Vasundhara Komkali, the Torch-Bearer of ‘Kumar-Gayaki’

“I was a student first and wife later. How can you question your guru?”, the illustrious classical musician used to say

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Vasundhara Komkali in concert. Credit: Sharad Gaur
May 23, 1931 – July 29, 2015

For the longest time, Vidushi Vasundhara Komkali’s voice filled the spaces in Kumar Gandharva’s music with the selflessness of a devotee, a bhakta, a wife who would further weave the thoughts of her husband without changing their fabric and pattern. In Hindustani classical music, this pure creative spontaneity is called ‘upaj’.

While it is a fact that no two singers can render exactly the same music, when such a rare event does happen, many of the boundaries that make up performing music collapse – those singing are dissolved, and those listening are submerged as well. In a world of fragments, only incantation remains.

Vasundhara Komkali, who passed away on July 29 at the age of 84, was born into a music-loving family and started her own training under Professor B R Deodhar in Mumbai. According to Ashok Vajpeyi, renowned poet and music critic, B R Deodhar “had a very open mind, and that is why his students were rooted in the gharana tradition yet still had the freedom to stay independent. This worked in both Kumar and Vasundhara’s case”.

Vasundhara married the legendary non-conformist Pandit Kumar Gandharva in the early 1960s and became his ardent disciple. With her identifying as much with Kumar as with music, she was a perfect choice to be a life companion after Bhanumati, Kumar’s first wife passed away. Komkali was in more than one sense a befitting companion to Kumar. She took care of his health and family, and was also was with him in all his creative endeavours like Geet Varsha, Ritu Darshan,Tambe Geet Rajani. Vasundhara Tai also accompanied him in recordings of Soordas, Kabir and Meerabai bhajans. It is said that while accompanying Kumar in his various musical projects and carrying forward his legacy, she became a singer in her own right.

“My father would never have to say, ‘you start here’ or ‘I will start here’. The understanding was so deep and strong, there was never a need to verbally communicate when they sang together,” recalls Kalapini Komkali, daughter of the illustrious couple.

Madhup Mudgal, a renowned classical vocalist of the Gwalior gharana and a student of Kumar, knew Vasundhara for almost a lifetime. An extremely humble human being who knew her music and family well, she had a great knack for impromptu aalaap creation – a sharp contrast from what is usually the norm in the world of classical music: students aspiring to exactly reproduce their guru’s compositions and aalaaps.

In fact, anyone following her music will point this out – a characteristic ebb and flow, a sparkling of many twists and turns characteristic of her, within a form that she called the essence of classical music. While recalling her husband and guru, Vasundhara had said, “He didn’t believe in the repetitive mode, instead he always said, ‘Music is not just craft, it’s an art. So, don’t practise endlessly, but also think about your music’ Much of my perceptions about music changed in his company”.

Vasundhara’s complete submission to Kumar Gandharva was not just in the field of music. As she had once remarked: “I was a student first and wife later. How can you question your guru?” This was an aspect possible only because of her internalisation of the music of Kumar to an extent that she could construct her own melodies, her own understanding of the raga.

One of the little known aspects about her music is the ease and mastery with which she sang lighter classical forms like thumris and dadras. Vasundhara carried forward the traditions of not just Hindustani classical music – or the raga-based music system, but also bhakti sangeet – devotional music, both sagun and nirgun (devotion of the form and the formless), and the rich folk musical traditions of the Malwa region. For a classical musician, it is not easy to come out of the strict rules of a raga, enter the world of the semi-classical, and still get respected as a classical vocalist.

“In todays time, which musician would be willing  to devote their musical skill for somebody else? Vasundhara could have continued as a separate singer, but she had the foresight to see that Kumar ji had something different, and being with him would mean a radical departure from the Hindustani classical scene of that time. But most importantly, she realised that she can play a role in it” says Vajpeyi, a close friend of the duo.

“We never rehearsed Nirbhay Nirgun before any performance or recording. He never signalled to me. When he paused, I automatically paused. When he launched into an aalaap, my voice automatically joined, knowing the exact way it would unfold. Nothing was pre-decided. Nothing practiced,” Vasundhara would tell her daughter Kalapini Komkali, when asked about the preparation for the Kabir Bhajan. Kalapini adds, “She understood what Kumar ji was thinking. If someone is in sync with your thinking process there is no confusion.”

Nirbhay Nirgun Gun Re Gaoonga Gaoonga.
Mool Kamal Dradh aasan bandhoo ji, Ultipavanchadaooonga
Mann mamtakothhirkarlaaoonji, pancho tatt milaoonga
Ingla pingla sukhman nad iji, tirvenipehaunnahaoonga
Panchpacheesonpakadmangaoonji, ek hi do lagaoonga
Shoonyashikhar par anahadbaajeji, raagchhatisosunaaoonga
Kahat Kabir, sunobhaisadhoji, jitnishanghuraaoonga.

“Fearlessly I Will Sing the Attributes of the One without Attributes
Using the Base Lotus as the Steady Seat, I Will Make the Wind Rise in Reverse
Steadying the Mind’s Attachments, I Will Unify the Five Elements
Ingila, Pingala and Sukhman are the Channels, I Will Bathe at the Confluence of the Three Rivers
The Five and Twenty Five I Will Master by my Wish, And String them Together by One Common Thread
At the Summit of Aloneness the Un-struck Anahad Sound Reverberates, I Will Play the Thirty-Six Different Symphonies
Says Kabir, Listen and Practise O Aspirants I Will Wave the Flag of Victory”

This hauntingly beautiful nirgun composition stands testimony to the intense relationship that Kumar Gandharva, Vasundhara Komkali and Kabir shared. The two voices merge seamlessly and fearlessly to evoke the One without attributes in this Kabir bhajan. There is a kind of an echoing; something has been said and it resounds, skilfully and imaginatively.

“Kumar ji had designed most of the Kabir compositions in a manner where a single person is singing a single voice but also echoing a community of voices; this theatrical community of voices was evoked through Vasundhara’s voice, the ‘other element’,” says Vajpeyi.

Nain Ghat Ghat tan Ek Ghari

Vidushi Vasundhara Komkali’s richly textured, deep voice along with the power-packed high pitched voice of Kumar Gandharva produced a rare harmony, a magical mix of the five vowels that make language ring true and unforgettable. 

Raga Kedar: Sakhi nikat nirati

The chhota khayal bandish in Raga Kedar here has been infused with a unique melodic idiom, an absorbing pattern of rhythm and meaning.

Vasundhara Komkali’s music is a further evolution of Kumar Gandharva’s, which is saying something, as Kumar Gandharva was a rebel himself – attempting to question and transform Indian classical music, almost revolutionising it. Often in the Hindustani classical music tradition one is taught that the lyrics or the poetry of the work is subservient to the mood of the raga. But for Kumar Gandharva, every lyrical form had its own life and needed to be honoured for its own sake and not alone the sake of the raga, as is evident in this one.

In khayal gayaki, it is tough to provide vocal accompaniment, since music is created in the moment, then and there – as a khayal, a thought. Komkali’s intervention, almost at a metaphorical level, is brought out in this track beautifully. Keeping the flow of Kumar’s style and tempo intact, her voice adds to the Dadra flavour.

While an era is over, in the music of daughter Kalapini Komkali, son Mukul Shivaputra, grandson Bhuvanesh Komkali, and disciples Madhup Mudgal and Satyasheel Deshpande, the magic lives on.

Ananyaa Gaur is a researcher and musician who studied media and cultural studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences