Pandit Sawai Gandharva

Written by Shalini Saxena on 29 January 2019

When we hear the name ‘Sawai Gandharva’ what comes to mind is perhaps the most popular Hindustani music festival in the country. But what do we know about this legend, after whom the country’s biggest cultural gathering is named? Let’s peek into the life of this musical genius, who, from his humble origins in Dharwad went on to become of the most well known proponents of the Kirana Gharana.

Born Ramachandra Kundgolkar Saunshi, in the small village of Kundgol in Dharwad, Karnataka, Pt. Sawai Gandharva, or Rambhau, as he was popularly known, was the son of a local clerk. Interestingly, this great Hindustani vocalist did not come from a musical family. In his younger days, he showed more interest in music than in academics. He progressed through school thanks mostly to his melodious renditions of poetry which won him the admiration of his teachers. While his father always wanted him to get educated and become an officer, looking at his son’s interest in music he decided to put him under the tutelage of Balwantrao Kolhatkar.  Unfortunately, Kolhatkar died in 1898, and Pt. Sawai Gandharva's music education remained incomplete without a Guru. But destiny had something else in store for him.

Rambhau would travel regularly to Hubli and explore and participate in the various events, Nataks and musical soirees. It was this phase when he found himself mesmerised by the singing of Ustad. Abdul Karim Khan, the founder-pioneer of Kirana Gharana. Little did he know at the time, that his dream of a tutelage under the Ustad would come true. In 1901, on a tour of Karnataka, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, heard Rambhau humming and it caught his attention. He asked his host about the boy and was informed that he was the son of the clerk and aspired to learn music from Ustadji.  Fortune smiled on Rambhau when Ustad Ji said "Yeh baat hai to chalo humare saath" (That so? Then come along with me). This was the beginning of one of the most celebrated guru-shishya duos.

Abdul Karim Khan was a strict disciplinarian - made a contract with his disciples for at least 8 years. His lessons started early hours in the morning followed by rigorous training in the afternoon and evening. Ustad ji did not believe in teaching many Ragas. He taught Rambhau only three Ragas in 8 years: Todi, the morning Raga; Multaani, the midday Raga and Puriyaa, the evening Raga. He firmly believed that proper understanding of these three would open the doors to many more.

Rambhau however was not just content with being a blind follower and kept an open mind for absorbing musical influences of other gharanas or styles. Ever the free-spirited artist,  Rambhau entered the world of Marathi stage in 1907, against the will of his Guru. He became popular as a singer at the Marathi musical theatre playing both male and female roles with equal dexterity.

It was here that he received the title, “Sawai Gandharva”. Despite his success on the Marathi stage, singing remained Pandit Sawai Gandharva’s first love and he went on to popularize the Kirana Gharana style, also revolutionizing it by widely increasing its breadth and repertoire. Panditji was a Guru par excellence and gave India musical gems like Gangubai Hangal, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Basavaraj Rajguru and Pt. Feroze Dastur.

In the year 1942, his concert career came to an end as he suffered a paralytic stroke. He continued teaching his disciples till the end of his life in 1952.

One of the disciples of Pt. Sawai Gandharva, Sri Nana Saheb Nadiger started the Kundgol Mahotsav at the Nadiger Wade. A few years later, the contributions to this 48-hour long festival came from the villagers living in and around Kundgol who were mainly agriculturists. Such was the influence of Pt. Sawai Gandharv’s music, inspiring the whole of Dharwad and North Karnataka. Performing here has been a privilege for musicians. Eminent musicians of the country perform here every year.

Later, his disciple Pandit Bhimsen Joshi started an annual Music Festival in Pune, in memory of his guru. Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav (formerly Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav) went on to become one of the largest conglomerates of Indian artists and Indian performances.

This post is in the remembrance of Pandit Sawai Gandharva on his Birth Anniversary. It is just a tribute to his great contribution to Hindustani Music and all the information presented is based on the various internet sources listed below.