Shyamala Bhave, at 70, still runs the music school her father started in 1930. Her knowledge of two schools of music — Carnatic and Hindustani — is unimaginable.
In the dead of the night, the six-year-old in pigtails begins her riyaaz. While the rest of the world sleeps, she practises under the watchful gaze of her guru. “My father would cover the keys on the harmonium with a cloth and ask me to play the phrases of a raag. Then I'd have to sing the same phrases. That's how I learnt the nuances of this great art.” Shyamala Bhave seems lost in her memories as she recalls the first five years of her music training, when she would practise from 11 at night to four in the morning every day.
“We lived in absolute poverty,” she recalls. “As a child I went to the government school and my father taught students all day, and that was his only means of making a living.” Despite not being able to speak properly well past age three, Shyamala could do alaaps in raag Thodi, Kalyan and Bhoopal. “I could sing before I could speak,” she recalls. Her training began when after school, she listened to her father teach his senior students. Only at night when her father was free did she have a chance to learn from him.
Shyamala Bhave, even by Indian standards, is a diminutive woman. Yet she packs such a voice, the knowledge of two schools of music and energy far beyond what you'd imagine any 70-year-old person capable of. And this is even before you've heard her sing.
Shyamala's family starting with her great-grandparents is one steeped in culture. Her grandparents were Marathi theatre pioneers. Visual arts — painting, music and even photography — were an integral part of her family. Her father Acharya Pandit Govind Vittal Bhave, began his formal musical training at the age of six spending nine years in a gurukul at V.D. Paluskar's Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Gujarat. There he trained in the Gwalior gharana alongside the likes of Onkar Nath Thakur. Upon his guru's behest to spread the teaching of Hindustani music in the South, he moved to Bengaluru in 1930 along with his wife and set up “Saraswati Sangeet Vidyalaya”, the music school that Shyamala runs to this day.
At age 12, Shyamala caught the eye of the larger music community with her first public concert in Bengaluru. She then participated in the All India Children's Music Conference in Agra, where President Rajendra Prasad was also present.
Meanwhile, at her government school, Shyamala had the good fortune of learning Carnatic music from Vidwan B. Doraiswamy, a veena exponent of considerable repute. The seeds of her unique style were laid in this simultaneous learning of Hindustani music in the Gwalior Gharana tradition and Carnatic training with Doraiswamy and A. Subba Rao.
Most classical music connoisseurs are familiar with Jugalbandhi, a vocal or instrumental duet, usually combining Carnatic and Hindustani styles. Today, Shyamala's name is synonymous with Dakshinottaram, a style of concert music wherein she presents both genres of Indian classical music on the stage at the same time — a solo jugalbandi! “The systematic method of Carnatic music along with the wonderful musical melody of Hindustani music makes the concept possible and pleasurable,” she asserts.
Her sound training in both genres gives her the easy confidence to venture into this niche area. Her popularity in presenting Dakshinottaram led to the title of “Ubhaya Gaana Vidushi” being conferred on her by the late Sir M. Visweswarayya.
Such a solo jugalbandi presents its own challenges given the emphasis of spiritual devotion in the lengthy Carnatic kritis or compositions and the usually much shorter Hindustani lyrics rooted more in everyday living. Often her cousin, Nadopasaka Vageesh Bhatt, writes lyrics for the Hindustani bandeesh that carries the same theme as the Carnatic kritis.
Shyamala speaks and performs in seven languages including Kannada, Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu in addition to her native Marathi. Early in her career she decided that she would only sing original compositions. Whether it is Jayadev's Ashtapathis on Radhakrishna or Marathi Abhangs or Amir Khusrao's poetry on the seasons, she takes immense pleasure in bringing her unique perspective to the music that is refreshingly original. Her on-stage improvisations, whether changing ragas or sangatis and her original slokas on various gods, have created a deep impact on concert-goers.
“Voice culture — how critical it is for a singer, I learned early in life,” Shyamala says. “Hindustani music taught me to modulate my voice,” she continues and learning to play the Carnatic veena made her a well rounded performer. Shyamala has stayed single, devoting herself to her music and the school her father founded.
She admits that she has encountered her share of stumbling blocks in her musical career, but doesn't elaborate. “I've brushed them all off as life's lessons and continued seeking spiritual enlightenment through my music.”