Emerging from the shadows of giants
With strong memories of her parents Vasundhara Komkali and Kumar Gandharva, Kalapini Komkali quietly voices equally strong opinions
She was the opening act at one of Delhi's popular spring-time classical music concerts. Kalapini Komkali inaugurated the Bhilwara Sur Sangam Festival this past Saturday — her act a fitting opening for santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Not a stranger to walking in the shadow of giants, Komkali is a picture of restrained abandon the next morning. She orders a cold iced-tea ( “It's fine, the concert is over now,” she quips), and settles down for a freewheeling chat on her relationship with parents-and-gurus, legends Kumar Gandharva and Vasundhara Komkali, her observations of Hindustani classical today, and how young people ought to engage with the tradition.
In father’s footsteps
Kalapini is currently particularly interested in keeping alive the extensive research her late father did in tracing the classical roots of many folk songs of the Malwa region (Indore, Dewas, Ujjain and Mandu) In reverse, he also incorporated many folk songs into his classical music presentation.
“Khari boli, and “braj” are the main languages used in several compositions, but Pt Kumar Gandharva also composed many new compositions in Malwai which have added to our classical tradition. Kalapini shares her late father’s love for the Malwai dialect. To present these, she has started collaborating with her nephew Bhuvanesh Komkali in joint concerts, where they both sing the Malwai compositions. Due to the difference of pitch, singing together presents a challenge but her strong desire to keep alive this unique tradition is a big propellant.
A lot of times even today, we find parents forcing their children into learning classical art forms. Given your parentage, did this ever happen to you?
My father never forced me. But he would very cautiously notice little things — whether I was listening, whether I was liking what I heard. And when I started showing small signs of interest, it made him happy. In Hindi we say kautuk — he praised me, but it was like how you’d encourage a child. It was my mother who was very keen that I start singing. When I was in middle school, she’d try to get me to sit in her classes. I’d go, even if a little reluctantly.
Were you at a mature enough age to understand the transition from a parent-child relationship to a guru-shishya dynamic?
I was about 15 years old at the time. It was quite hard in the beginning. It's natural — I used to consider them my mother and father more than anything else. Initially, I couldn't comprehend sitting in front of Kumar ji (her father) to learn and to sing. I hadn’t ever dreamt of it. And even when I started taking lessons formally from my mother, I wouldn’t treat her like my guru. Perhaps she indulged me there a bit, so that I'd continue to keep my interest in learning. Sometimes, when she'd correct me or chastise me for not getting something right, I'd get irritated and talk back! "You're no good a teacher, you can't even get me to sing," I'd say. It took a little time for me to adjust, understand and draw that distinction.
What were your lessons with them like?
With my father, it was never a structural thing. It was like very loosely woven scenarios of a particular raag or bandish. But at the same time, he'd go to such depths of high-brow concepts, that I'd have to go my mother to follow up and clarify. I never had the courage to cross-check with him directly. He was like a god for us.
Given this background, what do you think about training in mainstream music colleges? With the internet, there are now online lessons too. You have said earlier that guru-shishya paramapara is the only right way to learn classical music.
To create interest in Indian classical music, up to a certain point, channels like Youtube are great. As for formal music schools, they too are necessary in that they can get you ready with the nuts and bolts of grammar and theory. But there's a difference between knowing grammar and understanding literature – or even better, writing a poem. There's also the matter of individual inclination — you need to let yourself be soaked in the essence of this art, to have that flow inside of you. It takes all this and more. And that step, without doubt, comes only through the guru-shishya parampara.
Finding a guru isn't as easy as finding a teacher though...
True. I consider myself very blessed that I had my gurus — and of what renown! — in my parents. I didn't have to go elsewhere or search. They're no more, but the vast sky they've opened up for me — I don't think I'll be able to even fly through a quarter of it, even if I were to keep flying in it my whole life.
Do you think that quest to find the right guru, and the amount of commitment, rigour and discipline needed to be able to practice the art, is a barrier for young people to stay on and understand the nuances of it?
I don't think so. With our contemporary lifestyles, we all have to manage a tussle between different things. But this is just a part and parcel of the times.
There are efforts in Carnatic music to contemporise its literatures — artistes are infusing socio-religious issues to raagas. This been commended and criticized. Do you see any such trends in Hindustani in a bid to make it more 'relevant'?
Inherently, I think Hindustani classical as a platform is very liberal. We’ve had various vaageyaakars (singer-composers) contributing widely, and they do even now. This allows for compositional experiments and additions at every stage. But I don’t think we're moving into the socio-religious realm in that sense — at least I’m not aware of any such developments.
You’ve had Hindustani music all around you since as far back as you can remember. Have you then noticed any shifts or changes in the larger fraternity in the last two decades?
I do wonder sometimes if we value melody less nowadays, in favour of rhythm. With the new generation of young singers, even many of my contemporaries, I see that there's a lot of stress on perfection, on the grammar of things. And they’re all very good.
But I sense that there's a spontaneity that's missing. We must be open to making mistakes. It's very important to me that we are able to improvise well. Instead of just focusing on returning to the sam correctly each time, with the right taan, or singing different patterns of the taal — the demand of perfection with all of this feels a little dangerous to me sometimes.
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