LAKSHMI SREERAM

It was a celebration of classical music at Gadag, where villagers gathered to pay homage to Panchakshari Gavai.

At 2.30 in the morning hundreds of villagers dressed in dhotis and turbans are gathered in a hall. The crowd is spilling outside too. They are all listening to Raga Hemant being sung by an unassuming Khayal vocalist from Dharwad, and erupt into applause every now and then. They have just heard Jog Kauns sung by another vocalist from Chennai and before that Nayaki Kanada and Jhinjhoti …

The music has been going on for several hours now and will continue for several more, with one musician following another. All are paying homage to a remarkable personality, Panchakshari Gavai.

Town comes alive

Gadag, a small town in Karnataka, comes alive in the month of June to celebrate the samadhi punyathithi of Panchakshari Gavai. The five-day music festival draws hundreds from nearby villages and towns. . How many have any idea of ragas and talas? Yet they stay awake all night to drink in all the music.

To be realistic, it is not just the music, but the spiritual aura of the place and the religious standing of Panchakshari Gavai and his successor, Puttaraj Gavai, which draws the villagers. They command devotion and a following that is astonishing. Outwardly it appears like any other fair conducted at religious places. But this is a tiruvizha with a difference, a strange and unlikely one – for, classical music lies at the heart of the Gadag festival. It is an exciting meeting of high culture and folk. This year’s festival ( June 20 to 24 ) drew musicians from the nearby, musically rich, Dharwad region as well as from places such as Bangalore, Chennai and Bhopal.

Well known musicians such as Somanath Mardur and Venkatesh Kumar too paid homage with their performances. Many of them have been students of the Veereshwar Punyashram which is the epicentre of the festival. It is an institute founded by Panchakshari Gavai for the dissemination of Hindustani classical music, especially among visually challenged children. Today it is headed by Pandit Puttaraj Gavai.

About Gavai

Panchakshari Gavai was a sanyasi who first learnt Carnatic music and later trained in the Hindustani style under the legendary Neelkanth Buwa Meerajkar. Being visually challenged, he took upon himself the mission to teach Khayal music to as many young boys as he could. By this, he aimed to offer them a means of survival. Story has it that he would camp in villages, draw young children and impart music to them. Affluent and culturally inclined patrons came forward to take care of the needs of the Swami and his students. Finally, with land made available by a charitable friend, the Swami established the Veereshwar Punyashram in Gadag.

Ever since, the school has been growing in strength. The Rotary Club of America donated a three-storeyed building, where the students receive free boarding, lodging, and education. Of course, the primary focus of the education is Hindustani classical music.

Panchakshari Gavai and Puttaraj Gavai have touched the lives of many. Even in Chennai, many who have made a living out of music owe it to them. Students of theirs are scattered all over the country and even though very few (notably Pt. Basavaraj Rajguru) have made it big in classical music, their devotion is incredible.