Today is the death anniversary of Kumar ji i.e. Kumar Gandharva. He died 31 years ago on this day, January 12, 1992, at the age of 68. We address Shivputra Siddaramaiah Komkali as Kumar ji, who was born on 8 April 1924 in Sulebhavi village of Belagavi, Karnataka. When I thought of writing something on his death anniversary, I remembered this poem by Sarveshvardayal Saxena. Those who have seen and heard Kumar ji singing, who listen to the recordings available on various forums, their experiences are similar to those mentioned in this poem. Will not be different at all.
Far away the hills lay asleep
Suddenly the hills started turning
As if started walking in sleep.
an invisible giant hand extended like a cloud
started squeezing stones
tears burst forth
then everything in the desert
from the quiet land
suddenly kissing the sky
dust storms rise
then turn into colored rays
They became calm after raining on the earth.
only then someone
Bamboo forest caught fire
Yellow flames started rising,
then slowly turning green
wrapped in leaves.
The whole forest rang in innumerable flutes,
break away from the trees
Flew away like a green parrot.
but somewhere deep inside
stuck in branches
the whole forest was trembling
let him be free
melted into nothingness
that from the arteries
extends to infinity. (Sarveshwardal Saxena)
Why only this poem, famous editor Prabhash Joshi, Kaladharmi retired IAS Ashok Vajpayee wrote about Kumar ji and said we should know. Listening to Kumar ji is like jaggery for a dumb person and reading the writings on him is like finding words for your feelings. For example, Ashok Vajpayee wrote:
‘Not everything should be filled. Some should be left blank. They stop suddenly, sometimes in unexpected ways: they leave some space in the sequence of notes – the space may be empty, but they are there. Absence blossoms in an empty space.
Shivputra Siddaramaiah Komkali was a born singer. He received music education from Professor Deodhar and Anjani Bai Malpekar in Pune. But his musical prowess was beyond teaching. This is the reason why he got the name Kumar Gandharva. Gandharva means Kumar of that world. There is also a story behind Shivputra becoming Kumar Gandharva, a journey that reached from classical to folk music. He had TB and his wife Bhanumati taught in a school in Dewas, ran the household and also got Kumar ji treated. During this, the house where Kumar ji lived was almost outside the city of Dewas. While staying at home, Kumar ji listened to Malvi folk songs from the indigenous women who came to the haat held there. It was like an interview with people. This is also the time when a classical singer got influenced by the touch of folk.
This is the reason why Prabhash Joshi has written, Kumar Gandharva’s coming to Dewas was not a coincidence. It is also not a coincidence that Kumar Gandharva kept listening to the voices and tunes of Akshay folk music of Malwa while battling decay for five years. He could have had some other disease, not TB. He does not come to Dewas, he could have gone anywhere else. He could have connected the roots of his music with the folk music of any other region, not Malvi, but without anointing classical music with folk music, he could not create anything new. Like other classical singers, he used to do kuligiri of door frames and gharanas. This Kuligiri is also the word of Kumar ji. Kumar ji used to say that Sur, Tulsi, Meera all beg, consider themselves inferior, but Tulsidas even calls himself crooked, khal, kami. There is a Kabir in whom this inferiority, pity and self-pity is nowhere to be seen. It is Kabir who does not do kuligiri.
Kumar Gandharva started learning and understanding Kabir-Vanis resonating from the voices of Nath-Yogis and common people of Malwa. As if nature had sent him to Dewas for that reason. Nathpanthi Baba Sheelnath lived in Dewas for twenty years from 1901 to 1920. Sheelnath was one of those who were engrossed in Nirguna hymns. In Dewas, Kumar Saheb used to come and sit at night on Sheelnath Baba’s dhuni and used to sing and listen to Kabir Bhajans along with wandering yogis. There is a reference that he had first heard the famous bhajan ‘Sunta Hai Guru Gyani’ sung by him from the mouth of one such yogi who came to his house to beg for alms. Another famous hymn ‘Ud Jayega Hans Akela’ was found engraved on a mirror hanging on Sheelnath’s dhuni.
Amidst many criticisms and praises, his singing and his thoughts are also like a skylight from where the light of innovation enters. In a conversation with Mukesh Garg in Delhi in 1990, Kumar said on the allegation of being anti-traditional:
Why are you so hung up on tradition? We do not understand. Then why don’t you live the old way? Do you want kings again? Do you want a bullock cart then? Means, then what is the need for a well? So remove the flush toilet from the house. You also need a flush toilet, a tap and a well. And, you should not leave the pride of the well too!’
Only Kumar ji could have given such an explanation of following the tradition, this formula to revive the tradition by adding the necessary parts and reducing the unnecessary ones. You listen to Kumar Gandharva singing, it seems like a yogi is singing. Clear voice and supernatural raagdari where a lot can be understood and what remains unexplored takes it to the world of bliss. Holding the finger of that voice, we set out on our special journey. To write about the singing of Kumar Gandharva, all the similes and images seem less. Just as different meanings open up on repeated reading of Kabir, in the same way listening to Kumar ji’s singing again and again gives a special experience. In the words of Prabhash Joshi, many wise people have said that Kumar ji does not sing one bandish, one bhajan, one folk song in the same way everywhere. They create by singing, but more importantly, they convey the pain and joy of creation to the listeners and make them participants in the creation.
Renowned poet Arun Kamal mentions an incident in his criticism book ‘Kavita Aur Samay’. He had heard this incident from Ashok Vajpayee. The context is such that Kumar Gandharva was singing and Marmagya was sitting. Suddenly felt that Kumarji had struck a wrong note. What he chose was his own choice, but the tone was wrong. Later people asked, how did this note go wrong? Kumarji said, I was seeing that Sur is standing at the door for a long time, knocking on the door, and I was stopping, it is not right for you to come now. Was knocking for a long time so I said come and he came.
This democracy of singing is wonderful. Which makes a human being, a classical singer, an unrelenting seeker of the people.