A Fine Balance
How Ulhas Kashalkar became one of the greatest musicians of our time
By Sumana Ramanan
MINUTES BEFORE THE LIGHTS DIMMED and the Hindustani vocalist Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar walked onto the stage at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, the eminent singers Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande and Padma Talwalkar took their seats in the front row. The vocalist and veteran critic Amarendra Dhaneshwar sat a few rows behind them. Other listeners looked around to see who else had come. Several younger singers were there as well: Noopur Kashid, Rutuja Lad, Amita Pavgi-Gokhale and Saylee Talwalkar. The turnout for Kashalkar’s concert, held last September, was not unusual; for at least a decade, he has been considered a musicians’ musician. Still, expectations were high: what would the maestro sing for this audience?
Kashalkar’s performance was dedicated to jod ragas, a particularly challenging melodic form. When singing a jod raga, the musician must fully elaborate two conjoined ragas—the complex melodic modes at the centre of Indian classical music. Each raga evokes a range of moods, and in a jod raga, the musician moves from one to the other only through their common swaras, or notes, attempting to keep the ambience of each distinct. Even while presenting a single raga, the singer faces the challenge of sustaining an emotional intensity, so that the rendition does not lapse into dry, mechanical exercise. This is all the more difficult with a jod raga because the technical skill plays an even greater role: here, the singer must also switch fluidly and surprise the audience with twists and turns. But Kashalkar, cutting a trim and graceful figure on the NCPA stage, made it look easy. With his characteristic mellifluousness, he sang four jod ragas back to back: Lalita Gauri, Shiv Kalyan, Malkauns Bahar and Jayant Malhar.
Kashalkar turns sixty on 14 January. At this milestone, still considered a midpoint in the career of a Hindustani classical musician, he is in formidable command over his form—khayal. Among the vocalists who perform it, barring Kishori Amonkar, he is unmatched. Kashalkar’s following may be smaller than that of the younger but already celebrated Ustad Rashid Khan, possibly because he lacks the rich timbre conventionally associated with a good voice. But Kashalkar’s genius lies in his inventive yet rooted artistry. In a sweet, malleable voice, he channels an intellectual disposition into emotionally powerful renditions. Over the years, he has forged his own distinctive style, which is dynamic without relying on dramatic flourishes. It is recognisable by its finely chiselled idiom, which incorporates a rich blend of influences, including the three gharanas, or schools of music, in which he trained: Agra, Gwalior and Jaipur. Kashalkar has himself trained at least eight vocalists of a high calibre, something few performers at his level accomplish. These singers, and the younger ones he continues to teach, represent a vital part of his legacy.
“All musicians look up to him,” Bhide-Deshpande told me during an interview at her home. “I look at him as a standard. If you are unsure, you listen to him and see how he approaches a raga. It can be very reassuring. One reason is that his taleem”—training—“has been impeccable. Second, he is a thinking musician. He won’t sing one way blindly because his guru did it. He will ask, why is this phrase in this raga? At the same time, without sacrificing his focus on classical music, he has a popular following.”
“Kashalkar’s is an amazing intellect applied to music,” Deepak Raja, a Mumbai-based musicologist who has written three books on Hindustani music, told me. “He has long performing experience, a huge repertoire and combines a high level of expressive and contemplative excellence. This is why he is the only true maestro of his generation.”
Amlan Das Gupta, a professor of English and a scholar of Hindustani music at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, who has set up a digital archive with more than six thousand hours of classical recordings, echoed this thought. “Kashalkar’s importance goes well beyond his performative skill,” he said. “You are listening to a great mind.”
Many khayaliyas only become better with time, and what is exciting for listeners is that Kashalkar continues to push the boundaries of his art. “He is constantly attempting to go further,” Das Gupta said, “to approach ragas in new ways, to re-imagine them. This makes him not just a remarkable khayal singer, but one of India’s greatest musicians.”
In the twenty years that I have been listening to Kashalkar, his concerts have been both highly consistent and impressively varied. Even on a scratchy YouTube clip I once saw—of Kashalkar in full flow at a 2011 function in Goa commemorating the birth anniversary of his guru, Gajananbuwa Joshi—his effortless mastery shines through a stirring rendition of Raga Adana. This raga is sung in the middle and upper octaves, and follows the main piece, once the voice has fully warmed up. Kashalkar sang three compositions in Adana, scaling ever greater heights but stopping well before he had exhausted his creative resources. The two supporting musicians, his student Shashank Maktedar and his son Sameehan, spent the better part of the 25-minute rendition looking stupefied at what was unfolding before them. At one point, Kashalkar leaned towards his son, indicating that he should sing. Sameehan merely stared back. It was not his fault. What was the use of him striking a match when his father had already set the house on fire?
ULHAS KASHALKAR LIVES with his family on the campus of the Sangeet Research Academy in south Kolkata’s Tollygunge locality. Compared with its gregarious Bengali bhadralok counterpart, the upper-caste and middle-class Maharashtrian culture the Kashalkar family comes from is one of quiet reserve, even aloofness. Kashalkar is particularly reticent, but after some cajoling, he agreed to let me visit him at the SRA, a modern gurukul with an illustrious roster of past teachers, such as the Agra gharana’s Latafat Hussain Khan, the Jaipur gharana’s Nivruttibuwa Sarnaik and the Kirana gharana’s Hirabai Barodekar. Although Kashalkar’s background is eclectic, he came on board over two decades ago as a resident guru representing the Gwalior gharana.
