Voice of the harmonium
By Ravindra G. Katoti and Kaavya Valiveti
He was a pathbreaking harmonium player. His unique command over the instrument and unprecedented versatility went beyond harmonium playing to irrigate the world of Hindustani classical music at large.
Harmonium as a solo instrument
It would be impossible to overstate the harmonium’s prevalence in Hindustani music today. It can be found on the stages of classical or light classical music, in film music, at the theatre, at places of worship, at mushairas, in street performances, and even funeral processions, among others. Often affectionately referred to as a “baja” or “peti”, it is now practically considered an Indian instrument though a relatively recent import from Europe. Though it is ubiquitous, it still remains largely underappreciated and misunderstood, typically being kept within the confines of accompaniment. Several generations of Hindustani classical musicians have devoted their lives to exploring its capacities beyond accompaniment, developing a wide range of solo styles for khayal performance. However, few so fundamentally altered the sound profile of the harmonium as did Rambhau Bijapure.
Pandit Bijapure was born on January 7, 1917 at Kagwad (Athani taluk, Belagavi district, Karnataka) to Kallopant Bijapure and Rukminibai. The father was a primary school teacher and author of novels and musical dramas,. Rambhau grew up in an artistic environment with frequent rehearsals and collaborations at home. His formal introduction to music was a byproduct of this; on one of his many stays at the Bijapure home, freelance music director Hannikeri Mallayya sat six year old Rambhau on his lap and taught him to play the basic “sa-re-ga-ma” on the leg harmonium. Rambhau later took vocal lessons from Neelkanthbuva Gadgoli of Miraj who was the guru of the great Mallikarjun Mansur. After his family relocated to Belgaum in 1928, the boy studied harmonium from Govindrao Gaikwad and Rajwade (until 1940) and continued his vocal training under the eminent Ramkrishnabuva Vaze, Shivrambuva Vaze, and Kagalkarbuva.
A unique style
As the years passed, Bijapure built off his formal training to form his own style of solo harmonium performance. His playing was characterized by artful volume control and the sustenance of sound, believing the technique of the bellows to be more important than fingering. While most of his contemporaries relied heavily on staccato phrases and presented only madhyalaya and drut khayal, he was able to develop a unique style of vilambit khayal showcasing legato phrases. Other differentiating features of his style included use of his punctuation, which employed silence to great effect to emphasize the impact of each phrase, and decorative grace notes. With his effortless and delicate touch on the keyboard, his performances were further noted for inventive layakari and electrifying, crisp taankari.
All of these techniques allowed him to realize a distinct incarnation of the gayaki ang on the harmonium, where he used his tone control and grace notes to give the feel of a vocal performance via the special language of the instrument. By singing through it as no one before him had done, he himself became the voice of the harmonium.
Rambhau Bijapure also possessed a rare versatility. He was equally proficient in playing thumris and natya sangeet, among other genres, in addition to khayal.
As an accompanist
Though he was a brilliant soloist, the vast majority of Bijapure’s public performances were to accompany vocalists (like most other harmonium players of his generation). However, his accompaniment was exceptional. For instance, Bhimsen Joshi, with whom he performed on numerous occasions, remarked that his harmonium support was “encouraging and inspiring”.
Some of the other legends he accompanied include Abdul Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharva (the first two of five generations of vocalists he accompanied), Omkarnath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Nazakat and Salamat Ali, Amir Khan, Gangubai Hangal, Mogubai Kurdikar, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva, Basavaraj Rajguru, Kishori Amonkar, Prabha Atre, and Manik Varma.
As a teacher
Above all, Bijapure was a teacher at heart. He created the Sri Ram Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in Belgaum, with over fifteen thousand students passing through over the years. A generous and caring teacher, he focused on making the learning process enjoyable and free of excess emphasis on technicalities. His school ran without any external financial assistance. Several students who could not afford the classes were taught for free. He also learned to play the tabla (left-handed, lest his harmonium fingering get disturbed!) from Ustad Mehboob Khan in order to accompany students who could not afford a tablaji to sit in their classes. In seventy-six years of teaching, he ultimately fostered a city-wide culture of music appreciation, though not all students went on to pursue music professionally (nor was this his aim).
Rambhau Bijapure’s work and accomplishments were recognized by the government as well as cultural fora. Some of the most notable include:
• Sangeeta Ratna Mysore T. Chowdiah Memorial Award (Government of Karnataka), received alongside Vidwan Sri Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (2003)
• Karnataka Rajya Sangeet Vidwan Prashasti (2001)
• Karnataka Kala Tilaka (1987)
• “Mahamahopadhyaya” title (Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Pune)
Many of his disciples, such as Dr. Sudhanshu Kulkarni, Ravindra Mane, and Dr. Ravindra Katoti, have been performing on the most prestigious platforms worldwide for over fifty years, and now the next generation of harmonium players (his prashishyas) is emerging to firmly establish the "Bijapure gharana”.
The Bijapure Harmonium Foundation was instituted in 2003 with the goal of both honouring him and pursuing the general cause of popularising the harmonium as a solo instrument. Every year, the foundation hosts the ‘Harmonium Habba’ in Bengaluru to feature harmonium solos and jugalbandis by both senior and up-and-coming artists.
Having performed and taught until his very last days, Pt. Bijapure passed away on 19, November 2010 but the voice of his harmonium will be remembered for generations.
Last year, in celebration of Pt. Bijapure’s birth centenary year, the Foundation hosted events in Kagwad, Belgaum, and Bengaluru, and Dr. Ravindra Katoti toured across the United States and Singapore giving solo concerts, lec-dems, and workshops. These celebrations were concluded on January 5-7 this year with the Foundation’s ‘Vishwa Samvadini Shrunga’ in Bengaluru, which featured concerts and lec-dems from the most prominent harmonium players from around the world as well as a performance by an ensemble of one hundred harmoniums.