Last month, at Delhi’s Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, 64-year-old Pandit M Venkatesh Kumar took the stage at about 8.30 pm. He was concluding the second day of the fifth Guru ML Koser Music and Dance Festival. He invoked raag Maru Bihag, a sunset raga that combines elements of Kalyan and Bihag. A product of Ustad Alladiya Khan’s brilliant mind, the bandish, Rasiya…na ja, the cry of a pining woman, who yearns for her beloved, was delivered solidly, constructed with clear markers of the raga.
Almost 50 people present in the auditorium, with a capacity for 422, gasped at Kumar’s dexterous ascends and descends and the imaginative leaps he took in the raga. A bright, simple melody, that went on every end of the musical spectrum through Kumar’s sonorous voice, and found the raga’s trademark teevra madhyam often, was received wonderfully well. Those present, the rasiks, gathered around Kumar in the end, asking for more, complimenting him, and saying that the concluding piece in Bhairavi was too short. Dressed in a simple off-white kurta pyjama, Kumar adjusted his maroon shawl on the shoulder, and said with a grin, “I don’t mind fewer people, as long as they are supportive and appreciate what I sing. I don’t need full auditoriums,” a soft-spoken Kumar.
Kumar’s name doesn’t pull the audience in droves, the kind his contemporaries such as vocal legend Ustad Rashid Khan and sitar maestro Ustad Shahid Parvez do; at least in North India. His seniors and juniors hail him as the touchstone of brilliance. Vocalist Kishori Amonkar had said, “Venkatesh sings like a saint, to please the extraordinary.” She was referring to the three categories, two others being the ones who sing for money, others for fame.
For an artist who doesn’t accept more than two-three concerts a month, and until two years ago used a rickety scooter to travel and teach students at the University College of Music in Dharwad, and Karnataka College of Music, where he was a faculty for 33 years, music and teaching have been a way of life. “I still use it to go to the market. I can’t drive a car,” says the vocalist, who works at the college to ensure a pension post retirement. He wasn’t sure if concerts would be able to support him. “When you have seen a lot of difficulties in life, you become careful. I would take leave from the college and perform but I wanted to keep my job,” he says.
In Gadag, a sleepy little town bordering Dharwad to its West, Kumar’s mornings happen at 5 am, where his voice rises as if to team with the sun. Kumar came to Gadag as a 12-year-old from Lakshmipura in Dharwad, a region that has produced legends such as Gangubai Hangal and Mallikarjun Mansur; a place that’s said to have music in its soil. Son of a folk singer and leather puppeteer, Kumar says that they barely had enough to eat. His father knew that his son had the voice and talent. Soon Kumar, along with his maternal uncle, found himself at the Veereshwara Punyashrama in Gadag, which was run by Veerashaiva saint and Hindustani musician, Puttaraja Gawai. Kumar lived and learned at the ashram for the next 12 years.
“It was a strict routine. We woke up at 4 am and did riyaaz till 7 am. Then we’d clean the ashram, cook, do our daily chores, practise again, eat and sleep. There was no TV and phones. Life was simple and focused,” says Kumar, whose training was mostly under Kirana and Gwalior gharanas with a Carnatic classical influence of his guru, which now results in unique sargam methods. “But I was never stopped from learning the interesting bits from other gharanas. For a long time, the secrecy of the gharanas as a concept, was quite bizarre for me. Music is music, my guru would say,” says Kumar, who has also authored the music textbook for the examination conducted by the Karnataka government.
But for 14 years after, when he left his guru’s ashram, Kumar struggled to make ends meet. He tried to put food on the table by teaching children at their homes, travelling miles on a bicycle for a sum of Rs 25a month. “It was a very small amount even in the ‘80s. Which is why I wasn’t keen that my children turn to music for a livelihood,” says Kumar, whose three children are teachers.
But it was a telegram from Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in 1993 that changed Kumar’s life. It was an invite to perform at the famed Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune. Joshi had taught in Gadag and had heard of Kumar’s unique timbre. The experience of that concert is something that Kumar still remembers. “People would sit through the night and listen. They didn’t care about anything else. It was all about immersing themselves. I liked that,” says Kumar.
Almost a decade later, in 2002, when Joshi was being awarded the Maharashtra Bhushan award, he was asked to suggest a musician he wanted to listen to. “He named Rashid Khan first. But post his unavailability, took my name. Being his second choice, too, was honour enough,” says Kumar, who has performed in some of the more significant festivals in the last decade.
He is glad that he’s found connoisseurs now. The masses, he says, are just about learning a little bit about him. “Qismat matters. I am happy that people are listening to my music finally. I am serving music and surviving. I am a known name now,” says Kumar.