Satyasheel Deshpande’s life in music can be summarised as the pursuit of plurality. Rulebooks are an anathema to the Hindustani vocalist, not only because he finds conservatism stifling but also because he has an inheritance of dissent – the non-conformism of his guru, Kumar Gandharva, and the scholarly vision of his musicologist father, Vamanrao Deshpande.

Over five rain-swept evenings in the drawing room-turned-studio of a suburban bungalow in Pune, the 72-year-old unpacked the multiple facets of ragas. An articulate, outspoken and humorous figure in an otherwise taciturn fraternity, he offers one delectable bandish after another. These are the golden hits and the rare gems, accompanied by explanations of their structures and the stories of the legends who immortalised them.

“The raga is not just a prescribed bunch of notes, it is a gait. It is this that we have to investigate and reimagine as practitioners of classical music instead of obsessing over grammar and technicalities,” he said. “Rag sangeet is a plural practice because every raga has a mood and flow, every musician has a distinct personality and every region has a socio-cultural flavour.”

Satyasheel Deshpande on the different forms of raga Puriya.

He cites the example of the poignant dawn raga, Lalit. “A bandish may be in Lalit but it cannot hold everything Lalit has to say,” he said, pointing to the other colours that the raga’s canvas can subsume. There is the conventional Lalit in Bhimsen Joshi’s Rain ka sapna, the landscape of desolation in Kumar Gandharva’s Naina bhar aayo re, the querulous romance of his Ghungarwa ke runwa and the structural magnificence of the Sufi composition, Noor bharpur. Shankar Abhyankar’s wordplay in Sadarang Adarang is matched by Deshpande’s own sprightly tarana, Nit ta da ni tara dhim ta nom.

Deshpande has a bottomless collection of bandishes, something, he says, all dedicated analysts of raga sangeet must have. When he starts rummaging through his memory, many Bilawals, Puriya and Gaur Malhar come tumbling out, reimagined by himself and other masters.

The vocalist and writer’s revisitations of his life in music is for an ongoing, unique archival project that seeks to document the pluralism of aesthetic approaches and ideas that is fast-fading from mainstream concert circuits. The Indian Classical Music & Performing Arts Public Digital Archives was started last year as a sweeping, hugely ambitious online project – a research-led documentation of the gurus, senior artistes and their students, their traditional knowledge systems, pedagogies, compositions and commentaries. This wealth of rare material, audio and video recordings, produced by the non-profit Kishima Arts Foundation, will become available by 2026.

Arun Kashalkar records for the Indian Classical Music & Performing Arts Public Digital Archives Project.

Last year, the archiving began with the redoubtable Arun Kashalkar, a musician of impeccable artistic integrity who like many others remained painfully invisible in their best years to impresarios and mainstream organisers. The erudite tabla great Sadanand Naimpalli, Carnatic veteran Rama Ravi and Hindustani vocalist Raghunandan Panshikar were the other masters to put on record their musical journeys for the project.

As links in the continuum of this knowledge system, younger classical musicians are also a part of the archiving project. In alternate public spaces, singers – so far all under 30 – like Keyur Kurulkar, Aditya Madhavan, Siddartha Belmannu have been delving into their traditions and lineages to present less-heard compositions for the project.

Perishable form

Indian classical music is an achingly perishable form, created and abandoned within moments. An archive then becomes critical to an ephemeral system like this, for generations to look back, redefine and move ahead with their art.

YouTube, the most commonly accessed repository of old recordings, is mostly an undifferentiated dumping ground. In contrast, the ongoing archive is a bid to sidestep the pressure of covering everyone and everything and focusing instead on peer reviewed content layered with detailed texts.

Arun Kashalkar. Credit: Kishima Arts Foundation.

“In recent years, we have lost a shocking number of senior musicians and gurus, especially in the Mumbai-Pune belt: Sharad Sathe, Babanrao Haldankar, Vijay Sardeshmukh and Dinkar Phanshikar,” said Devina Dutt, co-founder of Kishima Arts Foundation. “With them we have lost entire repertoires of priceless compositions. Sharad Sathe, for instance, had a notebook filled with the bandishes of his guru Sharad Chandra Arolkar that we were on the verge of recording. This project is an attempt to document the art of our surviving greats and the cultural history they carry before it is too late.”

