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From rags to ragas
Phool rahi belariya...a clear voice soars high, polishing and re-polishing a pretty little piece in raga Durga to perfection. It draws you into a corner where Raghavendra Bajantri sits perched on a trunk with a harmonium working to perfect his khayal.
The trunk is the sum total of all he possesses in this world. The gaunt 19-year-old comes from a poor home in Haveri and the art he is learning at the Panchakshara Gawai music ashram is his hope for escape. It is a hope shared by 300 other children and young adults from poor homes in the villages and towns of north Karnataka who live and learn music for free at this unique ashram in Gadag, an hour from Hubli.
The children, 100 of them blind, are working hard to wangle a chance to sing at the annual Panchakshara Gawai music festival held at the ashram this time of the year in the memory of the legendary sightless singer seer who started this truly remarkable musical movement 70 years ago. After all, where else are you likely to find classical music being used as a tool for empowerment or employment of the destitute?
"Oh we can sing for films as well, once you learn classical music nothing is difficult. But this is much more interesting, " says 12-year-old Santosh, disciplining his fingers to get his beats right on the tabla. "Villagers around Gadag love listening to classical music and we get enough requests to perform. Then we can also get jobs as teachers. "
In schools and colleges across Karnataka, students of the ashram are as much in demand as teachers. Just last week the state government recruited 280 senior students as teachers for government schools, and the year before, 70. "The ashram's reputation is so strong that a music student needs no other stamp of quality to be selected, " says manager Basavaraj Hidkimath.
When the senior Gawai passed away in 1944, he handed over charge of what can only be described as the monastic musical order to his sightless shishya Putturaj (See box). When the incredibly talented pontiff died in September last year at the age of 96, Gadag pretty much shut down for five days.
An amazing fallout of the Gawais' pioneering work in Gadag over the last seven decades is that even ordinary folk have an ear for the intricacies of what is considered high culture elsewhere. They appreciatively sit through the concerts, the wahs and the applause coming at the right moments. Because of this the Gadag-Hubli-Dharwad belt has become a fertile ground for Hindustani classical music.
"I would say that 99 per cent of the musicians from this belt - and this region boasts names like Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Basavaraj Rajguru and Mallikarjun Mansur - directly or indirectly learnt or were inspired by the life and works of Gawai, " says renowned Dharwad vocalist M Venkatesh Kumar who was himself a student of the ashram (See interview). A lecturer at the music college of Dharwad Univeristy, he estimates that in Maharashtra and Karnataka together, there must be at least 10, 000 musicians whose heritage can be traced to the Gawai ashram.
About 1, 000 music teachers in the state owe their livelihood to the ashram. There are others like flautist Ramesh Bakale who use their learning in a different way. Bakale, who used to run a food cart till he mastered the flute, now handcrafts flutes for musicians.
Putturaj was as much a music evangelist as his guru, and more rooted in the modern reality. He turned the small, cramped ashram into a larger establishment. Known for never seeking donations, he set up a drama troupe, the Parchakshara Natak Sangh, to earn some cash for the school (travelling theatres were hugely popular in those decades). And with generous land and cash donations from the farmers and landowners of the area he managed to create a residential music school for the blind and the destitute.
Music is taught free, as sewa to the two Gawais, at the school to everyone, including those who can afford it. There are 20 salaried teachers, 15 of them blind, who teach vocal and instrumental music. And the children can be as greedy as they please about what they want to learn.
There is no denying that many of the children who are at the ashram have been sent here as one mouth less to feed for the poor families of this jowar belt. When Shenappa Guttargi was sent here as a 10-yearold by his father, it had been a necessity - his mother had passed away and the second wife was reluctant to deal with the child. He studied music for 10 years and is today one of the most talented tabla players and teachers in the region.
"A lot of children come here out of necessity and may not start off liking the idea of learning music. But such was the love and dedication of the guru Putturaj that it is difficult to stay indifferent to his passion, " says Guttargi.
At 3. 30 am, when the rest of Gadag is sunk in deep sleep, the clangour of a loud bell cuts through the ashram. It is wake-up time for the music students of the ashram. They file out into the halls, the grounds, the temple compound - any place they can park themselves with their instruments and notebooks for their riyaaz. It is a killer session - they have to practise till 7 am on their own.
At 7 am they go to their teachers and present what four hours of riyaaz had got them. And the master either okays their presentation and gives them more lessons to practise the next day or sends them back to perfect the last lesson. At 8 am, there is regular school to attend followed by lunch and a small break and then it is back at the harmonium.
Of course stories about how the great masters learnt their art are legendary - the relentless hours of practice, the drudgery of household work at the gurukul, the spare words of praise from the teacher - but the ashram children still live that fabled rigour. It is a tough grind and Venkatesh Kumar recalls having run away from the ashram three times.
The growth of the ashram and the immense respect it has acquired in recent decades has much to do with the personal magnetism of Putturaj. In this age of marketing-savvy charities, it is hard to understand how this institution survives on so little steady funding - except a government grant of Rs 800 a head from the ministry of social justice for the blind students and teachers - until you listen to Gawai's followers.
"Woh sangeet ke bhagwan the (he was a god of music ). For us the biggest thing about guruji was his vidya-daan, he gave away his knowledge free to the poor. For the last 40 years my family has been coming here for darshan and to contribute our might to the ashram, " says Iramma, a who comes from a neighbouring village. From districts around Gadag there is a steady flow of devotees of the seers pouring into the ashram through the day. The jatra-cum-annual music festival is drawing them into the temple dedicated to the seers, the little museum with their belongings as well as the hall where the children are performing.
At the evening concert at the ashram on the first day of the music festival, the audiences listen with rapt attention to Mallikarjun Harti play the shehnai. Harti came from a family of shehnai players called for mangalvadya (played on auspicious occasions); at the ashram he learnt the finer nuances of classical music. He now plays professionally on the concert stage.
Volunteering enthusiastically at the festival is one of the biggest success stories of the ashram, Ayyappa Halagalimath, a music lecturer at KCD College, Dharwad. He left home in neighbouring Bagalkot to learnt music here and for 15 years remained under the direct tutelage of Putturaj. Today this postgraduate from Dharwad University is among the busiest performers of the region. "I owe everything to Gawai guruji, " he says as he takes the stage close to midnight.
Tonight, and for every night over the next three days, hundreds of Gadag's rural connoisseurs will be staying at the ashram, feasting on jowar roti and searingly spicy curries - and great music.
THE GAWAI LEGEND
For those who are not in the Hindustani classical loop of the Deccan, Panchakshara Gawai maybe an unknown name. Born in 1892 and blind by the age of five months, he had sought spiritual succour at the feet of a learned ascetic, Hanagal Kumaraswamy. Sensing Gawai's talent, the seer directed him to learn music. He learnt under both, Abdul Wahid Khan of the Kirana gharana as well as Neelkanth Bua of the Gwalior gharana.
A superbly talented wandering minstrel, he had a band of students whom he taught free. Among these was the very talented, and blind, Putturaj Gawai, who was appointed the successor to the musical monastic order he set up, the Veereshwara Punyashram. With land and cash donations offered by followers in and around Gadag, he set up a school for blind, disabled and destitute children. A remarkable musical talent, he played 27 instruments with ease, especially the harmonium at which he excelled. The Padma Bhushan awardee passed away in September last year naming another sightless renunciate Kallayya his successor.
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