Rambhau Pawar, 89, remembers the time when he went from singing devotional songs based on Hindustani classical raags to improvising in those raags – that crucial phase of metamorphosis when Rambhau, the singer, became Rambhau, the musician.

He was just over 30 years old, working by day as a peon in a government office in Kolhapur, a historical cultural hub in southern Maharashtra, and spending his evenings singing with a prominent bhajan mandali, a loose musical group in which people gather regularly to sing devotional songs.

“That was when I began understanding the idea of raagdari,” recalled Pawar, sitting in a temple in Aundh, his native village in Satara district in southwestern Maharashtra about 300 kilometres from Mumbai, in October. It was the eve of the 76th Aundh Sangeet Mahotsav, a rare 24-hour, all-night classical music festival that is among a handful in India to be held in a remote rural area.

Raagdaari is a concept that lies at the heart of Indian classical music. It refers to the process by which a person generates unlimited melodies in a raag after internalising its grammar. It is akin to a person generating infinite sentences in a language after absorbing its rules of syntax.

As with one’s linguistic ability, a musician’s capacity to improvise in a raag evolves over the years as he or she discovers new undulations and pathways in its landscape. But even to get to a stage where one can begin improvising requires years of training.

An autodidact

Pawar, however, learnt formally for just six months, and that too in fits and starts over the years. Yet today, he sings Hindustani music with a fidelity and passion that appeals to connoisseurs. Or perhaps it would appeal only to them, for his is not music that has been polished and chiselled by years of training under the watchful eyes of a guru. It is music with rough edges and digressions but also with the raw power and originality of a passionate autodidact.

“He imbibed most of what he knows about classical music sub-consciously, like a child learns his or her mother tongue,” said Arun Kashalkar, 74, the veteran Agra-Gwalior khayal singer and composer who heads the committee that organises the Aundh festival. “He may not be a full-blown concert performer but he has definitely gained command over certain aspects of classical singing. He can sing aalaaps and chhota khayals [the fast-paced compositions that follow the central bada khayals in a raag rendition]. He also understands rhythm well.”

Even at this age, Pawar’s motivation to sing and learn burns strong. He regaled listeners on several nights before the festival in several informal sessions. Then on one night, he performed for an hour in the green room behind the temple, where the concerts used to take place in the festival’s early years, to an audience of about a dozen people. His grandson Ketan accompanied him on the tabla.

On another evening, as organisers, volunteers and early bird listeners sat in the quadrangle outside the temple relaxing and chatting, he got Bhavik Mankad, a young student of Arun Kashalkar’s, to teach him one of the maestro’s compositions – in Darbari Kanada.

“The sthayi [first verse of a bandish, or khayal composition] ends with re-sa-ni-sa,” explained Mankad to Pawar at one point.

“Don’t tell me what the notes are, just sing the line again,” replied Pawar, who has learnt music almost entirely by ear, not by notation, even though he eventually taught himself to read and write.

Raag Bhimpalas. Dholan Meende Ghar Aa, in Teen Taal, traditional composition. Tore Sangata, Aadha Chautal

Rich environment

Pawar imbibed almost everything he knows about music by osmosis. Born into an abjectly poor backward caste family, he has not attended school even for a day. What set the ball rolling was the fortuitous accident of being born in Aundh. It enabled Pawar to attend the festival almost every year since its founding in 1940 by Anant Manohar Joshi. Pawar was then 13 years old.

Trained in the Gwalior gharana, Joshi was the court musician in the Aundh princely state and started the festival in the temple in honour of his spiritual guru, Swami Shivanand. Each year, the festival is held on Swami Shivanand’s birthday according to the Hindu calendar, which falls before Diwali.

Almost at once, Pawar’s uncle became involved with organising the festival, and he joined in soon afterwards. Today, Pawar’s son, Sunil does the local heavy lifting for the festival.

In the 1980s, when Joshi’s son, Gajananbuwa, took over running the festival, the performances moved from the temple to the Aundh Kala Mandir, a simple but airy and tasteful concert hall located across the street and built with help from descendants of the royal family.

The festival attracts an astonishingly diverse audience – from purist musicians, talented music students, diehard listeners from urban centres, farmers and other inhabitants of small towns and villages across southwestern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka.

It encourages an uncompromisingly classical variety of music that is increasingly a rarity on the mainstream concert circuit because many musicians are sensitive to the legacy of Anant Manohar Joshi and Gajananbuwa, gentle giants who tower over 20th century Hindustani music history by virtue of their impeccable taleem, or training, musical depth and generosity as gurus. It is this rich environment that moulded Pawar’s musical sensibilities.

“Rambhau has mastered most of Gajanabuwa’s compositions, even in uncommon ragas such as Raisa Kanada,” said Kashalkar, perhaps Gajananbuwa’s most senior student today. “He was very devoted to him.”

Raag Bhoop. Fulawari Adharan Ki Lal, in Teen Taal, composed by Gajanabuwa. Joshi Srigopal Krishna Bhagwan, a bhajan sung in Aadha Chautal

Turning point

If the festival became a recurring motif in Pawar’s life, his three years in Kolhapur, about 110 kilometres from Aundh, became a turning point. Almost as soon as he moved there with his wife and two daughters in 1958, he began attending a bhajan group at the city’s famous Mahalaxmi temple every weekday at 7 pm.

