C.R. Vyas

C.R. Vyas

Chintaman Raghunath Vyas


♫ Raga Ambika Sarang


About C.R. Vyas

Reluctant Master

By S Kalidas

He never sought it but recognition came to this vocalist in
the evening of his life.

The occasion is not without its nuances of anachronism
and irony. In the otherwise dog-eat-dog world of classical
music, this week Mumbai’s Nehru Centre is the venue for a
rare gathering of musicians of all hues, persuasions and
generations. Stars and stalwarts including Kishan Maharaj,
Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Gangubai
Hangal, Allah Rakha Khan, Amjad Ali Khan, Jasraj and film
music director Naushad Ali are going to publicly felicitate
Pandit Chintaman Raghunath Vyas on his 75th birthday.
They honour on that day not only the simple man and his
many fine qualities as a vocalist and composer but, in the
process, also some six decades of single-minded devotion
to all that is authentically traditional in the field of
Hindustani classical music.

“In our time we did not think of earning either fame or money
through music,” says the ageing yet ebullient and sprightly
Vyas, who held a white collar job in ITC for 34
years. “Our aim was primarily to learn and master as much
as we could. Earning a livelihood through music was too
risky.” Indeed, although musicians of Maharashtra
had always known of Vyas, national recognition came only
after he was 63 and that too when star instrumentalists
like Shiv Kumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain projected
him on the concert circuit. Even earlier, a host of younger
vocalists led by Jitendra Abhisheki had been learning from
Vyas and singing his compositions in concerts for a long
time. But popular success had eluded this modest and
sincere pupil of the khayal whose quest for traditional
compositions and gayaki (singing style) spanned three major
gharanas or schools of khayal singing.

Despite being firmly placed in the top league with all the
awards, recordings and concert engagements, Vyas remains
essentially a musician’s musician. His voice is not “sweet”
in the generally accepted sense of the word nor is his vocalism
alluring in keeping with the current trends. So what makes Vyas
worthy of such celebration? “A combination of guilt on the
part of reigning celebrities for having devalued classicism
and the renewed value that some of us younger musicians are
placing on re-learning tradition,” says sarod player Biswajit
Roy Chowdhury who after mastering the sarod, sought out older
vocalists like Mallikarjun Mansur and Balasaheb Poonchhvale to
learn traditional bandishes (compositions). No wonder
Vyas’ faithful fans are musicians of this generation like Lalit
Rao, Shubha Mudgal and his own sons, santoor player Satish and
vocalist Suhas. For Vyas today is undoubtedly one of a fast
vanishing band of old masters who are repositories of the
old khayal tradition.

However, Vyas neither comes from any old gharana (traditional
lineage of khayal singers) nor limits himself to narrowly
following any one particular gayaki. “I wanted to learn music
not gharanebazi (gharana politics),” he asserts. Born in a
family of Sanskrit pandits and keertan (devotional music)
singers in 1923 at Osmanabad in Maharashtra, Vyas plumbed
the depths of three gharanas to arrive at his charmingly
eclectic yet traditionally authentic style. His first teacher
was Govindrao Bhatambrekar of the Kirana school. Vyas learnt
from Bhatambrekar for nearly a decade and was already singing
in concerts by the time he arrived in Mumbai as a young man
of 21. “But I was not satisfied with my music and wanted to
learn more when a well-wisher advised me to learn under
the Gwalior teacher Rajarambua Paradkar,” recalls Vyas.
For the next 20 years Vyas led the life of an urban yogi.
Living in a 270 sq ft accommodation in a Matunga chawl,
the day began before dawn with riyaz (practice), then came
the job at ITC, then straight from work to his guru’s house
for tuition which often lasted through the night. Life was
not easy but Vyas was oblivious of worldly comforts. His
three sons and a nephew were brought up by his silently
supportive wife, Indira, who never once complained about
his complete absorption in music. Even today, as you sip
tea in his small but comfortable Chembur flat, Vyas is
all music. You can’t talk of his lifestyle, clothes, cars
or house or family. You have to talk about music and the
musical values he so assiduously cultivated through his
long and difficult life. When you try and gather trivial
details about his life and times, he bursts into song.
“Kaahe ho…” he sings, an 18th century composition in
raga Gaur Mallar, “This is the Gwalior style that I
learnt from Rajarambua,” he says.

Just when he had mastered the Gwalior idiom, Vyas stumbled
upon yet another muse. One day he heard another eclectic
master by the name of Jagannathbua Purohit and was so smitten
by him that he resolved to become his disciple. Purohit
belonged nominally to the Agra gharana. Traditional repertoire
aside, he was a major composer and it is to him that music
owes a modern masterpiece like the raga Jogkauns. Of all his
gurus it was with Purohit that Vyas had the most special
relationship. And it is well known that after Purohit, if
there is any one with a flair for composition in that mould
it is Vyas. Even his guru was so impressed by Vyas’
talent for composition that their whole relationship was
based on a musical exchange of bandishes. Purohit composed,
Vyas sang. Vyas composed, his guru answered through another
composition. When they were apart they exchanged their
thoughts through letters written in musical notation. Over
the decades, Vyas has composed scores of bandishes in old
ragas and new ones which have been sung by his many disciples
and published in book form too.

At the dusk of his musical journey, Vyas’ only fear is that
the raga which has been the mainstay of Indian music for a
good 2,000 years may not survive the turn of the century.
“The way things are going raga sangeet as we learnt it may
not see the next millennium,” he laments. The real tribute
to Vyas will be for musicians to espouse and emulate his
love and respect for tradition, if not for his simple and
uncomplicated lifestyle.