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Dhondutai Kulkarni: Memories of a Forgotten Musician

Dhondutai Kulkarni, who died quietly this month, represented an old world of pure classical singing.

Dhondutai Kulkarni with her Tanpura | Source: Rajhans Prakashan, Pune Dhondutai Kulkarni with her Tanpura | Source: Rajhans Prakashan, Pune

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.

Dhondutai Kulkarni during one of her performances: Source: Rajhans Prakashan Dhondutai Kulkarni during one of her performances: Source: Rajhans Prakashan

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 it easy for listeners to comprehend. Her music was serious stuff and required a keen ear. She employed finesse and could not stand the idea of flamboyance or a compromise,” says Sanjay Dixit, a private collector of music and Kulkarni’s disciple for more than a decade. He adds that Kulkarni was the only musician who kept the essence of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana alive in its purest form. One of her specialities was the jod, a compound raag. She could connect five raags and make them sound as one and nobody could spot the patches.

Dhondutai Kulkrani receiving an award from former President of India R Venkataraman in the presence of actor and playwright Girish Karnad. Source: Rajhans  Prakashan, Pune Dhondutai Kulkrani receiving an award from former President of India R Venkataraman in the presence of actor and playwright Girish Karnad. Source: Rajhans Prakashan, Pune

This was one of the reasons Kulkarni remained on the fringes of the concert circuit. Then, of course, there was Kerkar’s plea from the deathbed in 1977. “Meri vidya ko kabhi raaste pe mat laana” she had said. Kulkarni obeyed, for the rest of her life. Never did one hear a thumri, a daadra, a tappa or any semi-classical piece from her. Kerkar’s thumris, however, were a toast of the soirees of the ’60s, bringing to the fore, her training under Rasoolan Bai.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then that Kulkarni’s few recitals were attended mostly by musicians of other gharanas, the Ustads and their students. “Her music was not always palatable for the aam janta. There are small pockets all over the country where people remember her,” says Namita Devidayal, a journalist, author and Kulkarni’s disciple, whose 2007 book The Music Room was based on her.

Vocalist Shruti Sadolikar Katkar, Kulkarni’s niece and Vice-Chancellor of Bhatkhande Music Institute in Lucknow, says, “She spent her entire life in the service of the music that was gifted to her, showering her students with knowledge that she had nurtured with a lot of struggle. It was so hard to please those gurus and imbibe what they taught from the vast repertoire of the music of the Jaipur gharana.”

The famous Voyager 2 spacecraft sent by the US had taken many objects along with it from the Earth including a few of the best recordings from world over. Kerkar’s blazing Bhairavi was one of them. As Kerkar’s music revolved in outer space, Kulkarni dedicated her life to preserving the guru’s teachings, her ideas that kept her on the margins of popularity but also won her the title of “Gaan Yogini” among those who understood her music.

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