His original style and his refusal to stay within the confines of the Gharana tradition of Hindustani music made him a controversial figure. Although no one has seriously questioned his dedication, understanding and intellectual and emotional depth, it remains true that he never reached the heights of general popularity that his contemporaries such as Bhimsen Joshi and Mallikarjun Mansur achieved.
He was never "easy" to listen to, in part because of his thin and occasionally harsh voice, a consequence of an illness in his youth which left him with only one lung. He overcame this setback by developing an original style of singing, which relied on short, sharp bursts of music rather than the deep, sonorous, slow and long phrases that characterize Hindustani vocal music. He was known to say that during his convalescence after the illness, he had been inspired by a sparrow which visited his room and which, despite its diminutive size, could produce an impressive volume of music. On another occasion, he said that while musicians who were steady, powerful and grave could be compared to the large fish in an aquarium, he thought of himself like one of the tiny fish that dart around, changing direction rapidly and moving in short bursts.
Kumarji's strongest point, in my opinion, was an ability to place his own distinctive interpretation on anything that he sang, and a very wide repertoire that included standard raagas, rare and complicated raagas, raagas that he invented (or, as he preferred to say, "discovered"), folk songs, particularly from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, bhajans (whose status as a form of classical music was greatly elevated by his contributions) and Marathi stage songs ("natya-sangeet").
Some claim that he was at his best singing folk songs and bhajans, others believe that his best music was the one-hour long raaga expositions in which he would frequently perform as many as six different pieces in varying tempos, many of which were his own compositions. Having heard him in both types of performances, I can only say that at his best he was matchless in whatever he did, and when he was in a good mood -- this depended heavily on the response of the audience too -- he would leave us in a state of exhilaration from which it was hard to return to normal life. When he was not in the right mood his performances were occasionally quite disastrous, and he would wind up quickly once he realized this.
One of my most common experiences on listening to his exposition of a familiar raaga -- say Yaman -- would be to think, "Oh yes, of course! Why didnt I realize that this is the point of the raaga?" It would be like following a new guide through familiar terrain, and with his help discovering hundreds of beautiful details which -- despite many previous trips to the place -- one had failed to notice.
On the more technical side, Kumarji's development of a raaga was not like that of anyone else. He never performed an "alaap" as an entity by itself. The 10-minute long "alaap"-like stretches on his live recordings sound like warm-up exercises, meant perhaps more for himself than for the audience. It was as if he was on a private tour of the stage, reminding himself where all the props were located so that he could then perform his flawless magic with them before an audience. Only when the composition started did he begin to communicate with the audience. He would go over the two verses of each composition meticulously and with carefully worked-out variations. Sometimes this would be followed by a long spell of "taans" of various types, but on other occasions he would improvise only within the composition itself and then go on to the next composition. One of the classic hour-long performances (I have this on video too) was of Raaga Baageshree, in which there was a "vilambit" (slow) composition of his own, then some traditional Gwalior gharana compositions (including "ritu basanta tum apane umangaso"), and then two compositions of his own including a "taraana". In the taraana section he sang "bol-taans" (taans in which the names of the notes are sung, as in "ga-ma-dha-ga-ma-dha-ni-ni-ni"), and then interjected a joke (not really translatable, you just have to hear it) to stress that the meaning of this section was in the meaningless words "ga-ma-dha".
He had a repertoire of gestures that filled out and gave meaning to his phrases. They were always dramatic but never theatrical or showy. The gestures would begin only after he had settled down and was beginning to enjoy himself, and every audience learned to anticipate the moment when he would declare his confidence in them in this way. It didn't always happen, though -- sometimes he found the audience shallow and disinterested, and then there were no gestures and smiles.
