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Pandit Basavraj Rajguru

Blessed is Yeliwal, a  quaint  village  in   the  north  Karnataka district  of  Dharwad,  for  it   is  the birthplace of one of the greatest exponents of Indian music, Pandit Basavraj  Mahantaswamy Rajguru.  Born  on  24  August  1917   in  a  family  of scholars, astrologers and musicians, Basavraj was initiated into  classical music  at  the  age  of  seven   by  his father, who was himself a renowned Karnatic musician trained in Tanjavur.

Basavraj was fond of nATyagIt from a very young  age.  He  landed himself in trouble one time too many for playing pranks trying to persuade drama producers and actors to  let  him  sing  in  their plays.    Recognizing  Basavraj's  obvious talent and zeal for the stage,   his  father  had  him  inducted  into  Vamanrao   Master's travelling  drama company, where Basavraj tasted his first morsel of fame.  At the age of 13 Basavraj lost his father.  His  uncle, fearing   for his aimless future in the drama world, put the young Basavraj in the Samskrta PAThashAlA  at  the  MUrsAvira  MaTh  in Hubli.  Soon   thereafter,  in  a  rare  twist  of  fate the blind Ganayogi Panchakshari Gawai discovered Basavraj and  with  little
convincing  from  the  MaTh's  swamiji,  took  the  lad   into his tutelage. It's from then on  that  Basavraj's  music   embraced  a whole new beginning.

At the Shivayogamandir  where  Panchakshari  Gawai  bestowed  the wealth  of his immense knowledge upon Basavraj and other students who were not privileged enough to even pay gurudakshina to  their
guru,  Basavraj mastered several rAgas and styles. He also became adept in such arts as wrestling, swimming and cooking. The Gawai, Pt.  Rajguru  would   reminisce,  had  a  style of teaching unlike
anybody else. He would drill into his  students  the  basics  for hours  together  and  would  personally  make  sure   each  of his students practised for at least 12-15 hours a day. If he   had  to scold  or  strike  anyone, he would make the student position his face accordingly and then he would slap him.  Panchakshari  Gawai was  a very affectionate man, and had a soft corner for Basavraj, his most   prized  pupil.  When  Basavraj  expressed  his   sadness because  of  his  inability  to  pay   gurudakshina  to  his guru, Panchakshari Gawai replied, "your gurudakshina to me will be  the passing on of what you have acquired here to your own disciples." In 1936 at the  six  hundredth  anniversary   celebration  of  the founding  of  the  Vijayanagar empire in Hampi, Basavraj gave his first concert, accompanied by the Gawai  himself  on   the  tabla. Fifteen  thousand  people  listened  in   awestruck silence to the young lad render a sonorous Bageshri  and  a   Nijaguna  Shivayogi vachana. The maestro's career had commenced.

Basavraj recorded several rAgas for AIR Bombay  and  HMV  between 1936 and 1943. Chief among the classics are the stupendous "BalmA na jA ghar soutan ke" in Hamsa Kalyan, the awe-inspiring  "Sagari
umariyA  mori"  in Brindavani Sarang, the fiery "Anahata NAda" in Shankara and several Basaveshwara vachanas, including "Parachinte emage  eke   ayya" and "Madakeya mADuvare maNNe modalu". Listening to these still evokes a horripilated hair or two.

After the untimely demise of Panchakshari Gawai in 1944, Basavraj came  to Bombay where he had the good fortune to learn from Sawai Gandharva. When the Sawai was struck with  paralysis  because  of
which  he  had  to  leave Bombay, he summoned Sureshbabu Mane and said, "Take good care of Basavraj." Basavraj once again  had  the good fortune to learn under yet another stalwart.  His thirst for
knowledge then took him  north-west  into  present-day  Pakistan, where  he  came  under the pedagogy of the Kirana gharana master, Ustad Waheed Khan, guru  of  Panchakshari  Gawai.  Basavraj  then
headed towards Karachi where he learned from Ustad Latif Khan for about  six   months.  Basavraj's   brash,   bold   and    confident personality  had  already  created waves all around him. He would take up challenges from renowned performers, and effortlessly put their   egos  to  rest. On one such occasion, he was challenged to sing after Ustad Nishad Khan, who had finished  rendering  Purya.Basavraj  confidently   went up on stage and announced, "Ap dekhte rahiye, hum Nishad Khan ko Shadaj Khan banAdenge!" What  followed was  a  Sohni that was so definitively supreme that the Ustad had no choice but to accept defeat. On another occasion  where   there was  a bout of rivalry between Hindu and Muslim musicians, Chhote Ghulam sang a Todi so well that  nobody  dared  follow  him.  But then, there was the young Basavraj. Upon the slightest coaxing by Pt. Nivrittibuwa Sarnaik and Pt. Vinayakrao Patwardhan,  he  sang Jaunpuri  and  immediately   won  the  hearts of all the listeners present.

