The present essay is a transcript of a lecture that was broadcasted on 26th September 1962 by All India Radio, Bangalore.]
A heartfelt human emotion, when it flows in the form of melody that is soothing to the ears, becomes music. Such was the expressive music of Vasudevacharya. He did not inherit musical knowledge as a family profession. It was a treasure that he earned due to his personal liking, despite opposition from the elders in his family. The key factor for his penchant for music lay in his quality of heartiness. There were two features to that quality: One was his sensitivity towards understanding people’s feelings and the other was to respond to those feelings in a friendly and receptive manner. Thus, he would emotionally resonate with those who interacted with him. I have seen many such instances. I can cite one such instance now.
On a particular day, at around three in the afternoon, Acharya came to my house. After exchanging courtesies, I asked him: “What brings the venerable Acharya here in this heat?”
He said, “Acharya has come to examine. Here, is he offered mere verbal respect or does he enjoy genuine trust – that needs to be seen!”
“Still conducting tests, eh?”
“If that’s the case, you won’t hesitate to come wherever Acharya calls you?”
I asked, “Where’s the doubt?”
“Think about it and tell me. You will have to come to the alleys of Chikpet after dark. May you introspect this!”
“That is alright. Wherever the Acharya will be and whatever be the time, I am prepared to be with him at that place and time!”
As per our understanding, that night, a person waited for me at a previously agreed upon landmark in Chikpet. I followed him into a narrow lane and reached a house. It was a mud-roofed house of the yesteryears. Our hands could reach the ceiling. A group of ten to twelve people had assembled. Acharya’s vocal concert commenced at around nine and went on till midnight. The accompanying violin and mṛdaṅgam artistes played with restraint. Acharya sang the rāgas Begada, Kambhoji, and Shankarabharanam expansively. Acharya’s strength lay in the development of the rāga in an emotionally rich manner.
At the end, I asked, “Which gandharva, which vidyādhara has taken an avatāra and appeared at this time of the hour?” Acharya pointed at an elderly man, who was resting against a pillar, sitting on a mattress, following the beats accurately, and said, “It is all the fruit of his blessings!”
During his childhood, Vasudevacharya had regularly partaken of meals and benefitted from this elderly gentleman’s hospitality. On the day before this incident, when Acharya had visited this elderly man, he had said in a dismal tone, “Vasu, when will I get to listen to your music? I’m already eighty-five. I’m not in a condition to come and sit in a concert.”
Acharya had responded, “Should you come to my concert? Why can’t my concert come to where you reside?” This was the back-story of the delightful concert that evening.
Vasudevacharya was an emotional being. Through the study of great literature, he had developed aesthetic refinement. That emotional essence manifested in the flow of melody in his music. Even when he sang varṇas, the multitude of expressions would stand out. That was emotional music. That was the sibling of beautiful poetry. That was the bosom friend of divine meditation.
Vasudevacharya’s Śloka Singing
One day, during a conversation we had while at my house, the subject of poetry came up. Such beautiful poetry is embedded in the stotra-padyas! This was the topic. As an example I alluded to Oṃkāra pañjaraśukīm and other verses from the Śyāmalā-navaratnamālikā. Having quoted those verses, I recited one of the poems in a monotone, akin to chanting a mantra –
Acharya said, “Ayyo! Ayyo!” and slapped his forehead with his palm.
I asked, “Why? What happened?”
He lifted his hand and pointed in my direction in an accusatory manner and said, “Did you forget that it is Mayamalavagaula, a sampūrṇa rāga! That was brought down to this state!”
For the nine Āryā-Gītis in this śloka, Acharya has composed the melodies in different rāgas. If I remember correctly, it began with Madhyamavati.
Vasudevacharya’s voice would not carry very far. If an audience of not more than thirty or forty members sat and listened calmly, then his music would be attractive.
Around 1907, perhaps due to the arrival of the Jagadguru from Sringeri, the general public was filled with great enthusiasm in matters regarding the Swamiji. The Rāmotsavas that year were celebrated with grandeur. At the Rāmotsava organised by the Sanmārgapravartha Sabha on Sahuji’s terrace in Chikpet, Vidwan Mysore Vasudevacharya’s concert was arranged. In that concert Acharya sang this Navaratnamālikā –
This singing enthralled Bangalore’s world of connoisseurs. Wherever I went, there were praises for that singing. Whoever I met exclaimed, “What a Kalyani!” “What an extraordinary Mohana!” The Āryā-Gīti verse that induced horripilation in me was –
bhagavatpādān vibhāvaye hṛdaye||
This was sung in Kedara. The development of the rāga Kedara was fabulous. In that, while pronouncing the words ‘ambhojadvaya’ and ‘bambharāyita’ the violinist’s handiwork was enchanting. ‘Bambhara’ means ‘bee.’ The notes on the violin sounded like the buzzing of a bee.
