If there was a contender for Jeremy Corbyn’s nom de guerre in the universe of Hindustani music, someone who could be described as the “Monsieur Zen of Hindustani Music”, it would be 74-year-old Arun Kashalkar.

The monk-like detachment of Kashalkar’s demeanour is, among other things, a consequence of the difficult hand life dealt this outstanding musician – a hand he has played with remarkable dignity and patience. He expects little from society by way of worldly rewards or recognition for his services to music. This, in turn, allows him to make music on his own terms, unhindered by how it will be received by the market.

At his upcoming concert in Mumbai on June 24, college students will have the opportunity to experience Kashalkar’s art. The second innings of the Secret Masters Sessions, curated by First Edition Arts, this concert is presented by the Indian Music Group of St Xavier’s College and FEA. Aptly dubbed Secret Masters Encore, the IMG-FEA combination hopes to return the first of the four master musicians featured in the earlier run of the series to the stage.

Having known him for the past two decades, I have observed the ease with which he communicates with young people, who in turn are drawn to his no-nonsense yet congenial personality.

Sarod artiste Abhishek Borkar, 25, provides further affirmation of this. “Arun Kashalkarji was the chief examiner during my Master of Arts verbal and practical exams,” Borkar said. “He expressed a deep appreciation of my performance of raga Yaman in the finals, but he grilled me thoroughly on the Puriya-Marwa-Sohini axis during the viva or verbal examination. While this interrogation forced me to delve deeper into the distinctions between these ragas, Arunji made sure to not intimidate me but instead, gently pointed me in the right direction. He has no airs whatsoever.”

Master khayal singer Kedar Bodas, 54, agreed: “He keeps track of the musical progress of almost every young musician worth hearing and knows exactly which area a particular musician needs to work harder in and shares his feedback in an honest but loving and inspiring manner.”


Art music in flux

Promoters of Indian classical music frequently say that the genre is too complex for the average concert-goer and needs to be watered down into “digestible capsules” for it to be appreciated. However, such suggestions also seek to remove the key ingredient that keeps any art form relevant to society – sincere intent. People are curious about Indian music but the art form lacks serious audience engagement. The precise reason for this qualitative decline lies with the fact that the majority of big promoters are content to flirt fleetingly with temporary audience curiosity rather than working to establish a long-term relationship with a cultivated audience.

“The broader trend in Hindustani music today is avoidance, by many musicians, especially the very famous, of delving deep into one’s knowledge of the subject and creating music that is congruent to the aesthetic values of this art form,” said Bodas.

The antidote may be to expose young people to Hindustani classical music in its purest form. Some will take to it, others won’t. The reason why rock music from the 1960s still finds listeners, is because its authenticity continues to hit the spot. It is the exact same reason why recordings of Faiyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or Kesarbai Kerkar never age. When one looks past the slick glamour and general vacuousness of many so-called reigning stalwarts, there exist only a few dozen musicians who can engage both the seasoned rasika and a newcomer to the music, thanks to their mastery of craft and content, as well as sincerity of intent.


Kashalkar comes across as an Agra gharana singer, given his predilections for extended, unaccompanied aalaaps (including jod and jhala), neatly divided into contextual segments as in dhrupad music. The Agra influence is dominant even in Kashalkar’s bandish singing. This is particularly the case with the stylistics of delivery, right from voice texture, format of khayal presentation, selection of ornamentation and pace, to his witty rhythmic play.


However, evidence of his foundational training in the Gwalior gharana seeps into his music in several ways. Robust as Kashalkar’s voice is, there is a certain smoothness to his delivery that is undeniably a contribution of his early training in the Gwalior idiom, as is a big chunk of his repertoire. Kashalkar switches effortlessly between the considerably disparate methods used by the Agra and Gwalior traditions of improvising bol taans. This element of raga development relies on using the words of the bandish itself to create taans, or improvised melodic passages. Traditionally, the Gwalior gharana singers have used these lyrics in a linear flow, more or less unaltered in sequence from the bandish, but welded to the melodies that occur to their imagination in real time. Agra singers, on the other hand, use words (or word fragments) in a more randomised manner, using them rather as rhythmic props to suit the melody of the taan as it occurs to them in real time. Bol taan delivery methods are deeply embedded in gharana ideology and it takes a very evolved musical mind to switch styles in this area.

“Arunji’s take on the Agra gharana is not about imitating voice production techniques, but a deep, cerebral study of the architecture of its form, into which he can inject content from virtually any source,” said Bodas. “He has infused much sweetness into this gayaki or singing style”.

The Jaipur gharana’s repertoire has found its place in Arun Kashalkar’s music as well, but he prefers to present it like he does the Gwalior repertoire, in his composite Agra-centric style, with elements of the other two seeping in here and there. The use of non-linear taans that are patterned into flowing clusters of twos and threes is a Jaipur trademark that one finds in Kashalkar’s music.

Good mentorship

Much of the inspiration that drives Kashalkar’s music comes from his two main gurus, Gajananbuwa Joshi (1911-1987) and Shrikrishna “Babanrao” Haldankar (1927-2016). Gajananbuwa was one of the leading lights of the Gwalior gayaki for much of the second half of the 20th century, while Babanrao was an Agra singer. However, given the cosmopolitan nature of Mumbai’s musical universe, both Gajananbuwa and Babanrao had remained open to influences of great masters of other traditions.

Gajananbuwa possessed an insatiable appetite or “greed”, as he claimed in an interview given in Marathi to Ashok Ranade, for the knowledge of ragas and compositions regardless of their provenance. To this end, Gajananbuwa sought the guidance of Vilayat Hussain Khan, one of the great Ustads of the Agra gharana, as well as Bhurji Khan, a master of the Jaipur gharana. Babanrao, before he became a disciple of the great Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan of the Agra gharana, had trained for about five years under a Jaipur stalwart, Mogubai Kurdikar.

Other masters who have enriched Kashalkar’s music through their teaching include the very well-known Ram Marathe, Rajabhau Kogje of Nagpur, DV Panke of Yavatmal, and in the early days, his father, Nagesh D Kashalkar.

Arun Kashalkar will perform at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, on June 24, at 6pm.

Arnab Chakrabarty is a well-known sarod artiste who occasionally writes about music.