The dreaded time had arrived - 1947 - the partition of India  and Pakistan.   Hindus  were  being  hunted  down and beaten to death. Following the  advice  of  Ustad  Latif  Khan,  Basavraj   hastily boarded  a train that was carrying thousands of Hindus across the border. As luck would have it, the train  was  stopped  near  the border  and  most  of  its  passengers  brutally   massacred. In a desperate effort to cling  to  dear  life,   Basavraj  managed  to escape  unscathed  and clung to the bottom of a railway bogey all the way from the border to Delhi.  Basavraj then   moved  to  Pune where  he  rented  a  room  and performed on an average of two to three concerts a day. Just as his musical prowess was taking root in Pune, another disaster befell. Gandhiji was assassinated. What followed his assassination was a city-wide rampage  on  Brahmins, who   were   being  singled  out  and  killed  because  Gandhiji's assassin, Nathuram Godse  was  a  Brahmin.   Since  Basavraj   was renting  from  a  Brahmin,  his  life  came very close to an end. Luckily for him, he was a Lingayat. When the  killers   confronted him,  he showed them his Shivalinga and managed to escape unhurt. Having had enough of lucky breaks on his life, Basavraj left Pune bag and baggage. He returned to Dharwad and settled down.

His fame had  spread  far  and  wide  and  continued   to  spread; invitations  for  concerts came from every corner of the country. His repertoire included a kaleidoscope of styles, from  the  pure classical   khayAl  and  dhrupad/dhamAr  to  vachanas,   nATyagIt, Thumri, and ghazal spanning eight languages.  His  collection   of bandish'es  was  truly remarkable. (He would tell me that he knew at least forty to forty-five cheez's in each rAga, and would sing them  one after another right then and there. Alas! if only I had half the sense to record all of his   wisdom...)  Although  wooing audiences  wherever he went, Pt. Rajguru never however, failed to meet a challenge and squelch it. In 1955 at the Nagar   Bhavan  in
Delhi,  failing  to  see  anybody  follow  Pt. Omkarnath Thakur's magnificent recital,  the  organizers  were  ready  to   stage  an instrumental  piece,  when  Pt.  Rajguru   boldly  announced, "Hum gayenge." There are old timers who were   present  then  who  will still  attest  to  having   heard  the  finest  Nayaki KanaDa ever rendered by any musician. In the same year, at the Nanded Sangeet Sammelan,  Pt.  Rajguru  had  the   audience spellbound for almost twelve continuous hours (since Pt. D. V. Paluskar failed to  show up),  after  which  the  then  Information Minister, B. V. Keskar announced, "Arre, hamAre Rajguru to hukumi  yekka   hai!"  Ace  of trumps,   indeed.  Begum  Akhtar,   at  another  Rajguru  concert, declared, "Rajguru yAne sUr kA bAdshAh." The Government of  India bestowed  upon  him the Padmashri in 1975 and the Padmabhushan in 1991. He also received several Sangeet Natak Academy awards  from the central and state governments alike. Aside from being awarded prestigious titles by various organizations, he was also  awarded an honorary doctorate by the Karnatak University, Dharwad.

When he wasn't impressing and spellbinding audiences all over the country or being bestowed with lofty honors, Pt. Rajguru was busy refining yet another chapter in  his   life  -  that  of  being  a preceptor in Dharwad.  He held his students very dear to himself. I have never seen or known  of  a   teacher  so  accomplished,  so talented,  so  great and yet so patient, so caring and so zealous about his students as Pt. Rajguru was. He never raised his  voice or  his  hand  at  any student at any time. His way of correcting mistakes  was  through  rigorous  yet  careful,   unmitigated  yetpatient  repetition of the correct way. There would be times when he would repeat a tAn for his students 15-20 times, and yet never tire.   In  the  end  he would not be satisfied if we got it right just once. He would not  quit  till  we  had  the  tAn   perfectly executed  at  least three times in a row.  He would sometimes not teach for days at a time and sometimes, four-five  times  a   day, starting  at  five-thirty  in  the morning.  Who, of his stature, would exhibit such patience and enthusiasm?  The degree of tayAri and   credibility  of  his  students were his way of measuring how good a musician he was. He would always say, "Listen,  no  matter how  big   and  great you are, if you cannot pass on what you have acquired to somebody else, your greatness is worthless.  This  is what my Guru, (Shri Panchakshari Gawai) used to say." True to his guru's words, Pt. Rajguru molded some of  the   finest  gAyaks  in India  (Ganapati  Bhat, Parameshwar   Hegde, Shantaram Hegde, et. al.) and left behind  more  than  forty   disciples  who  are  now dispersed all over the world.

