A couple of wilted gerbera and rose bunches are stowed near a small table, choc-a-bloc with idols of Goddess Saraswati, some old framed photographs in a small apartment located in Delhi’s Munirka. The flowers mark Pt Laxman Krishnarao Pandit’s 85th birthday — a milestone in the life of a significant Hindustani classical vocalist who has zealously represented the Gwalior gharana — the oldest gharana of khayal gayaki and the fountainhead of so many other gharanas for more than half a century. “It has been an enriching journey. Years of riyaaz and creating music don’t seem enough; I need to learn more,” says Pandit, sitting next to framed citations of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Sangeet Kalaratna, among others.
“I feel happy I could learn music under the aegis of Gwalior gharana; Mian Tansen’s style was rooted in the same gayaki,” says Pandit, a Hindustani classical vocalist whose name may not be a regular in the concert scene, but whose voice remains significant with private collectors and connoisseurs. Not just because of its timbre or the concept of Ashtaang gayaki (a systematic eight-fold elaboration of the raga) of the Gwalior gharana or delivering the classical tappa, one of the toughest styles in classical music, or his unparallel khayal gayaki, but also because he remains one of the oldest musicians to delineate ragas in the format of the Gwalior gharana.
“You need tricks to earn fame. Many artistes have used a lot of that in the past. It isn’t something I am comfortable with,” says Pandit, a day before catching the train to Patiala for a concert at the local university. His daughter and Hindustani classical vocalist, Meeta Pandit, tells us how he’d been insisting on going alone. “I’ve been asking him to take a student along,” she says. At a time when all senior classical musicians travel with an entourage of musicians, it’s heartwarming to come across an old-fashioned musician, for whom a certain kind of “artiste lifestyle” does not matter. But there is no disenchantment. “If you don’t think about other things, it helps you concentrate on your music,” says Pandit.
Pandit was born in 1938 into a well-known family of musicians. His father was Pt Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, who founded the Shankar Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Gwalior in 1914. Pt Krishnarao was also responsible for developing an easy and independent notation system and authored numerous books and essays to make music education easier and accessible for students. His grandfather, Pt Shankarrao Pandit, was a direct disciple of the founders of the Gwalior gharana — Ustad Haddu, Nathu and Nissar Hussain Khan. “Nissar Khan lived in our house and taught. Since it was a Brahminical household, and non-vegetarian food was not acceptable, he turned vegetarian. In fact, they called him Nissar Bhatt back then,” says Pandit with a laugh. “I learned music at a time when it was the only thing we did. We didn’t go out. We just sat and did sadhana,” he adds.
The history of India would be incomplete without its music. And the history of its music would be incomplete without Gwalior gharana, which flourished under Raja Man Singh Tomar; Mian Tansen was one of its early proteges. “If a regular employee earned Rs 5 as their monthly salary then, a musician’s was Rs 500. That’s the kind of status Gwalior gave to its musicians,” says Pandit. They say there was time when even children cried in sur in Gwalior, and people went to Tansen’s mausoleum until 1950 to eat leaves of a tamarind tree planted by him. It’s believed that anyone who would eat the leaves of this tree will be blessed with a melodious voice. “Even KL Saigal, who was visiting us once, asked for a visit and the taste of that leaf. My father had promptly obliged,” says Pandit.
After learning from his father, Pandit found a job at All India Radio in 1960 as a producer and also began doing small concerts. His work at AIR helped him listen to the greats of music — from Ustad Amir Khan to Pt Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He performed more and simultaneously trained his three children — Tushar, Atul and Meeta in music. Meeta and Tushar were on the path to success when Tushar died in an accident. “A strict father and guru, the incident softened him,” says Meeta, who continues to perform the Gwalior gharana gayaki. After spending many years with the radio, he was also associated with the Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, Delhi University, as a professor and is currently engaged in documenting the style and compositions of his gharana.
Among a slew of his recordings floating on YouTube, there is a Shori Miyan tappa in raag Kaafi that catches attention. Pandit, who looks about 60 in the video moves up and down the saptak with a fluidity that very few have managed to master. “When I sing now, I don’t have as much stamina or control over my breath, but I do have more understanding. Which is why it takes a lifetime to be able to understand this composite world. I plan to do this till I can,” he adds.