Kalapini Komkali on being Kumar Gandharva's daughter, honing her art and the undying guru-shishya tradition
Kalapini Komkali, noted Hindustani classical vocalist and daughter of the legendary Kumar Gandharva, speaks about how the art can be mastered only if one is guided by a guru | #FirstCulture
In this cosmos of classical stalwarts, if there was one name that shone like a star — because of their distinct style and brilliance — it would be the legendary Kumar Gandharva. For those who never got a chance to watch him singing live, his magical music lives is kept alive in his recordings and his students' music. One of those disciples happens to be his own daughter Kalapini Komkali, who is counted among one of the most promising musicians of the present generation.
At a Hindustani classical recital held in Mumbai recently, Komkali presented a selection of songs drawn from Gandharva’s rich repertoire, to celebrate the joyousness of the season of phagun (the first month of the spring season, according to the Hindu Saka calendar).
"He was a father figure in every way. At home was a father, a guardian, an elder, and then, he was also a guru. People used to flock to get trained under him," Komkali says, as she talks about her father.
Unlike many other musicians who began their singing careers early in life, Komkali's tryst with Indian classical music happened much later on. Kumar Gandharva was considered a child prodigy when he began singing on stage at the tender age of ten. He was born Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath, but his unbelievable talent earned him the title 'Gandharva', and hence the name 'Kumar Gandharva'.
Komkali speaks about the beginning of her musical career with a mention of her mother, Vidushi Vasundhara Komkali, who was also a student of Gandharva. She credits her mother laying the foundation of a strong base of classical music at home. "Our [Kalapini and her elder brother Mukul] mother had already told us who and what Kumarji was. My mother was aware of and understood Kumar Gandharva – both the person as well as the musician, because she was also his student. She was truly his ardhangini (the better half). That really helped us to understand the creativity of our father," she says.
Despite being in the presence of such stalwarts at home, Kalapini always thought of classical music only as a hobby, never a full-time endeavour. However, her father's records and live sessions motivated her to pursue her love for Indian classical music. "Earlier, I didn’t like it. Then, I began listening to it and started liking it as a hobby during my school days. Learning happened much later. Not only did I listen to his music at home, but also attended lectures and concerts. The more I listened to it, the more I began to understand it. And then, slowly, I started learning," she explains.
And the process of learning took years of patience, hard work and persistence. Komkali candidly explains, "Indian classical music isn't easy. It isn't like 'chat mangni pat byaah' (things done in haste, without much thinking). You can’t go to a person and learn it in four days or learn it from recordings and then start performing on stage. It is a devotion, it is a long practice. For many years I just kept listening, I kept learning and accompanying my parents. So, it is important that one keeps aside a considerable amount of time for it, only then is there a slight chance that you might start performing."
Komkali talks about the uncertainty regarding one's career, explaining how this improbability forms the essence of Indian classical music. "One of the significant features of classical music is that nothing is certain or sure. You just need to pursue it from the bottom of your heart, and then it just happens. Nothing is in your hand. You have to play that gamble."
She further elucidates, "There's this uncertainty that is a very valuable thing in our music — whether it the conception of a composition, a raga or the whole presentation itself. You can’t prepare yourself and say that I will perform exactly like this the next day. That never happens, unless you are a craftsman; for an artist, it is a different ball game. A craftsman will know what exactly he wants and how he can get it. But an artist cannot calculate. Though he does have a rough idea, he will not know what he will deliver in the end. And that is the most difficult aspect of Indian classical music."
Recalling the riyaaz sessions with her parents, Komkali explains how her mother continued to be the force behind her pursuit of music, even when she started taking lessons from her father. "I have definitely done a lot of riyaaz with Kumarji; he has told me about the intricate details of various ragas and bandishs. But my most rigorous and important taleem happened with my mother Vasundhara. Whenever I would sit with Kumarji, I would have already done some riyaaz with my mother, and after the session with Kumarji, I would practice with my mother for a second time. She would teach me everything from the very start. For instance, in a raga— the root, the chalan, the aaroh-avroh and how to approach it. So once my basic understanding of a raga was done, only then I would go to Kumarji and ask him to tell me more about that raga."
Komkali also mentions how daunting it was to completely comprehend the true identity of her father and the power that the name commanded in the field of music. In fact, she had a difficult time distancing herself from the pressure and expectations that came along with being his daughter. "I began trembling with fear when the whole magnitude of his persona dawned on me. He is akin to a vast ocean of music — the different types of genres he performed in his whole life and the way he completely changed the scenario of the Indian classical music. It was very hard, and sometimes I questioned why I was singing and whether I will be able to sing at all. I knew that people have certain expectations from me, as they have listened to my father and mother so many times. It was very difficult for me to make a place for myself," she adds.
Kumar Gandharva revolutionised the approach to classical music in a huge way. For instance, he did away with the whole concept of gharana gayaki. Hindustani classical music is known for its diverse compositions sung differently by different gharanas. Gandharva paid special attention to the way a gharana would sing a particular raga or a composition, and not the style of the gharana in general. Komkali explains, "Both my parents were also strict teachers and were very particular about how the bandishs from particular gharanas were to be sung. Though my father was very liberal in his ideas but never the same way about his music, there was no freedom to sing a raga in our own way. The composition would decide the way a raga was to be presented. A particular composition in a particular gharana would decide the presentation."
By virtue of having such phenomenal artists at home, it is quite evident that they also end up being role models. While Komkali worships the music of her parents, she is also fond of other artists like Mallikarjun Mansur, Pandit Jasraj and Manik Varma. Speaking of Varma, she also makes a point to thank all female musicians of the yesteryear for paving the way for the current crop.
"Whether it is Mogubai Kurdikar, Kesarbai Kerkar or even Gangubai Hangal, these women have opened up new avenues for us. In fact, Hirabai Barodekar was the first female musician who performed in front of a 'respectable' audience. They were stalwarts; these people created a space for us. Credit must be given to all these ladies."
Komkali, apart from being a talented musician, also takes great a interest in teaching and lecture demonstrations. She asserts that a direct teacher-to-student mode of learning is the only way to attain excellence in music. "There can't be anything other than the guru-shishya parampara; there's no other way. You can’t learn it from YouTube, cassette recordings, or other media. You have to start sitting in front of a guru; that is when you will learn. You will understand that you've have been living in an illusion. Most female singers who take part in reality shows think they are Lata Mangeshkar. You won’t learn anything this way."
She talks in detail about this teacher-student relationship that she has also observed while being trained by her father. She feels the legacy of taking the guru's style forward is the ultimate reward that a teacher can give a student. And that legacy is independent of any genetic or gender constraints. Kumar Gandharva had no reservations when it came to imparting musical education.
"As a girl child, I was really pampered, also because I was the youngest one. When I started singing my brother had already established himself. Hence, my father was more inclined towards his music. But at the same time, he continued teaching me. He never differentiated among his children or his students. A student was a student for him. He always believed a student was more important, as they would carry forward the guru's ideology and style. It wasn't incumbent upon the children to take his legacy forward," says Komkali.
In these years, after having performed at numerous concerts and receiving accolades, Komkali still believes there's more to learn. "I would never say that I have been able to imbibe all the compositions in Kumarji’s repertoire. But I definitely try to perform them as well as my guru has taught me."
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