Born in 1924, Shivaputra Siddharamaiyya Komkali came to be called Kumar Gandharva, as gandharvas are mythical spirits in Hindu mythology with a flair for music. Though a contemporary of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, he never achieved the same mass appeal because of his unorthodox experimentation with his style of music, but he was an acclaimed singer nonetheless.
Kumar Gandharva’s Music
Kumar Gandharva was a child music prodigy, hence his very name. Due to a misdiagnosis of an early illness, he’d lost a lung and because of this, he could not sing long aalaps like other Hindustani vocal artists of the time. He sang in short bursts while his high voice thrived and ruled.
He combined old ragas and came up with new ones and he also sang folk songs and nirguni bhajans in different forms and styles. Such unorthodox experimentation earned him wide disapproval amongst his peers who were purists.
Though he experimented majorly in his compositions, he was also a traditionalist in the way he performed; he was true to the Indian tradition of interaction with the audience and this spurred the artist in him to perform better and increased his fans’ delight.
The Many Controversies
Many popular classical musicians of his time like Mogubai Kurdikar thought that Gandharva’s compositions and experimentations were not interesting, and his own teacher too was critical of his controversial experiments.
The slow tempo vilambit (his signature style) was much criticized, while the faster tempos were hugely popular. In his later years, his wife and his daughter accompanied him during his concerts.
Even today, his style of music is popular among some – notably Shuba Mudgal, Madhup Mudgal, Vijay Sardeshmukh and Satyasheel Deshpande, who follow his experimental style and try to popularize folk songs and other forgotten musical traditions.
He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in recognition of his contribution to Hindustani classical music.
Kumar Gandharva thrived when the audience was appreciative and in turn he excelled, thereby creating unforgettable concerts. Some of his best performances were in school auditoriums where only those who were genuinely interested in music were in the audience, unlike other cosmopolitan crowds.
His greatest legacy to classical music was the fresh innovation that he brought into the tried and tested methods of musical performance. He also questioned the rigid lines of the traditional music and he bent the rules of traditional music without breaking them.
His experimentations resulted in the revival of folk music, which were dying due to general lack of interest. Folk songs from Madhya Pradesh especially witnessed a huge revival thanks to Kumar Gandharva.