June 06, 2015

A grandmother to her students

Journalist and award-winning author of The Music Room, Namita Devidayal is one of the seniormost disciples of Dhondutai Kulkarni. Her book delved into the intriguing and enigmatic world of Alladiya Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar and Dhondutai Kulkarni. She shares her cherished memories of her guru.

As Dhondutai's disciple, what are the most significant lessons of life that you imbibed from her?

I think what I imbibed from her went far beyond music. The musical training was, of course, the scaffolding on which we built our relationship as guru and sishya but I learned so much more. She exemplified the art of simple living, high thinking. She was unconditional in her love. She also taught me something that I think all children should learn – that the pursuit of excellence has very little to do with your external success and instant fame, a view which is very counter-intuitive to the way the world operates today.

As a guru, what was her method of teaching? It was extremely meticulous and ensured that whatever was being taught was repeated enough times so that it went into one’s DNA and would never be forgotten – like cycling and swimming. Yet, she would take cognisance of the student’s age and be gentle and kind and not too strict.

Some special memories you would like to share.

So many. After the lesson, I used to especially look forward to having lunch with her and also watching her cook, in the days she did. She used lovely musical metaphors even in the kitchen – like if she were making tea she had these two different kinds of tea leaves that she would mix and then call it her ‘jod’ or compound raga. I also loved the times I would travel with her, when she went on concerts. A special memory is of the time we went to sing in front of the Kailash Temple in Ellora. And Ravi Shankar was also performing there. We both met him and it was quite a special moment. I also remember the time I went with her to sing at the graveyard where Alladiya Khan is buried in Charni Road in Mumbai – spooky and kind of amazing. She always looked after her students as a grandmother would, and of course we also took advantage of her affections as a grandchild would!

In your book, The Music Room, you have wonderfully captured Dhondutai’s inner world and your relationship with her. Was she open to the idea of a book?

She was open to the idea of the book, for sure, but I don’t think she was entirely sure how it was going to turn out. I think she may have wanted to edit out certain juicy bits had she read it before hand, but luckily that didn’t happen. After the book, she received so much attention and adulation from all over the world, which of course she had long deserved.

What do you regard as her contribution to the world of music?

Her unconditional approach to the art and her dogged determination to keep alive the specialties of the gharana as if they were family jewels that needed to be safeguarded. Even more than becoming a famous musician, she was committed to the idea of passing on this legacy. She tried very hard with me, but I didn’t live up to her expectations, but she ensured that several other students received as much as she could offer. Three young students, Aditya Khandwe, Rutuja Lad, and Dipika Bhide are singing very well. This is a very significant contribution given that this is an oral tradition and when an important practitioner goes, so much goes with her.

Did she ever regret not being in the limelight?

I don’t think so, but she did feel bad every once in a while.

How was your experience of performing with her?

Very gratifying as well as terrifying. When I did something right, or rattled off a powerful taan, she would always turn around and smile and encourage me. Sometimes, she would almost teach us, her accompanists, on stage as a little performance act. But when I went a little off, she could be equally scathing and frowned in full view of the public.

You chose to take up a different profession, not music. Was that a difficult phase for you and for Dhondutai as your guru?

Yes, I was very confused. My teacher had vested a lot of hope in me because she genuinely believed that I was equipped – in voice, in background, in intelligence – to really take her legacy forward. But I had acknowledged the fact that I did not have the guts to become a professional singer. It took too much out of one, and I knew I would not be able to live up to that level of discipline and patience. It hurt my teacher terribly, but I moved into my next love – writing.

How are you going to take her legacy forward?

I think I already did, when I wrote The Music Room and made her incredible world and life accessible to so many people. Beyond that, I hope I will continue to sing, even if not as a performer, for myself. For beauty and love.

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