After two barren, lonely years, it was not surprising that Delhi’s Kamani auditorium was packed to the rafters at the annual Vishnu Digambar music festival. But even then, the spontaneous roar of enthusiasm that greeted M Venkatesh Kumar was stunning.

The entire hall came to its feet in a standing ovation – and that was before the Hindustani vocalist sat down to start the concert. The applause wouldn’t die down, not even to let him begin. Scenes of adulation like this are mostly reserved for the icons of the instrumental scene. For a Hindustani khayal singer to electrify an audience with their sheer presence is rare.

But here is the conundrum – no one could be less of a rock star than Kumar. The word used most often to describe him is humble. In a field full of temperamental geniuses, elephantine egos and insularity, he is an artiste of the people.

“I can’t think of a musician more deserving of this popularity and fame, every bit of it,” said Madhup Mudgal, Hindustani vocalist and principal, Gandharva Mahavidyalaya that hosts the Vishnu Digamber festival. “He has mettle, sur, immaculate tayyari (preparation) and more importantly, humility and simplicity.”

It is this charisma that acclaimed filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli seeks to unpack in his documentary in Kannada, Naadada Navaneeta (The New Music). The film, backed by the Karnataka government and winner of a national award to be presented next week, is a look at both the man and his music and the honesty that marks both.

“I find his innocence captivating,” said Kasaravalli. “It is like he hasn’t realised how popular he is or what great artiste he is. He still calls himself a practitioner, someone who is trying to frame his thoughts in music, bring a raga to life. And he attributes it all to his guru’s grace.”

Raga Bhimpalasi

Audience connect

Kasaravalli started making the film in February 2019, before the pandemic shut the world down. The documentary begins in an unusual place – the green room where Kumar is warming up for an open-air concert at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore. The hubbub of the audience is yet to be heard. These are moments of quietude and preparation and off-limits for all but the musician and his accompanists. Kumar meanders down a mellow Gorakh Kalyan: no high jinks here, just notes of restful contemplation.

And then he moves into the arena.

The spark is almost instantaneous as the audience clamours for its favourite devotional numbers. There is one request for a Shaivite vachana, another for a composition of Purandhara Dasa. “I will sing one each, okay?” he says as you would to querulous children, and laughter erupts.

A big part of Kumar’s popularity lies in his audience connect, marked by both cheerful patience and indulgence. “Most listeners do not have raga parichay (introduction),” he told this writer. “They are more happy and comfortable listening to bhav or bhakti sangeet, which too can be based on classical music. As an artiste, it is my responsibility to meet them halfway, reach out to them and lead them to the world of ragas.”

In the film he recalls the time Bhimsen Joshi lost his cool at being pestered to sing a bhajan early in a concert. “We usually walk onto the stage with some thoughts about what we are going to sing and requests like this tend to disturb their flow,” he tells Kasaravalli.

But if he is peeved at the audience clamour at IIM-Bangalore, you don’t get to see any of it. As the listeners settle in, he starts on a slow delineation of raga Jaijaiwanti.

Multiple influences

Kumar’s music, which combines the verve of Gwalior gharana and the emotive appeal of Kirana, has an infectiously muscular energy – the lift of the chest and the power of the voice are very reminiscent of Bhimsen Joshi. “It is a quality that gets across the footlights and you see this in theatre as well,” said music critic Shanta Gokhale. “It is not necessarily outwardly expressed, but contained in the artistry and just gets across to audiences.”

The khayal fraternity is divided over how leisurely the first phase of exposition should be: from the formidable ati-vilambit (very slow) to the madhya laya. Amir Khan, the founder of the Indore gharana, is usually held up as the embodiment of the former, and the Gwalior gharana of the latter.

Kumar’s music says it all with economy and little self-indulgence, which is both a gift of his Gwalior training and an understanding of the audience’s pulse. It has also earned him some flak for not diving deep enough into the raga scheme, but he is emphatic he will not dawdle over it any longer than he needs to.

“Not every raga lends itself to an hour-long elaboration,” he countered. “If you pick one that has a small bandwidth and carry on for an hour, you end up wrecking it. The Gwalior ang is called ashtang (eight-limbed) for a reason – it believes in combining all elements with precision and clarity.”

