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Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar- The champion of Hindustani music

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When parents identify that their children have a liking towards music and a tolerable voice, the hunt for a good music teacher begins. In no time, parents begin to picture their child on stage surrounded by a tanpura and a tabla, giving a performance, as they hear the applause. Music is now an art, within the reach of every home. Today, if most children and adults have access to being trained and making their dreams of performing, a reality, the credit goes to Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.

Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar is seen as a musician who brought respect to the profession of classical musicians and who took Hindustani classical music to the masses. India Today Magazine, named Vishnu Digambar Paluskar as one among the 100 people who shaped India in its 2000 millennial issue, and rightly so. He sang sophisticated and erudite compositions for the real connoisseurs, national songs for the patriots and devotional songs for the pious. Pandit Paluskar believed that music is beyond tuning words about wine and women to an engaging rhythm and worked towards revolutionizing the taste of people of that time. He established that music was a “manifestation of divinity latent in man”.

Born on 18 August 1872 in Kurundwar, Maharashtra, V D Paluskar ji was loved by all because of his charisma and melodious voice. He sang bhajans and keertans taught to him by his father, Pandit Digambar Gopal Paluskar, a renowned keertankar. On the auspicious day of Deepawali, Vishnu ji lost his eyesight in an accident involving a firecracker. The thirteen year old was taken to Miraj, Maharashtra to be treated and only his facial injuries were cured miraculously. Since he could not study further, it was decided that he would train in music (S. B. Nayampally, 1971). Pandit Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjikar, the torchbearer of Gwalior gharana tradition, trained him. 9 years after training in the gurukul system (staying and doing domestic chores in the guru’s home in return for the knowledge imparted), he was permitted to give solo recitals. He journeyed northwards from Maharashtra with a zeal to learn different styles of music. He performed in several cities. Offers poured in from many princely states, for him to be their court musician. Rani Jamnabai of Baroda wished to engage him as a Darbari gayak for Rs.400 per month (Misra, 1981). However, he respectfully declined. His aim was much greater. He wanted to restore the status of music in the Indian society.

Musicians were looked down upon as mere entertainers, in the Indian Society. Music thrived under the state patronage but gradually, the rulers became indifferent to the arts and culture. Common man thought of music as a royal luxury. Hence, music had become detached from society and musicians were looked down upon. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar set out on the journey to bring glory to the musicians and bring it to the masses, so that everyone could understand that music was a pathway to divinity and above mere entertainment.

To bring music to common man who did not have the facility to learn music, Pandit Paluskar started a college in Lahore in the year 1901, the Gandharva Mahavidhyalaya. He spent three years raising funds to establish the college. Here, is a picture of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Lahore (Bhakle, 2005) :

Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Lahore

It was not easy to bring students to the college and there were days when Pandit ji sat alone with his tanpura, and rendered melodious compositions, in the room. Gradually, people began to show interest in learning the art. Degrees were conferred upon students who completed the nine-year course. When asked about his goal for the institution, he said that he, “wished to produce, Kansens (Connoisseurs of Music) and not Tansens” (Misra, 1981). He created a platform for everyone to learn, young and old, men and women and rich and poor. For students who could not afford to pay the fees of Rs.101, the fee was waived and they were made part of the Upadeshak batch. He issued bonds to these students, to ensure that they would not take their musical education lightly. If a student wished to leave midway, they had to pay a full penalty stipulated at the time of signature. What distinguished the regular curriculum students from the Upadeshak batch was that Pandit ji taught the students of the Upadeshak batch, how to teach music for a living instead of training them to become performers. Such was Pandit Paluskar’s vision. He did his share to ensure that the financially disadvantaged benefit from training in music and succeed in fending for themselves.  