The beauty of Vasudevacharya’s śloka recital is inimitable. It feels impossible to find that in a singer in such a great measure. The source of that beauty was his hard work in Sanskrit literature. His pronunciation of Sanskrit words was strengthened by knowledge of the letters of the alphabet. He would experience the emotion in each and every Sanskrit word and even pay attention to alphabetical expression while he sang; a gamaka (musical ornamentation) for every letter of the alphabet, and a gamaka in between every letter.
Once I had an argument with a friend from Madras (present-day Chennai). He was an accomplished lawyer. He had learnt Sanskrit in the traditional manner and had a keen interest in music as well. He once told me during a conversation, “Musicians should not meddle with Sanskrit.”
I asked, “Why so?”
He said, “You people ruin Sanskrit. You drag and deform the letters.
– this is how you sing. Are you implying ‘gachha’ or ‘āgachha’? You see the quandary?”
After a few days passed, when the friend had come to Bangalore, I requested Vasudevacharya to sing in his presence. On listening to Acharya’s singing of Sanskrit verses, my friend completely renounced his earlier view and began saying, “Sanskrit is the most appropriate language for music.”
This was the specialty of Vasudevacharya. Grasping the articulation of Sanskrit words and its authentic reproduction – this specialty had come to Vasudevacharya through his mastery of Sanskrit literature.
One afternoon, I had gone to Vasudevacharya’s house in Mysore. I did not have much free time then. My intention was to just greet him and enquire after his well-being. But he wasn’t home at that time. Someone mentioned that he was at a friend’s house nearby and suggested that I could meet him there. Accordingly I went there. He and his friend were sitting together, discussing something and laughing.
Vasudevacharya’s had a great sense of humour. Wherever he went, he indulged in tomfoolery. He would use a lot of puns while speaking, or speak in riddles. His face would not let out a smile. On the exterior, he would appear grave and serious. The laughter played behind his lips.
As soon as he saw me, Acharya pointed at his friend and said, “He is my arch-rival.”
I said, “Such cordiality even with your enemy?”
“What to do, the circumstance is such. He is in a superior position.”
“Kindly explain,” I said.
“He is Dvivedi Gundavadhani. Veda is our master, right? Hasn’t it been said, ‘Yadvedātprabhu sammitāt’ (Pratāparudrīya 1.8)?”
“How did he become your enemy then?”
Acharya said, “He wanted to destroy me. We were classmates at the Sanskrit school during our younger days. We both learnt literature. The government at that time brought out a scheme. Some amount as scholarship would be offered to those who combined the study of the Vedas or Classical Music along with literature. We both had applied for that scholarship, driven by our keen interest in music. Seeing that, our lecturer said, “Both of you shouldn’t apply for music. One can apply for music and the other for Vedas.” This Shastri was hell-bent on applying for music along with me. I had absolutely no background in Vedas. I had a little bit of attraction for music. We are friends, there is no need for competition among us – however much I told him this, he would not concede. Finally a friend offered a solution: We should write our names on separate chits and also write the words ‘Music’ and ‘Veda’ on separate chits. After writing these words, the four paper chits would be folded in such a manner that the writing wasn’t visible, placed at the feet of the Vidyāgaṇapati deity at the Sanskrit school, a Maṅgaḻārati was to be performed, and the chits would then be taken back. Whatever one obtains in the chit has to be adhered to. This great gentleman agreed to that. As per that, after the Mahāgaṇapati Maṅgaḻārati, he picked up a chit from one side. My name was written on that. Then he picked up a chit from the other side. On it was written ‘Music.’ I was fortunate to get the divine permission of Mahāgaṇapati. That was not the big deal, sir. This great man conceded at least to the judgement of Gaṇapati! And because of that, I got the chance to earn my bread. And what did he lose because of that? He has been given titles such as Ghanapāṭhi, Dvivedi, and Vedaratna by the king himself.”
Thus, the conversation went on. The gentleman Gundavadhani’s face beamed with joy.
This is the eleventh essay in D V Gundappa’s magnum-opus Jnapakachitrashaale (Volume 2) – Kalopasakaru. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review. Edited by Hari Ravikumar.
 Gandharvas and vidyādharas are celestial beings known for their prowess in arts.
 Varṇa (or Varṇam) is a type of musical composition in South Indian classical music, typically meant for vocal or instrumental training.
 Verses in praise of various deities.