Kumar Gandharva - Nirguni Bhajans
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Kumar Gandharva
Nirguni Bhajans
Dunya/Felmay 21750-8068 (www.felmay.it)

cd cover The late Kumar Gandharva was one of the most original thinkers in the overwhelmingly tradition-bound universe of Hindustani music. In keeping with a general principle of "conservation of innovation," singers with original stylistic approaches generally tended to apply them to material drawn from the traditional repertoire, while those who created new repertoire elements (new songs, new raga structures) tended to improvise upon them in very traditional ways. Kumar's approach combined novelty in both areas: he created new ragas and songs, and improvised in a style which continues to arouse controversy decades after the singer first made his appearance on the Hindustani concert stage.

Born Shivaputra Komkali, it was his early appearances as a child prodigy that earned him the sobriquet "Kumar Gandharva" (which translates, roughly, into "young celestial musician"). By his early teens, Kumar was known as a highly gifted singer who had assimilated the stylistic mannerisms of all the well-known vocalists of his day; a few years after that, he was blending approaches from established masters in an unprecedented and individual amalgam -- at which point he was suddenly felled by tuberculosis and forced to spend five years in absolute bed rest, forbidden to sing.

The combination of unique talent and extraordinary adverse circumstances combined to force Kumar's conception very far outside the standard mold. Those five years were not spent in song, but in thinking about singing, and by the time he finally recovered his health, Kumar's musical approach was strikingly different from any singer then performing. His penetrating tenor voice executed rapid bursts of melody punctuated with periods of silence, a marked aesthetic departure from the Hindustani norm of a continually saturated tonal surface.

This CD represents some of Kumar's most popular repertoire: his recasting of the devotional lyrics attributed to the mediaeval Indian saint-poet Kabir. These items are known as "nirguni bhajans;" a "bhajan" is a religious song, and the adjective "nirguni" denotes a song directed not at a specific deity (as, for example, songs on the themes of Rama, Krishna, Durga, and others of the Hindu pantheon) but at what is loosely known as the "formless" divinity. Kabir was a great synthesist who brought together elements of Hindu and Muslim tradition in his lyrics, which extol the power and value of prayer and spiritual concentration without prescribing a specific direction for them. Kabir's bhajans have been favorites in India for centuries, and Kumar's settings of these lyrics achieved popularity beyond purely classical circles. His voice is achingly high and plaintive, and he sings the material with fervor and passionate conviction.

Not everybody liked Kumar's singing when he first emerged, and not everybody likes it now, but there is no gainsaying his influence on the course of Hindustani music over the past several decades. Just as Ornette Coleman changed the way people heard jazz tradition, Kumar changed every listener's sense of what was possible in the world of Hindustani song, and this reissue is a fine introduction to the work of this important innovator. - Warren Senders

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