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Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar

Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar The Gadgils were a family of Brahmins in the village, Palus, in Maharashtra. One of them is said to have had a vision of the Divine and blessed by it and from then on this family became something special and came to be known as the Paluskars, the original name being forgotten. Into this family, Vishnu Digamber was born on August 18, 1872 at Kurundwad, the principal town of an Indian 'native' state; those were the days of British rule. Vishnu's father, Digambar Gopal Paluskar, was a Keertankar (singer of Keertan - a religious discourse). Keertan in Maharashtra, like the Harikatha Kalakshepam in South India, is a kind of story-telling of puranic legends, in song, verse and prose; Digambar was one such singer of puranas. Vishnu, naturally, from childhood acquired a taste and bent for singing, as he accompanied his father during the latter's concerts. He was also studying at a local school in Kurundwad, due to the kind interest taken in the young boy by the raja of the principality.

Near Kurundwad, is a small town called Narsobachi Wadi, where every year a festival, Datta Jayanti, is celebrated with great eclat, fireworks and all. Vishnu, like millions of others, was an active participant; on one such occasion of merriment a cracker burst near his face, damaging his eyes permanently. No treatment at Kurundwad was of any avail; the boy was then sent to the neighbouring town, Miraj, where the royal physician, Dr. Bhadbhade tried his best but failed to restore vision to the poor lad.

Both the avenues - academic studies and that of keertankar - were cut off to Vishnu. Dr. Bhadbhade, who had listened to the boy's devotional songs felt that he could blossom out into a musician. With the consent of Digambar Paluskar, he spoke to the Raja of Miraj. The ruler was quick to realize the talents of the child and put him under the guidance of Balakrishna Bua lchalkaranjikar.

Balakrishna Bua was the doyen of musicians in Maharashtra. The grand old man had learnt singing in Gwalior under eminent masters and was highly respected for his knowledge of the art. Paluskar studied with him till about 1896. It was a hard and strenuous discipleship, for there were no regular courses, no regular lessons and everything depended on the moods of the teacher. Besides, one had to do all the household chores for the guru and his family. This kind of apprenticeship - guru kula vasa - was difficult but paid dividends in the long run. Vishnu was very successful and this, perhaps, raised the ire in his fellow students. They were all the more jealous of him, for he was quite intimate with the royal family, which they were not. It is possible that they poisoned the Bua's mind against Vishnu; in any case, the relation between the two became strained. So Paluskar, along with two of his friends, left Miraj; and after visiting many places reached Baroda. This city like Gwalior was then a well-known seat of learning and art, and he decided to settle there. News of the arrival of a young singer and his attractive music slowly reached the Maharaja. In course of time an invitation to sing at the Court came and he gave a commendable perfomance in the royal presence. The Maharani was pleased with the young man and presented him with lavish gifts and a friendly warning - he had better leave Baroda as local musicians were becoming too envious fr him to be safe!

From there he toured Saurashtra, Gwalior, Mathura, Bharatpur, Delhi and reached Punjab. While in Saurashtra he gave a public concert charging a nominal fee - a scandalous thing to do and a complete departure from tradition. For traditionally concerts were always either in the chambers of a rich patron or in a temple. While at Mathura he studied the Brij dialect in which exist some of the finest compositions in Hindustani music and this helped to a great extent his understanding the beauty of the language of these songs. Punjab was really the starting point of the most significant aspect of Vishnu Digambar's life. He lived in Amritsar for some time, but soon shifted to Okara in Montgomery District to be the tutor of Sir Khemsingh's children. After a few months of stay there, he came to Lahore; and here on May 5,1901 he founded the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. This is one of the most interesting turning points in the history of modern music, as it was the first school run by a middle class musician without the direct patronage of rajas and maharajas. The vidyalaya (school) was run by public support, donations from the richer classes and funds raised by the concerts of Vishnu Digambar - it was truly a school of the people for the people.

Here he brought together a set of pupils whom he trained not only in music, but also inculcated in them a respect for the art and a missionary zeal. This group of his early students became later some of the most distinguished performers and teachers in North India. What was more important was the atmosphere in the institution: while there was strict discipline in musical training, there was stricter discipline in moral training. The usual odium attached to the clan of musicians was thus removed and they began to be treated with respect.

Paluskar now felt that his activities needed expansion and, therefore, came to Bombay in September, 1908 to found a branch of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya there. Gradually, as the work in this city increased, the school at Lahore was shifted to Bombay. Even the printing press which he had established in Lahore to print books in music was taken over to the new precincts. Vishnu Digambar's fame as teacher spread and hundreds of students began to pour into his vidyalaya. Before long it became necessary to increase facilities for teaching; with the help of loans from friends, a building to house the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya was built in 1915. A little later even a hostel for students was constructed. All this involved considerable borrowing of money and Paluskar came under huge debts. Even with the best of efforts it became almost impossible for him to discharge the loans. He gave concerts at various places to collect the necessary funds but this never fetched him sufficient money. In 1924, when he was on a concert tour, his creditors attached his properties and auctioned them to realize their debts. Paluskar must have been a heart-broken man after this. The cause for which he had struggled so far received an irretrievable set-back. He had, however, one satisfacion: he had created a number of zealous disciples who went to almost every region of the land, esta- blished schools and taught selflessly.