In addition, every week he would attend a bhajan group run by Shankarrao Sarnaik, the leader of a drama troupe that employed some great classical singers, such as Alladiya Khan, who founded the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, and Rajab Ali Khan of the Indore gharana. The well-known actor Arun Sarnaik was his son and the reputable Jaipur-Atrauli gharana singer Nivruttibua Sarnaik his nephew. In Kolhapur, Pawar was able to sing more frequently and with more singers than in similar groups in Sangli and Karad, towns in southern Maharashtra where he had been posted earlier.

“My voice rapidly improved because I was singing so much more,” Pawar recalled. “I also started practising by myself. I got to hear excellent bhajans and befriended other singers. I began understanding raagdari.”

Raag Multani. Aaj Bajata, in Teen Taal, traditional composition. Aaja hoona, Aadha Chautal

Pawar got to know a couple of Shankarao Sarnaik’s students in their early twenties, and plied them with questions about the raags that various bhajans were based on. He also developed a good rapport with Sarnaik himself and went along with his troupe when they visited other towns and villages to sing during festivals and religious occasions. Some of these bhajan sessions went on till 4 am, after which Pawar had just enough time to return to his home in Kolhapur, have a bath and set off for work.

That Pawar was welcomed without ado into the bhajan circle run by the upper-caste Sarnaik, underlines the inclusive nature of the state’s devotional music culture, rooted as it is in the regional bhakti movement, the Varkari sampradaya. The late 13th century mystic Jnaneshwar, a pioneer of this movement, preached that the path to god was through devotion, bhakti, and that it had no room for caste distinctions. His commentary on the Bhagwad Gita, the eponymous Jnaneshwari, one of the earliest works of Marathi literature, became the foundational text of the state’s bhakti ideology.

From upper-caste landlords to lower-caste farm labourers, adherents of the Varkari tradition came mostly from the countryside. In particular, southwest Maharashtra, where both Aundh and Kolharpur are located, became a thriving hub of the Varkari movement, Jnaneshwar’s influence radiating out from his birthplace, Alandi.

Raag Shankara. Pashupati Girija Shiv Shankara, Aadha Chautal

Early exposure

If southwest Maharashtra’s rich non-sectarian tradition of raag-based devotional music played a part in Pawar’s musical journey as an adult, its position as the epicentre of khayal gave him crucial early exposure to art music of the highest order.

Every morning, till he was 21 years old, Pawar would bathe in a lake opposite Gajananbuwa’s home, where he would hear him teaching music to his children and others.

“Every day, I would look forward to listening to his resonant voice,” said Pawar.

Pawar also had the marginal fortune of being born into the Gadshi caste, which, though low down in the caste hierarchy, was associated with music. Its menfolk traditionally played the shehnai for ritual occasions, from marriages to daily ceremonies in temples.

Pawar’s father followed his community’s traditional occupation, playing the shehnai almost daily for the aarti ceremony at the Yamai Devi temple in Aundh. On Tuesdays, he played four times a day. The tunes of devotional songs he played were based on classical raags, although he was not explicitly aware of this.

Pawar’s father also played regularly at the court of the local ruler. During his time, what is today Aundh village belonged to the princely state carrying the same name. At the court, Pawar’s father got to know and accompanied Anant Manohar Joshi.

Raag Todi. A composition in Punjabi theka

Born in Kinhai, about 50 kilometres from Aundh, Joshi belonged to a cohort of khayal singers in Maharashtra who had been trained by Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjiikar. Balkrishnabuwa, who was born in Ichalkaranji, also in southern Maharashtra, had spent several years studying music in Gwalior, the seat of khayal’s first gharana, and returned to his native region to spread that style, thus helping to lay the foundation of khayal music in Maharashtra.

Pawar’s father was thus exposed to high-quality khayal music. At the same time, he was paid a modest sum for his playing, barely enough to support his huge family of nine children. He also spent money on alcohol, and never sent Pawar to school.

So Pawar had to begin working even before the age of 10 to contribute to the family income. In Aundh, he largely herded cattle for others, earning a daily wage of not more than one rupee.

Raag Yaman. Pati Devana Maha Deva Shiva Shankara, set to Mat Taal, an unusual taal of nine beats

Only so far

Pawar’s journey reveals not only the effects of early and sustained exposure to high-quality music, but also the importance of one-on-one training. For while he managed to sing with bhajan troupes and performed solo several times at small gatherings and bhajan festivals, he never had an outside chance of becoming a performing classical musician.

His grandson, Ketan, 24, however, managed to get better training – on the tabla. He learnt from Anand Siddhye, a student of Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, for several years, in Satara town, close to Aundh. When he moved to Pune for his bachelor’s degree in commerce, he learnt a bit from Pandit Suresh Talwalkar.

Ketan, who has acted in several Marathi films, such as Shala, accompanied his grandfather at the mehfil in the green room. The festival, he said, was the high point in Pawar’s year. “It boosts his spirits and keeps him going.”

Ragamalika. Puriya Dhanashree and Lalita Gauri

All videos by Rajan Gadekar.