Kumar Gandharva, a Maverick Musical Genius

  • By Dr (Major) Nalini Janardhanan
  • July 27, 2023
  • Know about the musical genius Kumar Gandharva, his unique style and journey and contribution to Indian Classical music.  

April 2023 kicked off the year-long birth centenary of the legendary Hindustani classical singer, Kumar Gandharva.


Kumar Gandharva was born Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath on April 8, 1924 at Sulebhavi, near Belgaum, Karnataka. He was born into a family of singers and music lovers. He was a child prodigy. At the age of 8 years he could sing the Khayal compositions of maestros like Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze, Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaz Khan and Kesaribai Kerkar just by listening to their records. The head of his father’s family declared that he was a Gandharva.


In Hindu mythology Gandharvas are heavenly spirits that possess exceptional skills in music, dance and arts. Thus Shivaputra was conferred the title of ‘Kumar Gandharva’ due to his extraordinary singing skills (‘Kumar’ meaning ‘a young boy’). In 1935, when he turned 11 years old, he gained popularity and lived up to the title bestowed upon him. 


Kumarji’s first stage performance was at the age of 10 in Kolkata. After the performance, people showered him with medals. K. L. Sehgal, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur and other maestros were in the audience. Ustad Faiyaz Khan, the famous vocalist of Agra Gharana was so impressed that he went on the stage, grabbed the microphone and said: “Beta, mere paas koi jagir nahi hai, par agar hoti toh aaj tum pe luta deta.” (‘Son, I have no wealth or personal estate, but if I did, I would readily give it to you today’)! 


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal.


At an all-India music conference in 1936 in Mumbai at age 12, he mesmerised the stalwarts of Hindustani classical music with his spectacular performance.


His half hour rendition of Yaman Kalyan and Bhairavi ragas impressed the eminent musicologist Prof. Deodhar and he decided to take the boy under his tutelage. Kumarji’s father sent him to Deodhar’s Indian School of Music in Mumbai. He was a brilliant student. His fast and effective method of learning impressed everyone. He was appreciated by his guru. Even before graduation, he was teaching other students in the absence of the teachers. 


Prof. Deodhar taught him to be steadfast in his aim and inspired him to make an exhaustive study of music. In the school of music, Kumarji listened to the music of performers from various gharanas like Agra, Bhendi Bazar, Patiala, Jaipur and Sahaswan gharanas and picked up music from them.


Personal Life

In 1947 Kumarji married Bhanumati Kans, a teacher at Deodhar’s school and their first son Mukul Shivputra was born soon after. Later Kumarji contracted tuberculosis and collapsed during a stage performance in Kolkata. One of his lungs became dysfunctional and doctors told him to give up singing as his condition was bad. 


As per the advice of doctors, he shifted to Dewas (M.P.) thinking that the dry climate there would improve his condition. He had to undergo a complicated lung surgery in which the diseased lung was removed and he was left with only one lung. His condition remained the same until 1952 when streptomycin was introduced in India as treatment for TB. He managed to recover with treatment and his wife’s nursing. Bhanumati died in 1961 during the delivery of their second son Yashovardhan. 


Kumarji later married Vasundhara Shrikhande. She used to accompany him to all his concerts. Being a talented classical singer herself, she was awarded Padma Shri. Their daughter Kalapini Komkali was also a classical singer.


Musical Journey

Kumarji’s life was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows but he remained attached to his passion for music. He was a genius. In his words: “As soon as a record started playing, I would immediately know what would follow.” 


Due to TB, which destroyed one of his lungs, he had to adopt a special breathing technique. He could never be the same singer. Thanks to his steel-like willpower, he began practising again with the power of just one lung.


In his daughter’s words: “The crippling disease which lasted five traumatic years and got him to Dewas brought about a radical change in him. He became a seer, a student of life, absorbing, studying and silently introspecting about music to fill the void”. He spent his time listening to the humming of birds, rumbling of wind and singing by street singers. He would hum to himself almost inaudibly. 


When he arrived in Dewas in January 1948, he knew only Kannada and Marathi. He made efforts to learn Hindi and Malwi which gave him access to folk singing tradition.


The simplicity of everyday life in and around the villages of Malwa inspired him to create new compositions for e.g. Tired farmers taking shelter in his garden as they returned home from Friday market, inspired ‘Rukwa tale’, a composition in afternoon raga Madhmad Sarang.


