What is it about this place?


A small city in Karnataka has been the improbable hub of Hindustani classical music for generations. Arunabha Deb trawls through Dharwad to decide if there’s any truth left to its legendary mystique

Natural inspiration Students perform near a lake inside the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya
Natural inspiration Students perform near a lake inside the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya
Photos: Hari Adivarekar

SETTING FOOT in Dharwad for the first time is a lot like the first visit to the Taj Mahal. The act is fraught with the fear that experience may not live up to legend. And at first sight, the twin towns of Hubli and Dharwad almost confirm the apprehension. They have little sparkle: the regular small-town fare of autorickshaws, ghastly buildings and a million sweet shops (each claiming to sell the authentic Dharwad pedha); a music lover’s idiotic expectations of finding strains of Kirana and Gwalior and Jaipur in every bylane are promptly thwarted. It takes several hours and many conversations to get a sense of the mystery, a semblance of an answer to the riddle that has puzzled generations of music lovers — what is it about Dharwad?

Lists are usually redundant, but this one is inescapable: Sawai Gandharva, Basavraj Rajguru, Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal and Kumar Gandharva. All of them have their origins in this region of Karnataka, a region small enough to have no significance on a geographical map, but worthy of a bid to be the capital of Hindustani vocal music in India. And unlike a Rampur (Uttar Pradesh) or a Bishnupur (West Bengal), places that now find significance only in music history, Dharwad continues to produce fierce vocalists. Venkatesh Kumar, Kaivalya Kumar Gaurav, Jayateerth Mevundi, Kumar Mardur — they rank among the foremost Hindustani vocalists in the country today, and all are thorough Dharwad-bred.

The first point of wonder is how a region in Karnataka could be obsessed with Hindustani music as opposed to Carnatic. There seems to be a logical explanation. The northern part of modern-day Karnataka used to be a part of the Bombay Presidency and then the Bombay State, until the reorganisation of the states in 1956. Rajshekhar Mansur, vocalist and son of Mallikarjun Mansur, says, “Culturally, the people of northern Karnataka continue to be similar to the people of Maharashtra. Their interest in Hindustani music has not dwindled after becoming a part of Karnataka.”

Apart from this, the region owes a considerable part of its musical legacy to Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV of Mysore. A great connoisseur of Hindustani music, he would invite musicians from the north to perform in his court. A number of these musicians would break their journey in Dharwad; the residents would often throng to hear these musicians, and as Rajshekhar says, “People coaxed them to stay on and baithaks and mehfils were organised, where the musicians happily performed.”

The musicians insist there’s no one-upmanship. Even if they secretly feel superior, they do not reveal it in conversation

A regular guest in the early 1900s at the Mysore durbar was the Kirana gharana legend Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. His brother lived in Dharwad, so he had more reason to spend time there on his way to Mysore and back. One such stay has to go down as one of the more fortuitous break-journeys ever taken by a musician. A young boy called Rambhau Kundgolkar, who lived in the nearby village of Kundgol, was keen on learning music from Khan. Legend has it that Khan accepted the boy when he heard him hum Jamuna Ke Teer, the composition in Bhairavi that continues to be synonymous with Khan. Kundgolkar later came to be known as Sawai Gandharva and eventually took on, among others, the following three disciples: Gangubai Hangal, Basavraj Rajguru and Bhimsen Joshi.

The Abdul Karim Khan lineage ensured that Dharwad became a stronghold of the Kirana gharana; among the younger crop, it has strong representatives in Kaivalya Kumar Gaurav and Jayateerth Mevundi. In spite of what seems like a Kirana dominance, though, Dharwad never became synonymous with the gharana — and this perhaps has been its greatest blessing. Within this small region, the Gwalior and the Jaipur gharanas have also flourished equally. While Hindustani music continues to be plagued by petty gharana rivalries everywhere, Dharwad keeps the jostling at bay. All the musicians who live or have lived in Dharwad insist there is no one-upmanship here; and even if they secretly feel superior to other gharanas, they do not reveal it in conversation. The Kirana folks might well be in a position to brag about their comrades but no amount of prodding gets them to speak unflatteringly about the other two houses in town.

Deeply religious, Mansur offered his ‘seva’ (by way of recital) at the Murugha Math and was never away from it for too long
Deeply religious, Mansur offered his ‘seva’ (by way of recital) at the Murugha Math and was never away from it for too long

Both Gwalior and Jaipur have had their respective local legends. Gwalior had stalwarts like Kumar Gandharva and Puttaraj Gawai and Jaipur, of course, had Mallikarjun Mansur (whose greatness over Bhimsen Joshi is still passionately argued by many connoisseurs). Kumar Gandharva left Dharwad and settled in Dewas (Madhya Pradesh) because the climate was better suited to his asthma, but Mansur remained in Dharwad till his last day.

Mansur was born in the nearby village of Mansoor and in his early life was actively involved with Kannada theatre. It might sound ironic today, but Hindustani music played a vital role in Kannada theatre of the 1920s and ’30s. As Rajshekhar Mansur says, “An actor had to be trained in Hindustani vocal to be able to take part in a play.” There were many theatre companies and a number of vocalists (including Sawai Gandharva) depended on them as a regular source of income. If one has time to waste on analysis, one might conclude that this local demand for singer-actors could be another reason why khayal prospered in the region. Kannada theatre continues to be reliant on Hindustani music; but, Rajshekhar adds, “the stage is not flourishing now, perhaps because of other channels of entertainment.”

