Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar
A master music maestro who fit Indian Classical music into a scientific framework and was the first to document it
Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar is renowned as an epoch maker in music. He brought music into the main stream of society, thus democratizing it. He composed a beautiful melody for the national song Vande Mataram, and made it a practice to be sung in gatherings and assemblies.
Vishnu Digambar Paluskar was born on the day of Narali Pournima in the Princely State of Kurundwad in western Maharashtra. His father, Digambar Gopal Paluskar was working under Shrimant Dajisaheb Patwardhan, the ruler of the Princely State of Kurundwad,. Digambar Paluskar was famous as an excellent Keertankar. The young Vishnu grew up assisting his father in the keertans, and was thus brought up in an atmosphere of music. Vishnu Paluskar’s sweet and loud voice would impress the audience even with his simple songs. Apart from his forays into music, he acquired education in an English medium school.
Vishnu was always a favourite of Shreemant Dajisaheb Patwardhan. With his blessings, Vishnu studied up to the sixth grade and then later got married. He had determined that he too would become a Keertankar like his father and take up a job in the Princely State. But fate had other plans for him.
Narsobachi Wadi, a religious place of the deity Datta is very near to Kurundwadi. A big religious event is celebrated every Datta Jayanti.. The celebrations involve lighting and bursting of a lot of decorative fireworks. While attending one such celebration, a firecracker burst near his face and he was heavily injured. Shrimant Dajisaheb Patwardhan sent him to Balasaheb Patwardhan in Miraj for treatment.
Dr. Bhadbhade, who treated him, would make him sing bhajans. Dr. Bhadbhade liked his voice very much. The treatment brought no improvement in his condition and unfortunately, Vishnu had to lose his eyesight forever. With a question as to what Vishnu should do to eke a living in future, Dr. Bhadbhade suggested that Vishnupant should study music. He presented this idea to Shrimant Balasaheb Patwardhan. Balasaheb decided to begin Vishnupant’s music education under his own court musicians. Despite coming from a poor family, Vishnupant could study music only due to his good fortune. Thus, in 1887, his education began at the age of fifteen.
Balkrishnabua Ichalkaranjikar, the great singer who was known as the father of music in Maharashtra, was the principal court singer in Miraj. Vishnupant became his disciple. He stayed with Pandit Balkrishnabuva Ichalkaranjikar in his house for nine years. Vishnu would practice music for twelve hours and do odd jobs in Panditji’s house.
Vishnupant was intellectual by nature and would contemplate on his environment. At that time, music was limited only to the court. Since singers were under the shelter of the royalty, they had to live their lives in helplessness. Artistes had no status in the society. There were no facilities, no formal curriculum and no books to study music. Vishnupant realized all this while studying music and from this was born the distinguished work that he did later. He decided that he would not remain a mere singer and defined the goal in his life to bring about a revolution in the world of music through establishing a system and documentation of the teaching of music.
On the day of Narali Pournima in the year 1896, he left Miraj to fulfill his goal. He did not have much money. Yet, to fulfil his aim, he travelled all over India. Initially, he stayed for a few days at Satara. Then, he stayed in a Ram temple at Baroda. Instead of taking shelter with the ruler of Baroda, he started giving music performances to the masses on his own strength. His idea was to utilize the funds received from these performances for his aims to establish a curriculum. At that time, Baroda was the main centre for music in India.
From Baroda, he went to Saurashtra. He gave performances at Rajkot and Junagadh in Saurashtra. He began the new system of Sarvajanik Sangeet Jalsa (Common music festival) in 1897 from Rajkot. All those interested could watch a performance by buying a ticket. The idea behind this fest was that music should not be limited to only a privileged few. It is said that due to this fest, music became democratized.
Later, he moved to Gwalior. He had an emotional affiliation for Gwalior as it was place of origin of his music tradition. He came into contact with many stalwarts from Gwalior. Many saw his performances and appreciated his talent. From there, he went to Mathura.
He spent some considerable time at Mathura. He not only performed there, but also studied the Braj language in which the musical compositions of Indian Classical music were written. He attained mastery over Hindi language. He learnt the dhrupad form of singing from Mathura’s famous Pandit Chandan Chobe. He also composed some dhrupad pieces. He studied some old texts. In his stay at Mathura, he elevated and proved his status as an able musician.
As he travelled from Mathura to Bharatpur, Delhi, and Jalandhar, he became well known in north India for his mastery over classical music. He made many friends during his journeys. This was necessary for him to attain his goals. During his journey in Punjab, he was invited by Sir Baba Khemsingh Vedi, a prominent personality of a town called Okaar, to teach music to his grandson. Vishnupant wanted to stay put in one place and do further research to attain his ultimate goal. This invitation provided the perfect opportunity to do so, and he accepted the invitation.
At Okaar, he strived hard to develop notations for Indian Classical music. On the basis of his knowledge, research and studies, he developed an appropriate notation system. His notation system included three different signs for the three low, medium and high notes, specific signs for gentle and sharp notes and different symbols to denote rhythm. After finalizing this system, he wrote the music for many of the compositions that he learnt from his teacher. He was also planning a university for music, a specific curriculum and textbooks to teach music. Once this foundation was ready, he left Okaar and went to the capital of Punjab, Lahore.
