Pandit Kumar Gandharva

Written by Chaitra Sontakke on 09 April 2019

Kumar Gandharva could be called the greatest revolutionary in the field of Hindustani Classical music.

Born Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath on 8 April 1924 in Sulebhavi near Belgaum, Karnataka, Kumar Gandharva was a child prodigy who grew up to be a musical genius. He was conferred the title ‘Kumar Gandharva’  by the Shankaracharya. In Hindu mythology, the term Gandharva is a celestial being skilled in music, dance and the arts.

He started appearing on stage at the age of 10. When he was 11, his father sent him to learn music under the well-known Guru B. R. Deodhar.

By his early 20s, Kumarji was a rising star, popular both amongst the audience and his critics.  However, his fate took a turn and in his mid twenties, he was stricken with tuberculosis. His doctors informed him that he would never sing again and advised to move to the drier climate of Dewas, Madhya Pradesh for his health. For the next six years, Kumarji endured a period of illness and silence.

Kumar Gandharva, however, had music in his destiny. He was to turn his weakness around and establish his unique singing style for which he is remembered as one of the stalwarts of Hindustani classical music.

Kumar Gandharva was not one to blindly give in to traditional learnings . In his singing, he would show an unconventional way to make Hindustani music a personal and vivid experience. His ability to compose music and talk about his emotions and experiences using the Raga as medium was a completely novel and unheard of approach to Hindustani classical music, which until now had been the medium of devotional or “durbar” music. Kumarji was the first to demonstrate how Hindustani music can be imbibed in our daily lives - the little joys and sorrows and emotions that are part of our lives.

For example take this famous Bandish -’ Karan De re, Kachu Lalaa re’ . This Bandish is a request to his little son to let him do some work, then he goes on to say ‘Ee ko Uthaale Aakar koi’ - please take him with you, he is making noise-  ‘Ye Udham kare’ and the very affectionate ‘le le le yo re’. (as narrated by Ms.Kalapini Komkali)

He was one of the few musicians who clearly showed the transition of Hindustani classical music from the elements of Deshanaang (music born out of folk song tradition) and the Bhaashaang (lyrics that make use of the local dialect of the region) apart from the already well known Ragaang (the traditional Hindustani music with its structured scales and groups of notes). Thus he created ‘Dhun Ugam Ragas’ (Ragas that are derived from folk tunes). He used to say that Ragas are not created but discovered. His music gave absolute joy to his listeners taking them to a level of divinity.

Kumarji sang Bhajans from both the Bhakti streams of Sagun as well as Nirgun. Among the Sagun Bhajans, he sang songs of Meera, Surdas, Tulsidas, Marathi Abhang, all in his unique style.

Kumarji’s tribute of Natyageet to legendary singer and actor Pt. Balagandharva is popular and loved.  

Kumarji had a special relationship with saint poets Kabir and Gorakhnath. His Nirguni Bhajans had deep influence of the Malwa folk music and abstractness, which touched souls.

Kumarji along with his wife and singing partner Vidushi Smt. Vasunddhara Komkali created an interesting concert series called ‘Geet Varsha’ which included folk songs from Malwa. These songs sung during different seasons, included the ‘Barah Masi’ sung by the women folk of the region.

Kumarji’s music spread its fragrance through ‘Baithaks’. He was a musician who believed in the promotion of Baithaks where music is interactive and focused on the subtleties of music appreciation and listening. We are fortunate to be listening to music recorded in this pure form of performance where we experience spontaneity of this legendary musician and the involvement of the listeners.

Quoting from the book ‘Singing Emptiness, Kumar Gandharva Performs Poetry of Kabir” by Linda Hess:

“On Guru Purnima in July 2002, the Komkalis invited me to their home and showed some videos of Kumarji singing. At one point, he spoke before beginning a composition. Kalapini paraphrased his Marathi for me:

Music does not mean repeating like a parrot. You don’t learn something, then sing it the same way over and over. Each time I sing a Bandish, no matter how many times I have sung it before, for no matter how many years, it should be born anew in that moment. For example, I learned this Bandish when I was eight. But it will be born now”.

The legendary singer and composer was awarded with the Padma Bhushan in 1977, India’s third highest civilian honour and the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour in 1990.