Tribute – Dr Vasantrao Deshpande – A Musical Genius
This is a tribute to a gem called ‘Brahmakamal’ Dr Vasantrao Deshpande, a Ratna among the renowned musicians of India.
Dr Vasantrao Deshpande a colossal figure in the world of Hindustani Classical music has enthralled generation after generation with soulful rendition of different ragas. His compositions transcend barriers of age, language, culture and strike a chord with every music lover. His rendition of ragas like Marwa, Salag Waraali, Nat Bhairav, Kauns, Chhayanat, Basant Mukhari, Patamanjari, Jaijaiwanti, Janasammohini, Bhoop, Shree, Maru Bihag, Yaman etc. kept people glued to their seats.
Born as Vasant Deshpande on 2 May 1920 in Murtizapur, Akola, he is the illustrious son of Vidarbha. 30 July 2016 marks his thirty third death anniversary and also silver jubilee year of the popular Dr Vasantrao Deshpande Anatrashtriya Sangeet Samaroh held in his memory every year by SCZCC Nagpur.
Initiation into the world of Music
Young Vasant spent the early years of his childhood studying in a municipal corporation school in Nagpur. His mother, a great lover of marathi theatre took Vasant to watch stage plays with her. Exposure to Marathi theatre and natya sangeet had a profound impact on him since early age.
In his memoirs Dr Vasantrao describes his initiation into the world of music to a rainy day, when as a six years old he took shelter under a staircase of a building in Nagpur. Waiting for the rains to stop he started singing to himself. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulders; this hand was of Shankarrao Sapre who later became his first guru and mentor. Shankarrao was highly impressed by Vasant’s singing; taking him under his umbrella he accompanied Vasant to his house. Vasantrao says ‘That day Shankarrao not only took me under his umbrella to protect me from rain but this action was symbolic of a much bigger part he was to play in shaping my life.”
Shankarrao was all praise for Vasant’s singing and said to his mother “Your son has a very good voice. I wish to teach him to sing.” “But we are not in a position to pay you fees.” “Fee is not an issue. All I request is that you put him in my care and promise not to send him to anyone else to learn music.”
Thus started Vasant’s elementary training in music, under the tutelage of Shankarrao Sapre on the condition that his studies would not suffer. Every evening religiously Shankarrao would pick Vasant from his school, take him on his bicycle to his house, feed him and then start his music lessons in Sriram Sangeet Vidyalaya run by him, here also started playing table.
Career in films
While still in Nagpur, Vasantrao received an offer to act as Krishna in a silent movie ‘Kaaliya Mardan’. The movie released in Regent talkies to a huge response and the actor Vasantrao from Nagpur was publicly felicitated before its screening. Later he also acted in Marathi movies like “Dudh Bhaat”, and “Ashtavinayak”.
He is still remembered for his role of Khansaheb in the play ‘Katar Kaljat Ghusli’ in 1967. This play became so popular that Vasantrao spent next ten years enacting Khansaheb on stage giving full justice to the character. The recent Marathi movie by the same name has his grandson Rahal Deshpande enacting the role of Khansaheb which his grandfather had done years ago.
His association with Pandit Dinanath Mangeshkar
Dr Vasantrao Deshpande considers Pandit Dinanath Mangeshkar as his guru. Dinanath Mangeshkar’s Balwant Sangeet Mandal used to stage various plays. Vasantrao’s uncle who was friends with Dinanath Mangeshkar introduced him to Panditji. Vasantrao got drawn to his style of singing and started imitating him. He is said to be the closest exponent of Dinanath’s style of singing. Extremely fond of Vasantrao, Panditji taught him many songs.
Choosing a Gharana
After his matriculation, Vasantrao accompanied his uncle to Lahore, where he had the fortune of hearing stalwarts like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Barkat Ali. On completion of basic training in music, time had come for Vasantrao to choose a particular gharana. At his uncle’s insistence Vasantrao went to meet a fakir named Asad Ali Khan in Shahadara and requested him to sing for him. Asad Ali Khan agreed on the condition that Vasantrao give one paisa to each of the five fakirs sitting in the durgah. Each day of next forty days Vasantrao got five paise from his uncle, which he distributed among the fakirs and in return Asad Ali Khan not only sang for him but allowed him to note down the cheez.
Vasantrao recalls ‘I had religiously heard Asad Ali Khan sing, noted down his cheez but could not vocalize it.’ On enquiry with a few people it was decided that Vasantrao should fall on Asad Ali Khan’s feet and request him to take him as his shagird. As a result Vasantrao took baskets full of roses, sweets, dry fruits, charas and the notebook in which he had jotted down the cheez and put everything in the feet of Asad Ali Khan saheb. He said ‘You have sung for me all these days and allowed me to note down your cheez but I am sorry I could not internalize your music. I beg of you to teach me as a guru would.’ Tears rolled down Khan saheb’s eyes on seeing Vasantrao’s passion for music and he said , “You want to learn music? Fine. You have now realised what music is. I will teach you!”
What followed was an elaborate Ganda-bandhan which is the bonding of a guru with his disciple and accepting him as his son. For the next three months Khan Saheb taught Vasantrao raga Marwa. When he had mastered the raga Khan Saheb told him “You have become a singer now. You know one raga. I have shown you the essence of music. To achieve one thing is to achieve everything, to achieve everything is to achieve nothing”. With this; at the age of nineteen Vasantrao started his musical journey.
Shift to Pune
Vasantrao shifted to Pune in 1941 and came in contact with Pt. RamKrishna Buwa Vaze the guru of Dinanath Mangeshkar. Vasantrao spent a memorable time with Vaze in Pune and became good friends inspite of the age difference between them. Later Vasantrao choose SureshBabu Mane, son of Abdul Karim Khan as his teacher and started training under him. During all this while he did not turn a full fledged musician and continued with his job in Miltary accounts. Meanwhile he completed his PhD on ‘The Transformation of Hindustani Classical Music’ in 1962.
His friends and contemporaries like Kumar Gandharv, Bhendibazaarwale Aman Ali, Pu. La and Begum Akhtar were waiting impatiently for him to turn full time musician. Finally in 1965 he felt his job after being declared unfit for service and turned full time to music. His late blooming is the reason why he is called as ‘Brahmakamaal in the garden of Music’. Brahmakamaal is the flower which blooms late at midnight.
In March 1983 the president honored him with the prestigious Sangeet Kala Academy Award in recognition to his exemplary contribution to the propagation and popularization of Indian classical music. This musical genius’s journey came to an end on 30 July 1983, he left behind him a legacy in form of numerous renditions and compositions for the music lovers to treasure.
His grandson Rahul Deshpande, himself an accomplished classical singer is now carrying on the legacy in through Dr Vasantrao Deshpande Pratisthan in Pune . The pratisthan organizes three day musical fest ‘Vasantosav’ in his memory every year in January. To honour this great musician of Vidarbha , South Central Zone Cultural Centre, Nagpur has been organizing an annual Dr Vasantrao Deshpande Antarrashtriya Sangeet Samaroh.
This article is a compliation of excerpts from ‘Musical BrahmaKamaal’ in marathi by Ramakrishna Baakre and translated in English by Dr Veena Nayar. And other sources available on the internet.