Modern Hindustani classical music is the product of a continuous process of assimilation, cross-pollination, and experimentation. These processes operate not just across traditional stylistic schools, or gharanas, but also within individual schools. If we tease apart the tangled threads of pedagogy and influence, we find a rich narrative of a living and changing art form.
The vocal master Sharad Sathe personifies the complex development of a singing style within a single gharana – Gwalior – and largely within the musical community of a single small region, Mumbai and Pune. Sathe, who turned 85 in February, is appearing in concert in Mumbai this Sunday as the fourth musician in First Edition Arts’ Secret Masters Sessions, a series featuring phenomenal musicians who have remained hidden from mainstream view. Sathe, who lived in Mumbai for most of his adult life, moved to Pune two years ago. His performance will bring the first year of the series – which has already featured Arun Kashalkar, Narayanrao Bodas and Jayashree Patnekar – to a close.
To convey Sathe’s remarkable position in contemporary music, it is necessary to provide some historical context. The Gwalior school, the oldest pedagogical tradition of khayal, traces its roots to the court of Mohammad Shah “Rangile” of Delhi. As the musicologist Deepak Raja writes, in the early 19th century, Natthan Peer Baksh, a great musician of this tradition, moved from Lucknow to Gwalior. He trained his grandsons Haddu and Hassu Khan and their cousin Natthe Khan.
The teaching line of Hassu Khan produced three giants of early 20th century Maharashtrian music: Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Anant Manohar Joshi, and Yashwant Sadashiv Mirashi. The teaching line of Haddu Khan and Natthe Khan produced a further clan of luminaries: the Pandit brothers, Shankar and Eknath, and Shankar’s son Krishnarao Shankar Pandit. Other influential musicians within this tradition include Rehmat Khan and Ramkrishna Vaze.
Sharad Sathe is the direct inheritor of two of the three main strands of subsequent development of the Gwalior idiom, and an indirect recipient of the third. He has woven these strands into a cohesive gayaki which is very much his own, yet reveals his range of influences. He is thus a truly syncretic Gwalior representative, spanning a greater range of influences within the gharana than perhaps anyone else in living memory.
The first strand, which one may call “orthodox Gwalior”, derives from Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and his followers, among whom was Sharatchandra Arolkar, Sathe’s third and final teacher, from whom he learnt for nearly three decades. This style is characterised by a rich interplay between melody and rhythm. Below is a recording of Arolkar-buwa singing Yaman, a canonical evening raga. He unfolds the main phrases of the raga slowly, gradually ascending the octave and indulging in long swoops and runs. This yields to rhythmic elaboration and ornamentation based on the text of the song, namely bol-baant and bol-taan, as well as a variety of other taan patterns. The extensive use of meend, a smooth slide between notes referred to as glissando in Western music, and gamak, a vigorous sliding, often repeated, movement between two notes, in note articulation at slower speeds is a Gwalior characteristic.
The second strand of Gwalior, with links to the richly emotive, free-flowing Kirana style, was personified by the cult figure of DV Paluskar, son of Vishnu Digambar. Paluskar junior was Sathe’s first teacher until his untimely death at the age of 34. Even though, as Sathe says, Paluskar travelled for three weeks a month for various concert engagements, he still found time to rigorously teach Sathe and eventually took him on tours for further training and exposure.
Paluskar brought something of a revolution to the complex Gwalior style. His fresh, supple and tuneful voice charmed listeners, and he smoothed over the heavy complexities of the traditional style with clean articulation, reduced use of repetitive gamaks and heavy layakari, aakar taans over bol-taans, and attractive meend-based raga development with mercurial jumps across large sections of the octave.
When listening to Paluskar, one gets the impression of an artist who has discarded technicalities, but not technique, in the service of a wholesome aesthetic. In the recording below, DV Paluskar presents Yaman Kalyan, a raga identical to Yaman, but for the sparing and beautiful introduction of the shuddh madhyam. It is instructive to contrast this with Arolkar-buwa’s recording above.
Sharad Sathe’s style primarily blends these two contrasting influences. His second teacher, BR Deodhar, influenced his raga knowledge but not his style. Blessed with a flexible voice, Sathe was able to bring to his heyday performances an uncanny impression of the mellifluous virtuosity of DV Paluskar. His layakari, or rhythmic elaboration, is nevertheless in the best tradition of Arolkar and the Pandits.
A third link
In the recording below, dated 1978, Sathe also presents Yaman. The slower sections build the raga through long, unbroken, meend-heavy passages a la Paluskar. Later, he introduces complex rhythmic and melodic patterns. He presents the drut (fast) composition in khaas Gwalior style, yet it features some taan patterns that remind one of the great Agra exponents, especially Sharafat Hussain Khan. This, perhaps, is Sathe’s link to the third strain of Gwalior, influenced by Agra, exemplified by Anant Manohar Joshi’s son Gajananrao Joshi.
Interestingly, Arolkar and Sathe sing the same drut composition but with different scansion and slightly different tunes. Further, Sathe’s gayaki is marked by the attractive use of occasional tappa ang ornamentations – oscillating quicksilver runs of notes. Arolkar was an accomplished tappa exponent; Sathe inherited this legacy and made it part of his khayal style.
There is one obvious problem with DV Paluskar’s style: it requires a voice as strong, flexible and youthful as Paluskar’s to carry off successfully. As his voice has aged, Sharad Sathe has wisely gravitated to a more traditional, gamak-heavy Gwalior locus. This is evident in his recent recordings, for instance this Bhoop Bilawal.
In conversation, Sathe is quick to acknowledge a wide range of non-Gwalior inspirations as well: Faiyaz Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar and many others. He is clear in seeing himself as a performing artist first and a theoretician only second.
In an age where ragadari, gayaki and tunefulness are too often compromised, his authentic, knowledgeable and passionate presentations are refreshing and moving. He has also been a staunch supporter of the arts in Mumbai. It is fitting that the Secret Masters series should honour a stalwart resident of the city, and a consummate interpreter of a multifaceted tradition.
Sharad Sathe will perform a morning concert for First Edition Arts’ Secret Masters series on Sunday March 26, 9:30 am, at Ravindra Natya Mandir’s mini theatre on the 3rd floor, Mumbai. Tickets are available online on BookMyShow.
Siddhartha Chaudhuri is Institute Chair Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay. He occasionally writes on music.