Amongst many of the distinguishing features of his singing, the ones that stand
out are – emphasis on words of the bandish and singing in madhyalay. Singing in
madhyalay is like a tightrope walk – a little slip on either side can make it sound
like vilambit or drut. A simple glance at all bandish sung by him is enough proof
of Kumarji’s supreme command on madhyalay.
Kumarji gave importance to his tanpuras like no other singer did. This can be best
elaborated by quoting his own words, “Tanpuras are my canvas. Just like a painter
carefully stretches the canvas before beginning to paint, I prepare my canvas carefully.
If that is not done with utmost care, the painting is bound to suffer.”
He was a strict disciplinarian in his approach to concerts. He would prepare detailed
notes well in advance about what he planned to sing, and disliked any last minute
requests from fans. He is known to have said, “In my notes, when I write the
bandish that I plan to sing, I even mention how long each
aavartan (one rhythmic cycle) would be in terms of seconds”.
Kumarji's illness with tuberculosis had rendered one of his lungs completely dysfunctional.
He had to adapt his breathing technique to this limitation. He may have lacked two
functional lungs, but what he had in abundance was an inquisitive mind and a fighting
spirit that enabled him to create his own unique style.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that there have been many greats in the field
of classical music before Kumarji, and there will be many more in future,
but there will be only one Kumarji.
As a young boy, Kumarji displayed an exceptional ability to reproduce the singing
of eminent musicians of that time simply by listening to their records. His father
recognized this talent early enough and soon Kumarji gained popularity as a child
prodigy. It was remarkable that he understood nothing of raag
or taal at that time. His quote explains this - “As
soon as a record started playing, I would immediately know what would follow.”
There’s an interesting episode related to this. The then Ruler of Sawantwadi
province felt that the boy must be simply memorizing by listening to records repeatedly.
So to test his point, he bought a recently released record of Rahimatkhan's
'Chhedo na' in Bhairavi, and asked the little boy if he could sing
it. Barely had the record started playing, that Kumarji reproduced the whole composition
without any effort!
Newspaper accounts of his concerts in 1936 bear testimony to his rising popularity.
However, his father also realized that Kumarji required systematic training under
a guru. He was sent to Prof B.R. Deodhar’s Indian School of Music in Mumbai,
where Kumarji stayed for over 10 years. This is where Kumarji underwent rigorous
training in the fundamentals of music in the true Gurukul tradition.
Kumarji and Bhanumati Kans (another disciple of Deodhar) fell in
love and got married in 1947. However, fate had a difficult test in store for him.
He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which had no known cure at that time. Doctors
forbade him to sing and advised him to move to some place with dry climate. Kumarji
shifted to Devas to recuperate from this life-threatening illness, and Bhanumati
nursed him throughout this phase.
For five agonizing years, Kumarji silently lay in his bed thinking about music.
These trying times proved to be like a penance. Rural folk from Malva
would pass by his home, singing folk songs. Kumarji listened to these melodies and
contemplated on their relation with classical music.
The magical efficacy of Streptomycin for curing TB came to be known in the early
50s, and to the huge relief of his friends and admirers, Kumarji stepped back on
the stage of classical music, and never looked back after that.
Tragically, Bhanumati passed away during childbirth in 1961 and Kumarji was engulfed
in despair. His first son, Mukul, was just 6 years old. In the month following Bhanumati's
demise, he was to perform in Mumbai. When the organizers heard the sad news and
offered to cancel the program, Kumarji turned it down and went on to perform. A
testimony to his commitment to music even in times of despair.
Soon afterwards, Kumarji married his disciple Vasundhara Shrikhande,
and for thirty years after that, she accompanied him in concerts all over the country.