I had the acquaintance of Sri Kempe Gowda for a really short time—about two or three hours.
Sri Kempe Gowda hailed from the Coimbatore region. There was no one to tell how he acquired the craze for music. After his childhood, he became the disciple of Sri Pattanam Subrahmanya Iyer who was renowned in Tiruvayur in the Tanjavur district. Out there, Kempe Gowda was the classmate of Vidwan Mysore Vasudevacharya. I have heard that in his final days, Kempe Gowda was staying in the house of Sri Rame Gowda in Jigani Village, which falls en route Bangalore-Bannerghatta.
About sixty years prior, one of my elderly relatives, Sri M. Venkappayya used to live in Bangalore. He was an English teacher in the high school of Rao Bahadur Arcot Narayana Swamy Mudaliar at Cantonment. He had a natural flair for music and literature. In English, his favourites were the essays written by Goldsmith and Addison. He would quote several portions from their books from memory. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare was similar. He had read that great poet’s plays numerous times. His passion for music was in the same vein. He would attend a good music concert no matter where it was—and he would take me along. This apart, he had systematically learnt music from a teacher named Dakshinamurthy Sastri. Because he had a clear voice, his singing was melodious. He never sang in concerts or Sabhas. He sang for the joy of his soul. For the joy of those close to him, he would sit in small rooms and sing without (musical) accompaniments. He lived in the Chickpet Bathing Ghat gulley—in a building belonging to the Vajapayeam family. As far as I can remember, five or six families lived in that building. Venkappayya was one of those.
Venkappayya didn’t have children. Two or three had died in childbirth or infancy. Because he was my wife’s maternal uncle, he had great affection for me. I had to have meals with him regularly during summer. I had to spend time with him. On occasion I was with him. At night, we had spread the bed on the terrace because it was hot and we were sitting there chatting randomly. We heard a sound from outside the main door as though someone was knocking it. Venkappayya said, “who’s that?” The knocking was repeated. “who is that?” The knock again. Venkappayya got down the steps and opened the door. Kempe Gowda was standing there. As soon as he saw him, he said in Tamil, “Venkappa, give me eight annas [fifty paise].” Venkappa answered in Tamil: “why do you need eight annas?”
KG: “Don’t you know the reason? Are you seeing me newly at this hour?”
V: (laughing) “When do we get to listen to music?”
KG: “What’s the big difficulty about music? Give me eight annas. I’ll go now and return again.”
V: “What’s the big difficulty about eight annas? Take it. After you sing, I’ll give you whatever you ask.”
After this, he extracted two four-anna coins from his snuff box and placed it in his hands.
Later, both of us sat on our beds waiting for him. Kempe Gowda returned after half an hour. He sat between us and after making idle talk for a minute or two, he said, “Which Raga do you want?” Venkappayya said, “Your pleasure.” Kempe Gowda thought for a moment and began an Ālāpana in Ananda Bhairavi. It was about 9:30 in the night. Lovely moonlight. After finishing the Ālāpana, he sang the “himācalatanaya brocuṭakidi samayamu” Kriti and completed it. Throughout the duration, Venkappayya and me were not in this world. The thought of time didn’t occur to us. After the singing was over, when we saw the clock, it was past twelve. After listening to this Ananda Bhairavi, I hadn’t anticipated that I’ll listen to such a rendition of this Raga ever again. I have listened to numerous renditions of Ananda Bhairavi. I have also listened to really extraordinary renditions. But Kempe Gowda’s exposition was something else.
Two or three years later, at about ten in the morning, I overheard someone telling someone else, “Sri Kempe Gowda is singing at Siddi Katte Street.” I asked, “Where? When?” He replied, “Some place on the road of Benki Nawab’s house,” and departed. I reached the Benki Nawab road. By then Kempe Gowda had left the place. The story went thus: that morning at about nine, Kempe Gowda had gone to some shop and asked for something. The shopkeeper was his friend. He said, “Sri Kempe Gowda, your popularity is extraordinary. Everybody is extolling praises of your singing. But I don’t have the fortune of listening to it.”
KG: “Why is it so?”
Shopkeeper: “See, musical concerts happen in the evening. That is the precise time I get my customers. If I go to concerts then, how will I make a living?”
KG: “Why should you come there? I’ve anyway come here. Tell me, what do you want?”
Shopkeeper: “Anything you sing…it’s our good fortune.”
Apparently, Kempe Gowda sat on a sack of grain in the shop and sang the Saveri Raga. Slowly a crowd collected on the street. From this end to the other end of the street, it stood in mesmerized silence for about an hour and a half. When I heard this, I thought I was unlucky. I never got the fortune of listening to his voice again.
A disciple of his named Ramaswami Pillai became my friend. He was a small clerk in the PWD. His voice wasn’t hugely sonorous like that of Sri Kempe Gowda. It was thin but delicate and soothing. I heard the Latangi Raga for the first time in his voice. He also sang Hamsadhwani and earned my gratitude.
On a random occasion when friends were talking with Kempe Gowda, the topic of singing a Pallavi came up. One of them praised the Pallavi-singing prowess of a certain Vidwan from the Southern Country [South India]. Then Kempe Gowda displayed great magnanimity about the Vidwan’s scholarship and accomplishments. Then he elucidated in great detail about the method of singing a Pallavi. The lyric was not important in singing a Pallavi. Neither is it required to have great emotions in the lyric. The alphabet must adhere to the Tala [beat]. The Vidwan will adjust the Tala to the alphabet. The topic of the Pallavi can be anything. Sri Kempe Gowda composed a short Pallavi lyric impromptu and sang it for about an hour.
Sri Kempe Gowda’s scholarship and musical talent are truly praiseworthy. But better than these is the sheer melody of his voice. No matter in which pitch he sang, the cascade of his music would flow effortlessly. Akin to how a goldsmith pulls out a thin strand from a ball of gold, his musical stream would flow from his throat with a glimmer.