Amarendra Dhaneshwar is a well-known figure in Mumbai’s art circles. Before the pandemic, one ran into him at dance performances, plays, film screenings, art openings and of course, mehfils. He is an accomplished performer, having trained under the Gwalior gharana doyenne Neela Bhagwat. He has also been writing on music for over 30 years.

Guniyan Gaaye Bajaaye, his collection of critical essays on the music of leading vocalists and instrumentalists past and present, was released recently at the Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre with an evocative address by chief guest Ambarish Mishra and a concert by Anuradha Kuber.

Aneesh Pradhan notes in his preface to the book that most life-sketches of Hindustani musicians published in the last 100 years or so have been hagiographic in nature whereas, “Dhaneshwar … does not hesitate to criticise them for what he sees as failings in their personal life and their music. His deep sense of secularism is noticeable in his effort to stress upon the syncretic nature of Hindustani music and to condemn in no uncertain terms the communal viewpoint that is forwarded by some musicians.”

Below is a slightly abridged translation of the first chapter of Dhaneshwar’s book where he gives an account of his journey from a lover and listener of music to a performer.


How I arrived where I am

“I heard you for the first time at my gurukul. I could see the hard work you have put in to grow as a musician. You have made a mark as a musician, academic and critic… a rare combination indeed.”

When this message dropped into my inbox five years ago, I could only stare at it in astonishment, transported to a state of happy disbelief. There can be no greater satisfaction for a musician than to have his art and performance acknowledged. He is happy enough to be accepted by the ordinary listener. But this email had come from no less a person than Dr Prabha Atre. Prabhatai’s high station in the world of Hindustani music is incontestable. That she should have taken note of my music was enough to convince me that the pains I had taken, the hard work I had put in to arrive where I was, had been worthwhile.

I heard Prabha Atre for the first time in 1967 when I was 16. This was at the Chhabildas School hall where the Dadar Matunga Social Club, later to be renamed Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre, used to hold its concerts. That day Prabhatai sang familiar raags – Yaman, Bageshree and Bihag. Like all adolescents I was prone to crushes and was instantly smitten by her dusky complexion, attractive face, bewitching smile and the sweetness and rigour of her singing. While I am about it, I might as well confess to the crush I had on the leading Calcutta vocalist, Malavika Kanan. Perhaps those early feelings I had about Prabhatai might explain the extra pleasure I felt at the pat on the back I had received from her.

Pleased as I was, I also knew that my journey had only just begun. I had a long way to go yet. Satarnawaz Halim Jafar Khan Khansaheb used to say, “Jise makam samjha tha woh to rasta nikla.” (What I had taken to be my destination turned out to be the path.) Sure, invitations to perform had begun to come my way. But did that make me a musician or was I merely a dilettante in love with the sound of music?

The beginnings

I am often asked by listeners whether I started learning music as a child. The question makes me smile because classical music was in no way part of my home environment. My parents, Jayashree and Dwarkanath loved music, but neither was a singer. As a girl growing up in Pune, my mother had taken a few lessons from Shri Tambe whose daughter, Kamal Tambe, was to become a leading exponent of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. But the music I heard around me, whether in my grandparents’ home or at bedtime from my father, or hummed around the house by my mother, was of the popular kind – bhavgeets, film and stage songs and bhajans. There was also Radio Ceylon where, from 7.30 to 8 every morning, Saigal’s emotion-filled voice would pour out. Cricketer Manohar Hardikar, sitting in the Shivaji Park Gymkhana pavilion waiting for his turn to bat, would whistle Ravi Shankar’s composition from AnuradhaJaane Kaise Sapnon Mein Kho Gayi Ankhiyan. Many such early influences gradually created in me an overwhelming passion for music. Taking formal lessons was, however, out of the question. My parents’ financial state would not have allowed it.

Music was a compulsory subject at school till the seventh grade. In the eighth grade you could opt for art instead. Most boys did that because learning music was not considered to be manly. But I defied the ribbing I got from them to continue with music. There were two other boys with me, one of whom, Suresh Acharekar, was to become Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s tabla accompanist. Fifty years on, I still remember the Malkans bandish, Koyaliya bole ambuwa and the Hameer tarana Odey nadir that I was taught in school.

Growing up in Shivaji Park, I was fortunate enough to see and hear some of the greatest orators of the time like Setu Madhavrao Pagdi, Acharya Atre, Madhu Limaye, Nath Pai, Madhu Dandavate, Comrade Dange and George Fernandes. Shivaji Park was also home to some of the leading vocalists of Hindustani music like Kesarbai Kerkar, Sharadchandra Arolkar, Prabha Atre, Jitendra Abhisheki, Suresh Haldankar, Yeshwantbuwa Joshi and Jasraj. Once when we were playing street cricket, one boy refused to accept that he was out. A man with curly hair who happened to be passing by, raised his finger and declared, “Out”. It was Pandit Jasraj.


