Ramakant Gundecha: Popular voice of Dhrupad

Umakant, Ramakant and Akhilesh Gundecha performing at Tagore International Literature and Arts Festival at Minto Hall in Bhopal

Umakant, Ramakant and Akhilesh Gundecha performing at Tagore International Literature and Arts Festival at Minto Hall in Bhopal   | Photo Credit: A M faruqui

Along with brother Umakant, Ramakant Gundecha breached many barriers

I find it incredibly difficult to write about loss. Mourning as I have experienced it is always personal, never to be exhibited on a public platform but writing an obituary is perhaps coming close to one. I also use the word ‘personal’ judiciously here. We have personal memories of musicians who impact the way we receive and think about music. And then there are few like us who have been rather fortunate to have seen some of these maestros from close quarters beyond the concert platforms. The more intimate, private self is often revealed in these settings.

The highpoint of my last trip to Bhopal some years ago was the evening I spent with Ramakant, Umakant and Akhilesh Gundecha at their residence. Soon after arrival, we settled for a conversation in their music room over numerous cups of tea. Delicious dinner followed after which I was treated to a short recital in their music room. I do feel deeply privileged to have encountered the maestros in the privacy of their home and music room, sharing the music which took them years to create. Amongst other things, Ramakant Gundecha also mentioned that they could perform longer aalaps in Europe and the U.S. There was never any despair or rancour in his voice about the state of Dhrupad in India. On the contrary, he thought about ways of improving its access and popularity. Next morning, he invited me to their Dhrupad Gurukul which is entirely managed by their students. I was asked to sit next to him while he taught his disciples. While Dhrupad has primarily been the reserve of male musicians, I was elated to see many women being trained at the gurukul. Ramakant also took special pride in introducing a female student saying she is now taiyyar for performance. While I sit down to write this, I am flooded with memories.

The Gundecha Brothers were scheduled to perform an early morning concert on November 10 in Pune. As we all know, early morning concerts are far and few between. Also in our increasingly over populated music festival schedules, the prospect of listening to just one duo elevated my spirits. I would be able to focus on their music more, think about it after the conclusion which is often endangered when another artist takes the stage in quick succession. I wrote to Ramakant Gundecha expressing my delight and excitement. He soon replied saying he looked forward to our rendezvous at the concert. Barely a couple of hours from receiving his message, Ramakant Gundecha was no more. His elder brother and collaborator, Umakant shared the news on his Facebook page. I felt devastated. The country had lost a distinguished musician and I had lost the opportunity to ever hear him live again. The loss felt deeply personal. Words can barely portray such despair.

The Gundechas have played a significant role in popularising Dhrupad. Besides numerous concerts in India and abroad, they are also known as dedicated teachers of the form. Dhrupad is hailed as the precursor to Hindustani music. Ramakant Gundecha constantly thought about ways to make it more accessible and lucid. Their numerous experiments with Hindi poetry in the format of Dhrupad are well known. Some will also remember their renditions of Kabir, which became part of their usual concert repertoire. Bhopal is a stronghold of Hindi literature and I am least surprised to see Hindi poetry finding a way into their music. Isn’t this a demonstration of artistic osmosis that we often aspire to achieve? While this earned them some detractors who went on to complain that these attempts undermine the gravity of Dhrupad, the brothers soldiered on undeterred. Many found their presentation endearing and I think it was a great step in introducing an esoteric form to a large mass of people, who often feel that Dhrupad is inaccessible.

How can we forget their legendary collaboration with Chandralekha in her choreography, ‘Sharira’? I also heard them singing jugalbandi concerts with other Hindustani khayal singers. These were attempts to draw in more people to Dhrupad singing. Were they also thinking about the contemporaneity of their music or exploring further possibilities? I constantly say ‘they’ because it is almost impossible to separate one from the other.

I must also recount an incident that a friend once told me. Many years ago, she went to a concert where the Gundecha brothers were singing. She was apprehensive about Dhrupad but what she heard wouldn’t leave her for a long time. She kept looking for more opportunities to attend their recitals. This is one of the many stories I heard about how their music impacted the listeners. I am not suggesting here that these listeners became devotees of Dhrupad but they found an entry point into a music system which they had preconceived notions about. Ramakant Gundecha’s contribution in taking Dhrupad to a wider audience must be acclaimed.

After the Dagars, who are synonymous with Dhrupad, perhaps the most significant contribution has been made by the Gundechas. Both Ramakant and Umakant were trained by Zia Fariduddin and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. Ramakant also maintained that while they sang together, listeners can notice their distinct qualities which they wish to maintain. He went on to add, “We are just not blood brothers but musically linked too.” I can’t imagine the Gundecha Bandhus without Ramakant. He has left a void that will be hard to fill. From listening to the duo, will we now have to listen to solo singing? There are many questions but no easy answers.

A musician dies but the music remains. Digital technology and heightened access has created bridges between the musician and his listeners. I will henceforth look for him in his music but that I can’t see him in person ever again still troubles me.

(The writer teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune)

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2020 11:20:25 PM |

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