Thirty years in the past, on January 12, 1992, it appeared that the pulsating rhythms of the universe had gone silent without end. On this date, Kumar Gandharva drew his final breath. We’re but to fathom the total measure of this loss or take full inventory of his legacy. One of many upsides of dwelling in our age is the unprecedented availability of the recorded archive. After we have been college students in school it was laborious to entry various inventory recordings. Anybody who had entry to uncommon or non-public recordings turned our greatest buddy. His Kabir recordings (the one oeuvre Kumarji was despatched to this earth for) have been, after all, freely accessible and extensively identified. However getting our fingers on different cassettes was pure gold.
However now, because of newly launched archives, his corpus comes into full view. The complete vary of his nirguna bhajans, Marathi natya sangeet, even his extremely playful compositions on peculiar life and the seasons, all will be heard in relation to one another. In different artistes, this over availability generally is a legal responsibility: You must sift via, to get to the peaks. In Kumarji ’s case, it has the alternative impact: Nearly every recording looks like a discovery of a brand new summit, a special approach of capturing a haunting incandescence, and weaving his complete being, and ours, in a melodic present.
The try and measure the loss or legacy of Kumarji appears completely misplaced for each sensible and philosophical causes. A lot superfluous ink has been spilled on points that just about appear inappropriate. The primary is the query of his innovation: His departures from custom, a lot to the consternation of purists who would wish to scale back custom to mere conference. After all, he was progressive, even revolutionary, in virtually the whole lot he did. There’s a cottage business cataloguing his improvements: From the bol aalaps, the unimaginable use of brief taans, the brand new bandishes. However, as he at all times insisted, juxtaposing innovation towards custom is a severe mistake.
A practice is extra like a basis on which extra needs to be constructed; a grammar is supposed for increasing language, not constricting it. The second is the fixed opposition between the people and the classical. It was typically stated he made excessive classical standard (by departing from conference), and he made standard folks classical. On reflection, these categorisations, whereas helpful for some pedantic scholarly functions, appear virtually antithetical to the singularity of what he did and the unity of the musical expertise he produced.
The title of 1 poignant set of homages to him, “Kaaljayi”, one who has conquered time, might be as apt a title as one may give. However conquering time doesn’t imply everlasting — a type of fixity that transcends all flux. In his interviews, he at all times comes throughout as impatient with that type of discuss. He additionally had a specific allergy to the phrase typically utilized in reference to music, non secular, as if it have been one a part of life, not life itself. These are very tempting phrases that we lazily use to lock us into the binaries he was at all times attempting to unsettle.
His music has the extreme and blazing power of the entire of creation pulsating via that connection between sabda and raga that solely he might produce. He’s uncommon in how a lot the bols of the bandish, or the sahitya, is essential to him and the way a lot care he took to elucidate them. Listening to Kumar Gandharva, it’s tough to agree with the nice TM Krishna’s declare in A Southern Music that within the musical expertise language is essential solely as sound, not linguistically; phrases must be conceived as a musical type not a poetic type. In a way, that is true; in spite of everything it’s the raga that shapes the shape and the musical expertise is accessible even with out the linguistic which means. However in Kumarji — what made all his recordings so distinctive — the music was a car for not simply sound however which means. His explicit emphasis in singing was additionally a car for which means, not simply sound.
It’s simply laborious to fathom the total energy of all these wonderful moments in his singing with out which means: The explosive “Oham Soham Baaja Baje/Trikuti Dham” or the erumpent, “Ganga Gangana” in his nice Raga Shankara. Or, much more mischievously, the bandish he composed “Karan De Re Kachhu Lalla Re” (imploring his toddler son to let him work). Even the sound “jha” in jhini, is supposed not simply as sound, however to intensify the impact of the which means “jhini” has. You virtually get the sense that it was the cautious deliberate braiding of sound and which means that lifted Kumarji past the mere virtuosity of many nice artistes. To say this isn’t to disclaim the autonomy of music, or to scale back it to its which means. However it’s to return to 1 central level: Kumarji exemplifies the unity of type, which means and being.
Kumarji at all times acknowledged his debt to the people traditions, not only for the musical varieties they bequeathed to him. However like Tagore, taken in by the Baul singers, what the “folks traditions” supplied was not simply musical varieties to be formed, however the unity of life and music. Singing or being in communion with a nirgun bhajan was not a matter of simply which means or musical type: It was being in a non-attached carefree state. The timelessness will not be a way of the everlasting, it’s simply the sense that no second is instrumental to the rest, particularly the longer term. As he as soon as put it, “with out having that type of nature, you can not put forth that type of (nirguna) voice. The voice has to match the thoughts.”
A programme announcement of the Indian State Broadcasting Service within the Indian Listener of June 7 1936 lists Kumar Gandharva as a “boy prodigy.” On August 15, 1947, as India gained independence, if Raghava Menon is to be believed, he was singing Raga Chandrakauns on radio. He then battled with TB and misplaced his voice for a full six years. By the point he took his final breath, he had not solely turn out to be one of many best musicians of all time, he had arguably turn out to be the very best level of Indian tradition, embodying its type, which means and even sense of play. He created a world — free, expansive and liberating, and unsettling within the deepest sense. As Madhu Limaye who listened to Kumarji in jail throughout the Emergency wrote to him, he gave us a glimpse of the key vibrations of the universe. However Kumarji would have smiled: “Yeh Khel Roop Ka/Khele Mahadhir. (This play of varieties/performs the Mahadhir).”
This column first appeared within the print version on January 13, 2022 underneath the title ‘The conqueror of time’. The author is contributing editor, The Indian Specific