Kumar Gandharva (Kannada: ಕುಮಾರ ಗಂಧರ್ವ) or Shivaputra Siddramayya Komkalimath (Kannada: ಶಿವಪುತ್ರ ಸಿದ್ದರಾಮಯ್ಯ ಕೋಮಕಾಳಿಮಠ್) was a Hindustani classical singer, famous for his unique vocal style, refusal to be bound by the tradition of any gharana, and his innovative genius. The name Kumar Gandharva is a title given to him when he was a child prodigy; a Gandharva is a musical spirit in Hindu mythology.
Gandharva was born in Sulebhavi near Belgaum, Karnataka, India. He studied music under the well-known Prof B R Deodhar.
He married Bhanumati Kans in April 1947 and moved to Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. Soon after moving there, he was stricken with lung cancer which was wrongly diagnosed as tuberculosis. He was forced into having a surgery to remove the cancerous lung or face eventual death by the disease. Kumar opted for the surgery after much persuasion by his family and despite warnings that he might not be able to sing anymore. Recovering from the trauma of a surgery in Khanapur near Belgaum in Karnataka, Kumar Gandharva was visited by a fan who was also a physician. The doctor noted his surgical wounds had healed and asked Kumar Gandharva to attempt singing once again. Gradually, helped by this doctor, medicines of those yesteryears and care from Bhanumati Kans, Kumar Gandharva recovered and began singing again. However, his wonderful voice and singing style would always bear the scars of his surgery, which are evident to any person who listens to his songs such as ‘Runanubandhachya” from the drama “Dev Dina Ghari Dhavla”.
Bhanumati Kans, who was learning music first under Deodhar and later under Kumar Gandharva himself, nursed him through his illness. His first mehfil after recovery from illness took place in 1953. The illness greatly affected Kumar’s singing in later years – he was to be known for powerful short phrases and his very high voice. He may not have reached the same heights of popularity as contemporaries like Bhimsen Joshi, but he always enjoyed the love and support of dedicated and connoisseur enthusiasts. His singing was also true to the Indian classical music tradition of dialogue with the listeners, of impromptu creation and interactivity.
Kumarji also experimented with other forms of singing such as Nirguni bhajans (Devotional songs), folk songs, and with both ragas and presentation, often going from fast to slow compositions in the same raga. He is remembered for his great legacy of innovation, questioning tradition without rejecting it wholesale, resulting in music in touch with the roots of Indian culture, especially the folk music of Madhya Pradesh. His innovative approach towards music led to the creation of new ragas from combinations of older ragas.
His style of singing attracted considerable controversy. Veteran singer Mogubai Kurdikar did not consider his vilambit (slow tempo) singing interesting and his own teacher Deodhar criticised some aspects of Kumar’s singing but their relationship was strained from 1940s when Kumar Gandharva married Bhanumati. According to Pandharinath Kolhapure’s book on Kumar Gandharva, Deodhar was against the match. But the criticism mostly centred around his vilambit gayaki. His singing in faster tempos, particularly his mastery over madhya-laya, was very widely revered.
Kumar Gandharva’s first son, Mukul Shivputra, was born around 1955. After Bhanumati’s death in 1961 during childbirth, Kumar married Vasundhara Shrikhande, another of his fellow-students at Deodhar School. Vasundhara Komkalimath formed a memorable duo with him in bhajan singing. She also provided vocal support to his classical renditions quite often. Their daughter Kalapini Komkalimath would later accompany both her parents on tanpura.
Some of Kumar Gandharva’s ideology is carried forward by his son and daughter, as well as students such as Madhup Mudgal, Shubha Mudgal, Vijay Sardeshmukh and Satyasheel Deshpande. Kumarji’s grandson Bhuvanesh (Mukul Shivaputra’s son) has also made a name for himself as classical singer.
For a long spell, Kumar Gandharva’s activities as a musician were managed by his friend and tabla accompanist Vasant Acharekar. Acharekar was Vasant Desai’s assistant in the 1950s but later devoted himself fully to his role as an accompanist to classical singing until his death in late 1970s. His son Suresh Acharekar is also a tabla player, and has accompanied Kumar Gandharva and other artists.
Kumar Gandharva was awarded the Padma Vibhushan award in 1990.