The music world would be  such  a  fabulous  place  if   everybodyfollowed  the simple lifestyle that Pt. Rajguru followed.  He was a strict vegetarian and had no vices. Ever.  He  had  never  even tasted  tea  in his life. He adhered to a strict regimen of pUja, sAdhanA, rigorous teaching, walking and  a  very  voice-conscious diet.  He   never  ate  or  drank  anything fried, frozen, sour or fatty. The best part of travelling with him was lugging  the  20+ pieces  of   luggage  wherever  we  went  with  him, most of which consisted of food items! He was so conscious  and  careful  about his   voice  that he would take all the ingredients for his meals, including   boiled  water,  from  Dharwad  itself.  Such  was   his
dedication to Saraswati.

His layakAri was tremendously complicated at the same  time  that it  was   seemingly  effortless. His tAns and boltAns spat fire at times and at times, carried the sea breeze. The sheer  complexity
in  his style and the ease with which he used to render a complex rAga as though it were  a  written  speech  sharply  defined  his musical   character.  His  ability  to  span  three  octaves would sometimes astound even himself. There were concerts where his key would  be   Safed-4  or  Safed-5,  so high that it would be almost impossible for his  vocal  accompanists  to  keep  up  with  him! Harmonium,  sArangi  and  tablA players who accompanied him would always have complete liberty to play and create as  they  wished, which  is why so many of his accompanists to this day acknowledge their  growth  and  merit   to  Pt.  Rajguru's  encouragement  and generous personality. Witnessing him on stage was an unparalleled spectacle. The pure energy, aura and   charisma  he  exuded  would throw  the  entire mehfil into a world filled with endless colors and emotions.  The training he received from twelve gurus  -  his
father,   Panchakshari   Gawai,   Neelkanthbuwa   Mirajkar,  Sawai Gandharva, Sureshbabu Mane,  Bashir  Khan,   Mubarak  Ali,  Waheed Khan,  Latif  Khan,  Inayatullah   Khan,  Roshan Ali and Govindrao
Tembe - in three gharanas - Kirana, Gwalior  and  Patiala  -  was intricately amalgamated as only Pt. Rajguru could have, to bear a stamp which could be aptly termed as nothing less  than  that  of the Rajguru gharana.

Pt. Rajguru is known to have put  to  tune  and  popularized  the great  vachanas  of great reformers and saints like Basaveshwara, Akkamahadevi,   Nijaguna  Shivayogi  and  others.  Another   great stalwart  from  Dharwad,  Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur is known to have initiated this movement. Pt. Rajguru rendered MaraThi  nATyagIts, Purandaradasa  (and   other saints') padas and vachanas as if they flowed in his blood.

His dream of coming to  the  U.S.  eluded  him.  After   carefully planning  a  Fall  1991 concert tour in the U.S., I visited India that summer.  I accompanied  him  and  his  wife   to  the  Madras Consulate  where  he  was  given the performer's visa. On his way back to Dharwad from Madras, he took ill in Bangalore,   where  he had  a  mild  heart attack. Already a patient of diabetes and low blood-pressure, the three-pronged attack was fatal. All his might to   survive  was of no avail. I was fortunate enough to be at his side in moments when he breathed his last. A few hours before  he died  he  said to me, although his consciousness was fuzzy and he had no inkling about what time of day it was, "Take  the  tambura
from  the  corner  and  sing the Sa for me. It's time for Bihag." Surely enough, the time was 11 P.M.

After the Government of Karnataka under the then  chief  minister S.   Bangarappa  managed  to  utterly defame and degrade itself by expressly refusing to  carry  the  dead  body  of  my   Guru  from
Bangalore  to  Dharwad, we rented a taxi in the wee hours of that fateful July 21 1991 morning  and  carried  the  dead  body.   In Dharwad  our taxi was greeted with virtually the whole city lined up outside Rajguru Chawl. Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur  paid  his  last respects  to the departed Rajguru and declared, "Wah! Even in his death he looks like a king!" Fitting words indeed  to  a  fitting king.

by Nachiketa Sharma

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