Culture & Society

Doyen Of The Darbhanga Gharana: Ram Kumar Mallick

With Pandit Mallick’s passing, the Darbhanga gharana has lost its foremost voice which has been resonating for the last five decades in Indian classical music

Pandit Mallick Photo: screengrab

In the din of government formation in Delhi after the Lok Sabha election, the death of Pandit Ram Kumar Mallick (1957-2024), doyen of the Darbhanga Dhrupad gharana, remained relatively unnoticed. Last month, Pandit Mallick was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan for his contribution to the field of classical music. In January, when the Padma Shri was announced, I had the opportunity to talk to the maestro at length.  He was only too happy to answer all my queries. Being a Maithili speaker, it was a pleasure to listen to him speak in Maithili mixed with Hindi. I can still feel his sonorous voice echoing in my ear. With the passing of Pandit Mallick on June 9, 2024, the Darbhanga gharana has lost its foremost voice which has been resonating for the last five decades in the Indian classical musical arena. 

Since the mid-18th century, the Darbhanga style of Dhrupad, patronised by the Darbhanga Raj (royal court), has been famous in the north Indian classical music tradition. After independence and the decay of the Raj, while musicians associated with the Darbhanga-Amta gharana scattered all over north India, Pandit Mallick remained in his native village, Amta, which is near Darbhanga. 

The Darbhanga gharana was founded by two brothers named Radhakrishna Mallick and Kartaram Mallick, starting two lineages. Ram Kumar Mallick belonged to the lineage of Radhakrishna Mallick. When I asked Pandit Mallick about his musical journey he said, “I started learning music at the age of six. First, I learned it from my grandfather (Pandit Sukhdev Mallick), and then from my father and guru Vidur Mallick.” He also got the blessings of Padma Shri Ramchatur Mallick, the famous singer of the Darbhanga gharana from Kartaram Mallick’s lineage, who was his grandfather. Pandit Ramchatur Mallick is still remembered for his contribution in the field of Dhrupad along with the Dagar brothers. Music critic Padma Shri Gajendra Narayan Singh has rightly said: “Ramchatur was actually Gaanchatur. He had tremendous command over every genre of singing.”  In conversations, Pandit Mallick used to mention musicians like Ramadheen Pathak and vocalist Padma Shri Siyaram Tiwari, who were also trained in the Darbhanga gharana style of singing.  Besides Dhrupad singers, the Darbhanga gharana has produced many famous pakhawaj players too.  

Pandit Mallick represented the twelfth generation of the Darbhanga gharana. Along with Dhrupad, he had mastery over Khayal, Ghazal, Bhajan and folk singing. Like all the other Darbhanga gharana singers, he would sing the great Maithili poet Vidyapati’s (1350-1450) verses in Maithili with equal ease.   

Pandit Mallick toured widely in India and all over Europe for musical concerts along with his father, Pandit Vidur Mallick, who moved to Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, in the mid-eighties and established the Dhrupad Academy there. He said, “I learned the songs of Vidyapati from my father. I chose ragas and raginis from his collection. You will find Vidyapati's verses in my father's cassette 'The Nightingale of Mithila'. "One of his Vidyapati verses rendition--Sundari Tu Mukh Mangaldata (O, beautiful lady your face is auspicious) is my favourite. 

Among the four styles of Dhrupad singing--Gauhar, Dagar, Khandar and Nauhar--Darbhanga singing has adopted the powerful vocal rendition in the Gauhar style. In this, the alaap is completed in four steps and the emphasis is on laykari (rhythmic variations). Peter Pannke, the famous German musician who was trained under Pandit Vidur Mallick in Dhrupad, writes in his book Singers Die Twice: A Journey to the Land of Dhrupad: “Ram Kumar’s gesture was inseparable from the word. His hands spoke language which was part and parcel of his talk. The Mallicks used this level of communication most fully on stage; they are actors and their song is a sacred performance.” 

Unlike the famous Dhrupad singer Professor Abhay Narayan Mallick (1937-2023), pupil of Ram Chatur Mallick, and his younger brother Professor Prem Kumar Mallick, Ram Kumar didn’t have a regular job at a university. For the last five years, he was giving training in music to the students in Pandit Vidur Mallick Gurukul in Darbhanga which he had established. For his children, Santosh, Samit, Sahitya, Sangeet and Ruby, he was the ‘'foundation’' of the gharana who composed many verses of Dhrupad. He was their guru. 

In the course of our conversation, I asked him how the style of Darbhanga gharana is different from the Dagar gharana. Like a seasoned teacher, he explained the difference to me by singing, ‘Om Hari Om Anant Hari Om’ and how they (Dagars) sing ‘Ri Ta Na Na Tom Nom’. He underlined that it’s in their family tradition and later sung Radhakrishna-Kartaram’s famous bandish--‘Raja Ram Chandra Ju Charhayo Hai Trikuta Par/Lanka Garha Dagmagayo Jabhi Dampf Baje’ and how in Darbhanga tradition it’s completed in four stages: Ekguna, Duguna, Tiguna and Chauguna (First, second, third and fourth alaap)

In the 20th century, Khayal singing became the dominant form of classical music and hence Dhrupad lagged behind.  In the last three-four decades it had again attracted the attention of music lovers. I asked him what future he sees for it in the 21st century, he said, ‘‘No one can remove Dhrupad. This is an achal pada. Consider it the fulcrum of music in the whole world. Khayal can get deviated, but not Dhrupad.” He emphasised on Mida and Gamaka, the two main characteristics of Dhrupad. 

When other musical gharanas of Bihar became muted with the passage of time, Pandit Ram Kumar Mallick kept the flame of the Darbhanga gharana alive in Darbhanga. He lived a life in music till his last breath. 

(Arvind Das is an author and researcher. Views expressed are personal.)