Kumarji considered words to be very important to the music, quite opposite to the dominant trend in which the words are frequently mumbled and considered to be no more than vehicles for the articulation of musical sounds. Kumarji's enunciation was superb. In phrases like "shubha ghadi", the "bha" and "gha" would carry more weight than these heavy consonants ever did in normal life. In his own compositions, it was always clear that he had been inspired to put some feeling or experience of his own into music, and the words would give us the key to that experience. Undoubtedly classical music (and all music, in fact) started this way, but centuries of stylization meant that in Hindustani music one most often did not associate words with any meaningful emotion -- not to mention that in the Moghul era many "darbar" composers, while creating wonderful pieces of music, had set them to bland words in praise of the emperor, presumably with one eye on their own salaries.
One of Kumarji's great compositions (in Raaga Tilak Kaamod) goes
aangana mein aacho sohaayo
geraa geraaii chamelii
phulaaii sugandha mohaayo"
and is said to have been inspired by the sight of a friend's corpse covered in flowers for the funeral I cannot now remember who told me this, but I've recently learned - from Kumarji's daughter Kalapini - that this association is not correct).
The fascination with words and meanings, and personal experience, was undoubtedly related to Kumarji's strong beliefs about folk music. He believed (and who can dispute it?) that all "classical" music is an outgrowth of folk music, where the most basic elements of life and nature are expressed in musical form. In his view, classical raagas are nothing but the distillation of musical essence from a class of folk songs, and this led him to an enterprise to discover "new" raagas by simply listening carefully to more and more folk songs. He called these "Dhun Ugam Raagas", and many of his discoveries -- Madhsurja, Ahimohini, Saheli Todi, Beehad Bairav, Lagan Gandhar, Sanjaari, Maalvati -- are now accepted as raagas and find mention in various modern texts such as "Raga Nidhi".
He also found folk music interesting to perform in its own right, and created a whole series of "concert programmes" which would consist of a set of raagas and folk songs arranged in a precise order with a common theme. The most famous of these are the seasonal theme programmes "Geet Varsha", "Geet Hemant", and "Ritu Raaj". The last of these is related to the Holi festival and I have had years of enjoyment playing the entire 2 1/2 hour concert recordings for my friends during the days just before Holi. Listening to "Geet Varsha" is a wonderful way to spend a rainy weekend indoors during the monsoon. It starts with a description (in Raaga Marwa) of the parched earth awaiting the rains, followed by the arrival of clouds, followed by a tour of the various emotions -- joy, thanksgiving, playfulness and eroticism -- traditionally associated with the monsoon season. A longish performance of Raaga Miyan-ki-malhar is the one purely classical section of the programme. The concluding piece, "heera motii neebaje" in Raaga Jaladhar Basant, evokes the silent moment after days of heavy rain, when one contemplates the fields around and realizes that they have turned green with vegetation, the earth giving forth its bounty after its thirst has been satisfied.
Kumar Gandharva's fan following was numerous, but confined largely to people who either knew something about music or lived in communities where musical knowledge and thinking were in the air. Pune and some areas of suburban Bombay with large Maharashtrian populations were among his favourite places to perform. In contrast, South Bombay with its cosmopolitan air did not seem to vibe with him the way it did with, say, Mallikarjun Mansur or the various instrumentalists of Hindustani music. The best concert I attended was a free concert at a school in Chembur, on a Sunday morning. Kumarji sang Raaga Deshkar ("aayo milaveko ji"), and the audience, consisting mainly of people who were devoted to music and not money (and quite a few young children), howled with delight every single time he hit the high "saa" note at the "sam". It was the kind of concert that will never be seen again.
Kumarji passed away in January 1992. He had not been in the best of health, and to me it looked as if the thought of being unable to sing in the future was on his mind and had caused him to lose interest in living. His last public concert in Bombay took place on November 22 1991, at the Nehru Centre. By the time he came on stage I had manipulated my way to the front row. It was not a long nor a happy concert, his voice was troubling him and his daughter Kalapini, on stage with him, looked anxious. But after getting through the first piece ("Jaijaiwanti") with some effort, a magical transformation took place, and his voice recovered for just long enough to perform a beautiful composition in "Sindhura". The emotional content of this performance devastated me, in part because I suspected he had not much longer to live, and I was struck by how powerfully he could deliver his message inspite of his poor health. Two months later he was no more.