More than 30 years after his passing, legendary Hindustani classical vocalist Kumar Gandharva remains a puzzle for his admirers – a performer as much as an idea. His life, music and aesthetic philosophy have inspired not only musicians but a variety of creative practitioners over successive generations. Genius, rebel, experimenter, creator extraordinaire – these words evoke aspects of his artistic impulse but fail to capture its complexity.

In journalist Prabhas Joshi’s words, Kumar Gandharva’s nature was such that: “If he had not been a brilliant singer, he would have been an author. If not an author, then a painter…That is, if he had been in an ocean, he would have been a storm.”

One window into this puzzle is his own reflections, and the writings of those who have been touched by his artistry. I approach this archive through a series of questions about art and music, hoping to illuminate some parts of his profound legacy.

What is art?

For Kumar Gandharva, art was a perpetually changing stream. Even a traditional form like Hindustani music was not to be bound by convention or orthodoxy. In an interview with poet Vasant Bapat, he said: “The character of art, of music, is to change. On the one hand, you say it changes and on the other hand, you do not accept the change. How can that be? The theory underlying music may not change but how it expresses beauty, that changes.”

One way to reinterpret the beauty in a traditional form for contemporary times was to translate personal experiences into emotions, words and sounds that could speak across time and space. Several of Kumar Gandharva’s compositions have an immediacy, but also a universality.


What is it to be an artist?

Trupti or contentment, Kumar Gandharva often said, was the bane of any artist. Indeed, one needed to find contentment in artistic discontent. Living fully and observing the world deeply, yet critically, was crucial. An artist also needed to cultivate a capacity for rasasvada – the savouring of beauty – in various arts such as painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and of course, in nature and everyday experiences.

This desire to perceive beauty and be moved by it is a recurring motif in anecdotes about Kumar Gandharva. Scholar Arvind Mangrulkar, has recounted a conversation after the musician’s visit to the Ellora cave temple complex in Maharashtra: “I went to see Kailasa, and what can I say, I have not yet returned. All that I had earned in life, those caves took it all away. I stopped talking… After a few days I wrote a bandish in Bihag on the Kailasa.”

What is music?

Kumar Gandharva is known to have said: “Sangeet ko abhi bahut kuchh kahana hai.” (Music still has a great deal to say.) Music itself, for him, seemed to have an urge to express. His life emerged as a quest for this “bahut kuchh,” or a great deal, that music wanted to say. Reinterpreting established repertoire, creating new raags and bandishes, reimagining folk poetry and melodies – his musical output moved away from the customary and became a search for something beyond the apparent and the obvious. For him, even something as fundamental as sound could be a space of artistic inquiry.

In an interview, he said, “I have heard so many kinds of bells in my life. Why can’t the resonance of that sound come through when I sing the syllable ‘deem’ in my tarana renditions?” In another place, he noted, “The question of nirgun was tricky. How do you convey an abstract idea like nirgun, the characterless divine, through a sagun [concrete] form that is music? I tried to contemplate on the solitary lives of the Naath-Panthi ascetics, their abodes close to cremation grounds, and the tonality that they adopt.”

Kumar Gandharva wanted to push the boundaries of which sounds could be deemed musical. Take, for instance, the manner in which he developed Raag Madha-Suraja – literally, the gleaming sun at noon. One story maintains that his family home in Dewas in Madhya Pradesh was near a temple for a local goddess. One noon, Gandharva heard a goat being dragged to be sacrificed to the goddess. The relentless noon sun, the goat’s bleating, and his imagination of the absolute fear that it was feeling inspired him to write a composition.

It was the voice of the goat that you heard when he sang: Bachale Mori Maa. He noted that he wanted to sing the fear in the goat’s mind. Conventionally, the themes in Hindustani compositions have been mostly romantic or devotional or valorous. So bringing bhaya – fear – as a rasa or emotion, and the bleating of a goat as a sound, in the ambit of Hindustani music was a risky enterprise.


Does art have a method?

Kumar Gandharva’s artistic temperament was to respond intensely to life’s experiences – profound but also incidental, routine, and everyday. Music was the creative language through which these experiences were translated. Any moment that touched him could potentially become a new bandish, or even be the foundation for a new raag.

His immersion in music, however, had a deliberation that exceeded sentimental impulses. His particular repertoire of folk music from the Malwa region or Nirgun bhajans followed from close attention to the oral traditions that he was attempting to interpret. Physicist Sunil Mukhi has compared his rigorous approach to a scientific process that involved systematic research of sounds, texts, and poetry, involving listening to varied music as well as conversations with performers of wide-ranging genres.

Such study was the basis for vast creative output over several decades. One among these is the aptly named raagini Nindiyari, which he developed from the melodic essence of lullabies in the Malwa region.


How does art impact?

As someone who was deeply impacted by art, and whose creations had profound impact on others, Kumar Gandharva exemplified the generative aspects of art well beyond narrowly construed genres. Central to his philosophy and experiments was an engagement with varied intellectual and artistic fields. The body of work that emerged was remarkably distinct from the expected output from Hindustani musicians at the time.

His experiments offered listeners a glimpse into unfamiliar worlds – of classical music but also of Malwa folk songs or the philosophy of saint-poets such as Kabir, Meera and Tukaram.

The architect BV Doshi wrote: “Every time I listen to his recording of Malwa ke Lok Geet, I see an open door of how to re-look at folk and classic traditions and their roots, and to restructure their fundamental meanings into present day needs.”

Painter Gulam Mohammad Shaikh, who engaged with the figure of Kabir in a series of paintings, is known to have listened incessantly to Kumar Gandharva’s Kabir renditions as part of his own artistic process.

Kannada writer, U R Ananthamurthy wrote about an interaction with the musician: “Half-asleep eyes/ High-pitched voice/ Breathing through just one lung/ Balding head// I was astounded that God / Became a tenant/ And prospered/ In a place like that.”

Kumar Gandharva’s close associates included musicians, painters, architects, poets, writers, journalists, and political activists. He inspired them, and in turn, drew inspiration from them. His most remarkable and well-known interlocutor, however, was the 15th century rebel-mystic Kabir. Kabir’s Nirgun philosophy traveled to Gandharva through the voices of the Nath-Panthi singers. Intrigued, he explored Kabir’s lesser-known Nirguni companions Machhindranath and Gorakhnath, but also the Saguni Bhakti poets, Mira, Surdas and Tukaram, the Marathi devotee of Vitthal. Their fearlessness and abandon percolated into his music.

There is no doubt that the genius of Kumar Gandharva was almost other-worldly. His urge to explore and express was singular. Like in the tale of the blind men encountering the elephant, one cannot but grasp only fragments of his art and philosophy.

Kumar Gandharva was born on April 8, 1924.

This article is based on a script originally developed in conversation with Hindustani vocalist Pritam Nakil for a concert-presentation at Ahmedabad University.

Aditi Deo is an assistant professor at Ahmedabad University’s School of Arts and Sciences.