Eminent musician Vasundhara Komkali, wife of the late Pandit Kumar Gandharva, is no more. I’m not sure if that’s what I want to say about the demise of the inimitable maestro. The co-singer of the haunting bhajan “Nirbhay Nirgun Gun Re Gaoonga” has left for that boundless space that exists beyond singer and listener. For even someone uninitiated to the music of Kumar Gandharva and Vasundhara Komkali, listening to their renditions of Nirguni bhajans reveals how intensely they co-habited their musical space, and yet so different. Vasundhara Komkali was not only a pioneer of the Kumar Gandharva school of music, she also represented the best of Khyal music itself.
A musician of few words, Vasundhara Komkali came across as someone who was possessed by her guru-husband, Kumar Gandharva. But it was in her singing that one met with wonder and awe, her robust imagination, and ingenious understanding. In Vasundhara Komkali’s music one saw the perfect coming together of ‘tradition’ and ‘individual talent’; her music embodied the legacy of her gurus Prof. Deodhar and Kumar Gandharva which achieved a fine synthesis as it passed through her own sharp thinking.
Vasundhara Komkali was barely 12 years old when she met Kumar Gandharva in Calcutta. He was impressed by her singing and asked her to come over to Mumbai for lessons. By the time she decided to go, World War II had begun and it was only in 1946 that she actually made it. By then, she was broadcasting programmes from AIR and was an established musician. It was the same with Kumar Gandharva too — he didn’t have the time to teach students. In an interview during her visit to Bangalore, Vasundhara Komkali had recalled how Kumar Gandharva had said, “Go learn from Prof. Deodhar.” Of course, she was very angry. “I had come all the way from Calcutta and he turned me away...,” she had remembered. Vasundhara Komkali did go to Prof. Deodhar, but later returned to Kumar Gandharva. “He didn’t believe in the repetitive mode, instead he always said, ‘Music is not just craft, it’s an art. So, don’t practise endlessly, but also think about your music.’ Much of my perceptions about music changed in his company,” she had recalled. Vasundhara Komkali, a musician in her own right, did not accept everything that her guru told her, nevertheless she never questioned him. She had remarked: “I was a student first and wife later. How can you question your guru?”
Soon after our conversation, I heard Vasundhara Komkali sing a dhun-ugam raga, an exotic Lagan Gandhar. With its sharp turn of phrases, it was replete with grand surprises. Her mesmerising voice showed no sign of ageing, and as she moved from one passionate interpretation to another, it was amply clear that her music flowed from a seamless reading of music. The meditative alap, the charming lilts, the delicate unfolding of notes, the three intense gandhars wrapped in beautiful dissonances (three variations of gandhar, prevalent only in Lok Sangeet and not in the traditional genres)… it was arresting, to say the least. I recall what a musicologist once said about her music: “Vasundhara Komkali embodies in her music the incredible range, the tremendous virtuosity, the spiritual resonance and exploration of Kumar Gandharva’s great music. She has rare qualities of immense virtuosity, innovative vision and lyrical spirituality.” Vasundhara Komkali’s life has been one of faith — that exceeded her, and her gurus. It was a faith in music.
With two of its songbirds gone, the town of Dewas where Kumar Gandharva and Vasundhara Komkali spent most of their lives, will perhaps sing, “Ud Jayega Panchi Akela.”