The name Dhondutai Kulkarni draws a blank with most people, including admirers of Hindustani classical music. So, when Kulkarni died of kidney failure in her Mumbai home on June 1, there were not many by her side. No obituaries were splashed in newspapers, and there were no tickers on news channels. Only a few music bloggers remembered the “Gaan Yogini” and circulated her videos on YouTube.
In one YouTube recording, we see a short woman in a maroon Banarasi sari, singing the melancholic Kabiri Bhairav in a full-throated, almost “manly”, voice. She outlines the raag with an elaborate alaap, interlinking it deftly with the bandish and just a few complicated taans (Ustad Alladiya Khan, founder of the Jaipur- Atrauli gharana, had fewer varieties of taans in his repertoire) to arrive on the same in ways we haven’t heard. This piece illustrates the level of dexterity that made Kulkarni a senior musician from the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana.
What is phenomenal also is that her music distinctly reminds listeners of another woman musician, the legendary Kesarbai Kerkar (also a student of Alladiya Khan), whose presence in Indian classical music had wiped out many careers in the first half of the 20th century.
Born and brought up in Kolhapur in Maharashtra, Kulkarni began training under Natthu Khan of the Jaipur Atrauli gharana and followed this by learning from Bhurji Khan, Alladiya’s son, and Azizuddin Khan, Alladiya’s grandson. Her family later moved to Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. When Kerkar announced that she would accept one student who would be worthy of her knowledge, Kulkarni’s father made a train journey from Jabalpur to Bombay to meet her. He wanted his daughter to learn from the finest in the field. Kulkarni’s talent did the impossible — it impressed Kerkar, who took her on as a disciple, the only one she would ever have.
Kerkar’s eccentric — if not volatile — temperament was as well-known as her genius. Kerkar was paranoid about anyone “knowing” her music and did not appreciate the idea of recording her pieces. She wanted her music to die with her but she trained Kulkarni in her style and, for years afterwards, when the latter sang, listeners would trace the voice of the guru. In her music, Kulkarni preserved the techniques and turns of Kerkar.
If one listens closely to Kulkarni, one comes across a woman who is performing her music like a prayer, steeped into her guru’s teachings.
It’s heavy for a general listener. But it’s also as if Kulkarni doesn’t care. As far as she was concerned, the audience needed to cultivate their taste and adjust themselves to her music. “There is no attempt to dilute the raag and make continued…