By Gowri Ramnarayan
A sleepy town in north Karnataka, Dharwar flowered quite suddenly in the twentieth century into a prominent centre for Hindustani music, a departure from the 1880s when the region boasted Carnatic musicians of local fame. The formation of the Bombay Presidency by the British meant the merger of a part of Karnataka, north of Tungabhadra, with Maharashtra, sparking a dynamic interaction between people of different language groups, transforming the culture of Karwar, Belgaum, Bijapur and Dharwar. Somehow remaining undrawn into the freedom movement, the local populace had the leisure to enjoy drama and music.
The advent of Marathi drama cultivated in North Karnataka residents a taste for Hindustani music. Great musicians like Sawai Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraj Rajguru did theatre in their youth. Gangubai Hangal’s interest in natyasangeet made her family decide to train her in Hindustani rather than Carnatic music practised by her mother Ambabai and grandmother Kamalabai.
The fortuitous presence of several stalwarts fostered the love of north Indian music in the district. Bhaskarbua Bhakle who taught at the training college at Dharwar had many fans beside his disciples. Bhakle’s teacher Naththan Khan, court musician at Mysore, came to give advanced lessons to his pupil. His son Dulhe Khan stayed close by to train several women singers, like Pyarabai who had a lovely voice. Badalibai had the powerful personality to meet the demands of the Agra gharana.
North Indian artists, invited to perform in Mysore, especially during the Dussera celebrations, often broke their journey at Dharwar, where they found the weather as pleasant as the people. Connoisseurs like Vakil Pitre housed them and conducted baithaks to which attendance was free. Zamindars in Jamkhandi and Sangli were equally ready to play hosts and patrons. The ashrams in the region had swamijis with a taste for devotional music. The blind vocalist Panchakshari Gavai set up the Vireshwar Punyashram in Gadag town—a music school which encouraged blind or otherwise handicapped pupils. Many Dharwar, Murukhar and Devangere maths promoted music as a spiritual pursuit.
Celebrity vocalist Abdul Karim Khan from village Kirana in the north made extended stays in Dharwar and Hubli. On a visit to Kundgol village close by, Khansaheb happened to notice a boy humming the Bhairavi he had rendered the previous evening. This was Ramrao, the son of his host’s munim. At the host’s suggestion, the senior artist agreed to take the boy as his disciple if he followed him to Miraj, where he taught students who signed an eight year contract to study without breaks and distractions!
Despite his many concert tours Khansaheb made it a point to be at Miraj during the festival of the Khwaja Mirasaheb dargah. Thousands gathered to hear his expansive Todi, Jaunpuri and Bhairavi sung seated under a neem tree beside the tomb.
Ramrao absorbed the guru’s magic by listening to him practise and perform more than through formal instruction. The guru honed the sishya’s voice to suit the honeyed style even though originally it was not malleable for this purpose. Returning to Kundgol to get married, Ramrao joined a drama company and became a star overnight. He impressed legendary thespian Balgandharva in his role as Subhadra. Hailed as Sawai Gandharva, or as a “Second Celestial”, he created a sensation when paired with Hirabai Barodekar, soon to win more lasting fame as a classical singer. All the while, the guru looked upon Ramrao’s stage career as a waste of time by one destined for higher achievements.
Once when Abdul Karim Khan asked Sawai Gandharva to provide tanpura accompaniment at his concert, the sishya excused himself saying he had a sore throat. But Khansaheb found him performing his famous role of Subhadra that very evening, and cursed him with a permanent sore throat. From that day Sawai Gandharva had to make herculean efforts to get his voice into shape, he had to wrestle with it for an hour before any performance. Detractors of the Kirana gharana like to say that his disciples mistook these throat-clearing operations for raga elaboration, which is why they sing the alap to this day without rhythm accompaniment.
Sawai Gandharva attracted disciples like Bhimsen Joshi, Firoz Dastur, Basavaraj Rajguru and Gangubai Hangal. He cast such a spell on them that Joshi held an annual festival in his guru’s name in Pune, and unfailingly performed in Kundgol on the master’s anniversary. There he was joined by fellow sishyas like Gangubai. Such was the lady’s veneration of her guru, that, when a throat operation changed her voice to acquire a masculine tone, she saw it as a blessing. “Now it is closer to my guru’s voice”, exulted the Hubli’s famous vocalist.
After the initial classes with Krishnacharya and Dattopant Desai, Gangubai was lucky enough to find favour with the Kundgol maestro, known for his no-nonsense severity. The awestruck disciple was trained well, but did not dare to ask questions. Raga followed raga without her being told their names! Once she was scolded for singing raga Bibhas in a radio programme, because, having picked it up from notation, she had used a note that was foreign to Gandharva’s tradition.
Gangubai cut many discs early in her career. The recording company changed her name to a more familiar Hublikar, and her first name to a more romantic Gandhari. Soon Baiji reached a stage where she needed no catchy props to gain attention. She recorded thumris and bhajans but on the stage she sang only khyals. She remained a greater purist than her guru.
Gangubai recalled her first concert in Calcutta before musicians and the cognoscenti when a stranger, patted her with a “Wah, Bai, wah!” It was Kundanlal Saigal.
In Gangubai’s home I found four generations of women sitting in a circle, shelling peas. Baiji sat in the hall, listening to her student and suggesting phrases now and then. An octogenarian then, she continued to perform selectively. Her daughter Krishna was her accompanist; the granddaughter had stopped singing and gave tuitions in English. There were hopes of the great granddaughter though.
(This is part I of an edited version of the article “Where North Meets South” that appeared in The Hindu Folio in November 1998)