MANSUR, OF course, stayed on in Dharwad well beyond his theatre years. His house (aptly near All India Radio, Dharwad) has been converted into a museum. Although it could do with better maintenance and a richer display, it is worth a visit to be able to stand before hissamadhi and to get to touch his tanpura and harmonium. Apart from the peace that his son says he found in Dharwad, Mansur had a more compelling reason not to move to more commercial centres like Pune or Mumbai. He was a deeply religious man; every year he offered his ‘seva’ (by way of a recital) at the Murugha Math and never felt comfortable being away from the math for long. “A large part of his life revolved around the math — he never wanted to be too far from it,” says Rajshekhar.

Deeply religious, Mansur offered his ‘seva’ (by way of recital) at the Murugha Math and was never away from it for too long

There are a number of such maths in the region — a lot of them have played a role in teaching and propagating music, but none more than the Veereshwar Punyashrama in Gadag, under the auspices of Puttaraja Gawai. Popularly referred to as the ‘blind saint’, Gawai could well be one of the most underrated personalities in the history of Hindustani music. Locally, his popularity was unmatched (when he died in 2010, 1.5 million people assembled in Gadag to accompany him on his last journey), but his name is little known nationally. Apart from being a vocalist, he was adept on the violin, tabla, veena, and most people who have heard him on the harmonium believe he had no parallel in India. His ashram (where he too learned under Panchaksara Gawai, before taking over as the head), though a religious institution, is dedicated to teaching music to underprivileged children. It started out by housing and training underprivileged blind children in music. But later began to welcome all underprivileged children from the region. Every child in the ashram is trained in Hindustani music.

Venkatesh Kumar, perhaps the best-known disciple of Gawai, recounted his time in the ashram: “Every day would start with a teaching session. We had other duties in the ashram. But again, during the daily puja, there would be someone singing (pure khayal, that is, not necessarily devotional songs). In fact, he would not start the puja until two perfectly tuned tanpuras started playing. I have often had to sing continuously for hours, one raaga after the other.” Kumar goes on to say that because of his guru’s efforts, there is a practising musician in every village of the region. (And surely this is one reason why the region continues to provide such informed audiences in concerts.) The ashram has now grown in scale and has a school and a college operating within it (with more than a 1,000 resident students) but the focus remains empowerment through music.

Early practictioners Students head for work after a music session
Early practictioners Students head for work after a music session

It is heartening that the ethos of the Veereshwar Punyashrama has been adopted by a school called Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (KSV, in Kalkeri, about half-an-hour from Dharwad), an institution that is quite unique in its endeavours. Music classes start at eight in the morning and go on till 11 — it is compulsory for every resident student to attend. The options are vocal, flute, tabla, violin, and sitar — so there is no compulsion to choose singing. It is a strange feeling to describe — reaching the place at around 8.30, a cluster of mud huts set amidst hills, and hearing the strains of Jaunpuri getting louder as one gets closer. A group of about 20 children are singing a drut (fast) bandish in teental; the synchronisation is admirable and most of them are in tune. In another hut, an advanced violin lesson is in progress — four boys are playing Durga; alternately playing one cycle of improvisations in madhyalaya (medium-tempo) jhaptal. The teacher in this hut is BS Math, an ex-student of the Veereshwar Punyashrama. He travels from Dharwad every morning, as do most of the other faculty members. When music classes finish at 11, the children get down to their academic routine. The school has tied up with a government school in Dharwad that enables their students to appear for the Karnataka board examinations. It is, therefore, an almost ideal modern adaptation of a gurukul: music lessons supplemented by fullfledged schooling.

A STRIKING contrast is a new gurukul just opened on 5 March in memory of Gangubai Hangal. The place covers several acres and is built in the modern opulence of glass and steel, with an annual grant promise of a crore from the Karnataka government.

It was slightly disappointing, though, to hear Manoj Hangal, the chief enthusiast behind the project, speak about the enterprise dedicated to his grandmother. For several minutes, he offered a meticulous description of the total area, construction, car parking area and the cost of landscaping. He then cited the number of Cabinet ministers who were coming down for the opening. The ministers did come and their antics made Kishori Amonkar, who’d also been invited, to walk out. She had to be pacified by Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa to stay on at the function. Thankfully, there is a musical component to the gurukul — 36 students will be resident scholars, with all expenses paid, and Prabha Atre and N Rajam will be resident gurus among others.

Focussed on the quality of their music, for Dharwad’s musicians positioning and publicity come much later

An institute like this seems destined to put Dharwad on a newer, more commercial axis. However, there seems little need for such anxieties. The truth is that Dharwad’s resident musicians have never been too far from the country’s commercial performance hubs. It’d be difficult to argue that either Gangubai Hangal or Mallikarjun Mansur had to compromise on their careers because they didn’t move out of Hubli and Dharwad respectively. This remains true today for the younger musicians: Venkatesh Kumar and Kaivalya Kumar Gaurav are busy performers; Jayateerth Mevundi (who spent his entire formative period in Dharwad and has now shifted out for an AIR job to Mangalore) has performed two years in a row at the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata. The assurance of not being ignored certainly allows them to be based out of Dharwad with unencumbered minds. Their focus is on the quality of their music — they grow up performing before discerning audiences — and they start thinking about positioning and publicity much later.

Living and learning amidst a community of competent peers also seems to contribute to keeping the musicians here rather grounded. There is something so takenfor- granted about music that it barely comes across as a currency for competition. In spite of the region having produced a plethora of vocal legends, there is no sense of elitism. Musicians here still go to hear contemporaries perform. A good recital elicits generous praise.

It is impossible to summarise the phenomenon that Dharwad is, but a happy thought lingers — while residents take pride in how Venkatesh Kumar and Kaivalya Kumar Gaurav excite national audiences, they also find hope in collective anonymous voices who serve music, like the KSV students singing Raaga Jaunpuri in the morning.



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