The Satyasheel Deshpande interview | 'Gharana is not ghee that it should be pure; there is really no such thing'

·8 min read

Satyasheel Deshpande is an inheritor of formidable legacies. His father, Vamanrao Deshpande, was and continues to be a highly respected musicologist. His Gharandaaz Gayaki, written in Marathi in 1962, and currently in its third edition in its Hindi and English translations as well, offers a theory of the underlying principles of gharana distinctions. This landmark book remains compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to understand the world of Khayal.

Vamanrao had close associations with the greatest musicians of that time including Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar and Kumar Gandharva, and an enduring friendship with BR Deodhar, in whose school at Girgaun in South Mumbai, it seemed, all musical activity was centered at that time. Young Satyasheel grew up in an atmosphere resounding with the finest music as well as incisive discussions about it. His subsequent Gurukulavaasa with Kumar Gandharva makes him also a legatee of one of the most brilliant musical minds. Simultaneously pushing boundaries and attaining the core essence of the Khayal tradition, Kumar Gandharva's astonishing music was shot through and through with radical thinking about every aspect of music €" the tradition, practice and performance.

For Satyasheel Deshpande, coming under these influences, the reflective aspect of the musical life was inescapable and his has been a musical journey that is not only about performing but also about questioning and exploring newer frontiers.

This same spirit led him to create the Samvaad archives which hold hundreds of hours of great masters singing Khayal €" a treasure of compositions, various styles of vistaar reflecting various musical temperaments.

Satyasheel Deshpande is today highly regarded as a musician with an immense knowledge of various aspects of the beauteous world of Hindustani music; he is a thinker, writer and a lively and absolutely delightful teller of stories of this world. And, his compositions are an exuberance of creativity and artistry. As he enters his 70th year, he shares some thoughts about his musical journey:



Needless to say, my father was a very important influence in the formation of my musical personality. He is rightly regarded as a pioneer musicologist: when he wrote his Gharandaaz Gayaki, he had to practically create a language to talk about music since there was hardly any analytical work before his. But he was no less of a musician, having learnt seriously from Suresh Bhau Mane of Kirana gharana and Natthan Khan of Atrauli Jaipur before his decade-long studentship under Mogubai Kurdikar. He chose not to pursue a performing career for various reasons and did not seek a name as a performer. This enabled him to receive music of all styles without prejudice and he could analyse them with an open mind. When a person is a performer and musicologist rolled into one, a conflict of interest is possible and we may find the musicologist coming up with theories to defend the musician's style or his flaws.


Since my father and Deodhar saheb were very close friends and since my uncle was a close relative of Sawai Gandharva's, many visiting musicians would stay with us in our Walkeshwar house. And as a child, I observed that when a musician wanted to talk about a raga during any discussion, he would sing it and that would not be the same as when another demonstrated it, or the same musician another time. The fundamental fact about this music €" that it is created on the spur of the moment €" was deeply imprinted in my mind; it had improvisation and spontaneous creation at its heart. And I also came to the conclusion that any raga is not contained in or exhausted by one bandish in it or one musician's rendering of it. Later, with my work in Samvaad, I came to see that, practiced over large parts of the country, the presentation of ragas differs in each region and even with each musician. So, while ragas have an identity, their plurality is also integral to the phenomenon of raga music.


Pakistani Khayaliya Salamat Ali Khan once found me notating some compositions and he mildly rebuked me saying, "Son, you should be singing, working on your riyaaz, not notating songs. Do you know, we say that this music was a stripling youth in Punjab, it became old in Gwalior, and when it came to Maharashtra only its skin and bones have remained!" The point he was making is that the musical style in Punjab is robust, flamboyant, extravagant and Maharashtrian singers present music austerely, with an overriding concern for raga grammar, bhaava and dignity of presentation.

Kumarji linked this extravagance versus frugality to the very life conditions of the regions. Punjab is a land of abundance €" its people don't know famine and drought and don't know frugality and so, even in their music they don't hold back. In Maharashtra, we even store the peelings of vegetables to make dishes out of. So, life seeps into music.

In any case, this difference in musical temperament is of course reflected in gharana, which is regarded a matter of great importance and pride. But we need to look closely at it and see what the merits are.

Gharana is not ghee that it should be pure €" there is really no such thing. Take the Agra gharana, for instance. We have Pt. Ratanjankar, who learnt from the great Aftaab-e-Moushiki, Ustad Faiyaaz Khan. Now Khansaheb, having come under the influence of the music of the tawaifs like Zohrabai Agrewaali, had elements of the sensuousness of that style along with the pukaar and qawwali like repetition of musical and textual phrases with rhythmic variation, which we call mukhadabandi. Ratanjankar did not absorb these aspects of the style, possibly because of his austere Brahminical background. So, while the student also belonged to Agra gharana, he brings into his music his own temperament. And that is how it should be.


Before the accessibility of music via recordings, students were limited to the music of their gurus, and were in fact actively discouraged from listening to other music. A gharana stylistic is basically determined by the vocalisation, sur lagaav. You have a certain way of using the voice, what you then do with it, even your musical thought, is determined by that. It both enables and limits.

My generation was the first to have a much wider exposure to the music of great masters from various gharanas. And my guru parampara is also eclectic €" open to varied influences. Deodhar, for instance, was given a scholarship by Paluskar saheb to learn Western music; Kumarji of course assimilated from Vaze bua, Omkarnath Thakur and Anjanibai Malpekar besides coming under the catalytic guidance of Deodhar saheb. With all these influences, I moved away from the idea of gharana as a rigid model for my own performance. Instead, gharanas have come to represent aesthetic categories for me that I can use as points of reference in my study and performance of Khayal.

My work at Samvaad gave me a rich exposure to the mind-boggling variety in expression in Khayal. I believe every student of music has to make a study of this variety €" only that will get her to think and start exploring, beyond just mechanical following of a formula of presentation.


If gharana is one obsession we are better off without, another is the ashtaanga of Khayal. Ashtaanga refers to the various elements through which we present the raga €" the bandish of course, alaap, bol alaap, bol bant, bol taan, taan etc. Most musicians follow this as though it were scriptural authority. A typical sequence is used in every raga presentation much like the same gravy that Punjabi restaurants use for every vegetable dish. Every raga presentation is a blind following of ashtaanga. Instrumental music also suffers from this malady: every instrument sounds like the sitar in the sense that all instruments follow the presentation method of the sitar. Jod and jhala are only appropriate to plucked string instruments; but whether it is the flute or violin or sarangi, all instrumentalists play them.

Historically, the sequence of presentation from alaap to taan was created to meet the demands of institutionalised teaching in the mid-20th century. As part of democratising this music and making it accessible to people at large, books were printed with bandishes and numbered alaaps, bol alaaps etc. Students would have to learn to sing say, six alaaps, four bol alaaps, and five taans for a bandish in a raga, and if they could present them, they would even pass an exam. At that point in history this was perhaps necessary, but it is only a tool, and is completely contrary to the nature of the music which is about spontaneity.

These tools of improvisation and sequence should not take precedence over the art of Khayal, which revolves around how you handle the bandish. Kumarji's taans for example, were remarkable and could have an audience in raptures; but while presenting some bandishes he did not sing any taans €" because he felt that they did not fit in that context. But most other musicians think that all these elements of presentation €" the ashtaanga €" are necessarily to be included.

Bandish khilnee chahiye. The bandish is like a bud that has to bloom when the performer presents it. And each bud has its own inner rhythm, inner qualities and way. So also, each bandish has to be handled so that it blossoms.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at

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