After the khayal singer Babanrao Haldankar, 89, had finished presenting his first item, a slow-paced composition in raga Shyam Kalyan, at the Aundh Sangeet Mahotsav on October 20, a man at the back shouted, “Once more!” This elicited laughter from the concert hall’s first few rows, filled mostly with musicians and music students.

They were amused because Indian classical music performances do not include the practice of calling for encores, since so much of what a musician does on stage is improvised. But they immediately broke into applause because they knew it was the listener’s way of expressing his appreciation.

“Once more?” asked Haldankar, smiling broadly and then beginning another item in the same raga – a tarana, a fast-paced compositional form that uses euphonic syllables and words that do not have a meaning. Khayal and dhrupad are the two main genres of North Indian classical, or Hindustani, music. A raga is a complex musical mode.

Now in its 76th year, the Mahotsav takes place every year in Aundh, a village of about 6,000 residents, in Maharashtra’s Satara district nearly 300 km southwest of Mumbai. The village belonged to the former Maratha princely state of Aundh, which was founded in 1699 and dissolved in 1948 when it joined the Indian union.

“I meant, I want more,” Subhash Nimbalkar, 68, the man who had shouted his appreciation, explained after the concert. “I want to hear as much of Babanrao Haldankar’s music as possible because he is old.”

Subhash Nimbalkar, a farmer and music lover. Credit: Akshay Vardhave

Nimbalkar, a farmer, is hardly a stranger to classical music. He has been attending this festival for more than three decades, travelling 40 km to Aundh from his village Kinhai, where Anant Manohar Joshi, a Gwalior gharana singer, was born in 1881. A gharana is a school or style of music. Manohar Joshi, or Antubuwa, later became Aundh’s court singer and started the Mahotsav in 1940 in honour of his spiritual guru, Swami Shivanand. The festival is held on his birthday according to the Hindu calendar, which falls before Diwali.

Antubuwa’s son and student, Gajananbuwa Joshi, a singer, self-taught violinist, prolific guru and hugely influential musician of 20th-century Hindustani music, continued to run the festival until his death in 1987. After that, Gajananbuwa Joshi’s children, grandchildren, students and well-wishers have run the event through a trust that the musician set up in 1981. His eldest son, Manohar Joshi, played a huge role in raising funds and keeping the festival going. At the Aundh end, descendants of the royal family and local legislators have also consistently supported the festival with logistical help.

Nimbalkar said that he had heard Gajananbuwa at the festival for four years till his death and had heard Haldankar at Aundh for more than two decades. Nimbalkar’s father, Dattatray, had been a harmonium player, while his uncle, Babalgiribuwa, a tabla player, had known Antubuwa well and had accompanied Gajananbuwa several times, he said.

“I got excited by Haldankarbuwa’s rendition, also because some parts reminded me of Gajananbuwa’s singing,” Nimbalkar said. Gajananbuwa had held Haldankar in high regard and had requested him to sing at Aundh every year, which he has done barring a few times.

Haldankar, who spent a large part of his life in Mumbai before moving to Pune a few years ago, is a leading light of the Agra gharana, a scholar and a guru who has trained a vast number of students. In Mumbai, he learnt from great musicians: first from Mogubai Kurdikar, of the Jaipur gharana, and then from the Agra gharana’s Khadim Hussain Khan. At the threshold of 90, he still sings with vigour and subtlety.

Yet he has had a meagre presence on the mainstream music circuit, his art restricted to a circle of diehard connoisseurs. That a farmer from a remote village could, however, so instinctively and warmly appreciate Haldankar’s pristine music, and further, find in it echoes of Gajananbuwa, another connoisseur’s delight who did not get wide exposure, illustrates what makes the Aundh Sangeet Mahotsav special.

Several features give the Mahotsav a distinctive character: a bucolic setting in a region with a rich history of music; a diverse and knowledgeable audience of musicians, students, urban connoisseurs and farmers; and many high-quality performances by artistes who are conscious of Antubuwa and Gajananbuwa’s musical values and the festival’s ethos. In an inversion of the direction many mainstream concerts and festivals have taken, at the Aundh Mahotsav, a highly inclusive audience gets the opportunity to listen to an exclusive brand of unalloyed art music.

