Fourteen years after Kumar Gandharva died, K.J. Yesudas sang a film song that had its opening word demanding an ‘eay...’ sound that spanned for no less than 20 seconds. Gange, as the Malayalam number starts in Vadakkumnathan (2006), has since been a big hit, largely hailed for the ‘lung power’ of the vocalist who many in his native Kerala refer to as Gaana Gandharvan.
Such sustained expansion of a note stands in complete contrast to the style of the Hindustani icon (1924-92), who came to be called Kumar (because he began as a prodigy) and sang like a heavenly being (hence Gandharva). The maestro’s real name (Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath) was anyway a bit too lengthy—and somewhat cynically juxtaposed with his famously short phrases in the classical genre with a history of centuries.
Today is Kumar’s death anniversary. If January 12 happens to be the national youth day (after the birth anniversary of philosopher-monk Swami Vivekananda), there is also a great degree of bloom associated with the music of the 20th-century Gandharva. In a career that had opened up like a flower which spread fragrance for six decades of life and even after its physical wilting, Kumar sang exceptionally gloriously in two critical stages of his career, according to connoisseurs.
One was when he was poised to wed his sweetheart Bhanumati Kans, who was also Kumar’s disciple (from the school of B.R. Deodhar [1901-90] that groomed them).
That was in 1947, when the already-celebrated musician was just 23. The second was since 1953—after the master from northern Karnataka emerged from a year’s silence forced by a depressing bout of tuberculosis. In a way, the first symbolises a colourful celebration of romance and the second an exemplary instance of resilience—both qualities so integral to youthfulness.
In his comeback concert, Kumar chiefly took up an afternoon raga. Multani was ideal for the occasion—for, he had survived the noon heat of a test of life. The music went on to emit its mellowness, yet retained the fire that kept lending glow for the second
half of his existence on earth.
It wasn’t that Kumar’s latter chapter of life was all smooth. The Gandharva lost his wife in 1961 while she was delivering their second child (the first being Mukul Shivputra, a frontline Hindustani vocalist today). The demise of Bhanumati shattered Kumar (as much as it disturbed little Mukul, then five years old). She was not only her pupil and lover, but the wife who virtually played the role of a mother in his bed- ridden months at their house in semi-hilly Dewas that the couple had chosen to be their quiet sanctuary.
Green Dewas, southeast of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and 1,000 kilometres away from Kumar’s native Sulebhavi village off Belgaum, however, continued to prove balmy for the genius. It was in that location on the Malwa plateau bordering the Vindhya highlands that his contemplative days led Kumar to imbibe more of the folk tunes and culture indigenous to the central Indian region. The maven, inquisitive and research-minded all the time, reinvented his art steeped in the beauty of short phrases—for, only one of his lungs worked properly since the attack of consumption.
It’s amazing that someone’s singing handicap turned out to be the hallmark of his vocals in a music-form traditionally noted for its long-drawn slides. Soon, the novelty developed into a style—a gharana of sorts. Kumar’s second wife, vocalist Vasundhara Komkali (1931-2005) and their daughter Kalapini, now middle-aged, have been among its torch-bearers. Prominent among the others are Satyasheel Deshpande, Vijay Sardeshmukh and Madhup Mudgal, besides, in the next generation, Bhuvanesh Komkali, who is Kumar’s grandson (and Mukul’s son).
Deep south of the country, Kochi-born Yesudas was into the phase of a voice- change typical of early teenage when Kumar gave his recovery mehfil in 1953. Kerala’s Gandharvan, who (like Kumar) is a recipient of the coveted Padma Bhushan title, celebrated his 78th birthday this January 10. It’s just another milestone in a unique career renowned for expertise in both film songs and classical Carnatic.
For someone who has sung most Indian languages (barring, say, Assamese, Konkani and Kashmiri) in a span of six decades, Yesudas’s has been an exceptionally appealing timbre noted for its lasting youthfulness like perhaps no other contemporary. Some of his prime-time songs in Hindi movies drew big-time national attention, a glorious example being his ditties in Chitchor (1976).
When required, Yesudas had the capacity to be chirpy and breezy, features that generally, go missing in most classical southerner musicians what with the oscillation- the heaviness of Carnatic standing in their way. That quality has added to the versatility of Yesudas, trained in classical by (late) titans like K.R. Kumaraswamy Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Vechur Harihara Subramania Iyer besides Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar.
This Sunday marks Makar Sankranti, which denotes the sun’s annual transit to the Makara Capricorn (and thus the end of the month with the winter solstice).
The pan-Indian festival holds particular significance for Kerala’s Sabarimala, a hill-shrine with
a Hindu deity on whom Christian-born Yesudas has sung a body of devotional songs that enthrals millions across the Deccan. For them, there is a godly aura around the musician—much like with the occasion’s Makara Jyothi star up in the sky.