Speaking to the singer Dilip Kumar Roy in February 1924, Mahatma Gandhi said that he was very fond of music although he ‘could not boast of the power of any expert or analytic appreciation’. He added that he could not ‘conceive of the evolution of the religious life of India without music’. Towards the end of 1924 Gandhi was in Belgaum, to preside over the annual session of the Indian National Congress, this the first and last time he would allow himself to be accorded that honour. The session opened with a song sung by a fourteen-year-old prodigy from nearby Dharwad named Gangubai Hangal. She was the first of a great series of singers from this little town in northern Karnataka, the precursor of such outstanding vocalists as Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraj Rajguru.
The classical music of India has given me great joy and solace, although I say this as one who—like Gandhi—does not boast the power of expert or analytic appreciation. As a student in Delhi I was introduced by a mentor to the music of Mallikarjun Mansur. I would hear Mansur on the odd occasion he came to the capital; otherwise, during my summer holidays in Bangalore, I would catch his voice over the crackling airwaves emanating from All India Radio, Dharwad. That station played plenty of Mansur, and also, in a justified spirit of local patriotism, much Hangal and Rajguru as well.
The association of Dharwad with music is at first sight a puzzle. For one thing, it is in south India, yet it became a home of north Indian classical music. For another, the great gharanas are usually associated with towns that were centres of royalty or commerce. However, Dharwad was a little place with no administrative or political significance and very few wealthy people either. In other words, there was no scope here for the patronage without which great art can scarcely flourish. How then did it become a centre of such ineffably good music?
In the late 1980s I used often to pass through Dharwad, en route to Dandeli, where my parents then stayed. When I paid my first proper visit to the town earlier this year, I rang up a friend with an equal passion for Hindustani classical music, and a far greater knowledge besides. ‘You cannot return from Dharwad without hearing Venkatesh Kumar sing’, he said, adding: ‘At least without hearing Venkatesh Kumar hum’. I confessed my ignorance of the man in question. ‘He is the finest Dharwad singer of our generation’, said my friend, ‘and he teaches in the very university where you are scheduled to speak’.
My talk at Karnatak University was on a political subject, but I began by softening up my audience, by saying that for anyone who follows music—even in the rudimentary and untrained way that I do—a visit to Dharwad was in the nature of a pilgrimage. I then spoke of my particular affection for the music of Mallikarjun Mansur. Afterwards, I met a bearded man who introduced himself as a photographer from Bangalore named T. V. Somasekhar. He had, he said, taken many portraits of Mansur, and would like to show them to me. Later in the day he came around to the University Guest House, where he laid out the lovely photographs he had taken. As an added bonus, he then showed me the studies he had made of another artist who was without equal in his field, the film-maker Satyajit Ray.
When my hosts asked whether I would like to take some Dharwad pedas back with me, I said I would pass up the sweets in favour of a visit to a music store. I was taken to a little shop in a crowded street, with cassettes and CD’s piled on top of one another. I spent a fabulous hour foraging, leaving with a pile of tapes and a hefty dent in my bank balance. In the days and weeks since, I have been soaking in these treasures from the great and still living traditions of Dharwad. I have listened to Gangubai and to Mansur, especially, and over and over again, to his wondrous Nat Bihag. I have listened to an exquisite Kedar by Venkatesh Kumar, and a Hameer tarana by his teacher, the great blind singer Putturaj Gawai.
Some years ago, in an interview to this newspaper, the novelist Amitav Ghosh observed (and I quote here from memory) that ‘classical musicians are the only people in India who strive for perfection, and achieve it’. I think the qualifier is crucial—it is not only that they seek perfection, but that they achieve it. Most Indians in public life, and many in business, set their standards very low—one is not certain that they even know what ‘perfection’ means. Indians who are sportsmen, or writers or craftsmen, do seek to attain higher standards of quality and proficiency. However, their respective arts, although difficult to master, are yet not of the order of refinement as classical music. Amitav Ghosh is right—our classical musicians are simply the greatest of Indians.