After reaching Lahore, he informed all his friends that he wished to start a college of music and got their backing. The name Gaandharva Mahavidyalay suggested by Pandit Deendayal Sharma for the same was appreciated by all. This college, established on 5th May 1901, is still functioning. This event was truly a golden moment in the history of India. Vishnupant managed to establish a music training college in an era when the idea of taking up a subject and studying it formally through a structured curriculum had not even reached the common man. He even formally organized and established committees in the field of music.
He established this college with multiple aims: to inculcate the love of music among all the classes of the society, to enable everyone, from a prince to a pauper, to study music, to make music into a cultural event and not just a form of entertainment, and to give musicians a respectable status in the society.
He was actively involved in the day-today affairs of running the college. He would insist on the dedicated practice of all the notes. He would personally ensure the regular practice and perfection of notes by students. He believed that it was not enough for the students to be proficient in music; they also had to be of good character and the college taught them to behave in such a manner that they would be respected in society. For the people, this was not merely a college, but an excellent Gurukul. He advocated that Indian music should always be hailed as one of the best in the world.
A printing press was established at Lahore in order to print the textbooks required for the curriculum of the college. Panditji also published a Hindi magazine titled Sangitamrut Pravah. Patriotic songs with their notation were published in this magazine and propagated in society.
His work in Lahore increased during the years from 1901 to 1908. In 1908, a second Gaandharva Mahavidyalay was established in Mumbai at the hands of JagadGuru Shankaracharya.
Initially, it was situated on the Girgaum Bank Road (Vithalbhai Patel Road). Soon enough, the excellent reputation of the college (rich eight year old experience, discipline, structured syllabus and easy method of education) spread like wild fire through Mumbai and this place was not enough to accommodate the hoards of students who applied. The number of students increased to such numbers that the printing press had to be shifted to Mumbai. Panditji started the Musical Instruments Supplying Company to repair musical instruments. He also began a new magazine called Gaandharva Mahavidyalay from Mumbai. He published many new textbooks as well. Panditji felt that like other courses, music too should have a degree, a convocation ceremony and a State recognition. In1911, the first convocation ceremony of the college was held at the hands of the then Governor, Lord Sydneham. This event was responsible for increasing the prestige of Gaandharva Mahavidyalay manifold. Later Panditji wrote and published Sangeet Baal Prakash and Raga varil Sumare Athara Khanda (18 volumes of a book on ragas).
With the increase in the workload of the Mumbai branch, it soon ceased to be the branch and became the main centre of the Gaandharva Mahavidyalay. A new spacious building was erected and the offices and college of Gaandharva Mahavidyalay moved there. A ceremonial inauguration took place and many functions and programs were held from this new building.
In spite of many efforts, the loan taken to build this new building could not be repaid. The amount was so huge that a public auction of this building took place. This was a big shock for Panditji and his health deteriorated.
Later, he shifted to Nasik and focused his attention on worshipping Lord Rama. He started touring immensely to give discourses and keertans on Ramayana. Even though the new college building was no longer available, his students were spread throughout India. Many branches were established all over India. Panditji could overcome his sorrow of losing the new college building when he realized that all his students were well received all over India as respectable citizens and were propagating Indian Classical music. He was contented that his real goals were fulfilled and he believed that this was possible only because Lord Rama had blessed him, and he continued with his work.
Panditji gave a respectable status to music. In order to establish that women too had the right to learn music and make it normal, he taught his wife to sing. Later, many women studied at the Gaandharva Mahavidyalay. Today, we can see the fruits of his labour. He was successful in uprooting the old, orthodox customs and democratized music. He began the Sarvajanik Sangeet Jalsa, musical conferences etc. to promote music. His students include Pandit Omkarnath Thakur and Pandit Vinayakbua Patwardhan. His son D. V. Paluskar was also trained in music and was capable of taking this legacy ahead.
Panditji immortalized the bhajan Raghupati Ragahv Rajaram. Mahatma Gandhi sung this bhajan during the Daandi March along with thousands of followers in the tune composed by Panditji. The national song Vande Mataram also became very popular. Panditji also composed tunes to the patriotic songs Pagdi Sambhal ojatta and poet Iqbal’s Saare jaahan se achha. He made these songs very popular by singing them when Lala Lajpatrai and Ajitsingh were arrested in 1907.
He was invited to sing Vande Mataram during many assemblies. In 1923, Panditji was invited by the Congress Assembly to sing this song. Panditji sung this song at many gatherings, assemblies and meetings and inspired patriotism among many.
In 1930, many satyagraha were taking place all over the country to ban alcohol. During this period, Panditji had organized a musical fest. One of his students came onto the stage to sing a composition. This song had a mention of alcohol. Vishnupant immediately stopped the singer and said that artists should know their responsibility towards society. Although people hear music to be entertained, it is the artist’s responsibility to behave in a manner that is in tune with the social needs. Only then will they get a status in the society. There are many such instances where Vishnupant’s social and patriotic fervour are evident.
Slowly, his health started deteriorating. When Shrimant Balasaheb Patwardhan came to know of this, he immediately brought Panditji to Miraj and made arrangements for him to be treated there. But, unfortunately on 21st August1931, at around 1:30 in the afternoon, Pandit Vaishnupant Digambar Paluskar breathed his last. He began his journey through life from Miraj and ended it there. Even today’s generation hold Panditji in great regard. Some people from the field of music are still successfully running the Gaandharva Mahavidyalaya and have kept the spirit of this revolutionary alive.