May 18, 2021
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The Joy Within

"You must pour your dil into your music," my guru Pandit Prabhudev Sardar was fond of saying. While firmly rooted in the tradition of the idiom of classical music, he was no follower of sterile conventions.

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The Joy Within
The Joy Within

"You must pour your dil into your music", my guru Pandit Prabhudev Sardar was fond of saying, while inculcating in his students the art of Hindustani classical music. Then on an impulse, he would stop playing the harmonium and instruct the student about emotional involvement in a raga. He would perform a parody next, during which he would sing the swaras of the raga according to its prescriptions, but exaggerate how bad it could sound if sung blandly, sans ras, that indispensable quality which transforms mere notes to melodious music . Soon, while the student was still laughing, he would launch into a soulful rendition of the same raga, elaborating on its delicate nuances. The harmonium and tanpura would begin playing again, and his voice would craft a music so profound that it would infuse the air with a palpable tenderness, lending its own colour to the morning.

It was such a morning that I looked forward to on the 14th of March as I prepared for my lesson. Only I was not aware then that the harmonium would not play that day, that the strings of the tanpura would not be plucked, that it would be a silent morning without music, melody and ras, for Prabhudev Sardar had breathed his last the previous evening.

Prabhudev Sardar was born in 1925 in Solapur, Maharashtra--a town once known for its textile mills. During his childhood, there was not much opportunity for the pursuit of music in Solapur. Though his musical training began in his early teens through harmonium lessons with Shri Digambarbua Kulkarni, a bigger influence during these formative years was All India Radio (AIR). Besides training him in the elements of music, Digambarbua had the gumption to take his young pupil along to visit people who owned a radio! Through these visits, Prabhudev was introduced to the exemplary gayaki of musical greats like Abdul Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharva and Roshanara Begum. "I had a deep desire to sing like the artistes I heard as a child on AIR", he would go on to tell a journalist towards the end of his life.

During his training with Digambarbua, young Prabhudev once heard the legendary Sawai Gandharva performing the early morning raga Lalit on AIR. The next day, Prabhudev was inspired to reach for his tanpura and sing Lalit on his own, though he had never learned this difficult raga. An amazed Digambarbua implored Prabhudev's father to train his son as a full time musician under an Ustad. But Prabhudev's father had other plans--he wanted his son to become a lawyer like him. So the young boy pursued both music as well as school education.

Without formal training in the gayaki of the Kirana gharana, Prabhudev inculcated it in his singing merely by absorbing the recitals he heard. The onset of youth took him to Pune to study law, where he learned music for a brief period from Shri Vitthalrao Sardeshmukh, a harmonium player of the very Kirana gharana which had made an early imprint on his mind. And in 1949, without ever being taught how to develop a raga in the guru-shishya parampara, Prabhudev performed for the first time for AIR in Aurangabad. This was followed by more performances for other AIR stations.

Further in 1956, Prabhudev got the much sought after opportunity of performing at the Sawai Gandharva music festival in Pune, a renowned event organized by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in memory of his eminent guru. The next milestone in his musical journey was AIR's prestigious National Programme Of Music. At a time when AIR was instrumental in creating a nationwide following for Hindustani music, this exposure brought him recognition and invitations to perform all over the country.

Prabhudev's search for a guru came to fruition after his appointment as a public prosecutor, and subsequent transfer to Mumbai in the early sixties. In the metropolis, he became a disciple of the distinguished Agra gharana vocalist Jagannathbua Purohit, who is credited with the conception of one of the most magnificent melodies of recent times: Raga Jogkauns. Though Jagannathbua, who wrote many celebrated bandishes under the nom de plume Gunidas, trained Prabhudev in the gayaki of the Agra gharana, he cautioned him not to change his original style. His new guru taught Prabhudev with rigour, taking into consideration the quality of his voice, and enabling him to see the importance of discipline and emotion in music in a new light. With the demise of Jagannathbua in the late sixties, Prabhudev was left without a teacher once again.

A decade later, he found the guru he would respect and value the most--Pandit Nivruttibua Sarnaik of the Jaipur gharana. From him, Prabhudev learned to sing clean, danedar taans: strings of beautiful, distinct pearls of swaras adorning the ragas. Nivruttibua also taught Prabhudev to develop his taans further, and introduced him to many regions of beauty in the varied landscapes of the ragas. Prabhudev learned many rarely sung ragas from his guru which became the hallmark of his concerts. With Nivruttibua's move to Calcutta to teach at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Prabhudev's musical education in the guru-shishya parampara came to an end.

Throughout his life, Prabhudev enthralled many audiences with his euphonious, vibrant mehfils, weaving a concert out of various popular as well as rarely heard ragas sung with expertise, sensitivity and delight. His concerts would usually begin with a popular raga, followed by rarely heard ragas, then a thumri, dadra or natyageet (a light classical song from a Marathi musical play) according to requests from the audience. While his khayal was influenced by the music of Ustad Amir Khan, his thumris were influenced by that of Pandit Sureshbabu Mane. Also well known for his performances of natyasangeet, Prabhudev's rendition of the song 'Vilopale Madhumilanat Ya' from the musical "Bramhakumari" caused a splash in musical circles.

When asked about his thoughts on the tradition of musical gharanas, Prabhudev told his student Sandhya Joshi who has written a thesis on him, that the impediment of a particular gharana should not get in the way of musical education. Rather than searching for gurus who followed certain gharanas, he preferred to study the gharanas of the gurus he chose. In the process, he incorporated in his music the ingredients that he liked and that suited his voice. He never bothered about criticism that he learned from gurus of different gharanas, because he firmly believed in his own music: a confluence of the Kirana, Jaipur and Agra styles.

Along with performing music, my guru was a devoted and patient teacher. He strongly believed that both guru and shishya should enjoy their sessions together thoroughly. Since he wished that his students learn as much as possible, he would teach a raga in its entire swaroop even to beginners like me. He was very professional about his lessons, but at the same time, he was a father-figure to his students. It is no exaggeration that he treated his students like family and took a genuine interest in their lives, both within and beyond the scope of music.

On the evening of 13th March, Prabhudev Sardar was teaching one of his students at his residence in Panaji, when he felt uneasy and retired to rest. It turned out to be a heart attack; within fifteen minutes, it proved fatal. While firmly rooted in the tradition of the idiom of classical music, he was no follower of sterile conventions. Contrary to the mores of society, according to his wishes, his body was donated to the Goa Medical College for the purpose of medical studies. In my grief, I failed to acknowledge that such an end only minutes away from being engaged in teaching music, was beautiful and befitting for a man who had lived life immersed in his sangeet. Prabhudev Sardar will be remembered for the ananda that he found so effortlessly through his music and shared with others in equal measure. For music, as he often said, should be sung in pursuit of the joy within.

Listen to Pandit Prabhudev Sardar's rendition of Raga Yamani Bilawal, courtesy of the excellent Vijaya Parrikar Library of Indian Classical Music maintained by Rajan Parrikar

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