An excerpt from Babanrao Haldankar’s vilambit, or slow-paced, exposition in raga Shyam Kalyan. Credit: All video clips by Kalyan Chheda
Veteran Agra gharana singer Babanrao Haldankar responds to a listener, Subhash Nimbalkar (not visible in this clip), asking for more, and sings a second item in Shyam Kalyan, a tarana.

Unique setting

The Mahotsav is one of a handful of classical music festivals in India that take place in rural areas. Another is the Sawai Gandharva festival in Kundgol, a village in north Karnataka’s Dharwad district that was the birthplace of the great Kirana gharana singer Rambhau Kundgolkar, or Sawai Gandharva, who was the guru of several prominent singers, such as Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal.

Aundh village is remote: it does not have a rail connection, and the nearest station, Rahimatpur, is 17 km away. Surrounded by acres of fields, the location fosters an informal yet intense listening experience. The festival has always been free, with people coming and going as they wish. The organisers also offer subsidised food and some accommodation.

The festival’s success over the years is a testament to the huge effect that just one or two musicians can have on the taste and musical culture of a whole community. It also shows how crucial local participation is in keeping this culture alive.

“We are very proud of this town’s connection with classical music,” said Madhura Tone, 44, a former sarpanch who had accompanied the current incumbent, Rohini Thorat, 48, to the festival’s opening ceremony. “Most families listen to some kind of music, even if it is bhajans and keertans.”

Not just Aundh, but the whole of western Maharashtra has historically been a musical hotbed. In the late 19th century, the region saw the blossoming of theatrical and classical music. Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjikar, a native of the region born in 1984 in Ichalkaranji, in Kolhapur district, nearly 120 km from Aundh, was the towering figure who brought khayal music to Maharashtra from Gwalior, which produced the first khayal gharana. He then taught a whole generation of singers, of which Antubuwa was one.

The seeds were sown even further back, with an efflorescence of devotional music – bhajans, keertans and abhangs – in previous centuries, fostered by many generations of bhakti poet-saints, including the 13th century pioneer, Sant Dyaneshwar.

Shubhada Paradkar, who learnt from both Gajanabuwa and Babanrao Haldankar, and opened the evening session, sings a composition of Antubuwa’s in raga Shree.

Carnival atmosphere

A few days before the festival, excitement built up as the organising committee, including key local hands and a huge contingent from the Mumbai area, set up base in buildings around the Dutt Mandir, a temple dedicated to the Hindu holy trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, whose sanctum is the site of Swami Shivanand’s tomb.

The temple stands right across the road from the simple but tasteful concert hall, the Aundh Kala Mandir. Anyone sitting on the dais has a straight line of vision to the idol in the sanctum. For many years, the concerts took place inside the temple, in the covered hall in front of the sanctum.

Hard-core aficionados also started trickling in a few days ahead of time to help out and soak in the ambience. They were greeted by a huge billboard at the village entrance, carrying the festival’s schedule, complete with photographs of artistes, signalling the event’s importance to the local community.

Despite the hectic run-up to the programme, the spacious greenroom behind the sanctum managed to spring to life with impromptu sideshows. Under the watchful eyes of Antubuwa, peering down from a portrait, Rambhau Pawar, 87, a self-taught musician and former peon who grew up in Aundh, regaled listeners with traditional compositions as well his own quirky adaptions of bhajans and abhangs to the classical idiom.

The next evening, Pramod Deodhar, a festival regular from Pune with family roots in Aundh, played the sitar. Finally, on the night before the festival, as a foretaste of the cornucopia of music to come, khayal vocalist Arun Kashalkar, 73, one of Gajanabuwa’s senior-most disciples, and a key member of the organising committee, gave a mini-recital in the temple, singing raga Hem Kalyan.

The day of the festival finally dawned with the sound of temple bells. After priests performed a pooja to the deity, the programme began on a sunny, pleasant day, Aundh’s elevation of about 600 metres above sea level taking the edge off western India’s post-monsoon heat.

The line-up was dominated by vocal music, but included a couple of instrumental items, a tabla solo recital and a kathak performance – a traditional format. This year, the vocalists were Suresh Bapat, Ashwini Chandekar, Babanrao Haldankar, Jyoti Kale, Arun Kashalkar, Bhuvanesh Komkali, Raja Miya and Shubhada Paradkar. The other items were Anupama Bhagwat’s sitar recital, Amruta Gogate’s kathak performance, Deepak Khirsagar’s guitar concert and Satyajit Talwalkar’s tabla solo. The post-sunset kathak and tabla performances attracted a full house, as they habitually do.

