Dhondiram Ambekar remembers the time when he used to practice ragas while stitching clothes at his home in Rendal, a village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. His customers, in a fit of pique, would call him feckless: “You just sit and sing songs”. But Ambekar went on practicing anyway. A plastic sack sitting at his home with dozens of singing trophies is proof that he chose wisely.

Ambekar is a lean man of 70. His years show on the wrinkles of his face, furrowed hands and silver hair. He still works as a tailor, though for close to two decades, he has been doubling as an agricultural labourer to make ends meet. When not busy with either, he takes part in classical music competitions, of which he has won 65 in his lifetime.

“I love music,” said Ambekar. “I never went to a competition to win.”

Ambekar has performed across Maharashtra – in Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara, Pune, Mumbai – and in Belgaum in Karnataka as well. He has received acclaim from several quarters: Manohar Joshi, the former chief minister of Maharashtra, visited Rendal in 2005 and he was so impressed with Ambekar’s performance at a function, that he called him back on stage to congratulate him. In 2014, music composer Hridayanath Mangeshkar singled out Ambekar among 33 participating singers at a music contest in Kolhapur’s Dattwad village. Ambekar has also sung for All India Radio’s Kolhapur station.

Early days

Ambekar’s first brush with music was as an eight-year-old when his father, Vithoba Ambekar, started dragging him to the community temple to listen to bhajans. The family belongs to the Shimpi caste, which has been traditionally engaged in tailoring. His father too stitched clothes but he was also a member of the Harihar Bhajani Mandal in the village, and could sing more than 250 abhangs, or devotional poetry sung in praise of Hindu god Vithoba. Every Monday, after the temple visit, they would practice late into the night.

A deep appreciation for music became engrained in the young Ambekar and he wanted to learn.“Had he [my father] not taken me for the music sessions, I would have never become a classical singer,” said Ambekar. When he was 12, Appayya Shri Shaillappa Latkar, a classical singer who lived in the same village, agreed to be his guru. “He [Latkar] was a famous harmonium player and would always correct me when I went wrong with the ragas.”

Lack of finances meant that Ambekar had to discontinue his schooling after class seven. Instead, he learnt how to stitch from his father and joined him in the tailoring shop. He would start work at eight in the morning and stay at the shop till late evening. But he never gave up on his music.

Broadening horizons

In the late 1960s, there were three theatre companies in Rendal – Sangeet Shashikala, Shashikala Sangeet and Ramprasadik – each more than a hundred years old. They would employ classical singers to perform nandi, or an invocation song, at the start of the play. As a 19-year old, Ambekar got a chance to perform for these companies. For the next seven years, he would sing the songs of benediction, but was never paid for them. “I never performed for money. They [the theatre companies] gave us an opportunity to perform and [would] take us to places across Maharashtra.”

His stint with these theatres companies inspired Ambekar to diversify his repertoire: over the next three decades, he learned abhangs, other devotional songs, songs of social awakening, emotional poetry, musical drama, gavlan (songs dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna) as well as songs performed by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Ajit Kadkade, Sant Tukaram and Kumar Gandharva. It was his performance of Pandhari Nivasa Sakhya Panduranga – sung by Joshi – that won Ambedkar the first prize in his debut competition performance in 1996.

It wasn’t easy for Ambekar to become part of the competition circuit. “I couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription, so every day I would go to the bus stand and shops in the village and cut out details of any competitions happening in nearby villages from the newspapers I found,” he said. Local papers such as the Mahasatta, Pudhari, Punya Nagari, Tarun Bharat and Lokmat often carried these listings. “At times people would yell at me for cutting the newspaper,” he said with a smile.

The competitions would start only after 10.30 pm. Ambekar, who suffers from night blindness, often travelled alone, either by bus or some other mode of shared transport. “Initially it was difficult...because post 6 pm, I can’t see anything properly. I would always carry my dinner, a torch and a pair of black glasses.”

An unsavoury incident had made him realise he was better off travelling alone, despite his condition. In the early 2000s a competition was being held at Valave Khurd village, in Kolhapur’s Kagal taluka. The village was around 45 km from his home, so he decided to travel by bus, along with a friend. The competition was scheduled to begin at 11 pm and around 7 pm, Ambekar and his friend reached Kagal town where they had to change buses.

Ambekar being congratulated by Manohar Joshi, the former chief minister of Maharashtra, in 2005.

“My friend told me he will return from the washroom [at the bus stand] within 10 minutes,” said Ambekar. When he didn’t return for half an hour, Ambekar began worrying and made enquiries. “I realised that he betrayed me. Somehow, I found the conductor and the bus for Valave Khurd.” The last bus was at 8.30 pm and Ambekar managed to board it in the nick of time. The results were declared early the following morning. Ambekar won the first prize and was awarded Rs 500. “I had fulfilled my determination to not give up,” he said proudly.

In 2008, Ambekar participated in a contest in Jaysingpur town. Heavy rain interrupted the competition soon after it began at 10 pm, and after a few stops and starts, the results were declared close to 6 am the following morning. Ambekar was awarded the first prize in the senior category, following which, he decided to visit his sister in the nearby town of Miraj.

As soon as he reached, around 7 am, a policeman confronted him and started asking questions: “Who are you? What are you doing here? Where do you want to go?” Ambekar showed the policeman his bus pass and the competition certificate and it was only then that the policeman let him go. “He then dropped me to my sister’s house.”

Ambekar credits his mother Malubai and wife Vidya for his success. “My mother would always listen to my songs and praise them,” he said. Vidya, 55, wanted to learn classical music as well but was unable to find time. “For the past decade, we were fighting a property case [for which] I had to keep visiting the police station,” Vidya said.

Uncertain future

The Maharashtra government started giving Ambekar a pension of Rs 500 per month in 2004, which increased to Rs 1,500, two and a half years ago. His tailoring earnings are meagre: he barely manages to scrape Rs 5,000, month on month. “The prize money in the competition is not enough for anyone to survive. I don’t have space to even display these wooden trophies.” His trophies, stored in a plastic sack, are gathering dust. “They are of no use.”

Ambekar’s passion for classical music hasn’t been inherited by his children. His son Harish, 19, who is currently studying at the Industrial Training Institute in Kolhapur, has no plans of carrying forward his father’s legacy. “The younger generation doesn’t like classical music,” Ambekar said. “It’s difficult to learn and understand it.”

The prospect of an uncertain future hasn’t daunted Ambekar’s spirits. He still travels to nearby villages to participate in competitions. “If you don’t love something, you won’t find time for it. I will die, but classical music will never die.”

All photos by Sanket Jain.