When he travelled to Shikarpur for a concert, he noticed that the local tonga drivers sang as they ferried passengers around the city. He absorbed those tunes when he later expressed them in a poetic form called ‘Baint’. 


Kumarji’s delight at seeing a railway station named Binjana in Madhya Pradesh gave him a new word for a bandish called ‘Binjana’. 


The sighting of an ancient temple from a train window is expressed in ‘Paavan main doora se daras tero’ composed in Raag Shree. 


While composing Sant Kabir’s ‘Jheeni Jheeni Beeni Chadariya’ he is known to have spent days with a weaver carefully absorbing the sound of his loom. 


Unique Style of Music

Kumarji developed his own singing style which drew criticism but none could stop him. He was a strong individual who never bowed to criticism. His tunefulness, voice often merging with that of tanpura, improvisation in medium tempo, his forceful accentuation of words and the strong emphasis on literature and philosophy—all these contributed to his own style of music. 


He changed the traditional method of singing and started experimenting with presentation, ragas and other genres of music (bhajans and folk songs) often going from fast to slow compositions in the same raga.


He made a valuable contribution to Indian music as a trendsetter. When he sang folk music, he never changed or set it to any particular raga. He came to a realisation that all classical music in essence found its origins in the primordial tunes of folk music. His deep and extensive study of ragas helped him to bring to light many forgotten ragas.


Kumarji composed Geet Hemant, Geet Varsha, Geet Shishir and Triveni (bhajans of three great saints—Kabir, Surdas and Meera). Kumarji along with his wife and singing partner, Vidushi Vasundhara Komkali, created an interesting concert series called ‘Geet Varsha’ which included folk songs from Malwa. These songs sung during different seasons included the ‘Barah Masi’ sung by the women folk of the region. 


New ragas of his own creation are Sanjari, Malavati, Bihad Bhairava, Saheli Todi, Gandhi Malhar, Sohani Bhatiyar, Lagan Gandhar, Ahimohini and Malav Bihag (collectively known as ‘Dhun Ugam Ragas’ meaning ragas derived from folk tunes). 


He published a book ‘Anoopraagvilas’ with notation to several invaluable bandishes, both traditional and new. These creations are proof of the deep study, perseverance, enthusiasm, precision and perfection in the field of music shown by Kumar Gandharva. He was more popular with ‘Baithaks’ where music is interactive and focused on the subtleties of music listening and appreciation. 


Kumarji believed that words, if pronounced properly, can be very powerful. The distinguished features of his singing are emphasis on the words of the bandish and his supreme command in singing in madhyalaya (medium tempo) which is more like a tightrope walk where a little slip on either side can make it sound like vilambit laya (slow tempo) or drut laya (fast tempo).


He said: “Music is formless but to take it to great heights, words and letters have to be understood. For me, words are like Brahma, they should be precise, few, make the suggestion and leave the rest to the singer”. 


Kumarji always gave credit to his Tanpuras and accompanying musicians. He said “Tanpuras are my canvas. Just like a painter carefully stretches the canvas before beginning to paint, I prepare my canvas carefully. If that is not done with utmost care, the painting is bound to suffer.” 


He was a strict disciplinarian in his approach to concerts. He would prepare detailed notes well in advance about what he planned to sing. He disliked any last minute requests from the fans.


He said, “In my notes, when I write the bandish that I plan to sing, I even mention how long each avartan (one rhythmic cycle) would be, in terms of seconds.” 


His music was a confluence of various gharanas. As a teacher, he would show his pupils the kirana gharana approaches to a note which is like a single point stroke and also the Agra Gharana approach which is more of a broad[1]brush technique and then leave it to the pupils to decide how they wanted to interpret it.


Kumarji insisted that no raga has an inherent meaning or emotion—they are created by the musician. He thought that music must provide for the unexpected and the unanticipated and it should reveal the mystery as well as the wonder of life. He said “The Kumar Gandharva who sang Raag Tilak Kamod is dead, so is the Tilak Kamod. Kumar would sing Tilak Kamod again, but it would be a different Kumar Gandharva and an equally different Tilak Kamod.” 


