur which covers all aspects of his musicianship, I recommend you click on this link.

Tonight’s selection is a recording made in the late 1950’s during his time in Benaras (Varanasi) and was was one of many recordings in private collections and only committed to CD in the past decade or so.

On this recording, the maestro presents an elaborate Khyal, in two tempi, in raga Puriya and a bhajan in Pranava Ranjani. The title of this album is based on his pen-name Pranava, which refers to the holy mono-syllabic OM, often referred to as Omkar. He is accompanied on the violin by his disciple, Dr. N. Rajam, who carried forward the legendary vocalist’s academic tasks at the Benaras Hindu University, and has emerged as the most brilliant solo violinist in recent years. (liner notes)



Track Listing:
01. Raga Puriya (Sapne Me Aye) in Teental
02. Drut Gat in Teental
03. Bhajan (Jogi Ek Bair Bol) pt 1
        04. Bhajan (Jogi Ek Bair Bol) pt 2

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