by Mohan Nadkarni
First Published in: The Times of India, Bombay Edition, on December 27, 1992
Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897 - 1967) was a maestro whose music baffled hardboiled listeners even while he held his lay audiences spell-bound. I have nostalgic memories of his monumental voice, with its amazingly wide tonal range, depth and volume, all of which seemed to blend perfectly with the dignity of his bearing. With four tanpuras to back him and two accompanists to lend him sangat, one would be tempted to liken the ensemble to the saptarishi constellation.
A large segment of cognoscenti found something elusive about Panditji's music. He was a gate crasher to some, and a romanticist to others. Still others thought him to be an iconoclast, or an avant grade vocalist. The fact is that he was all these put together, and that is what compelled attention from his admirers as well as critics.
Private collection of Mohan D. Nadkarni/
Panditji himself, steeped in the old shastras, vehemently claimed that he was orthodox in his vocalism. Even while he firmly believed in the miracles and mysteries of music, he chose to evolve a style of his own which embodied even flourishes like shakes and tremolos features of western music. His use of his devices, he asserted had the full sanction of the Indian tradition. To prove his point, he would proceed to quote chapter and verse from the shastras right in the midst of his performance!
Memories of my meetings with him, first in 1948 and then a decade later, come crowding to my mind as I write these lines. He advocated two contrary approaches to raga music during these meeting. Baffled by his advocacy of both the concepts at the two encounters with him, I cautiously requested him to dispel my gnawing doubts. The maestro was visibly rattled and shouted at me to go away, branding the whole fraternity of newspaper men (including, of course, music critics) as "nindaks" (detractors). Yet, while he shunned publicity, he maintained a love-hate relationship with the press.
Pandit Omkarnathji's rise to fame was dramatic. His forbears were military men, but he was born in penury in far-off Gujarat village and orphaned at 14. He earned his living first as a cook and then as a mill-worker. The vicissitudes of life hardly dampened his energy, and his burning passion for music asserted itself in many ways. He tried to learn music from people as diverse as street-singers and temple musicians, till a wealthy, music-loving Parsi gentleman, Seth Doongajee, discerned his musicianly potential and placed him under the tutelege of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.
It is difficult to say who among the old maestros besides Pandit Paluskar himself - influenced his music most. In reply to my question, he told me that he was initially influenced by two "eccentric musicians"-- Karim Baksh, a musician from Kashmir, and Rehmat Khan, a luminary of his own Gwalior gharana. But Panditji acknowledged Vishnu Digambar as his foremost guru.
Both at home and abroad, public recognition came naturally to him in profusion before and after independence. He was possibly the only Indian musician who had gone to the west as far back as the early thirties, and won plaudits in international soirees in several world capitals. Believe it or not, he had announced his retirement from active musical life more than once and, that too, for political reasons! During the freedom struggle, his "Vande Mataram" was integral part of the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress. In this, he followed in the wake of his mentor.
Panditji reportedly trained a large number of students in vocal music, besides writing authoritative books on musicology and aesthetics. It would seem that he did not care to groom shishyas worthy of him. The only exception is that of the South Indian exponent of Hindustani music, violinist N. Rajam, whom he groomed as a ganda-bandh shagird.