Sushri Dhondutai Kulkarni (1927-2014), the last exponent of orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli Khayal vocalism, breathed her last on May 31, 2014. In the music community, she was known primarily as the sole disciple of the legendary Kesarbai Kerkar (1890-1977). This was factually correct, but only partially descriptive of her musical persona. Dhondutai was groomed by three other exponents of the style evolved by Ustad Alladiya Khan (1855-1946), Natthan Khan, Bhurji Khan, and Lakshmibai Jadhav – before she came under Kesarbai’s tutelage, and Azizuddin Khan thereafter. In Dhondutai’s own assessment, Bhurji Khan was her primary trainer who had coached her to the level of a performing musician, and Kesarbai had been more like a sparring-mate polishing up her impact on the concert platform.
Against this background, with three of her five mentors being members of the founding family of the lineage, Dhondutai had the maximum imaginable access to the accumulated musical wisdom of her stylistic lineage, as variously reflected in the musical temperaments of her mentors. From these mutually compatible influences, she forged an original musical statement and remained, after Kesarbai’s retirement in 1965, the most authoritative interpreter of the stylistic lineage.
The recognition of Dhondutai’s style as “orthodox” Jaipur Atrauli is important because, during Dhondutai’s own lifetime, Kishori Amonkar, her junior by a few years, and a product of the same lineage, had launched a revisionist interpretation of Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism, which took female vocalism by storm. While orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism emphasised the majestic aloofness of its Dhrupad-Dhamar inspiration, its revisionist offshoot went headlong into a solicitous, endearing romanticism, inspired by the stylistics of the thumri and popular genres. Amonkar replaced the elitist stance of orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli with a markedly populist stance and, not surprisingly, left the orthodoxy gasping for breath. Dhondutai refused to flow with the tide of populism, and consolidated her position as a zealous custodian and of the gharana’s musical assets. This meant accepting a marginal presence on the concert platform, a life devoted to teaching, and an ascetic lifestyle.
The hallmark of Dhondutai’s Jaipur-Atrauli legacy was a distinctive voice culture, which ensured continuity of the musical experience across the entire melodic canvas, and subtlety and complexity in all departments. Her treasure of raga-s included a host of melodic entities which are rare. Many of these were compound raga-s, whose names were familiar, but their melodic engineering was unique to the Jaipur-Atrauli lineage. Even in the performance of common raga-s, her interpretation had the oblique – sometimes intriguing and even baffling -- quality typical of the lineage. Her melodic contours were devoid of angularities, and distinctive for their curvilinear form, moving in loops and spirals. In her musical expression, melody wrapped itself caressingly around the beats of the rhythmic cycle, giving it a subtle swing, which never became an explicit pulsation. The result was often an unexpected emphasis or elongation of some notes, which enhanced the enigmatic quality of the raga form. The internal structure of each movement in her renditions kept changing all the time, thus avoiding repetitiveness and monotony.
Because of these features, orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism was considered highbrow. Elitism and aloofness embedded themselves as second nature in the conduct of Jaipur-Atrauli musicians. An extreme manifestation of this was the musical persona of Kesarbai Kerkar. Its reflection in the persona of Dhondutai Kulkarni, however, never approached Kesarbai’s abrasiveness. As a performing musician, Dhondutai would not bring her music down to the appreciation levels of her audiences; but she would make every effort to raise the level of appreciation of the audiences. In every concert I have heard, she would certainly include a rare or a compound raga, painstakingly explain its melodic structure, preface the Khayal rendition with an abnormally long alap, and ensure that the musical content of her performances was not met with bewilderment.
Through her broadcasts on All India Radio, Dhondutai enjoyed national stature as a vocalist for almost half a century. In the last two decades that I have followed Dhondutai, her stage performances were infrequent. But, whenever they were held, every connoisseur, and many a leading musician in the city made sure that he was present. She was invited to perform and receive awards by some of the most influential cultural organizations in the country. Amongst her many awards were the Mallikarjun Mansur Award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, and the Maharashtra Gaurav award.
Teaching provided her a livelihood; but her approach to it was missionary, and totally lacking the commercialism of present-day musicians. She had benefitted from Kesarbai’s totally non-commercial decision to bequeath the lineage’s musical assets to her. Dhondutai was motivated likewise to bequeath those assets to as many worthy recipients as possible. To her students, she often pointed out that they (her disciples) were fortunate that she had remained unmarried. Had she had her own children, she would have taught them – rather than her disciples – the crucial secrets of her art. She also believed that, had she decided to start a family, she would never have been able to acquire the musical assets that she could accumulate by remaining a spinster. But, clearly, there was in her persona also a mother who could never be. To her disciples, tough and demanding as she could be as a teacher, she was everybody’s idea of a mother.
Dhondutai’s legacy of commercially distributed recordings is meagre. There exists a modest unpublished archive of her concert recordings, which awaits processing and dissemination. Her accomplishments as a guru are more evident. The finest living products of her grooming are Manjari Vaishampayan, who performs and teaches in the US; Namita Devidayal, author of the celebrated book “The Music Room”, who unfortunately does not perform; and two youngsters who are currently making waves on the concert platform – Aditya Khandwe and Rutuja Lad.
Dhondutai bequeathed a substantial part of the lineage’s musical wisdom to a few recipients. Her training will remain the foundation of their musicianship. But, the music they sing will inevitably be shaped by their interaction with today’s audiences. Their talent and ingenuity will decide whether orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism survives Dhondutai, or gets swamped by the romanticist Tsunami that hit the Khayal coastline about four decades ago.
(The writer is a renowned musicologist and has written three books on Hindustani Music)