The man who sang with half his lung power

The man who sang with half his lung power

In what is open biopic season in Hindi cinema, Tisha Srivastav recommends a serious look at Kumar Gandharva – his life story has all the ingredients of a great comeback film.


Paan Singh Tomar, Milkha Singh, Dashrath Manjhi and then the Dhoni biopic. Evidence that Hindi cinema has begun to mine inspirational stories closer home. The largely physical storytelling of a gruelling struggle or rejection or failure. They all call out to the defeated in us, to win over something in our self and then possibly receive worldly laurels or an entry into the record books. In that order.

Which is why, I’ve always wondered why a superb mainstream movie has not been made on the king of comebacks – the real life story of the Hindustani Classical musician Kumar Gandharva. A story of what finding your own voice can really mean.

Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath, from Belgaum, Karnataka whose rigorous training takes him to Mumbai. A Hindustani classical musician, who from the age of ten to twenty, just rises and rises in name and glory. (I still remember a photograph shot in Shabnam Virmani’s The Kabir Project documentary, on him, where when young KG is singing at a baithak/concert, the camera has caught the jaw dropping awe, folk are listening to him with.) It is in Mumbai where he also falls in love, with another singing disciple. Learning continues.

Then we almost lose him to TB. Doctors tell him he’ll never sing again, as it can be fatal for him. His move to the then salubrious Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, near a thickly forested patch, is a time of inaudible humming. Constantly thinking about the form of classical compositions in his head, as he continues to be nursed by his first wife. As well as a time of listening. Outside his home window, he often hears the wandering folk singers of Malwa whose Kabirian singing mesmerizes him. (When I was sitting at his home, one Guru Poornima evening, with his unreleased recordings playing for some of us, just that thought gave me goose bumps, while staring outside the window.)

Years pass. Modern medicine brings good news in the shape of Streptomycin. Within one year, he heals enough to sing again. (His obsessive following of these Kabir singers, taking copious notes at all night sessions at shrines, to get a sense of all of it, do watch The Kabir Project’s documentary ‘Koi Sunta hai’, if you haven’t already.)

The man returns to singing and how? His style now working with half its lung power, but he does what the conservative classical world finds both fresh for the classical language. And somewhat unthinkable, as he also sings Kabir. Certain sections feel the world of the refined does not need the rough and tumble of this street poet lyric. Fortunately, the public apparently thinks otherwise. The intense musicality of the folkish Doha now comes alive differently in the lived experience of Kumar Gandharva. The only word that comes close to describe it – As Jhini (subtle) as he can explore it. Breaks free of gharanas, composes, is drawn and draws us into the formless (his ever popular Nirgun(formless) Bhajan recordings are from this time.)

In this time, he has lost his first wife to illness, ironically within a decade of her nursing him back to health. He marries again. His wife and children accompany him on stage. In raga and learning. As many others do. Each becoming accomplished in their own unique way.(I hear KG LIVE, only in his last four years and he just gets right in)

1953-1992, we have a Gandharva, the mythological melodious spirit again among us. It is not just the Kumar or prince, but the very king of comebacks. From the depth of suffering, an oral richness fuses in the veins of his classical training. And becomes something new. So much so that, even that short burst of a take-off, we so identify with Kumarji’s style becomes a signature, when actually it was also weak lungs! There are a lot of other significant musical contributions which refreshed disciples and contemporaries of his time, describe very well.

When he passes away, the folk and the classical singers meet at his cremation in more ways than one. And sing. The Hans (the swan in Indian philosophical thought, representing the soul) has flown off alone. Much like the Hans akela sung by him. Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkalimath, from Karnataka, who settled in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas. The bungalow still named after his first wife. He unsettled us all beautifully. Very much a Kabir tradition too, to deeply rouse, from the inside.

(I was chatting with his grandson after a small, brilliant baithak/concert, some years ago and I had noticed how people demanded he sing the Kumarji favourites. He obliged, after clearly saying he will sing two Kumarjis and then sing what he would like to. I really enjoyed his own voice and told him so, ‘you are you, that discovery is also your heritage.’ Then an older gentleman came and complimented him on his ‘Kumarji bhajans.’)

It made me think of how restless endless comparison to a previous generation, makes us all feel. Yet, at a time when finding yourself could be an open road ahead, how does one use the freedom? In the passion of exploration, when is it endless distraction and when is it a real commitment to train yourself from within? Surely, this immense journey of seeking and finding, very much from exploring tradition and meaning, through music, can speak afresh to the current generation.

A breaking free, led first by the within and not by a desire to prove to others. Through disease, discovery, love, loss and always a deep listening.

photo credits

Nitin Joshi, Baajaa Gaajaa 2012,
Poem from –  I, Lalla The poems of Lal Ded,
Translated by Ranjit Hoskote (Penguin Classics).


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