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Remembering Vasundhara Komkali: Tai, the legendary vocalist and her legacy

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Vocalist  Indian classical music  Vasundhara Komkali  Kumar Gandharva  Dewas  Madhya Pradesh  Hindustani classical music

By Sandip Naik

BHOPAL: It is an unusual story. A 12-year-old girl begins to learn the nuances of classical music and exploring the ragas. 

At such a tender age, she immerses herself into music and the devotion continues for the rest of her life.

No wonder that she goes on to become a famous vocalist and reached sublime heights in the world of Indian classical music.

Vasundhara Komkali or Tai, as she was fondly addressed, left us on July 29 last year—leaving a void in classical music that can’t be filled. She was 84. 

Her life is a story of dedication, perseverance and passion towards music. Born in Jamshedpur, her journey into the world of music began early, under the guidance of her guru professor BR Deodhar and later Pt Kumar Gandharva, her teacher as well as life companion.

Tai was born on May 23, 1931. From an early age, music became her life. Her father Vishwanath Shreekhande worked with Tata Steels. Her mother Rama Bai Shreekhande’s family, came from a family that was rooted in Communist ideals.

What bound everyone in the family was the love for music. Tai was fourth among five siblings that included three brothers. Her elder sister Prabha played ‘dilruba’. Tai’s elder brother Manohar wanted her to sing.

Tai used to say later that had it not been her brother’s insistence, she may not have turned to music. Meanwhile, the family had shifted to Kolkata (Calcutta, then). It was here that she first met Kumar.

She later went to Mumbai. Here, she acted in the play, ‘Sanyast Khadag’ in 1948. She also sung for the play, Bhagyawan’. In Mumbai, she tried to learn from Kumar but the latter’s vagabond nature, made it difficult, as she couldn’t get enough time.

Tai had got close to his family, especially, his wife Bhanu. In summer, Vasundhara would come to Dewas for a week or fortnight to learn music from Kumar. However, Bhanu passed away all of a sudden.

Bhanu had once told Kumar that if something happened to her, he would marry Vasundhara. Also, when she was ill, Bhanu had hinted at the alliance in case of her death. Finally, Tai and Kumar decided to marry.

Two music lovers were now embarking on the same journey. She would get up early for music and later looked after the household. In Dewas, she had also taken up job as music teacher in a school.

For Kumar Gandharva, music was supreme. He was influenced by folk poets, especially, Kabir. He would perform with his disciples but later realized that none of them was even close to Vasundhara—who was not only wife but also a disciple and a music maestro in her own right.

Together they gave memorable performances. Kumar created a new ‘raga’ Gandhi Malhar in memory of Mahatama Gandhi. Meanwhile, Tai was also on her path to perfection in music. She learnt Kabir, Meera and Surdas too.

Kumar’s demise was a shock. But Sarod masestro Amjad Ali Khan requested her to return to the world of music and keep alive the tradition. Even after Kumar’s death, she sung for 22 years. She got accolades including the Padma award.

A legendary artiste of the Gwalior Gharana, she nurtured her daughter Kalapini and grandson Bhuvnesh too, who learnt music under her tutelage. They are taking forward the unique tradition. Tai passed away last year. She was 85. She became a major figure in Indian classical music and ensured that she left a long-lasting legacy.

[Sandip Naik is a social activist and writer. He lives in Dewas. Naik can be contacted at 9425919221 &]