Raga Durga

Kumar is part of a fascinating cultural phenomenon located in the Hubbali-Dharwad region of northern Karnataka. Despite its proximity to the Carnatic traditions, this belt and its neighbourhood have been home to some of the biggest Hindustani legends of the last 100 years – Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Basavaraj Rajguru, Sawai Gandharva and Kumar Gandharva.

Much has been written about why this makes for an unusually fertile musical field. Is it the tranquil and green environs? The fact that it was a favourite rest stop of musicians travelling the long road from Bombay to perform for their patrons at the court of Mysore? Its formidably knowledgeable audiences? The classically-oriented All India Radio Dharwad?

It was, and is, perhaps all of this. Along with the presence of the Veereshwara Punyashrama, an institution in Gadag (now a separate district) that houses and teaches Hindustani music to poor children, especially those who are blind. Set up by the blind ascetic-musician Panchakshari Gawai, this was where Kumar was schooled in the Hindustani system by Puttaraj Gawai in the 1960s.

It is something of a cliché to trace the life of a humble genius to an indigent childhood but it is a reality in the case of Kumar. Born to a family from a marginalised community in drought-prone rural Bellary, he had some exposure to music in his early life through his father, who was a folk artiste, and his uncles, who were part of the local theatre circuit.

The ashram routine was hard work, he recalls in the film. There were early lessons, long hours of practice and strict rules of service. He would run off home on some excuse or the other. “But I would be dragged back,” he says of his guru who never gave up on the truant but prodigiously talented youngster.

The Gawai musical tradition was an amalgam of various musical influences, including Carnatic. The older Gawai learned under Nilkanthbua Alurmath of the Gwalior gharana and Abdul Wahid Khan of the Kirana school. Add to this folk and theatre influences and you can see why Kumar’s music is rich with emotional appeal.

Girish Karnad, ailing at the time when the documentary was made, pays tribute to this eclecticism in Kumar’s music. “He does not subscribe to any sectarian thought,” says Karnad in the film. “Bhimsen Joshi would only sing Dasa kritis [Vaishnavite] and Mallikarjun Mansur only vachana [Shaivite]. Venkatesh Kumar sings both. And he traverses various gharanas.”

Sense of integrity

The days of struggle extended well beyond the ashram, into his life as a music teacher in schools. It is in his wife’s warm and guileless recollections that we hear this story. At Rs 30 a month, all the couple could afford were two vessels, one to cook rice and the other sambar, says Lakshmi Devi.

Finally a job at the University College of Fine Arts and Music in Dharwad, gained at age 40, allowed him to breathe free, finding time to practise while giving him a steady income. One of the most remarkable things about Kumar is his steadfast and loyal adherence to his role at the college.

In 1979, he found a platform on All India Radio; by the early 2000s, he found recognition as a performing artiste; and the succeeding decades saw his popularity soar. But he refused to give up on the college till he retired.

Credit: First Edition Arts.

“He could have found money and fame much earlier as a concert musician but he said this job came to his rescue when his family was in distress and he would stay on in gratitude,” recalls Karnad.

This strong sense of integrity and sensibility mark his musical identity as well. As Gokhale points out, in a field where leading figures either reside in the ivory tower of scholarliness or position themselves as figures of piety, Kumar chose the prefix of “professor” over “pandit”. “People do respond to humility in a world where image and self-projection rule the public life,” she said.

In the years before the pandemic, Kumar had become one of the most prolific performers, crisscrossing the country in a dizzying flurry of concerts. Music circles point to the fact that he breached the impenetrable citadel that is Kolkata, where he has a massive following.

Other musicians in his league, experts say, have a lot more going for them but not his charisma. Ulhas Kashalkar, for instance, reigns supreme for his vidwat (erudition), and Rashid Khan for his gharana affiliation and poise, but they rarely evoke this warmth. The only other star performer with this kind of reach is perhaps Kolkata-based Kaushiki Chakraborty.

“He is totally and completely with us, the audience, communicating with us,” said Gokhale. “He wants you to understand every note and word he sings, get what he is saying. He is enjoying what he can do with his music, he is not into impressing us and he wants us to share the good time he is having on stage.”

For Kumar, his art is a tribute to the man who changed his life: “My guru taught me that music must always have bhav (emotion) and that is why my music is all heart.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.