The Reluctant Musician: Pt. Kaivalya Kumar

Pt. Kaivalya Kumar strives for simplicity and the humane pursuit of happiness which he describes as insaaniyat and sanskaara and for his music to be always luminous with bhava and raga: By Arshiya Sethi

For one born into a musical family as its third generation, one would have thought that Kaivalya Kumar would have his path cut out for him. But possibly unwilling to undertake initially the rigours of the intense ‘talim’ his family was known for and disappointed with the trials his father Pt. Sangameshwar Gurav faced, in college, as he studied to be a Civil Engineer, he put his naturally mellifluous voice to the service of what he himself described as “disco singing”. But at the same time, he was sentient of the special gift of classical music that his family carried with his grandfather Pt. Ganpatrao Gurav, a first batch disciple of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, founder of the Kirana Gharana.

“Grandfather would tell me stories about the greatness of his Guru whom he called an ‘Auliya’. I remember him telling me about Khan sahib that his hand was always in a giving position and not a taking position. So much so that he never even accepted his payments himself. I also remember that Miraj, was the place where Abdul Karim Khan’s cancer disappeared. It was believed to be a miracle of the Sufi saint Meerasaheb. He sand every year at his Urs and announced that he would like to be buried at his feet” recalled Kaivalya Kumar.

His turn towards serious Hindustani music emerged out of a dare his father friend, one Dandekar challenged him with. He told young Kaivalya that every one studied and wanted to know from him what he was doing with the gift of music. To show how musical he was, the youngster sang the Manna Dey song ‘Poochho na Kaise”. Impressed Dandekar upped the bar and asked him to sing a Bal Gandharva song which he played for him twice. “I always take on challenges, and after hearing it twice I sang it. My father was listening too and grudgingly agreed to teach me if I really wanted to learn”. This was an important turning point in his life when reluctantly he embraced his musical heritage.

“The training from my father was unusual. He would pinch me on my thigh if I sang wrong. Often my thigh was red with the number of times he would pinch me. He wouldn’t tell me what is wrong. He wouldn’t show me what is right, but just pinch me. All those pinches eventually had the desired impact and I learnt to sing” tells Kaivalya Kumar of the peculiar pedagogy followed by his father. But then the annals of transmitting knowledge under the Guru Shishya parampara is replete with even older stories!

Meanwhile, the same Dandekar made him enter in toa music competition at Ichakaranji, the ancestral village of the maestro Balkrishan Buwa, who musicologist Susheela Mishra describes as “the founder of Khayal Gayaki in Maharashtra”. Describing that night as he in a local hotel, Kaivalya Kumar said, “Abdul Karim Khan appeared in a dream and told me that when I go on to the stage I should behave like theking of the world, and when I come off,I should feel like the most insignificant person in the world. I followed his instructions”. The result was that Kaivalya Kumar won a prize of a thousand rupees and a big trophy. “My father cried when he heard of the dream and told me that given the fact that ours is unstructured music that has tobecreated instantaneously, it is our willpower that carries us, and that by appearing in my dream the master had given me the secret himself.” The regret of the lost early years was converted into a decade of penance when he did nothing but riyaaz “day and night” as he himself described. This gave him an unforgettable and hauntingly beautiful musical quality to his voice, that makes him one of India’s most admired singers It was a time of great contemplation. Over time he became conscious of an energy that would pass through his body. He credited it to the Omkara meditation that he did in the early hours. It was as if the ‘kundalini’ was being awakened and he seemed to understand the secret landscape of music. “I believe that only when a note boils does it appear before you. I was generating so much heat but I was able to reduce my temper” he described by way of worlding this other worldly experience that he was undergoing. “While I have never done a ‘chilla’ the forty day music meditation, I have lived my life as a ‘chilla’- never having emerged from the depths of the ocean of my music” he admitted.

Having travelled around the world, and having been open to all music, he realises that some music is written and hence predictable; some like Carnatic Music is mathematical, while Hindustani is creative. “Nothing is in your hands. It comes to you. You cannot force a taan. At best you can create a space and invite it to enter. Further, there is no standardisation in our music. The Rishabh of every Raga is different. So you can be taught a raga or a composition, but you have to learn to sing it yourself.” As a singer of Natya Sangeet he enjoys poetry and the poetic mood, which through the emotional quotient in his voice he communicates effectively to his audiences. This sets him apart from other Khayal singers.

He has a treasure trove of compositions to sing in different ragas. His mind is like an autocad reader and he claims that he sees their architecture from different angles. Instead of arrogance, this only adds to his humility. “When I go from one note to another note, I take its permission before entering it. You can’t go bursting through musical notes.” Having heard about aboriginal people taking the permission of water before entering it whether as river, lake or pond, this did not sound strange to me at all!

What are his views about the Guru Shishya Parampara, that many claim is the soul of the transfer of musical knowledge and which is regrettably under treat in the times of institutionalisation. “No institution can teach music. It can give you a degree that can help put food on the table. Jeewan banana ke liye Guru ka ashirwad chahiye (you need the blessings of a Guru to make your life” he said categorically. “But there comes a stage” he added, “when you must leave the Guru and find your own path. 10 per cent of your music is eventually what the Guru gives and 90 percent is your own quest. In that, nature can be your teacher” he explains having experienced it and knowing what he is talking about.

He has minimised his needs, contented to live in pastoral Dharwar, with very few acquisitions. He enjoys gardening and watching cricket, but even there he bemoans the appearance of money power. He likes to be surrounded with beauty and has a collection of terracotta images. He is proud that his wife runs a small scale but successful pickle making company that gives employment to many other women. He only strives for simplicity and the humane pursuit of happiness which he describes as — “insaaniyat and sanskaara” and for his music to be always luminous with “bhava and raga”!