Dhondutai Kulkarni, the oldest exponent of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, is a woman of enormous conviction. At 82, she continues to be an austere practitioner

The 82-year-old Dhondutai Kulkarni tucked herself into the huge, cushiony sofa like a tiny sparrow. Within seconds of entering the room, her keen eyes had measured me with a warm sophistication. As I apologetically admitted to my not-so-chaste Hindi, she cut me short with a sudden burst of Marathi; it was directed to her student of 30 years who was there to serve as interpreter between her and me, in case we had a difficulty with our respective Hindis. “She has a question for you,” he said, Dhondutai reversing our roles in a jiffy. “Now, your questions will perhaps cull out some details from my life, but what about my music? My life is incomplete without my music,” she tells me pointedly. I offered proof of listening to her renditions and promised that I was going to listen to her that evening at the Mallikarjun Mansur Music Festival – “That’s more like it, go ahead with your questions,” she said. Dhondutai Kulkarni — among the oldest living disciples of the unparalleled Jaipur-Atrauli maestro Ustad Alladiya Khan and the firebrand Kesarbai Kerkar – was hardly the sparrow she looked. It didn’t take too long to figure out that she was a musician with sturdy conviction.

For a man of his times and circumstances, Dhondutai’s father Ganpatrao was phenomenal. “Undoubtedly,” agreed Dhondutai, whose life and music is a tribute to him. Ganpatrao, a school teacher who was deeply passionate about music, decided that his first born would learn music. “In those days, Brahmin girls didn’t go to school, imagine learning music and that too from a Mohammedan – it was blasphemy!” Dhondutai’s mother wasn’t too happy with the idea; she tried resisting in her own mild ways, but who could speak against Ganpatrao? “She had no choice but to relent. When my father was getting ready to send me to learn dance, my mother was horrified and threatened to leave for her parental home. My father dropped the idea,” she giggles. A man of progressive vision, Ganpatrao took his wife for outings and even forced her to learn tables. “My mother would fret, frown and grumble, but eventually she did learn them.”

In Kolhapur, where Dhondutai grew up, the arts flourished; it was the seat of music, dance and literature. It was here that Dhondutai had her early training from Ustad Alladiya Khan’s son, Ustad Bhurji Khan, a fine teacher. Mallikarjun Mansur, Pandit Khanetkar and many others learnt from the Ustad. “Our house was open to all. We used to have such intense discussions on music. Even with his meagre earnings and a family of five to support, my father never hesitated to extend help. Mansurji was married by then and had children. On seeing his passion and thirst for knowledge, my father told him to concentrate on his music and have food at our place. He was an unusual man?,” Dhondutai reminisces, filled with gratitude.

Dhondutai was also a woman ahead of her times. As she got more and more immersed in her world of music, she decided not to get married. “I realised that one can pursue only a single goal in life, particularly a woman. I would be unhappy without my music, and my father agreed.” Ganpatrao however, told Dhondutai that in case of a change of mind, she had to have the honesty to tell him. ‘I don’t want to die with that guilt, he told me. Anyway, such a situation never arose,” says Dhondutai. “That I decided is one thing, but do you know marriage was never on the cards for me? It was music and spirituality,” she says.

“My life was full of difficulties. When Bhurji Khan saab died in 1950, I went into a terrible depression. Where would I find another teacher of my gharana? I got plenty of playback singing offers, but my father was firm that I should pursue only classical music. When the formidable Kesarbai Kerkar agreed to take me as her disciple, I can’t tell you how happy I was,” she relives the moments. With this, her father sold their house and land in Kolhapur and moved bag and baggage to Bombay.

The day Dhondutai landed in Bombay she had to provide singing accompaniment to Kesarbai. Having heard of her legendary temper and fiery tongue, Dhondutai had her trepidations. They went to her house with a plate full of fruits, flowers, sweets and a small packet with money. “Remove that cover,’ the empress pronounced sternly after scanning the plate with her hawk-like gaze. “If you are keen to give it, the door is open you may leave,” she had said without mincing words. “Gujarathis will pour money at my feet. But I want to teach some one deserving. Damn your money!” she had said in her characteristic ruthlessness. But as Dhondutai recalls, in her 11 years of association with Kesarbai, not once was she treated badly. In fact, she would often request Dhondutai not to bring her music to the streets. “I have kept my promise to her. Even when I was in difficulty, I never made my music commercial. I have practised and taught in a manner befitting my great gurus.”

With all her love for Kesarbai, Dhondutai’s face goes red when she thinks of how Kesarbai put her character to test. At the slightest opportunity, she would begin to abuse her earlier gurus. Unable to tolerate it any longer, Dhondutai stopped going for her music lessons. Of course, Kesarbai sent word and this what she had to say: “Now, I can die in peace. If someone speaks ill of me, you will be there for my defence.”

That evening as she sang an exquisite Phulashree, one could clearly see how Dhondutai had shaped her own of the many powerful musical temperaments she was influenced by. Her rendition, still having strong traces of its rich melodic content, bordered on the spiritual. She knew, she wasn’t her best; but she was determined to demonstrate what she was to an audience which probably hadn’t heard her. And she did.