Vithal Rao Shivpurkar's singing remains unrestrained and shows no signs of tiring. Neeraja Murthy meets the ghazal maestro

The market place at Gosha Mahal is a hub of activity. Step into a quaint narrow lane next to the Durga temple and the noise recedes. As you walk along, you don't need directions to find Vithal Rao Shivpurkar's house. Follow the notes of ghazals floating in the air and you reach a black gate. Take the stairs and to your left is Sangeet Sadhana — the music room where music aficionados learn ghazals from the maestro. In a cream-coloured kurta pyjama, 76-year-old Vithal Rao folds his right leg above his left knee and sits like a yogi.

Mincing words is not Vithal Rao's style. So when we begin our conversation in English, he cuts us short. “Angrezi se nafrat hai,” he says. And, the hatred is due to an incident he saw as a kid in the city. “Earlier, there was a traffic police man, who was very prejudiced. If an Englishman went in a wrong route, this policeman would salute him but if an Indian took that route, he used to penalise him. I decided then that I will never learn English,” he says.

Vithal Rao's student Kiran Jojare from Sholapur walks in and bows before him. Vithal Rao is reminded of his guru Pandit Laxman Rao Panchpoti (who was visually challenged), Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (His brother Barkat Ali Khan said ‘Yeh ladka bahut tez hai. Baat kare toh copy karleta hai...) and Ustad Shafi-uz-Zaman. He mastered ghazals tutoring under M.A. Raoof. His father was a wrestler and a young Vithal kept himself occupied by singing bhajans and ghazals.

Royal tryst

His tryst with the royal family began when he sang a ghazal in front of Shahazadi Pasha, daughter of seventh Nizam H.E.H Mir Osman Ali Khan. “She liked the ghazal so much that I was asked to be there at the palace. After a while I started crying saying I wanted to go home,” he says with a laugh.

Time appears to stop here as Vithal Rao recollects his experience of singing in front of the ‘huzoor' Nizam. “I sang a Siraj Aurangabadi's ghazal — Khabar-e-tahayyur-e-ishq sun, na junoo rahaa na parii rahii, na to tuu rahaa na to main rahaa, jo rahii so bekhabarii rahii… ‘Huzoor' was on a rocking chair and after every line, he would say ‘wah wah' and in his excitement would hit himself on the thigh. I would be asked to stop the song there and continue the next day. I sang that ghazal for seven days,” he recalls. Young Vithal was rewarded 20 ashrafi (gold coins), sent as a gift in a velvet bag to his father. “My father, a pehalwan who had never seen a gold coin in his life couldn't believe his eyes,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

He was part of the military orchestra and by the time he was 15, he was made a hawaldaar major. “My popularity was due to the command I had over Urdu. People liked me because as a teenager I would sing ghazals and pronounce difficult Urdu words with ease,” he says.

His ‘baithaks' became common in the city. “My ghazal concerts were organised regularly at weddings,” he says and takes out a blue diary which has ghazals written by him in Urdu and Hindi. The royal anecdotes continue as he recollects his concert at Jodhpur Maharaja's palace. “When I sang Badariya gir aayi khari khari… in front of the Maharaja, the special attraction were the two peacocks which came suddenly. Maharaja was so impressed that he asked me to stay in the palace for one more day and sing the song in front of the Maharani so that the peacocks would return. I could not sleep the whole night wondering what would happen if the peacocks don't come. But the next day the peacocks arrived promptly as soon I started singing.”

His tryst with the film world was however not a rewarding one in terms of box office. He composed music for three Telugu and two Hindi movies. “The music was a hit but sadly the movies did not click. Mohd. Rafi and Asha Bhonsle sang for me,” he says. He has travelled across countries for his concerts and trained many youngsters in ghazals.

“The audience for ghazals is niche as everyone cannot appreciate the songs. Earlier the audience was different - sahi Urdu gaanewale the, aur sahi Urdu sunne wale the. They understood the nuances of shero-shaayari and appreciated it. Now, it is a forced crowd, who come because of the sponsor,” he says.

But for a heart attack he suffered six months ago, Vithal remains hale and hearty. Ask him about his age, and he says with a poker face: ‘Zyada nahin hai. Bas 76 hai! I am fine but my memory is fading and sometimes I fail to remember names.”

Now, in his twilight years, Vithal Rao's love for Hyderabad is unmatchable.

“My forefathers were born and brought up here. People asked me to shift to Mumbai to make it big but there is something magical about Hyderabad ki mitti. You experience it once, you will never want to leave this place,” he signs off with a sher he wrote on Gosha Mahal: “Saare phalak ki sair kiya, kuch nahi hal hua, phir mere naseeb aakhir mein Gosha Mahal hua.”