The contributions of Pt. Tulsidas Borkar to Hindustani Classical Music
-by Kedar Naphade
Published in SAMAKALIKA SANGEETHAM, a bilingual/half-yearly journal for music, April 2011 with financial assistance from Sangeet Nakata Akademi, New Delhi. This issue was dedicated to the fond memory of BHARATRATNA PANDIT BHIMSEN JOSHI, the legend of Hindustani Music and PADMASHREE SUCHITRA MITRA, an exponent of Rabindra Sangeet.
A performer par excellence, brilliant composer and revered Guru, Pandit Tulsidas Borkar is one of the most outstanding classical musicians of India today.
Panditji was born on Nov 18, 1934 in Bori, a small village in Goa, the land that has given India many a great artist. Living a few steps away from the temple of his कुलदैवत—his family deity Goddess Shri Navadurga, his introduction to music came through the many Kirtans and Bhajans that took place in the temple on a regular basis.
He was first introduced to the harmonium by his mother, Smt. Jayashreebai Borkar (1913 - 2000) and received initial training on the harmonium from Pt. Vishnupant Vashta (approx. 1918 - 1993). A major part of his training in Harmonium performance technique came from Pt. P. Madhukar or Madhukar Pednekar (1916 - 1967). He was mentored in the art of accompaniment for several decades by Swararaj Chhota Gandharwa (1918 - 1997). Additionally, through different phases of his life and career, he sought and received critical guidance and education in Hindustani classical music from musical greats such as revered flutist Pt. Devendra Murudeshwar (1923 - 2000) and great musicologists and vocalists Pt. K. G. Ginde (1925 - 1994), Pt. S. C. R. Bhatt (1918 - 2008) and Pt. Rambhau Marathe(1924 - 1989). His long associations with legends like Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur(1910 - 1992), Pt. Bhimsen Joshi(1922 - 2011), and Pta. Padmavati Shaligram-Gokhale (b. 1918) have also been key influences on his musical ideology and personality.
His contributions to the world of Hindustani classical music are immense and span many different areas such as accompaniment of classical and semi-classical vocal music, solo performance, playing technique, education, composition, as well as tuning technique and innovative design changes to his instrument—the Harmonium.
Among all of Panditji's contributions, his contribution as a performer is arguably the greatest. Panditji has created a unique performance style built upon his education from multiple Gurus. His performances combine brilliant versatility and technical command over the instrument, an acute awareness and precise articulation of linguistic elements through subtle musical touches and finally, an emotive appeal—akin to that of Ustad Bismillah Khan's music—that is unfathomable and cannot be analyzed—something that arises from a myriad of musical influences, good and bad life experiences and intense purity of the soul.
A fundamental building block for any performer is playing technique and command over the instrument. In his early training from Pt. Vishnupant Vashta in 1949, Pt. Borkar received the mantra of hours of disciplined practice—preparing him to perform with equal ease in all 12 tonic keys or "Shadja's" on the harmonium. Later in his career, from 1957—1967, he trained from Pt. Madhukar Pednekar or P. Madhukar for a sustained period of 10 years. P. Madhukar was a pioneer, a genius in harmonium technique and performance. The speed with which he could play many simple and complex musical elements on the harmonium was mind boggling. He was unparalleled in this respect and will likely remain peerless forever. Pandit Tulsidas Borkar received 10 years of rigorous training from this maestro. Through this training, he imbibed many techniques such as:
- Optimal fingering sequence to enable playing of speedy "Sapaat" or Flat Taans—traversing multiple octaves in multiple tonics and multiple Raags with ease.
- Technique that enables the partial reproduction of "Gamaks" and "Gamak - taans" on the harmonium
- Performance of many types of "Zaala"—the superfast section with which an instrumental recital typically ends
For a long period of over 40 years starting around 1950, Panditji was associated with Swararaj Chhota Gandharva, learning from him and accompanying him in his performance of Marathi Natyasangeet as well as Hindustani classical music. It is perhaps through this mentorship that Pandit Borkar developed a keen awareness of linguistic elements and sensitivity to subtle and complex note sequences.