Kumarji’s music reflects life in its many colours and shades— nature, seasons, festivals, places etc. He is remembered for his great legacy of innovation, questioning tradition without rejecting it outright, resulting in music in touch with the roots of Indian culture, especially folk music of M.P. 


He was one of the few musicians who showed the transition of Hindustani classical music from the elements of ‘Deshanaang’ (music born out of folk song tradition) and the ‘Bhashaang’ (lyrics that make use of the local dialect of the region) apart from the already well known Raagaang (the traditional Hindustani music with its structured scales and groups of notes).


Kumarji used to say that ragas are not created but discovered. His discovery of the organic and vital links between folk and classical music radically changed the perception of folk music.


He was the only classical musician who presented concerts singing folk music especially of Malwa, giving it both dignity and equal status. He brought into the classical range the rich Bhakti poetry. Kumarji soulfully sang the verses of Surdas, Meera, Tulsidas and Kabir giving each one a unique musical identity. He sang both Sagun and Nirgun Bhakti songs as well as Marathi Abhang.


Pandit Bhimsen Joshi referred to Kumarji as an ‘Ashta pehelu kalakar’ meaning a multifaceted artist. When Kumarji passed away, his lifelong friend and admirer Ramubhaiya Date said “Artists go to heaven after they pass away. But Kumar had already come from heaven. Where will he go now?” 


A well-known writer and music critic Raghav R. Menon wrote about Kumarji’s quest for the real meaning of Swara. He says, “Kumar Gandharva passed across the Indian sky like a meteor and in his wake, cut the body of Hindustani music in two neat halves—one half before Kumar Gandharva and one half after him—a kind of a BC and an AD in Indian music.” 


Shubha Mudgal said, “Some of the characteristics of his music are sharp asymmetrical bursts, an emphatic throw of voice, short and crisp taans (as a result of the grave illness TB which left him with only one lung and in turn affected his tonal range), a preference for medium tempo (madhyalaya) vis-a-vis the established norm of unfolding a raga at an unrushed mellifluous pace.” 


Kumarji was a performer par excellence. His music gave absolute joy to the listeners taking them to a level of divinity. Many called him ‘the Kabir of our times’, following his musical exploration of Kabir compositions. For millions of his fans, he is not ‘Pandit’ Kumar Gandharva, just ‘Kumarji’. 


Kumarji left an indelible impression in the hearts of music lovers across India and abroad. He dedicated himself to the study and advancement of Indian music. He was one of the stalwarts of our music. He fought against formidable odds and criticisms and emerged victorious. The life of this musical genius who conquered time, is a story of inspiration for singers and music lovers.


Kumarji died on January 12, 1992 at Dewas and was cremated with full state honours. His last public concert was on November 22, 1991 in Mumbai.


His son Mukul Shivputra, daughter Kalapini Komkali, grandson Bhuvanesh and many of his students (Shubha Mudgal, Satyasheel Deshpande, Madhup Mudgal, Vijay Sardeshmukh etc.) are carrying on his legacy.


Awards and Honour

He received the Sangeet Natak Academy Award. In 1977 he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan and in 1990, the Padma Vibhushan for his contribution to Hindustani classical music. In September 2014, a postage stamp featuring him was released by India post. An annual award ‘Rashtriya Kumar Gandharva Samman’ was established by the M.P. government in 1992 and presented to outstanding talents in the field of music. The Kumar Gandharva Foundation, Mumbai, set up by Kumarji’s student Paramanand Yadav, promotes the development of Hindustani and Carnatic music. 



A two day concert titled ‘Kaaljayi’ (the one who conquered time) was organised on April 8 and 9, 2023, in Mumbai with performances by the maestros, Kumarji’s daughter, grandson and disciples. Similar concerts are planned in different cities of Maharashtra throughout the centenary year. Kumarji’s biography by Dhruv Shukla was released. Kalapini said that they have planned a novel initiative to ensure that Kumarji’s life and music reach children through illustrated books in English, Hindi and Marathi. One of the movies in the Kabir project by Shabnam Virmani, renders Kumarji’s story—his life, disciples, career and journey—in Nirgun singing. His song ‘Sunta hai’ forms the title of the movie ‘Koi Sunta hai’. A documentary, ‘Hans Akela’, was released by the Films Division.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 15 July 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


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