In conversation with Bhuvanesh Komkali about what it means to be Kumar Gandharva’s grandson, why Skype isn’t the medium for teaching Hindustani Classical music and more.
Dewas: Bhuvanesh Komkali is the torchbearer of a difficult legacy. He is the grandson of Pandit Kumar Gandharva and the son of Pandit Mukul Shivputra, a musician often described these days as an eccentric genius.
He doesn’t like the term interview. “I need to accomplish a lot more before I am out there giving interviews. Let’s have a conversation instead,” he suggests. Rather than quibbling over semantics, we get down to chatting about music, technology and what it means to learn Hindustani vocals over Skype.
How do you remember Kumarji? You were very young when he passed away, but you must have grown up being gripped by the sound of his music.
I was very young when he died. But I keenly observed his musical life even at that age. His bandishes and bhajans would fall on my ears all day, even though I wasn’t fortunate enough to really learn from him. I started my training in music only after he passed. But he had an aura around him and I could sense that. The house would feel different when he was gone for a few days. Very early on, I knew that there was something different about this man.
After he passed away I began listening to his music carefully, paying attention to every minute detail. There is a difference between hearing and listening, and I did the latter. That was the first step to my education – learning how to appreciate and understand music. It transported me into a different world, exhilarated me, opened a new chapter in my life. And then when I really began training under my gurus, I finally understood how radically different his creations were.
Kumarji wasn’t rooted to one gharana. He had a lot of creative freedom to develop his own grammar, even though his taleem was primarily in the Gwalior style. How has your training been under your grandmother Vasundhara Komkali and Pandit Madhup Mudgal?
Fully grasping the nuances of Kumarji’s music is a very big responsibility. Also, you may say that he wasn’t rooted in a gharana, but the fact is, you could glimpse all gharanas in his music. He learnt in the Gwalior tradition, but had a deep understanding of what Kirana, Jaipur or Agra gayaki was like and you can see how he used the best of all approaches in his music. As a student carrying this lineage forward, it has been doubly difficult for me, because not only do I have to understand the wide expanse of gharana traditions, but also try and imbibe how my grandfather reinterpreted it.
Is it difficult not to imitate and to carve a niche for yourself when you live under the shadow of such a great influence?
I am far, far away from talking about my own style or niche, etc. I am a mere student. Even Kumarji came into his own and re-drew the boundaries several years after he began singing. We never calculate the large time span – from the age of seven right up till the time that he began singing again after a five-year illness – when his music truly transformed. So, it takes several years before a musician can really, truly develop his or her own style. Only after several years of painstaking effort and introspection, a new flower may blossom.
Apart from being a vocalist, you are also working very hard to preserve the legacy of Kumar Gandharva, digitising his archives and so on. Tell us a little more.
The Kumar Gandharva Pratishtan and Kumar Gandharva Sangeet Academy has 800-1000 hours of audio and 300-400 hours of video recordings available. After his death, we’ve been making a lot of concerted effort to collect scattered material from across the globe and gradually restoring these recordings using the latest digital technology, so that anybody who wants to really research the deep nuances of his music 20, 50 years from today, can find one source for their material. It is important because apart from composing his own new music, Kumarji also revived a lot of old treasure in the form of bandishes sung by biggest Ustads and Pandits, and these need to be preserved for posterity.
Every medium is said to have a golden period. For films in India, they say it was the 1950s. How would you define the classical music landscape today?
I do believe that my contemporaries are very serious about their work. But not everyone is privileged to receive the right training or platform, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who aren’t dedicated to their craft.
Is it difficult to make a living as a young classical musician, handling the trappings of success and fame or the constant fear of failure and rejection?
People do run after fame and success, and who am I to say that it is wrong. But you need to decide for yourself the extent to which you’ll go. Madhup Mudgal, my guru, always says you can’t stop water from flowing and finding its own direction. Musicians are a bit like that. But it is very important that you meet the right guru at the right time.
What are the specific challenges of being rooted in a small town in India?
I wouldn’t say it is easy, but it is definitely a lot easier than it once was. Today routes of communication have opened up. Technology in these last 20 years has changed everything. Of course, the big city has its own glamour and advantages, but for me the size of the town doesn’t really matter much. What’s more important is how passionate and erudite your listeners are. That’s what makes the ultimate difference to a vocalist.
Technology has been a disruptive force for many of the arts. Storytelling has had to change, films are becoming shorter, digital tools are being used in fine arts like painting and sculpture. Do you believe classical music needs to re-mould or reinvent itself as well, structurally – in terms of the length or perhaps the approach to presentation – in keeping with the times?
I don’t agree. The exposition of a raag or how much time needs to be given to unfold it is very subjective to the artist in question. It depends on many factors, including the capacity of a particular singer or what he/she is trying to say through that composition. You can popularise classical music by marketing it better, undoubtedly. But you can’t redesign the structure of the Taj Mahal just because you want to popularise it.
I absolutely don’t endorse playing around with the structure of our music, merely to get more people to listen to it. Our music is steeped in history and intellectual thought. The very foundations of Hindustani music are based upon the idea of improvisation. This is what distinguishes it from other types of music. This is what gives a Hindustani vocalist the opportunity to display his virtuosity. Time is of essence here.
Please do remember that there was once a time when musicians like Ustad Abdul Karim Khan showed their mettle merely in three and a half minutes on a 78 RPM record. Then there was a time when we moved to 27 minutes. That led to an era when there were overnight gatherings and no limit to how long an artist would go on. Now we are back to 60-minute concerts.
What’s your take on learning music via Skype? A lot of people do that these days. Do you endorse such a practice?
Those who do this, will learn to a limited extent, but you cannot hope to be classical musician without putting the rigour it takes to build a solid foundation. To give you an analogy, there is a reason why our fortresses are standing tall centuries after they were built, while the newer structures show cracks within a few years of construction. What your guru teaches you face to face cannot be replicated. Skype is no doubt a good medium to solve the problem of distance or geography, but it cannot replace the guru-shishya tradition. But by all means, we must encourage technology and study how it can be deployed more effectively in the field of classical music. I would say remain rooted in your tradition, but embellish it with technology. I too teach on Skype and what I’ve realised is, the guru needs to be more attentive than the shishya. (Laughs)
Finally, how do you shoulder the expectations of such a rich legacy?
It is a very big challenge and responsibility. I am always looked at as the grandson of this great man, and to live up to that image all the time is tough. But I try my best, that’s all I can do.
Nikhil Inamdar is a freelance journalist.