The festival is a rare 24-hour affair, allowing listeners to enjoy the full expanse of ragas, each of which in Hindustani music is traditionally sung during a specific period of the day. The programme thus opened at 9 am with Ashwini Chandekar’s sprightly Ahir Bhairav and concluded the next morning with Arun Kashalkar’s stirring Bhairav.

An excerpt from Satyajit Talwalkar’s tabla solo recital, the opening item of the post-dinner session, which attracted a huge audience.
An excerpt from Arun Kashalkar’s rendition of raga Bhairav.

Distinctive audience

More than half of those who attend are from the rural hinterland: Aundh, its environs, as well as villages and small towns in southwestern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka. Others include musicians, music students and serious listeners of classical music from the big cities, including Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru. Many visitors are regulars, who carry memories and stories of great performances by stalwarts, past and present.

“Because of Antubuwa and Gajananbuwa, people in this area have been exposed to the highest quality of classical music,” said Sunil Pawar, who is on the festival’s organising committee and does the heavy lifting in Aundh, as his father, the self-taught local singer Rambhau Pawar, did before him.

It was not just Nimbalkar who appreciated Haldankar’s singing that day. The hall of more than 200 listeners responded with “wah-wahs” and other appreciative interjections throughout his recital, in which he followed Shyam Kalyan with the complex raga Ram Gauri, an Agra gharana speciality.

“The ambience is wonderful,” said Dattaytray Kadam, 57, a farmer who has been attending the festival for the past eight years. “I listen to classical music on the radio and TV, but a live performance has a different feel. I feel bad that this happens only once a year.” He had travelled from Visapur, in Sangli district to the south, nearly 50 km away from Aundh, and spent the whole night at the concert hall, along with his teenage daughter, Priyanka, and her classical music teacher, Ashok Kulkarni, 65.

Bitkar Maharaj, 84, had come from Veet, in Solapur district, to the west. He is also a regular, having attended the festival for the past two decades. “The music here is pure,” he said. “It’s a different kind of sound.” He was referring to music of an older, traditional kind, with no frills, gimmicks and concessions to popular taste.

Which is also what prompted Nilesh Khilikar, who teaches music at SNDT University in Pune, to bring along about two dozen students to Aundh. “It is a festival of old gharanas, rare and complex ragas and traditional compositions,” he said. “In Mumbai and Pune, you hear popular ragas and popular compositions. But here you can hear things that you cannot hear anywhere else.”

An excerpt from a rendition of the rare raga Gara Kanada, at about 1:30 am by Raja Miya, who learnt from his uncle, the Agra gharana’s Khadim Hussain Khan, also Haldankar’s guru.
Dattatray Kadam (second from the left), his daughter Priyanka (third from the left), and her music teacher, Ashok Kulkarni (far right). Credit: Akshay Vardhave
Bitkar Maharaj has been attending the Aundh festival for the past two decades. Credit: Akshay Vardhave

Paying homage

For many musicians, performing at Aundh is a rite of passage. “The environment is spiritual,” said Ashwini Chandekar, 45, a singer from Pune and Babanrao Haldankar’s student who debuted at the festival with ragas Ahir Bhairav and Yamani Bilawal. “It is moving to see people working so devotedly in a field that has become commercialised. I feel blessed.”

Suresh Bapat, a singer in his early 50s from Thane, also performed at Aundh for the first time. It was particularly special for him because one of his gurus, the late scholar Ashok Ranade, was Gajananbuwa’s student. “I enjoyed singing here,” he said after his recital, in which he presented the offbeat ragas Lachari Todi and Bilawal Thaat ka Gunkali. “The audience’s response was heartening.”

Sitarist Anupama Bhagwat, in her early 40s, who had come from Bangalore, was amazed to see a full hall past midnight, during her recital, in which she presented ragas Bihag and Shahana Kanada. “One has to give one’s best here, to honour Antubuwa and Gajananbuwa, and for the large number of serious listeners.”

An excerpt from sitar player Anupama Bhagwat’s midnight rendition of Shahana Kanada.