A century after pioneering Hindustani music scholar VN Bhatkhande travelled the length and breadth of the subcontinent cajoling and coaxing secretive hereditary musicians into revealing the lyrics and tunes of nearly 1,700 compositions, another musician has completed the monumental task of singing and recording all of them.

Working almost daily for six years, the Mysore-based Indudhar Nirody, 81, sang and recorded the nearly 2,000 compositions that Bhatkhande published in his staggering six-volume Kramik Pustak Malika. The volumes include 300 of Bhatkhande’s own compositions, besides those he collected from others. In March, Nirody released his renditions on two CDs, along with a book, titled Samarpan, containing the lyrics.

One of Nirody's gurs, Pandit KG Ginde, had begun a similar exercise to record Bhatkhande’s compositions while he was at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, a modern gurukul in Kolkata. But he passed away in 1994 after recording compositions in only three volumes of Kramik.  Beginning afresh, Nirody is probably the first person to have completed the task, a century after Bhatkhande finished his magnum opus.

“I am very glad that I did it,” said Nirody in April, in his brother’s flat in Mumbai, a city where he spent most of his working life before retiring to Karnataka.

For the more than four decades that Nirody lived in Mumbai, till his retirement in 1995, he studied music with stalwarts such as SCR Bhat, Gurudutt Heblekar, Dinkar Kaikini and Chidandand Nagarkar, besides Ginde. Nirody made a career in the insurance sector, but spent all his free time on music. His father had moved from Udipi in southwest Karnataka to Mumbai when his son was 10 so that he could learn from top-notch musicians. For much of the 20th century, the western metropolis was one of the most important centres for Hindustani classical music, attracting the country’s best talent.

Unique notation

First published in Marathi and then translated into Hindi, Bhatkhande’s six volumes contained the lyrics and tunes of bandishes, or compositions, from a variety of different gharanas, or schools of music. Bhatkhande devised his own notation for representing in writing the melodies of the compositions, which span close to 200 ragas – the melodic modes at the centre of Indian classical music. This meant that Bhatkhande collected many compositions in each raga.

In his time, Bhatkhande’s effort elicited mixed responses from the musician community, which was suspicious and sceptical of anything other than the oral tradition. Today, however, Bhatkhande’s work is widely admired, both by scholars and musicians, because it recorded for posterity compositions that may have vanished had they had been restricted to oral transmission and opened up to the public at large knowledge that was confined to hereditary musician families.

At the same time, given the minute melodic subtleties in Indian classical music, no system of notation, including Bhatkhande’s, can capture what is actually sung or played on an instrument; it can serve only as a starting point for interpretation and embellishment.

Nirody’s renditions, reflecting the weight of decades of his own training, therefore represent an important advance in making musical knowledge more accessible.

Commendable effort

“It is commendable,” said Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, 60, one of India’s top khayal vocalists and a much-in-demand guru at Kolkata’s Sangeet Research Academy, of Nirody’s Samarpan. “Even performing musicians cannot learn all ragas or all compositions in a raga from their gurus. And notations have their limitations. So the recordings will be hugely beneficial both to students and musicians.”

In the foreword to Samarpan, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, a colleague of Kashalkar’s at the Kolkata Academy, and Mumbai-based Pandit Sharad Sathe have also commended Nirody’s efforts, as has musicologist and mathematician Ramesh Gangolli. Nirody’s recordings assumed importance because “…Hindustani musicians are not very comfortable learning compositions from the notated written versions.” He writes, “Having been trained by ear, they are more comfortable learning new pieces in the same way…”

Younger musicians, too, welcomed the recordings. “Learning from notation is completely different from learning from a guru,” said Rutuja Lad, 22, an upcoming vocalist in Mumbai who was a student of the late Dhondutai Kulkarni. “But an authentic recording can be a strong reference for learning new bandishes. Also, learning several bandishes in a raga can help a musician improve her understanding of the raga itself. For this too, the recordings will be very important.”

Only so far

Pandit Satyasheel Deshpande, 64, who splits his time between Mumbai and Pune, however, qualified his praise for Nirody’s effort by pointing out that in Indian classical music a recording could do only so much work. “It is an admirable effort,” he said of Nirody’s project. “It has become one step easier for students to interpret Bhatkhande.

But when Bhatkhande collected these compositions, Hindustani music was practised in about two-thirds of the country in a variety of cultural settings, which means that the compositions were also rendered in a variety of styles, he said. Yet as is inevitable, Pandit Nirody has sung all the compositions in one style, which is that of Ginde, his guru, and that of Ginde’s guru, SN Ratanjankar, Deshpande said.

For instance, Kramik contains many traditional compositions of the Gwalior gharana, the oldest khayal school. (Khayal and dhrupad are the two main genres of Hindustani, or north Indian classical, music.) These, for instance, would have been sung quite differently from the way Nirody has rendered them.

So in one way, a recording can also become a red herring, Deshpande said. “There is some advantage of leaving the compositions in the form of notations,” he said. “It gives you room for interpretation. The very nature of our music is not to repeat annotated things. A lot is left to the imagination of the artiste.”

In a lecture demonstration at the release function of Samarpan in Mumbai in April, Desphande presented examples of how his inimitable guru, the late Pandit Kumar Gandharva, had mined Bhatkhande’s work based on his own training from Pandit BR Deodhar. “Kumarji introduced us to many of Bhatkhande’s compositions,” said Deshpande. “But he used to tell his students: it is easy to annotate music, but it is difficult to read the annotations unless you know the socio-cultural context in which the music was produced.”

A student should therefore be aware that compositions have a history and arose in a particular cultural setting, Deshpande said. As long as one approaches the recordings with these caveats, they are no doubt an important resource, he said. “Ustad Allaydiya Khan, the founder the Jaipur gharana, and Ustad Amir Khan, for instance, took many of Bhatkhande’s compositions and adapted it to their distinct styles,” he said. “But if Bhatkhande had not collected them in the first place, what would they have done?”

Nirody agreed that his recordings are not meant to substitute learning from a guru and that his renditions are a starting point for further interpretation. “One cannot substitute teachers,” he said. “Compositions are for everyone. But each one has his own approach, depending on the gharana and personal style.”

Six years of labour

When Nirody began work on the project, he and his accompanists started by recording for an hour a day, every alternate day. Gradually, they boosted it to two hours a day, every alternate day, and finally settled into a routine of two hours every day in the evening.

Nirody has funded the enterprise himself, through a trust, which will eventually reimburse him from proceeds from the sales ­­­­­of the book and CDs. Accompanying Nirody on the CDs are Pandit Veeabhadraiah Hiremath on the harmonium, and Pandit Ramesh Dhannur and Pandit Bhimashankar Bidnoor on the tabla.

“Everyone involved in the project was committed,” he said. “They knew its importance. The sound recordist, a Carnatic violinist, AP Srinivas, accommodated us according to our convenience. A lot of credit goes to him.”

Nirody said his only regret about the project was that his teaching took a backseat during its duration. Among his students in Mysore are Vaishnavi Talakad, who is Gangubai Hangal’s granddaughter, and musician Omkarnath Havaldar.

From Samarpan: Indudhar Nirody renders Tuve Sayee, a composition by Na'mat Khan, a prolific composer at the court of Mohammed Shah 'Rangila' who used the pen name Sadarang. It is one of the grandest compositions in what is considered to be one of the most majestic ragas of Hindustani music.

To buy the book and CDs, send a cheque of Rs 3,000 (for addresses in India) or Rs 4,500 (for addresses abroad) to
Swarasankula Sangeetha Sabha, #1226 3rd Cross, Gange Raste, Kuvempungar, Mysore 570023.