Even while in Bombay, Vishnu Paluskar had started Sri Ram Nam Adhar Ashram in Nasik; to this hermitage he moved in 1924. From this as centre he travelled widely in India and Nepal. But his health was running down and the Raja of Miraj shifted the ailing musician to Miraj, the town which had seen the rise of Paluskar's career. There he passed away on August 21, 1931 to the music of the sacrcd chant of Rama's name.

The domestic life of Vishnu Digambar was disappointing in a sense. Of his three sisters, one had become a widow and lived with him, along with her children. He had twelve of his own; but all of them except one died young. The last, a son, was Dattatreya. Even he could not get the advantage of studying with his father, for Vishnu Digambar died when the boy was only eleven years of age. Dattatreya later came under the care of the senior pupils of Paluskar and grew into a very highly promising singer. But, as ill-fate would have it, Dattatreya Vishnu Paluskar died young suddenly in 1955.

Vishnu Digambar Paluskar was a towering figure in the field of music; a musician of a high order, a great teacher, a man of uncompromising moral courage and a soul imbued with the awareness of the social values of art. As an artiste he was a very popular and successful one. The training he had had with the great Ichalkaranjikar was a thorough one and Paluskar himself was endowed with an attractive voice and musical sensitivity. His apprenticeship under his father as keertankar might have given him a sense of the dramatic in artistic presentation.

Wherever he went, he drew an appreciative audience and was honoured by prin- cely patrons. But characteristically, he spent all the fortune he amassed to further the cause of music. More than any other aspect of his musical career -which was dynamic in every direction - was his deeply religious approach to the art. To him music was a path to God-realization and could not be divorced from moral commitments. The ways that most musicians lived were far from clean. The texts of songs even in kheyals were sometimes nauseating - and even today one cannot often meet kheyals of really good poetic worth in Hindustani music. Paluskar felt that these kept the more intelligent section of society away from music. To remedy the situation, he brought in a strict living and behaviour in his school. His own conduct was above reproach and he saw to it that his students were of exemplary character. As for the songs, he either composed new ones with cleaner content or altered the words of older ones, keeping their tunes unchanged. These efforts gradually had their effect. More and more students - particularly girls - came out to join his Vidyalaya; society began to feel that even if music was not a very paying profession, it, at least, was not a debasing one. Towards the end of his life his time was devoted almost entirely to religious music and finally his end also came amidst the singing of Ram dhun (Rama's name.)

With very few exceptions, Paluskar was undoubtedly the most renowned teacher of music of recent times. Many great musicians were not necessarily great teachers and many well-known ustads and pandits were not necessarily fine musicians. But Vishnu Digambar was both an artiste and a teacher of high order. His most notable task was the opening of the musical world to amateurs, for traditionally it was almost impossible for outsiders to enter into the clannish monopolies of the ustads. Paluskar himself had learnt music the hard way and must have seen the inordinate wastage of time and energy on the part of the student in non-musical activities of 'serving' the guru. He, therefore, founded schools which ran on regular syllabi. Books with notations of songs to help the student were published. Theory of music was taught on a systematic basis. It was the pioneering efforts of Paluskar and Bhatkhande that have become the incentive for music to be considered academic enough to be included in the courses of studies in universities. Institutionalizing musical training has been the most significant trend set by these two savants. Obviously, all this was well intentioned. But whether it really has been creatively effective is a question that is raised in many quarters: for, often, it is felt and said that it has spread an interest in the art but has lessened the depth of understanding.

It was an era when musicians were socially looked down upon. They were illiterate, uncouth and immoral. Paluskar had had bitter experiences of his own guru being treated in a disdainful manner. He was determined to show to the world that musicians were as good and great as anyone else! It is said that a maharaja wanted to listen to Vishnu Digambar and fixed a time for the soiree, at the musician's house. At the appointed time, the king and his retinue gathered and the singer began. After a while, the ruler, wanting to smoke lighted his cigar. To Paluskar, it was not only unpleasant but an insult. Being blind, he did not know who was smoking, but, in any case, he ordered that the smoking be stopped. The embarassed aide whispered into his ears, "How can it be? It is the maharaja and I dare not ask him to desist". Paluskar exclaimed, "What do you mean by maharaja; I am the maharaja in my room! Ask him to stop it or get out".

More than anything, Vishnu Digambar's contribution is to the social values attached to music and musicians. An art which was once held sacred, as a royal road to realization, a science which was the fifth veda, had fallen into bad days. It had taken to nothing but Bohemian pleasures - almost - and musicians were, as apart from being musicians, not welcome as very pleasant citizens. Paluskar had to fight against the orthodoxy of the 'elite' who looked askance at the art and artists and against the professionals who would not step out of their secretive guilds. It was an arduous, thankless and challenging task. But he did succeed. He was able to persuade society that music was a fine ne art and musicians were not necessarily a despicable tribe. Great social and political men of his time like Gopala Krishna Gokhale, Mrs. Annie Besant and Mahatma Gandhi recognized his missionary work and social awareness. Paluskar's Ram dhun, "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram" was sung at the head of the famous Dandi March led by Gandhiji in 1930 and his "Vande Mataram" was invariably heard at the sessions of the then Indian National Congress. Thanks to Paluskar, today one can become a musician without having to bow his head in shame.

The sketch is taken from "An Introduction to Indian Music" by B. Chaitanya Deva (Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1981
Posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series.

For a more detailed account, see 'Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar' by V.R. Athavale (National Book Trust, 1967)

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