The son of a shehnai player in Aundh, in Pune, Maharashtra, Rambhau Pawar spent his childhood in penury because his father fell prey to vice and was unable to provide for the family. Forced to fend for the family, Rambhau took up a variety of jobs, working in Sangli as a watchman for a contractor, and as an apprentice for a mason, even selling vegetables door to door.

In 1952 he got the job of peon at the taluka office in Sangli for the princely sum of 46 a month. It was only then that he learnt to read and write and developed a fascination for singing bhajans. With no formal training in music, he simply sang along with local bhajan groups, occasionally trying his hand at the pakhawaj as well.

Soon well-wishers suggested that he should train himself by listening to formally trained musicians, and he found himself attending performances every Sunday at the home of a certain Mr Degaonkar, a local jeweller who organized weekly bhajan gatherings at his residence. There he was able to listen to accomplished musicians trained in Hindustani classical music, who presented bhajans based on a variety of classical ragas.

Rambhau painstakingly acquired knowledge of classical ragas by listening to these performances and repeating each bhajan composition innumerable times, till he developed a sound understanding of the melodic structure of each raga. Always eager to hone his talent, Rambhau sought guidance from eminent theatre actor and singer Shankarrao Sarnaik in Kolhapur, even though he had by now acquired a following as a bhajan singer of repute in the area.

Over the years, Rambhau would meet virtually every eminent musician performing in Satara, Maharashtra, where he finally settled, learn from them, and adapt the ragas and compositions for bhajans, eventually earning a reputation as an accomplished bhajan singer in the region.

I first heard about Rambhau several years ago, when my husband, tabla player Aneesh Pradhan, and my colleague, Sudhir Nayak, one of the country’s leading harmonium artistes, travelled to Satara for a solo tabla performance by Aneesh at the invitation of veteran tabla scholar and teacher Anand Shidhaye. Rambhau was to perform before the tabla solo, and sent in a last-minute request that the duo should accompany him if possible. The two accepted the request and found themselves full of admiration both for the joyous, ecstatic music they found themselves accompanying that evening, and for the simple, unassuming man who sang “for the love of music".

On his return, Aneesh urged me repeatedly to travel to Satara to listen to Rambhau. We planned to document Rambhau’s work and music and spoke to some film-makers about the possibility of a short documentary on the artiste. But when no such opportunity was forthcoming, we decided to make the trip to Satara ourselves, armed with a video camera and some microphones and other equipment we had acquired.

Shidhaye very generously agreed to take us to Rambhau’s home, and we found ourselves driving from Mumbai to Pune, and then to Satara. When we parked outside Rambhau’s humble abode, he was already singing, and his voice spilled out on the road, welcoming us. Once inside, introductions and greetings over, Aneesh asked him which raga he would like us to record to begin with. Pat came the answer—“Khat Todi"!

Khat Todi is, as it happens, a formidable blend of six ragas that is attempted only by the wisest of musicians and usually presented only before truly discerning listeners. What followed was a day of sheer bliss, during which I handled the camera, assisted by our driver of many years, Jayant Pandit, as Aneesh interviewed Rambhau, and accompanied him on the tabla.

Although Rambhau must now be an octogenarian, probably still singing with the same twinkle in his eye, here is what he looked and sounded like that day in Satara several years ago: youtu.be/43QoD2R2dNQ

This is the third in a series on ordinary people with a passion for the arts.

Read the first in the series

Read the second in the series

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

Close