This article was written at the invitation of the Times of India for their Crest supplement, and a (slightly abbreviated) version appeared there in April 2012 around the time of Kumarji's birth anniversary. I'm posting the full version here, with some hyperlinks, for readers of my blog.
The great Marathi writer Pu.La. Deshpande once impishly remarked that we seem to think Classical music is so named because it is taught to us in class. In a similar vein he also complained that his job as a college professor was to create hatred for the Marathi language instead of a love for it! Both comments revealed his distaste for excessively formal approaches that end up distancing ordinary people. This dislike of formalism and orthodoxy was shared by his close friend, the singer Pandit Kumar Gandharva, who did not express his feelings in witty aphorisms but worked them into his music.
It is perhaps a little ironic that Kumarji is considered an intellectual of Hindustani Music. Of course he was, in the sense that he did not just perform but spent time thinking about music, forming his own ideas, discussing them with people and writing copious notes. Yet in a different and precise sense he was opposed to intellectualism. Neither in his compositions nor in his writings, nor in his body language during his performances, did he ever suggest that some specialised knowledge or ability was required in order to appreciate his music.
Quite the contrary. Kumarji’s legendary gestures – hands intertwined, then arms thrust out at an angle, then a single finger weaving an invisible spiral high above his head – invited the audience to trust their own feelings and access his music at an intuitive level. Just when his music seemed to be getting too abstract, he would often stop to make a joke about whatever he was singing. And once when questioned by critics about his inclusion of the note “pancham” in a composition in Raga Malkauns (from which it is supposed to be rigorously excluded), Kumarji is said to have responded “but it wanted to be there! What could I do?”
These were manifestations of his “people-friendly” ideology, according to which classical music should not be seen as something abstract or remote. Rather, it originates from the ordinary feelings of ordinary people, from emotions that arise out of daily experiences such as hearing the chirping of birds, meeting an old friend, waking up at dawn, preparing for a wedding or witnessing the changing of seasons. From this standpoint it was natural that he would consider raga-based classical music, folk music and bhajans as equally important parts of a single artistic vision. This remains one of the most enduring and unique aspects of his musical legacy.
Kumarji was a methodical person who worked out the broad structure of each performance in meticulous detail, though this in no way detracted from the spontaneity of his actual recitals. While most of his performances were in traditional formats, he enjoyed formulating thematic programmes to communicate specific concepts and created over a dozen of these. For his musically trained followers there were programmes highlighting a single raga or family of ragas, such as Kalyan ke Prakar, Bhairav ke Prakar and Goud Malhar Darshan. For other audiences and occasions he would perform entire programmes of bhajans based on the work of saint-poets like Surdas, Kabir, Meerabai, Tulsidas and Tukaram, or based on Marathi stage music or on “lighter” forms of classical music like thumri, tappa and tarana.
But the most audacious and unique of his programmes were those conceived around the seasons of the subcontinent: Geet Varsha, Geet Hemant and Geet Basant. Here his ideology found its richest expression. Bhajans, folk music from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, and compositions in classical ragas, each had its own place in the programme and they would blend into each other seamlessly. Each piece would be designed to evoke an emotion or memory associated to that season, encompassing both natural occurrences like thunder and lightning, rainfall, cool breezes and bright moonlight, as well as human activities like farming, romance and religious festivals. A listener might initially be attracted to the programme through their own favourite type of music, but would end up appreciating that the differences among musical genres of our tradition are less important than the similarities. In this way Kumarji’s point would be proved.
Geet Varsha opens with a pre-monsoon sense of desperate thirst tinged with hopelessness, expressed through an alaap in Raga Marwa: “ghaam pare re”. But despair is short-lived as “nayo nayo meha” invokes the sighting of clouds for the first time. Once the rains seriously set in, the lyrics abound with references to swollen rivers, thunderstorms, songbirds and croaking frogs. Soon it’s time to settle down to the single “fully classical” segment of the programme, a half hour of Raga Miyan Malhar. This is followed by mid-monsoon romance conveyed in an elaborately fluid Pilu Khamaj tappa, “o dildaara aa jaa re”. The concluding piece is a muted and reflective composition in Raga Jaladhar Basant, beautifully capturing the moment when a spell of heavy rain has ended and we look around in silence at the boundless greenery. The Geet Basant programme (later replaced by Ritu Raj Mehfil) similarly captures the relief of the end of winter and moves rapidly into the wild revelry of Holi. The programme is rich with references to Krishna’s flirtations and the rituals of throwing colour, meeting friends, offering sweets, emptying one’s heart of anger. The philosophical bhajans of Kabir have no place here, but are supplanted with Surdas’s lyrical tales. And as always there is a classical core of exquisite original compositions in Bhoop, Bhimpalasi and Hameer, all set in madhya laya (medium tempo) which enhances the scope of formal development of a raga, but also makes it sound much like a song.
Though Kumarji was not the first in our culture to use seasons as a vehicle for art – after all, Kalidasa wrote Meghaduta over 16 centuries ago – he achieved the unique distinction of capturing the annual life-cycle of a people and a subcontinent in its own authentic musical language.