BENGALURU: Celebrations are on all through this year to mark the birth centenary of Pandeshwar Kalinga Rao (1914-1981), revered as the founder of Kannada sugama sangeeta.
Hailing from coastal Karnataka, the bohemian Kalinga Rao pioneered a non-film, non-classical genre of Kannada music in the gramophone era. He inspired later composers and singers to build on the solid foundation he had laid.
Kalinga Rao's best years coincided with the glorious years of lead and vinyl records, and his end came just as cassettes were taking hold. Three decades after his death, some of his music was restored and released on CDs.
Kalinga Rao created magic with the lovely poetry of Kuvempu, Bendre, and Narasimha Swamy, classified by literary historians as Navodaya (renaissance) poets. He also picked the devaranamas of Purandaradasa, besides folk songs and melodies, and recorded them in tunes that drew on tradition but created new sounds.
After him, composer-singers Mysore Ananthaswamy, C Aswath and Shimoga Subbanna continued his musical legacy, creating a genre that took a middle path between classicism and pop. Called Kannada bhavageete for many years, it was renamed sugama sangeeta sometime in the 1980s.
While Ananthaswamy created a filigree, ghazal-like style, Aswath evolved a dramatic style that drew from a boatman style he had heard in his West Bengal days. Kalinga Rao's music was understated, mellow, and often banked on chorus colour.
Eleven of Kalinga Rao's songs were recorded on 78 rpm records, but his oeuvre is represented more comprehensively because he was also a popular All India Radio artiste. He was hailed as a star of a parallel culture that could hold its own against expensively produced film songs.
Kalinga Rao composed tunes for the big contemporary poets of his time, and sang them all over Karnataka. His interest in folk songs and devotional music gave him the stature of a master who could draw from diverse sources.
Till about three decades ago, sugama sangeeta was called ‘light music’, to set it apart from ‘serious’ classical music, but that label angered some of its practitioners. sugama sangeeta, or easy-flowing music, was also contested. Padmacharan, the famous classical violinist and composer of music for Shivarama Karanth’s ballets, once asked this writer: “Is there anything called durgama music?” Durgama means ‘hard-flowing’.
In 2010, a Kalinga Rao compilation called Mareyada Haadugalu brought out Kalinga Rao’s songs for a younger generation, thanks to enlightened officials of the Kannada and culture department putting their weight behind the project.
Many of Kalinga Rao’s original recordings use a piano, strings, clarinet, trumpets, and a tight rhythm section incorporating folk sounds. He sang with the Mysore palace band, with neat arrangements that could hold its own against the Mumbai and Kolkata recordings of the time.
Kalinga Rao’s musical life took him places. He began his artistic life as a Yakshagana actor doing women’s roles. For a while, he made music for Kannada movies from Chennai.
His admirers remember how he lived a bohemian, drinking heavily, chain-smoking a hundred cigarettes a day, and giving away his grand earnings to whoever was in need. He splurged on expensive suits.
A primary school drop-out, Kalinga Rao was proficient in six languages, and his taste in poetry had won the respect of the literary giants of the time. His wife and four children lived near Mangalore, while he lived in with his co-singers, Mohan Kumari and Sohan Kumari, in Bangalore.
The sisters, whose mother tongue was Hindi, called him Uncleji, and with his help, became proficient in Kannada, and performed and recorded with him till his last days. The monograph Gana Gandharva (`110), edited by B S Keshava Rao and Jayashri Aravind and published by the Kannada and Culture Department of the Karnataka government, throws light on many events from his life. A government official demanded music exam certificates for the grant of an artist pension. Kalinga Rao angrily rejected the pension, but chief minister Devaraj Urs stepped in to help him in his last, needy days.
In his younger days, Kalinga Rao had learnt Carnatic and Hindustani classical music, but his music borrowed nuances from the classical ragas and blended them with the orchestral ideas of film music. With that approach, he provided a stylistic framework for sugama sangeeta.
The centenary celebrations began in September with the release of Beladingala Hakki, a book on Kalinga Rao by singer Jayashree Arvind, and three CDs of his songs.