Pandit Kumar Gandharva,
Nirguni Bhajans
(Felmay, 2003)

Pandit Kumar Gandharva was born Shivaputra Siddharamaiyya Komkali in 1924. A native of Northern Karnataka in South India, he was renamed Kumar Gandharva by the spiritual leader of a sect of staunch Shiva worshippers; Kumar refers to a son of the deity Shiva, while Gandharva is a reference to the demigods who are considered as the first performers of cosmic music.

Gandharva was destined to become one of the more intellectually inclined Hindustani vocalists, which may partly explain why he never reached the popularity of singers like Mallikarjun Mansur. The fact that he became a singer at all is somewhat of a miracle, since a childhood illness had left him with only one functioning lung.

There is an anecdote that he was inspired to become a singer when, while recovering from his disease, he noticed the remarkable volume produced by a diminutive bird visiting his room. Most Indian vocal music is characterized by the deep sonorous drone of the artist's voice, but because of his physical disability Gandharva had to develop a unique style, relying on short, sharp vocal bursts released in a high-pitched timbre.

Gandharva (or Kumarji as his fans call him) considered words to be very important to the music and -- quite opposite to a prevailing trend in which the words are often just mumbled and considered to be no more than vehicles for the articulation of musical sounds -- he took great care to enunciate the lyrics properly. On Nirguni Bhajans he demonstrates this with three renditions of texts from the great mystic Kabir and the composition "Bhola Man Jane AmarMen Kaya."

Selecting the poetry of this sage, who according to tradition lived from 1398 to 1518 (!), is symbolic of the syncretism so widely found in Indian music. With his mystical poetry Kabir had namely tried to break down the barriers between Hinduism and Islam. Although his poems dealt with the spiritual dimension, he utilized situations surrounding everyone's daily life to express his ideas, giving them a folksy character.

This again dovetails nicely with Kumar Gandharva's strong beliefs about folk music. He was convinced that all "classical" music is an outgrowth of folk music, where the most basic elements of life and nature are expressed in musical form. In his view, classical ragas are nothing but the distillation of the musical essence from folk songs. Lovers of his music claim therefore that Pandit Kumar Gandharva was at his best when singing folk songs or bhajans -- Hindu devotional songs -- like on the current album. These highly personal views of Indian music may serve also as an explanation for his rather controversial refusal to abide by the confines imposed by the gharana tradition, which is so prevalent in Indian music. (Gharana, meaning family or household, refers to the lines of transmission from father to son or guru to disciple, used to pass on and safeguard -- in this case -- musical traditions.) In his musical interpretations Pandit Kumar shifted happily from one regional style to another.

The vocal renditions on this album are all excellent samples of Kumar Gandharva's characteristic performance. Like all traditional Indian music, the constant undercurrent of the naada brahma ("first note"), also known as "Om" or first sound of the universe, is not lacking on these recordings. But this primordial drone is contrasted by Gandharva's thin tenor voice. Accompanied by a quartet of musicians on harmonium, tabla and tanpura the pandit takes us on a roughly 40-minute musical tour of India. Never in the best of health, Pandit Kumar Gandharva succumbed in 1992, some two months after the ailing artist had given his last concert in the Nehru Center. Since then his legacy only lives on through recordings like this.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 10 April 2004

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