I was 13 years old when I attended my first baithak. My father had taken me to hear Pandit Ram Marathe at a private mehfil in Dadar’s Sahakar Nivas at the home of a music-loving family called Limaye. Ram Marathe was at his peak then and would sing for anything up to four or five hours, accompanied on the tabla by S V Patwardhan and on the harmonium by Govindrao Patwardhan. He was in great form that day. As soon as he had sung the opening notes of the first raag, I turned to my father and said, “Kedar”. The listeners around us gave me a surprised look tinged with admiration. Rambhau outdid himself in the opening bandish Kanganava mora atahi amola in Kedar and the finale Dekho Mori Churiya in Bhairavi. That day I discovered what a rich experience it was to listen to a live concert. I became an addict.

My addiction was fed by Madhukar Yashwant Athalye who ran a coaching class called Adarsh in Shivaji Park. He was a fine teacher. He taught me Sanskrit so well that I won the Jagannath Shankar Sheth scholarship. Polio had affected both his legs and he needed assistance to walk. I was only too happy to provide it, particularly because, very often, our destination was a mehfil. The Dadar Matunga Cultural Club had launched a scheme to instil a love for classical music among students. For a concessional annual subscription of Rs 18 we could hear 10 or 11 concerts every year. Athalye paid the subscription on my behalf. His love for music was also reflected in the Rs 2 lakh donation he made in his will to the Suburban Music Circle, the oldest music organisation in Mumbai. It was here that I had the opportunity to hear instrumentalists of the stature of Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

I was 17 when I joined Syndenham College. By then I was already a fairly knowledgeable listener. My friend Chadrashekhar Prabhudesai who was senior to me in the college, inducted me into the group that had formed around Satish (later Satyasheel) Deshpande, disciple of Kumar Gandharva and son of the well-known musicologist Vamanrao Deshpande. Two years before this, I had attended Kumarji’s Geetvarsha concert and been bowled over by his creative versatility. That evening, he had presented everything from Malvi folk compositions to bhajans, to self-composed bandishes. When the industrialist Ajit Gulabchand invited Satish to perform at his house, I could not resist making request upon request of Kumarji’s compositions to him, leaving my college friends wondering how I knew so many. My friendship with Satish gave me a deeper insight into Kumarji’s creative process. Kumar Gandharva has been an enormous influence on me as a musician.

An outsider

Although I was growing in musical experience and knowledge, I was still an outsider to the music world. I stood on the bank watching others swim. That was also the time I was drawn to the socialist movement. Its modern values of equality, independence and brotherhood became my values. I began to wonder then, how I could continue relating to a performing art like Hindustani music which was so inextricably bound with traditional values. During the Emergency I had the “good fortune” of spending 15 months in Arthur Road Jail. I thought ruefully that, had I learnt music, I could have put my jail time to profitable use by doing rigorous riyaaz. Instead, I had to quench my thirst for music with the national programmes that were broadcast weekly over All India Radio.

Political workers live in a permanent state of intoxication. Under its heady influence, all else seems worthless and false. However much in love I was with music, I was not willing to spend the time and effort it would demand of me if I were to pursue it seriously. Even today, the world of music is extremely feudal, with its ostentatious show of guru bhakti, its personality cults, its exploitation of disciples by gurus and of accompanists by the main performers, its total rejection of modern ideas and its nurturing of blind faith. Not for a moment was I prepared to bow obsequiously before a guru to learn music formally. For all these reasons I continued to wander on the banks of the river of music, while performing informally among gatherings of friends as an amateur, happy with the applause it brought me.

At this point Neela Bhagwat, a friend and a friend’s wife said to me, “Why don’t you learn music?” I was a great admirer of her guru Pt. Sharadchandra Arolkar and suddenly I found myself saying yes. But I did not last longer than three months. Neela once scolded me for imitating Kumar Gandharva’s gestures while singing. “You’ve hardly begun. What’s all this acting?” My train came to an abrupt halt with the first bandish that is taught in the Gwalior gharana system – Avaguna na kijiye in Yaman Kalyan. It did not merely halt. It got stuck in mud. My lessons stopped. I told myself that learning music and doing regular riyaaz were not my scene. However, my passionate listening and amateur performances continued. At a new year’s party where Dr Ashok Ranade and Didi (Hemangini) were present, I simply would not stop belting out song after song from old Hindi films. With poor Didi nodding in loving appreciation, I felt even more emboldened to continue.


One day I met Neela again. Things had changed in her life. She had split from her husband. Soon we were in a relationship which culminated in marriage. Six months into our life together she said to me, once again, “Why don’t you learn music?” And once again, I found myself saying, “I will.”

