When one talks in superlatives about someone, it is sometimes interpreted to imply that others are being seen in a somewhat inferior light. My attempt here to bring out the qualities of a not so well-known musician from Bihar should not be seen in this light. It is purely a reflection of the fact that not much has been written about him before and that after some 15 years following his death, he deserves a bit of exaggerated praise here to compensate for the complete silence we have seen from his admirers and disciples in the past.
The sentiments expressed here also bring out a degree of frustration at the above board and unqualified praise that some of the more famous musicians have been showered in the past. I am not qualified enough to be able to criticize any one of them, though that does not mean that some knowledgeable ones have not done so in the past. I am also not suggesting that these famous and much acclaimed artists were not very accomplished and had reached these heights without considerable effort and practice. There is no doubt that they deserved much of the lot of applause that came their way. But is that all that Hindustani classical music has to offer? Is it that we have to listen only to maestros like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Jasraj when it comes to this genre? One cannot but believe that the Indian music industry seems to think so. All it takes is a visit a music CD shop in India. It is difficult to find anything other than handful of artistes whose music has been well advertised and sometimes oversold. It should be a matter of concern that not much beyond these handful of famous musicians are available to an admirer who wishes to listen to Hindustani classical music. The maestros of the past who sang for their pleasure and in the process produced such ecstasy among listeners are not to be found on the shelves.
Kumar Shyamanand Singh was no ordinary amateur singer. He was not a professional performer either. He was an artist gifted by god who was born only to sing – not for others in a mehfil or a baithak but for himself. It was to him a purpose enough – to please one's heart and soul. And this selfish approach to him was the very kernel of Hindustani classical music. When you sing to please yourself or to bring masti and anand to yourself is when your music attains that rare quality that is of a different plain where the listener makes that connection and is able to join the singer and partake of the ecstasy that he is himself experiencing. It is not the note or the grammar of music that matters, though that is not less important, to achieve that quality.
Kumar Shyamanand Singh used to tell his disciples “apne gaane me masti lao tabhi tum masti de sakoge”. He would often stop singing saying that “ab tabiyat nahi lagti bhai, maaf karo. Kisi aur samay mauka lagega tab suna denge.” Given that singing was not a means of earning his living, he was from a rich aristocratic family, perhaps, gave him that freedom. But he would narrate stories about professional singers of the past who would do the same.
One such story is that Ustad Muzaffar Khan saheb. The Ustad used to live with Kumar Saheb at his palace in Champanagar and was so impressed by Kumar Saheb’s dedication to music that he decided to give him music lessons. Ustad Muzzaffar Khan was known for the mastery of “Bahar” and had perfected many compositions in this raga. It was also Kumar Saheb’s favourite raga, among others, and many of his renditions in this raga had been obtained from Ustad Muzaffar Khan saheb.
According to Kumar Saheb, during one of his first visits, Ustad Muzaffar Khan had arrived in Champanagar and was living there for about 15 days when he approached Kumar Saheb with a bewildered look. When questioned by Kumar Saheb, he responded by saying that he had spent a long time in the place and was being provided all facilities and tremendous hospitality. But he was perplexed that the host had not yet asked him to perform for which he has been invited. In response, Kumar Saheb is narrated to have said, “Aap koi record to hai nahi jo jab chchaha baza diya. Aap aaram se rahen aur jab aapko ichcha ho, aap gaane ka karyakram rakhe.” Ustad who had been itching to sing but had thought that request should first come from the host, decided to sing immediately. The performance that day, according to Kumar Saheb, was exemplary. It was perhaps a case of a gawaiyya getting to show his skills convinced that he was performing in front of an extraordinary host. The long days of wait had also built a rare yearning to perform that brought the best out in him.
Many years later, after Ustad Muzaffar Khan Saheb had begun to impart music lessons to Kumar Saheb and attained the esteemed status of his guru (not a gandabandh guru though), there was another incident that brought out the importance of tabiyat in performance of classical music. At an impromptu baithak at Champanagar, Ustad Muzaffar Khan sat down to begin his performance. But after a few minutes of working on notes (alap), announced that he would not sing further as he was unable to get into the right mood (tabiyat). Ustad Altaf Hussain Khan of Khurja, who also then lived with Kumar Saheb and was imparting music lessons to him, exhorted him, “Are Miyan gaane baithe ho to, gao. Ye kya ki beech baithak me hi uth gaye” But the Ustad insisted saying, “main iska (sangeet ka) gulam hun ye mera gulam nahin hai”, and refused to sing till he got into the right mood.
With these stories, Kumar sahib would bring out the importance of right mood in performance of a singer. He would lament that advent of money and crass commercialization of the classical music has meant that artists do not have a choice on the time of their singing and on occasions even very accomplished artists who have been forced by such pressures to sing even though they were not in the right mood have sometimes come up with a very ordinary performance. I had witnessed a similarly listless performance by, India’s foremost female singer of the time, Kishori Amonkar, in the early 1990s in New Delhi. It was a below par and forgettable performance from such an accomplished singer that it seemed to prove Kumar Saheb’s point on tabiyat. He would often say, jo sangeetkar ye bol ke baitha hai ki main aaj gaaunga kabhi gaa nahi paya” and on other occasions, an inspired singer can take his music to unsurpassable heights irrespective of the conditions.
To illustrate this point, he narrated a story about his own experience in an interview to AIR in 1987. Since the 1960s, he had become a regular visitor to the several temples in Vrindavan where he would sing bhajans at various Krishna temples and carried his harmonium, tanpura and tabla accompaniment for the purpose. On one such occasion, Kumar Saheb was singing at the temple of Madan Mohan in Vrindavan but the atmosphere was far from friendly. The wind was blowing very hard and dust was all over in the air. Because of this the harmonium notes were not coming out well and even opening one’s mouth was difficult. After singing some bhajans, Kumar Saheb began his favourite bhajan “Kamaldal Nainan ki Unmani”. As he completed the first line and started the next one with the bol “bisrat nahin madan mohan ki mand mand muskan”, the Gosain of the temple requested Kumar Saheb to just stick to this bol alone. Kumar Saheb says in the AIR interview that he continued to repeat only this line for about 45 minutes. He narrates that every time the words would come out in a unique way and he just went on singing just that bol for a long time. He added that he was unable to stop his tears while singing and the same was the case with all others present. He exclaimed, “aap isko kaise explain kar sakte hain. Jahan koi (gaane ka) mahaul nahin wahan mahaul ban gaya”.