Example of the Bond

Here is an example of such a bond:

I hereby write to the Principal of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya that my younger brother, Omkarnath is 14 years old. He is Brahmin by caste. I am placing him in your school to learn music in accordance with your rules, and I guarantee this by the terms of a nine-year bond. The rules of the Upadeshak class are acceptable to us. Because we are poor, we are not able to pay the fees of the school, which is why I am placing him in the Upadeshak class. If for some reason, I wish to remove my brother from the school before the nine years are over, then the fine due us rated at Rs.15 per month, from the day he was entered until the day he leaves, will be paid by us without delay.” (Bhakle, 2005)

In 1908, Bombay gave a grand welcome to the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. But, in the year 1924, the building was auctioned, since the loans had to be paid back. The First World War and the economic conditions following the war affected the college. A very fascinating fact about Pandit V D Paluskar is that he was the first of his time to organize ticketed concerts. Concerts, for the first time, were made accessible to rich and poor alike, through tickets. He was also the one who organized All India Music Conferences, which brought leading musicians of different gharanas, onto a single platform, a practice common today.

He etched his name in the history of Indian music by introducing the system of notation, which was hardly known at the time. He wrote around 50 books, the most prominent among them being the Sangeet Bal Prakash.

Even on his journey to restore the status of music in the society, he was not ignorant about people’s aspiration for freedom. It would be no exaggeration to say that he set the trend of singing nationalistic and patriotic songs at public functions. At the advent of the Swadeshi Movement, he started the tradition of singing Vande Mataram in gatherings. Congress leaders invited him, to sing Vande Mataram at the beginning of every Indian National Congress session and he attended every meeting since 1915. He sang Vande Mataram in Raag Kafi originally and the whole congregation was spellbound.

An interesting incident took place during the Indian National Congress Session, held in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh in the year 1923. Maulana Mohamed Ali was the President and as usual, when Paluskar ji rose to sing Vande Mataram, Maulana ji objected stating that music was “Anti-Islamic” (Gadgil, 1978). Here is a report on the incident:

“When Vishnu Digambar rose to sing Vande Mataram in conformity with tradition, Maulana Saheb raised an objection on the ground that music was a taboo in his religion. The leaders assembled were completely bewildered. Vishnu Digambar was incensed, and hit back: ‘This is a national forum, not the platform of any single community. This is no mosque to object to music. There is no justification for a ban on music here. When the president could put up with the music in the presidential procession, why does he object to it here?’ Having silenced the President, without waiting for his reply, he proceeded to sing Vande Mataram and completed it. Respect for his sense of national pride and love of the motherland grew. The people admired his moral courage, and applauded him heartily.” (Athavale, 1967)

He composed Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite Bhajan, Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram that highlighted many a session of the INC and was sung even during the Salt March. He earned the admiration and respect of Bapu ji. He had surrendered to Almighty through his melodious rendition of devotional songs and bhajans. The last few years of his life, he stayed in Panchavati, Nasik and established the Raamnaam Aadhar Ashram. There, he sang Tulsidas’ Ramayana before large gathering. The last days of his life were completely dedicated to music and Lord Ram. His health was not permitting him to travel and so, he retired to Miraj and stayed there until he joined the immortal, on 21 August 1931.

Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar dedicated his whole life to bring music to every home and he succeeded. His disciples, like Omkarnath Thakur, B R Deodhar, Narayan Rao Vyas and Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, carried on his legacy. As Janaki Bhakle said, it would be no overstatement to say that he is responsible for giving Indian classical music as we understand and recognize today, its distinct shape, form and identity (Bhakle, 2005).

As stated by his disciple, B R Deodhar, Panditji trained his loud and coarse voice with determination and hard work, until it was flexible and melodious. This is an inspiration and frankly, a ray of hope for all those who have a passion for music. It pains me that I do not have the opportunity to listen to his voice today. I can only imagine how melodious he sounded. Nevertheless, it is a consolation to have the opportunity to listen to his son, D V Paluskar ji. Here is a link to his rendition of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram:

Musicians like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar ji are the reason a young girl like me can dream of becoming a performer. He is an inspiration, not only as a musician but also, as someone who challenged his obstacles. From his story, we learn to never give up on our dreams, face the challenges that come our way, and stand up for what we believe in, always.

Athavale, V. R. (1967). Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. National Book Trust.
B R Deodhar, B. A. (1993). Pillars of Hindustani Music. Popular Prakashan.
Bhakle, J. (2005). Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford University Press.
Gadgil, A. (1978). Vande Mataram. Gokul Prakashan Publication.
Misra, S. (1981). Great Masters of Hindustani Music. hem Publishers.
S. B. Nayampally, Films Division (Director). (1971). Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.

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