The Pune recordings lasted over nine marathon sessions and also included Alka Deo Marulkar, a formidably talented vocalist who can be described as a purist with an experimental edge. She combines with easy mastery the traits of multiple gharanas and cultural influences from across the Hindi heartland. Her gentle, almost girlish voice belies its power as it rides the tricky slopes of rarely performed ragas like Dev Gandhar, Nat Malhar and Kukubh Bilawal.

“I never found gharanas at odds with each other,” said the singer. “The pleasure lies in weaving different layers from each into my music to make it more joyful. I enjoy the challenge of singing a rare raga, or a tricky composition and it is enough for me even if a listener comes up and says, ‘I didn’t understand that but I loved hearing it.’”

Keyur Kurulkar. Credit: Kishima Arts Foundation.

In that drawing room-turned-recording studio, when the two musicians sit down to summarise their creative philosophy, it is like watching the entire spectrum of creative individualism unfold: the one assertive of his right to take flight, and the other, to do a deeper dive.

Variegated influences

Last year, the first recording of Arun Kashalkar’s music revealed a treasure of compositions handed down to him by his gurus, Babanrao Haldankar and Gajananrao Joshi, that are barely heard today. Not just that, he recalled the process of his own taleem even as he demonstrated how he teaches his students. These recordings are immensely interesting not just because of the music but also their recall of cultural histories.

“It was sangeet nataks [Marathi musicals], the radio and the voices of kirtankars that brought raga music into homes,” he recalled, explaining the easier relationship classical music once had with listeners. “If it is such and such composition it has to be this or that raga. I do not believe that one begins to understand the raga from its aaroh and avroh [set patterns of progression]. One has to teach and learn the song [first]. Then slowly, slowly, you begin to figure out the ragas.”

Arun Kashalkar in a taleem session with his students.

The master’s music is marked by variegated influences of his gurus who differed in temperaments, styles and pedagogies. There was Gwalior gharana’s Gajananrao Joshi, for whom no raga was too difficult with meticulous memorising, and Babanrao Haldankar, whose clear vision helped debunk stereotypes around the Agra gharana.

“In Babanrao’s bandishes the stamp of Agra gharana was pakka but it also bore the mark of his individualism,” said Kashalkar. “The flexibility he wove into words, their emotional content, his allowance for breathing time between words and syllables, the patterns and cycles of rhythm, and the huge array of embellishments typical of the gharana. Conserving his compositions is critical for our understanding of Hindustani music.”

Cultural histories

The Hindustani tradition is in a particularly vulnerable place now with a handful of celebrity artistes dominating the concert and festival circuits. This performance system and its market marginalises not only a whole lot of names but also entire repertoires of music, unusual compositions and rare ragas. Add to this the perils of mortality and you can see why music conservationists are worried.

One of the archive’s aims is to curate ragas and compositions that have gone out of circulation. At a taleem session with her senior students, Marulkar showed how a complex fused raga like Nat Malhar is taught. “Of course, you must negotiate the slippery slope but don’t forget to stay with the elegance and aesthetics of the raga,” she pointed out. “Play with the raga, its surprise elements, the shifts – these are the tests of your creative intelligence.”

Alka Deo Marulkar. Credit: Kishima Arts Foundation.

Beyond the stories of musical excellence lie nuggets of cultural histories that are simply not documented enough, except in academia. How was music perceived in the decades gone by? What kind of livelihood struggle did it entail? How did the urban and mofussil towns foster talent? Which corners of our cities hosted music, musicians and their networks?

Naimpalli, 76, recounts for the archive the bond between him and his guru, the legendary tabla wizard Taranath Rao. His recordings revisit his years as a Chitrapur Saraswat boy growing up in one of the biggest and oldest community cooperative societies of the time in the Girgaum area of south Mumbai. And his guru’s music mania that ran to the ground his family business in the 1930s and shrank his inheritance – from a full floor in a fine Lamington Road building to a one-bedroom tenement in Tardeo. It was here that Rao hosted struggling young musicians of the time – Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.

An archive must be seen as a formidable, inescapable tool for contemporary musicians, says the inimitable Deshpande, himself an archivist, in one of his numerous writings. “The importance of a guru cannot be underestimated but an archive can add whole new dimensions and wide perspectives to a student’s craft,” he said. “It can free him from the traps of stagnation and unnecessary gharana orthodoxy. An archive is a permanent refuge that musicians like me can keep coming back to for new insights, inspiration and new paths for the artist to follow on his never-ending quest for perfection.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.