Neela’s modern outlook, her individualistic approach to music, her involvement with progressive movements and feminism meant that learning from her would not entail submitting to feudalistic practices or unjustified humiliation. For the first month I accompanied myself on the harmonium. Then it was straight on to the tanpura. Neela’s mother, never given to praise, came running from the kitchen once to say, “Your voice is perfectly pitched today.” Another time the daughter-in-law of Neela’s aunt Vidya Bal said, “He sounds like Jasraj.” My confidence grew. I began to feel convinced that I was right in pursuing my passion. Learning music meant doing regular riyaaz; and doing riyaaz meant making a nuisance of myself in the house. But that did not deter me. I had been a nuisance in my parents’ home. I continued to be a nuisance here.

In view of my background in journalism, my years of listening to music and now my leap into learning it, M Rehman of the Sunday Observer asked me if I would consider writing on music. I was game. So began my reviewing career, first in English and then in Marathi. Dr Ashok Ranade always said, anybody who aspired to writing on the performing arts had to have some first-hand experience of them. I had passed that test.

The first acknowledgement I received for my music from serious listeners was when I sang a Kumar Gandharva composition at Pt Jal Balaporia’s guru pournima and was praised for the full-throated quality of my voice. Yet some of my friends were soon giving me ‘friendly’ advice. “Write about music but don’t get involved with performing.” Naturally, I paid no heed to them. I wanted to be a performer. The time and effort I was devoting to learning this performing art would make sense only if it led to performance. Money, fame, honour meant little to me. What I wanted to do was entertain the audience.

By and by my music began to be appreciated not only by listeners, but by musicians of the stature of Budhaditya Mukherjee, Nayan and Dhruv Ghosh, Nityanand Haldipur, Ulhas Kashalkar, Vrunda Mundkur and others. I was inspired by Paul Gaugin’s example. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence revolves around his hard work and determination to become an artist although he was past forty. Encouragement came in other forms too. Nandini Bedi, a student of editing at the Film and Television Institute of India, was making Var Var Vari, her diploma film. Kumar Shahani was directing it and I was given the opportunity to sing the Gaud Malhar bandish Saiyan mora re for it.

For the last few years, I have been planning and presenting lecture demonstrations built around raag-based Hindi film songs for which I have been receiving an amazing response from audiences. For too long has classical music been surrounded by an aura of mystification. Behind the mystique lie the vested interests of musicians who subscribe to orthodox and traditional ideas of music and its practice. I recall my late friend Parag Trivedi who ran arts appreciation workshops headed by the tagline “We demystify the arts.” I believe it is vital to break this web of mystification and bring the arts out into the open as manifestations of human experimentation. I would like to be seen as an example of a practising classical musician who also takes joy in popular music.


I have been fortunate to have performed on several prestigious concert platforms like the Suburban Music Circle, the Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre, Nehru Centre and Hridayesh Arts in Mumbai; the India International Centre in Delhi and the Birla Academy in Kolkata along with well-known platforms in places like Bengaluru and Belgaum. Besides these, I have acquired a devoted audience of my own at the Yeshwantrao Chavan Pratishthan.

In October 2018, my guru Neela and I were preparing to go on a month-long tour of Holland, Germany and Italy. We were scheduled to perform nine jugalbandis in all, including one in the Rabindra Centre of the Indian Embassy in Berlin with Greek pianist Gita Delvenakiotis and another with German pianist Marion Tilzer in Amsterdam. Our doctor friend, Srikrishna Joshi, advised me to get a medical checkup done before setting off on the tour since I was now past 65. I was under the illusion that the hour-long workout I did every day in the gym was proof of my fitness. But our cardiologist Dr Anil Damle, found otherwise. He discovered that there was an accumulation of calcium on the main valve of my heart which had slowed down its functioning. The natural valve would have to be surgically replaced by an artificial one to correct the problem. Dr Damle was willing to allow me six months before I took a final call on the surgery. So, we went to Europe where every one of our scheduled concerts was successful.

Back in Mumbai, my performances continued to keep my busy. Soon my six-month reprieve was over and it was time to go under the knife. I met Dr Chandrashekhar Ponde, the cardiologist at Hinduja Hospital. He sent me to the cardiac surgeon Dr Kaushal Pandey. Dr Pandey performed the surgery. I was discharged from hospital after ten days. Forty days later Dr Ponde gave me permission to start doing riyaaz. Three months after surgery I was on the concert platform, performing. I have almost forgotten now that I was seriously ill not too long ago.

I would like to state humbly here that not everybody is fortunate enough to have started learning music at an early age. However, with hard work and determination, it is still possible for others like me to reach a level of performance that holds and entertains an audience. That is why I sing. I sing because I want to share with a live audience the supreme joy that this art has brought me over the last 60-odd years.

Shanta Gokhale is an award-winning writer, translator and cultural critic.