In a stage song, the singer produces literally dozens of variations of a single line. Being able to capture these in real time and reproduce them instantaneously with perfection is very difficult. These variations have two dimensions—notes and words. Over his many years of experience, Panditji developed special techniques to reproduce the sound of syllables and words as well as subtleties of complex note sequences—murkis, khatkas etc. on the harmonium with great precision. These techniques are incorporated into his solo performance as well as into his accompaniment, often to the great delight of his listeners.
A related facet is Panditji's insistence on clarity of musical thought and precise articulation. His performance is built on building blocks of musical phrases (Alankaars) that are polished and precise. These phrases and the rigorous exercise needed to perfect them for incorporation into performance are inspired not only by his gurus, but also the plethora of the country's leading artists that he has accompanied over his lifetime, across all the major gharanas of classical music such as Gwalior, Jaipur, Agra, Kirana, Patiala etc. His accompaniment of different singers blends into the style of the singer—rather than accompaniment that exhibits his own style of solo performance. This versatility has been possible solely due to his deep study of the music of different gharanas and the subsequent rigorous inculcation of diverse musical elements into his repertoire of techniques.
In addition to these elements of playing technique that he imbibed from his Gurus and developed especially for the great singers that he accompanied, Panditji has incorporated several additional elements in his playing style:
- Panditji strongly emphasizes continuity during playing the harmonium. As his fingers move from one note to the other, there are no gaps or breaks in sound—unless they are specifically warranted by the linguistic or musical context. As the harmonium is a discrete instrument without the facility of a glide or "meend", it is especially important to maintain such continuity in the performance of Hindustani classical music.
- Through deft use of the bellows, changing in bellow pressure and finger pressure, Panditji also produces several microtones or shrutis from the harmonium—originally a discrete instrument designed to only produce 12 tones in an octave.
Thus Panditji's playing technique is the arguably the most versatile in his generation. He combines clarity and precision with continuity and emotive appeal in a manner that is inimitable, and reflective of his unique style.
Panditji's accompaniment of vocal music is an ornately crafted balance of multiple elements:
- Accurate, unobtrusive following of the vocalist while the vocalist is singing—becoming "invisible" by blending his accompaniment into the vocalist's music.
- Exact reproduction of musical phrases when the vocalist pauses—enabled by his keen eye for precision and versatility of technique
- Complementing the vocalist's music with his own decorative musical thought when appropriate: musical thought that is of the same caliber and theme as that of the vocalist's music, yet creatively different, inspiring the vocalist by suggesting new pathways that are part and parcel of their own musical idiom
Panditji's accompaniment is the benchmark for many harmonium players of the next generation. He has accompanied many great artists for decades, at prestigious venues within and outside India: in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. He has performed with Ustad Amir Khan, Smt. Hirabai Badodekar, Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Basavaraj Rajguru, Pta. Padmavati Shaligram-Gokhale, Pt. Yashwantbua Joshi, Pt. Ram Marathe, Pt. Jitendra Abhisheki, Dr. Prabha Atre, Pt. K. G. Ginde, Pt. S.C.R. Bhatt, Pt. Ajoy Chakravarty and many others. His prolonged accompaniment of Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi for over a decade each (1980s and 1990s), have been a highlight of his accompaniment career.
Pt. Tulsidas Borkar is an extremely highly regarded Harmonium soloist. Solo performance on any instrument presents a very different set of challenges compared to accompaniment. Here, the artist carries the brunt of the responsibility of the performance on his shoulders. While playing technique is an important building block, a lot of other elements come into play in a successful solo performance. The artist needs to have sound knowledge of the Raag that is being performed. Starting from scratch, the artist needs to paint for the listeners a clear and beautiful image of the Raag. He needs to improvise within the framework of the Raag with ease and carry the audience effectively through the end of the performance. This needs not only creative artistry but also a deep knowledge of Raag music.
Panditji is one of the few harmonium players of his generation who specifically sought training in the foundations of Hindustani Classical music. Learning from greats such as Pt. Devendra Murudeshwar, Pt. K. G. Ginde, Pt. S. C.R. Bhatt & Pt. Rambhau Marathe, he ensured that his performances were proper and complete. He emphasized the incorporation of all elements: Alap, a proper composition played with Sthai and Antara, Laykari, Taan and Zaalaa.