Over the course of a week last October, the soft-spoken singer gradually opened up, helped along by his wife Sanjeevani, who turned out to be quite the raconteur. In his Nagpur-inflected Hindi, Kashalkar reflected on his evolving style, his role as a teacher, and the practice of his art as a khayaliya.
Khayal, along with dhrupad, is one of the two main genres in Hindustani classical music. A fusion of Indian and Persian influences, khayal is thought to have originated as early as the thirteenth century, and blossomed by the eighteenth century, notably in the court of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah “Rangila.” A khayal presentation in one raga is an intricate exercise in improvisation that usually consists of a vilambit, or slow, composition, followed by a dhrut, or fast, one, each set to a specific tala, or rhythmic pattern. The singer elaborates upon a raga through verses of usually two to four lines in a Hindi dialect.
This elaboration consists of two broad modes of melodic improvisation: aalaap, a slow unfolding, undertaken in the first half of a presentation, and taan, fast-paced patterns of notes, sung in the second. The improvisation also has a rhythmic dimension. Called laykari, it is the singer’s creative dialogue with the tala. One aspect of laykari is the manner in which the singer arrives at the sam, the tala’s first beat, in each avartan, or iteration of the rhythmic cycle. Each arrival on this sam generates a frisson of expectation in the audience for the next landing, thus keeping listeners in a state of perpetual anticipation.
Except for child prodigies such as DV Paluskar, even someone who begins training at the age of five requires at least two decades to become a good khayal singer. “In earlier times,” Kashalkar told me, “people used to tell musicians not to even attempt singing khayal before forty. Until then, one’s music doesn’t mature.” Getting to the next stage and developing a unique style is even more arduous. Few make this transition.
I asked Kashalkar why he had focussed so steadfastly on khayal, to the near exclusion of light classical forms such as thumri, tappas, bhajans and natya sangeet, which may have widened his popular appeal. “I derived the most satisfaction from khayal,” he said. “One can do so much with it. Even now, I feel there is so much left to explore. Besides, it took me so long to master khayal itself, there was no time to do other things. And you can make a name for yourself by focussing on khayal. Just look at Mallikarjun Mansur. He knew how to sing natya sangeet, Kannada vachanas, etcetera, but he decided to sing only khayal and never once changed his course because of external pressures. Yet he gained such a great reputation.”
In khayal’s abstractness lies its appeal, Kashalkar said. “Because very little is fixed, it allows the individual artiste a lot of scope for improvisation. This is why the same artiste can sing the same bandish-”—composition—“in the same raga several times, and each time its effect will vary. If everything is fixed, then the effect will also be fixed and predictable. You can take khayal to increasingly higher heights. That is what makes our music so special.
“The aim is not to merely reproduce what your guru sang. If imitation were the only aim, one could do it the minute one’s taleem ends. But it takes a very long time to apply your mind to what you have learnt and develop your own style. So if someone tells a singer, ‘You don’t sound like your guru,’ he or she should consider it a compliment. DV Paluskar learnt from Vinayakrao Patwardhan, for instance, but their presentation of the same music was so different.”
Among the many remarkable features of Kashalkar’s style is the way he has integrated elements of three gharanas into a seamless whole. The main khayal gharanas are Agra, Gwalior, Jaipur-Atrauli (often referred to just as Jaipur), Kirana, Patiala and Rampur-Sahaswan. Kashalkar selectively chooses elements of a gharana that he believes are its strength. For example, when it comes to bol baant, an improvisational technique that splits up the words of a composition in various ways rhythmically, Kashalkar draws from the Agra gharana, while for taan designs he looks to the Jaipur gharana.
Until about a decade ago Kashalkar would render different ragas in the styles of different gharanas during his concerts. “I stopped doing that after a while because it began restricting me,” he said. “If I commit to singing in one gharana, then I cannot use an element of another gharana even though I think that might enhance the exposition of the raga. For instance, if I announce that I am singing something the Jaipur way, then I cannot use tihais”—repetitions of phrases three times—“to come to the sam, even if I feel like doing so, because that is not part of that gharana’s style.” But the extent of integration also depends on the raga, Kashalkar said. “If I have learnt a raga in the full Jaipur style from my guru, especially the complex and rare ones that this gharana specialises in, such as Raisa Kanada or Shuddha Nat, then I won’t destroy its stylistic integrity just because I want to incorporate elements of other gharanas.”
Kashalkar’s taans, those fast patterns of notes, exemplify his ability to assimilate a variety of influences. To cite just one example, he incorporated balpej taans, a particularly complex class of taans found in the Jaipur gharana, into his music by listening to recordings and attending concerts of Nivruttibuwa Sarnaik. In 1992, Kashalkar was singing a sequence of these taans at a concert outside Mumbai. The respected sarangi player who was accompanying him, the late Abdul Latif Khan, simply put his instrument down and told the audience, “Aise taan sarangi ki bas ke bahar hain”—These taans are beyond the sarangi. Moved both by Kashalkar’s virtuosity and Khan’s honesty, the audience broke into thunderous applause…
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