May 25 will go down as a significant date in India's cultural calendar, when Hindustani classical vocalist Mukul Shivputra, one of the finest musicians of his generation and also its most elusive and peripatetic, inaugurated the Khayal Kendra in Bhopal and took over as its "pradhan shikshak". Such an event would not have normally caught the media's attention had it not been for Shivputra's tempestuous life, the latest stormy chapter of which played out just a few weeks ago.
Being escorted out of the Bhopal station
On May 6, this exceptionally gifted singer, son of the legendary vocalist Kumar Gandharva, was found, his clothes tattered, his hair wild and his beard unkempt, in the company of beggars in a Bhopal temple. A friend brought him home, only to have him slip away. Eventually, the state government intervened and traced him to nearby Hoshangabad. Now, even as he takes up his position at the Khayal Kendra, he is going through a rehabilitation programme at Gandhi Bhavan, with four guards in attendance lest he chooses to disappear again.
Shivputra declined to talk to Outlook at the function following the Khayal Kendra inauguration, but the packed auditorium was in for a delightful surprise when the unpredictable vocalist actually came on stage and rendered two beautiful bandishes, one in Raag Darbari, an Amir Khusro composition in honour of Nizamuddin Auliya, and the other in Raag Savani from the Tansen era. He also gave a fascinating lecture on the history of khayal, how he learnt and assimilated its varied traditions.
So, will this mark the return of the eternal wanderer? Nobody is willing to take a bet. "Let's hope that by giving him this responsibility, we will be able to save a great musician," says close friend and writer-poet Dhruva Shukla. "He is helpless and needs our support," says dhrupad maestro Ramakant Gundecha, whose house in Bhopal has often been a temporary haven for the vagabond singer. Shivputra's family is reluctant to talk about his problems. "We need to give him time and be patient," said his sister, singer Kalapini Komkali, on the phone from Dewas.
The desire to escape from the world and from himself has perhaps been as vital to the 53-year-old Shivputra as his music. Close friend and eminent Hindi author-poet Udayan Vajpeyi quotes Ghalib to explain: "Chakkar hai mere paon mein, zanjeer nahin hai". He left home in his twenties to live by the river Narmada in a math in Nemawar. With this as his base, he roamed around the world, learning and practising music, but kept coming back to the math until he abandoned it four years ago. Now he is a man without an address, moves in and out of friends' homes, with his trademark jhola and diary as the only baggage. "His only home is his music. He has strayed away from all other homes," says eminent Hindi poet and close family friend, Ashok Vajpeyi.
Many explanations have been offered for Shivputra's wayward ways and his weakness for drinks and dope—from his sense of inadequacy in matching up to his father's daunting legacy to the death of his mother when he was very young, and later the agony of coming to terms with his wife's mysterious death. But the fact is that Shivputra has been dogged persistently by psychological problems. "He is not doing it deliberately," says Ramakant Gundecha. "He himself doesn't know when he would lose control." His inner demons have tormented his family as much as himself, tearing the skein of relationships and responsibilities, causing untold pain and grief. Kumar Gandharva never spoke about him. Shivputra's own son Bhuvanesh has been brought up and trained by his stepmother, Vasundhara Komkali, and has had little contact with his father.
Though Shivputra's musical genius was recognised early, he turned out to be every cultural organiser's nightmare. He would often not show up at concerts or walk off abruptly halfway through a recital. He is known to have walked out of a private concert because he didn't like the look of some of the invitees. Accompanists too are wary of him.
Yet, his music remains special. He takes his name from his father—Kumar Gandharva's real name was Shivputra Siddharamaiyya Komkali. Shivputra of course absorbed his father's inimitable gayaki, but then also improvised and enriched it with other traditions, and created his own distinct musical voice. He trained under various schools and in various forms—khayal, dhrupad, dhamar, Carnatic. He even learnt the pakhawaj and is known to be fond of Vedic chanting and Sanskrit poetry. "He has been endlessly inventive," says Udayan Vajpeyi. "He is a musician's musician, he sings from the soul," says Shukla. But to hear him perform at a concert is becoming increasingly rare. One reason perhaps, as Udayan explains, is that Shivputra can also be extremely critical of his own singing, and sets very high standards for himself.
His admirers insist his eccentricity and unpredictability are part of his artistic persona, as it was for other tormented artists like Van Gogh. "He has a right to choose the way he lives," says Shukla. Others maintain that it's a tragedy that his wayward life not only affects his health but also prevents him from fulfilling his potential as an extraordinarily gifted musician. "Everything has been done to cure him but he has to have the will to cure himself, he has to choose to be helped," says Ashok Vajpeyi. "In his age group, Mukul Shivputra could have been among the top two or three musicians in the country. It is unfortunate that he is inflicting injury on himself," says Delhi-based cultural patron O.P. Jain.
His friends remain indulgent and protective. Gundecha recalls how they have sung to each other in his house, amidst convivial joke and gossip sessions. Shivputra is a scintillating companion, knowledgeable about art and literature and passionately interested in cooking, say other friends. Recalls Udayan, "Many of his dishes, like the Maharashtrian podnichi poli, have become part of our family cuisine." But he can also disrupt the routine and rhythm of any household. "He becomes part of the family, but also destroys the notion of home," says Udayan.
Ultimately, though, Mukul Shivputra has only himself to deal with his inner demons. "The mirror in which he sees his face is within himself, not outside," says Udayan. So far, cultural institutions, corporate sponsors and patrons of art have been unable to create a space and platform for his mad genius. But there's new hope now with the Madhya Pradesh government's remarkably responsive and sensitive step of offering him the Khayal Kendra. "His deliverance lies in music," says Manoj Srivastava, secretary, department of culture, Madhya Pradesh, "there's no other way to cure him." Will Shivputra submit to its healing?
By Namrata Joshi with K.S. Shaini