While this sounds elementary today, 50 years ago, not many harmonium players actually sought out gurus and learnt Raags and traditional compositions or Sthai-Antaras from them; compositions which unlock the guidelines and structure for correct performance of the Raag. A lot of harmonium players were self-taught and earned their livelihood purely through accompaniment of vocalists—without rigorous training and foundation in classical music. As such, they did not blossom into being able to perform solo harmonium recitals.
Panditji has beautifully combined the versatile technique he learnt from his gurus and the diverse elements of music he imbibed from singers of different gharanas that he accompanied and studied, into his solo performances, creating his own unique touch and style. In his solo performances, he has the ability to dazzle audiences as well as touch their hearts.
In 1975, Panditji first performed harmonium solo on Akashwani. Subsequently, he has performed numerous solo harmonium recitals. He has also delivered lecture-demonstrations on the harmonium, harmonium solo and accompaniment, both in India as well as abroad. He toured the US twice, delivering performances and lectures in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Cincinnati etc.
His classical compositions are designed for harmonium solo performance, and similar to his ideology as a performer, combine versatility of technique with great charm and emotional appeal. His compositional signature is unique and the compositions are not only great performance pieces but also great teaching tools. They are equally successful in quickly enrapturing an audience of connoisseurs as well as engaging the fancy of a young child who might just be starting to learn music. Some of his compositions, like those of his guru P. Madhukar, set the benchmark and bar of difficulty for his students and other harmonium players—performing them is not an easy task.
Teaching and Education
Panditji has made a tremendous mark as a devoted educator and benevolent guru over the last several decades. Among his senior disciples and those who are performers today, are Sudhir Nayak, Seema Mestri-Shirodkar, the author Kedar Naphade, Ajay Joglekar, Shriram Hasabnis and Niranjan Lele. These disciples regularly perform harmonium solo recitals and accompany some of the greatest vocalists of India today.
The artists that Panditji's disciples now accompany include legendary names such as Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar, Ustad Rashid Khan, Pt. Ajoy Chakraborty, Smt. Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Pt. Rajan-Sajan Mishra Smt. Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, Smt. Shubha Mudgal, etc.
In spite of being over 75 years of age today, Panditji is still a very active teacher—one of his youngest students, Shri Unmesh Khaire, who is now about 10 years old, started learning from Panditji at age 5 and has received critical acclaim as a child prodigy.
A landmark educational contribution of Pt. Tulsidas Borkar is the book "Samvadini Sadhana" published first in 2001 in Marathi. Several Marathi editions of this book have been released and a Hindi edition has also been released in 2009. This book documents a host of harmonium playing techniques as well as "mini-performances" in over a dozen Raags in different tonics. These mini-performances are complete—inclusive of Alap, Sthai, Antara, Alap in Sthai and Antara, and Taans in Sthai and Antara. Most important, the music is accompanied by the optimal fingering sequences to be used—ensuring that students learning from this book will develop proper fingering technique. Additionally, Panditji has also been instrumental in designing the syllabus for Harmonium students at Pune University (Lalit Kala Kendra) and University of Kolhapur (Shivaji Vidyapeeth).
The harmonium is a very popular instrument. It is relatively easy to produce sound from, compared to other instruments such as the sitar, sarod, flute, sarangi, violin etc. However, while it is easy to produce sound from the instrument, it is very difficult to play this instrument well and play it with correct and scientific technique.
Though the instrument is immensely popular, the lack of basic knowledge about this instrument and proper performance technique is equally staggering. There is rampant manufacture and purchase of low quality instruments and great ignorance in the populace about many basic and foundational elements of music and harmonium performance.
Pandit Tulsidas Borkar has gained repute over the years as an excellent tuner of the harmonium. The process of tuning a harmonium is physically arduous and extremely difficult to master. Not only is it necessary to develop the sensitivity to the right frequencies to be able to tune by ear, but every reed has to be played, heard and tuned separately, needing the constant opening and closing of the harmonium's wind chamber. Tuning a harmonium can take as much as 5 - 6 hours and is truly a back breaking job.
Panditji spent several years of his life teaching himself the art and science of tuning and earned the reputation of being one of the best tuners of the instrument. He has mastered equal tempered tuning – which allows the instrument to be performed in multiple tonics, as well as "Gandhar" tuning—which is a variant of the western Just intonation with frequencies which are truer to Hindustani classical music, but can be performed only in a single tonic or "Shadja".
