The second part of our series on city streets named after Hindustani musicians focuses on Pandit Paluskar Chowk. For many Mumbai residents, Pandit Paluskar is a name that they remember as an important terminus for many Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking bus routes. It is located in an area used to be Bombay’s entertainment district in the first half of the twentieth century. The Opera House is a familiar landmark here.
But for Hindustani music lovers, the name Pandit Paluskar brings to mind the life and work of music educationist and vocalist Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who spent a significant part of his life in the neighbourhood after he opened the Bombay branch of his Gandharva Mahavidyalaya music school in 1908. Soon after, he moved the headquarters of the school from Lahore to the coastal city.
The merits and demerits of institutionalised education for Hindustani music have been discussed since a long time, but for now I would like to focus on the Bombay branch of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya.
A multi-pronged approach
After having run his school in rental premises, Paluskar in 1913 decided to construct an exclusive building for which he bought a plot of land with the help of a loan. The plot was on Sandhurst Road (now Sardar Vallabhai Patel Road) between Dubash Lane and Angrewadi. The building was constructed by December 1914 and was inaugurated on January 11, 1915, by Lord Willingdon, the Governor of Bombay at the time.
According to the description of the building provided by BR Deodhar, a disciple of Paluskar, in his detailed biography of his guru entitled Gaayanaachaarya P Vishnu Digambar, the planning and design for the new school building accommodated Paluskar’s multi-pronged approach to music education. Each floor of the building had a hall, five big rooms, and verandahs in the front and rear. Five rooms on the ground floor housed an exhibition of instruments and classes for instrumental music.
The first floor had five rooms for a library, reading room and classes for vocal music. A hall for the prayer assembly was provided on the second floor along with space for the principal’s office and his classes. The third floor had a concert hall equipped with green room facility and a seating capacity of 400-500 people.
In 1916, a chhatralaya or students’ hostel was built behind the school. Paluskar’s penchant for discipline, regimen and moral values, was even more evident in the day-to-day functioning of the chhatralaya. A bell was sounded at 5 am or 5.30 am to wake up students in the chhatralaya. They had to be ready by 7 am for the group prayer. Attendance at the prayer assembly was compulsory for teachers and students of the chhatralaya.
Initially, Paluskar led this prayer, but the teachers did so later. The prayer lasted for 10-12 minutes and thereafter everybody was involved in various tasks.
The prayer that was sung in branches of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya across the country can be heard on the next track. Composed by Paluskar, the prayer on this track is sung by his disciple Narayanrao Vyas supported by a chorus.
Some taught in the classes, a few taught new students in the chhatralaya, and others were involved in riyaaz. Paluskar taught senior students. The evening prayer took place at 7 pm. Students in the chhatralaya were not aware of the happenings in the music world beyond what happened within the four walls of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, as they were not permitted to leave the building, except for specific work. Their sources of information about the outside world were people connected with the school who would visit them on holidays.
The school trained needy children in a section called the upadeshakvarg, and arranged for their accommodation on the premises. The students of this section signed a three- or six-year bond with the school. Paluskar’s vision of a holistic education was apparent when students of the upadeshakvarg were also required to work for a few hours in the instrument-making and repairing section of the school.
According to Deodhar, Paluskar was happy with the new building, and till 1915, was confident of repaying the loan amount. The success and prosperity of the school was marked by the fact that the school building was valued at Rs 200,000 and that approximately hundred persons, including teachers and students, were fed daily at the school.
But the unforeseen financial crisis during World War I adversely hurt the school’s financial returns. Further loans had to be taken to repay the earlier ones. Though the public response to Paluskar’s work and the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya was good, expenses towards the school activities and borrowings rose astronomically. By 1920, its debt had risen to Rs 167,000.
Well-wishers offered to help Paluskar, provided the school was registered as a public trust. But Paluskar opposed this move. Wishing to remain unfettered, he believed that those sympathising with his cause had to perforce trust him, considering the sacrifices he had made since 1896. In 1924, the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Bombay had to be closed down due to financial constraints.
It was re-established on December 8, 1929, in four rooms rented on the first floor of the Marker Building (later called Govardhan Bhuvan), with Ramkrishna Joshi, a disciple of Paluskar, as the principal along with four other teachers. But this school did not meet with much success. Later, Dhondopant Paluskar shifted this school to Benham Hall Lane for two or three years, but even that was closed down.
In many ways, this established the norm for music schools that were started after a few decades. In fact, a similar use of architectural space continues to this day albeit with a few additions. Now, large music schools have recording studios, which may have been started to provide students with experience in a studio situation, but which are now mainly rented out to everybody – even if they not connected to the schools. Similarly, today, music schools also rent out part of their premises for weddings and other activities. But this is a discussion for another occasion.
Read more about Paluskar’s efforts to offer musical education to non-hereditary performers here.
We end with a chaturang composed by Paluskar in the raag Sindhura set to the 16-matra Teentaal. This is sung by his son, DV Paluskar.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.