W hat a contrasting picture Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, the noted Hindustani classical singer trained in the Gwalior, Jaipur and Agra gharanas, is in person from the one which we get see when he is on stage. The voice and the persona which holds the audience spellbound during recitals like the recent one during the Swami Haridas-Tansen Sangeet Nritya Mahotsava 2017 presented by HCL Concerts held at Modern School is soft-spoken and a self-effacing person.
Coming straight for a breakfast meeting at the India International Centre’s Coffee Shop from the airport the artist betrays no jet lag preferring the garden rather than the indoors. “Let us enjoy the bright sunshine and fresh air.” Eager to start, Kashalkar quickly gets over ordering breakfast by asking for vadas, vegetable sandwiches and tea. “I like starting the day with something light and healthy. So I prefer South Indian dishes, like upma, vada, dosas and idlis.”
Taking a deep breath the singer looks around to take in the beautiful surroundings of the Rose Garden. Stating that Delhi is one of his favourite cities for performing, he explains, “The cosmopolitan audience here prefer a whole spectrum of music genres. Just as in the past, concerts by Kumar Gandharva and Malliarjun Mansoor and others were successful so are those by Kaushiki Chakraborty and Hari Prasad Chaurasia today. So it is a great privilege and pleasure to perform here.”
Born in Pandharkawada, Maharashtra, Kashalkar’s initiation into music was very early on in life. “I must have been six or seven when my father, N. D. Kashalkar, a lawyer and an amateur vocalist and musicologist started training me. He is the one who sowed the seeds in me to become a singer,” he says, sipping tea providing the much needed comfort in Delhi’s cool climes. Father’s encouragement made Kashalkar pursue post-graduation in music from Nagpur University and undertaking training during vacations from Pandit Ram Marathe while also participating at state and national level competitions. “During and on completing PG while attending and listening to music stalwarts of those days, I realised the harsh truth that what I had learnt so far was definitely not enough to become a performer which is what I was keen on becoming having devoted myself to this performing art. This is when it dawned on me that Indian classical music can be learnt only in the gurukul and guru-shishya parampara leading me to become student of Gajanan Anant Joshi.”
Enjoying the crisp and golden hue medu vadas with coconut chutney and sambar, Kashalkar says, the six years he spent at Joshiji’s residence under his tutelage changed everything in terms of music and person. “He made me learn bandishes and ragas all over again. Over a period he took pride in my singing and declared so publicly. That was one the best compliments I ever received.”
On being asked how classroom and gurukul were unlike, he explains: “Indian classical music can be taught and learnt only on a one-to-one basis and not in a group of 20 to 40 students like it is done in colleges. You see the voice, tone, tenor and sound of every individual is different, so the guru has to identify the student’s laya, sur and taan and teach accordingly. There is no single method or formula which can be applied. Teaching music is not a mould that fits all.”
The agile staff moves in to refill our cups thus helping to warm up the conversation a little more as Kashalkar continues to delve on the subject. “The two or three years at college with classes for a limited duration hardly suffice to become an artiste. Of course it does teach you the basic ragas, their characteristics and some bandishes but not beyond. For that one requires undivided attention of the guru with whom you spend long hours so there is no timing to learn and listen from him.”
The vocalist is quick to point out that he is not finding fault with the degree courses as they are serving the laudable purpose of instructing music lovers in theory and basics while helping many to get jobs in schools and radio stations. “When pursuing them, your expectation should not be to become an artist since for that you need guru to groom you to blossom.”
According to Kashalkar, his learning stint proved very beneficial as he received training in three different gharanas – Agra, Jaipur and Gwalior. “Each is a unique style with a different way of presentation and handling of ragas. Though difficult to imbibe, the three approaches gave a novelty to my singing. In fact, it provided the stepping stone for the much ‘chintan-manan’ (contemplation and reflection) on my part which helped develop my individuality during the time I worked with the All India Radio as a programme executive after my training.” This led to the artist carving is own style and identity – something which his rasikas and contemporaries swear by.
Kashalkar was taught specific ragas from each gharana like Sawani from Jaipur, Sahana from Agra and Yaman in Gwalior method and this method he has used to groom students at ITC’s Sangeet Research Academy for the past 25 years. Stating that this training makes one “chaumukhi” (multi-splendoured), he quickly cites a parallel. Taking a bite of the sandwich he says, “On our breakfast table besides vada and sandwiches if there was some Gujarati dishes like dokhla and parathas from Old Delhi, will it not add variety to our meal? Likewise, knowledge of gharanas, polishes your gayaki enabling one to embellish singing with finer nuances. This is happened in past too like Mallikarjun Mansoor was trained in Jaipur and Gwalior gharanas.”
Like his wont for variety in singing the vocalist is fond of different cuisine so long as they are vegetarian. “I relish Marathi puran poli, Gujarati kadhi, dhokla and dal bhatti churma of Rajasthan and of course Delhi’s parathas and sarson ka saag and makki ki roti.” Having spent a good part of his life in Kolkata, Bengali food too has left an indelible mark on his eating habits. “I like their green vegetables and dal preparations and begun bhaja.” Though during concerts abroad he is invariably invited by an Indian family for meals, he is not averse to enjoying pizza, pastas or burgers. But isn’t junk food no no for singers? “Normally, I prefer healthy and less spicy and oily food like dal chawal, salad and subzis like palak, bhindi and baigan, once in a while I try them for taste and flavour,” he reveals with a charming smile much to the amusement of those around. What he misses most these days is street food and sweets. “Of late, I do not eat gol gappas, chaat, bhelpuri and vada pav and dahi bhalle as there is a growing concern about hygiene and quality. Likewise, I have cut down on sweets though I still relish misti doi, sandesh, basundi and srikhand.”
One thought classical vocalists were very particular about their diet to keep their voice in shape. “These restrictions depend on the individual. My guru Pandit Ram Marathe used to eat everything, spicy, cold and hot but the moment he sat for performance or riyaz or teaching, his voice sounded perfect. Same way Begum Akhtar was known to drink cold water during her concert yet there was no effect on her voice.”
As we near the end of our interaction, Kashalkar reveals that he is fond of cooking too which he does occasionally on the request of his wife and son. Here too like singing, he had an able guru – his mother. “I learnt by observing her closely in the kitchen. I make tasty jowar rotis and pitla which is relished by everyone.” Is he game for trying new recipes? “Are nahi, hamara gaana bhi traditional and cooking bhi,” he signs off with a genial smile.