Many great artists such as Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. C.R. Vyas, Prabhudeo Sardar, Nirmala Arun, legendary Marathi singer Shri Sudhir Phadke etc. have specifically requested Pt. Tulsidas Borkar to tune their harmoniums. Most importantly, he has taught many of his students the art and science of proper tuning and strongly emphasized its importance.
Subsequently, in recent years there have been a lot of advances and research on tuning with publications by other harmonium artists such as Dr. Arwind Thatte and Dr. Vidyadhar Oke. Both have consulted Panditji at various points during their research.
Enhancements to the instrument
Panditji has also contributed design changes to the instrument. In collaboration with harmonium maker Shri Dashrath Bengude, he created a version of the harmonium with a raised keyboard. With all other instruments, the audience is clearly able to see the fingers of the performer. However, with the harmonium, the fingers of the performer are not clearly visible. The raised keyboard design allows the audience to observe the fingers of the artist, thereby increasing their appreciation of the performance.
Panditji has also built another prototype of a harmonium which allows Gandhar tuning to be available in multiple tonics—again in collaboration with Shri Dashrath Bengude. This design is similar to a prior harmonium design that was created by his guruji P. Madhukar in collaboration with others.
Panditji—a pitcture of integrity and strength of character
Apart from his contributions to the music, Panditji has also lived his life as a role model. He has had a difficult and arduous life, full of struggle and marred with many twists and turns. He lost his father before he was 10 and had to move from a stable home into a vagrant lifestyle with traveling troupes, as his older sister performed as an actress on the Marathi stage to support the family. He only received formal education up to the 7th standard. In 1961, living in Pune at the base of the Lakdi Bridge (लकडी पूल) by the Mula-Mutha river, he lost all his material belongings and his house as the Panshet dam broke and the river flooded into his house. Mid-career in the 1970s, he had to make a difficult transition from accompaniment of Marathi stage music and establish himself afresh as an artist in the world of Hindustani classical music. In the early 1990s, he went through some serious health issues which resulted in his significantly altering his lifestyle and almost eliminating all out of town travel concerts for several years. Throughout his life, there were many times where he barely had enough money in his pocket to survive the day, and did not know where the next day’s meals would come from. In 2006, the floods of Bombay once again destroyed a lot of his material possessions—the appliances in his house, all his recordings, all his paper documents, many historically important photographs.
However, in the face of every obstacle, disaster and calamity that came his way, he maintained his steadfast faith in Goddess Shri Navadurga, and personified sacrifice and integrity of character at every step. He is an ascetic at heart and even in the most difficult life situations, has never turned into a business minded commercial artist. His intense devotion to his Gurus, sincere humility, dedicated service to the art, simplicity of lifestyle and unending drive to educate the artists of tomorrow are a tremendous inspiration for generations to come.
The Harmonium, invented in France in the 1840's by Alexandre DeBain came to India through the British Raaj in the late 19th century. Over the last 125 years, it has had a colorful and controversial history. There have been numerous debates about its suitability for accompaniment of Hindustani classical vocal music as well as a solo instrument. There was a ban on the use of Harmonium on All India Radio, the ban was then lifted for a while and partially re-imposed. Fifty years ago, even the best harmonium players of the country were viewed as being at the bottom of the totem pole in the hierarchy of artists and the level of respect and treatment meted out to them used to leave much to be desired.
However, ultimately, the listening audience is the final judge and jury for survival of all performing art forms. While even today there are people who are staunch members of each camp with passionately held views, a lot has changed in the last 50 years. The harmonium has become an inseparable component of Hindustani classical vocal music. Harmonium artists today are much more educated about the intricacies of Raag and Taal and command and receive much more respect than artists did 50 years ago. Harmonium accompaniment is enjoyed and embraced by artists and audiences alike. The fan base for solo harmonium recitals continues to increase globally. While harmonium artists still have a long way to go in establishing the harmonium as a solo instrument on par with others, the transformation that has happened over the last 50 years is very perceptible.
Pt. Tulsidas Borkar's immense contributions have been an important catalyst of this transformation.