The Unsung Singer

Hindustani vocalist Venkatesh Kumar might not be "famous", but here is why you should know about him

At a music concert a few years ago, nobody in Kolkata had heard of Pandit Venkatesh Kumar, who hardly glanced at the audience and was too shy to even announce the name of the raga he was about to sing. Within a couple of minutes, though, he had the audience anchored to the nikhad and the gandhar of raga Puriya. Halfway into his vilambit, the 2,000-odd listeners knew that they were listening to a rare musician. Clearly, Kumar was a maestro they ought to have heard of, but hadn't. The familiar ruffle of paper followed as they drew out the folded brochures and pored into the biodata of this new-found phenomenon.

They found a one-paragraph note. The usual litany of awards and foreign tours was absent, confirmation that he wasn't "famous". The only familiar word was Dharwad, the region in northern Karnataka from where Kumar hails. Dharwad has given Hindustani music a galaxy of vocal legends, including Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. As Kumar's recital progressed, his gayaki emerged as increasingly evocative of Joshi's — especially the robust husk and clear-throated pukaars — and by the end of the evening, the Kolkata audience (given to emotional excess) had gone hysterical. Kumar has surprised audiences in other cities too. First-time listeners share a common confusion: a man in his fifties, singing as well as any other reigning maestro of the day, but relatively unknown. Why hadn't they heard him as an upcoming star?

Kumar has always lived in the Dharwad region. He was born in Lakshmipura and at 12, joined the Veereshwara Punyashrama in Gadag (central Karnataka), run by Puttaraja Gawai, the legendary religious saint and multi-talented Hindustani musician. Kumar had joined the ashram on the advice of his maternal uncle, a Kannada theatre artiste. Kumar's father was a folk singer and could not afford formal taalim in Hindustani vocal for his son. The ashram made the taalim possible, where Kumar lived and learnt under Gawai for 11 years. He eventually took up a teaching job, which he still holds, with the University College of Music, Dharwad.

Living in Dharwad could be seen as an impediment to prominence, but that is unlikely. Dharwad is no ordinary location on the music map of India. The likes of Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur and Gangubai Hangal lived there all their lives and had flourishing performing careers. It is a rather soppy picture, the one of the musician practising in solitude, oblivious to the outcome of his sadhana, but Kumar rescues the cliché. He continued with his dogged riyaz and waited for people to find him, never fashioning himself as a maestro. At a recent concert in Kolkata, while singing Gaud Malhar, he suddenly stopped and addressed the audience (a rare occurrence), only to say, "Yeh sangeet aisa hai…jitna riyaz karo, kam hota hai…bahut danger hai (Music is such that however much you practise, it's never enough)."

In conversation, he is equally unguarded. He waits outside his house to greet me. Initially, both of us speak about trivialities in unenviable Hindi. He insists that I have lunch in his house. Only when I agree does he settle down for the interview. He narrates his early life without flourish: "We lived in poverty, sometimes meals were a problem." Kumar's even-pitched voice catches the first note of immediacy when he begins to talk about life at the ashram. "Classes started at 4 am and went on till seven, every day. Then we had to get down to other duties like cleaning. Everything had a stipulated time: class, ashram-duty, practice. Then we would have to sing again while guruji completed his aarti. It was one of the few places where puja was accompanied by pure khayal. I remember occasions when I sang for four to five hours at a stretch during guruji's puja,"

He trained in the Gwalior and Kirana styles, but was encouraged by his guru to learn from other gharanas. Many vocalists say that they combine different influences, but are unable to articulate in what way. Kumar is an exception. "I present the bandish in the Gwalior style and then do the vistaar in the Kirana style. When it comes to taans, especially short, sharp taans, I try to draw from Ustad Bade Ghulam Khan, Ustad Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan. My guru was also trained in Carnatic music, so a lot of my sargam patterns are from the Carnatic tradition," he says. His colourful blend of elements and the hypnotic timbre of his voice ensure that his recitals are attractive to connoisseurs and lay listeners alike. Shubha Mudgal feels that Kumar's choice of bandishes also plays a vital role in his recitals. "He mostly chooses bandishes that are traditional and immediately identifiable. This creates an easy and spontaneous connection with the audience," she says.

It took Kumar 14 years to get a real break. He left the ashram in 1979, in 1993 he got a telegram from Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (which he has preserved), asking him to sing at that year's Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav in Pune. In 2002, when Joshi was being awarded the Maharashtra Bhushan award, the organisers asked the legend to name a singer he would like to hear on the occasion. "His first choice was Ustad Rashid Khan," says Kumar with disarming frankness, "but Rashidji wasn't available. I was his next choice." It is since the start of the last decade that Kumar has slipped into national prominence. He performed twice at the Vishnu Digambar Jayanti in Delhi, he sang at the Durbar Festival in UK (2010) and has performed at every major festival in Kolkata, including the Dover Lane Music Conference earlier this year (the organisers chased him for three years for a date).

He is not unaware that he has created a stir in the music fraternity or that he should have got this recognition a long time ago, but he addresses both questions with lightness. He diverts any talk about his popularity by speaking about his favourites amongst contemporaries. "I can listen to Ustad Rashid Khan all day. I love the presentation style of Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra." He also mentions Kaushiki Chakrabarty, who is much younger than him. About recognition, he says with a laugh, "Pandit Bhimsen Joshi used to say that a musician needs three things to succeed: achchha guru, achchha sadhana, achchha naseeb (a good guru, good practice and good luck)."

His naseeb no longer eludes him, but he lives the same life that he did 10 years ago. His job at the university forces him to refuse programmes every week, but he is determined to stick it out till retirement as the job gives him some security. "I want to make sure that I get my pension." He is probably the only maestro in the country who still goes to work on a scooter. I ask him about it, indirectly, but he cannot fathom why it is unusual. I try a little harder, dropping words like "car" and "convenience" in close proximity, but he still sees no point to the question. I give up and decide to wait for lunch, which, delicious as it is, arrives soon.

(Kumar will perform on 23rd August from 2 pm as part of the Malhar Festival at the Sumati Sabhaghar, Faculty of Music, Delhi University)

Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based music writer

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