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The original ‘petiwala’: Walawalkar at his home in Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Shubha Mudgal
The original ‘petiwala’: Walawalkar at his home in Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Shubha Mudgal

Wah Walawalkar!

Purshottam Walawalkar was a man whose wisdom and experience, both in matters of music and life, will be missed by many

He constantly referred to himself as a “petiwala", using the term “peti" for the harmonium, which he played almost to his last breath. But the sense of pride with which Purshottam Walawalkar declared himself a “petiwala" was more than richly justified, given his eminence and seniority in the world of Hindustani music.

Close to 91 years of age when he breathed his last in Mumbai on 13 January, the veteran artiste was a man whose wisdom and experience, both in matters of music and life, will be missed by many. I had the privilege of travelling, performing and recording with him on several occasions and for several years, and in the process was able to spend many hours in the company of one of the most vibrant and colourful personalities I have encountered.

More than 20 years ago, I approached Walawalkarji, requesting him to accompany me for the recording of an album of seasonal song forms such as hori, kajri, baramasa.In 1993, when the album was recorded in Mumbai, I was a young singer hugely excited at the prospect of being invited by what was, at the time, one of the leading music labels for classical music. The album was to be part of a four-volume set, featuring three thumri divas and a sole fledgling, namely me. I had heard and witnessed Walawalkarji performing with some of the greats of Hindustani music, including Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Shobha Gurtu, and it was with considerable trepidation that I telephoned him to ask if he would consider accompanying me.

To my surprise, he agreed quite readily but it was only when we met at the studio that I first experienced the Walawalkar brand of magic at close quarters. Any fears that I might have harboured about a senior musician like him intimidating me were quickly dispelled when, in the warm-up session, he urged me on with loud and approving wah-wahs. Playing with characteristic flourishes, head sometimes thrown back with eyes shut as he savoured the music, one shoulder hitched up as he launched into a phrase, Walawalkarji made the singer feel special, really special. It must of course be mentioned that it wasn’t just me who felt special—every singer he accompanied was heartened by his involvement and appreciation.

In the many years that I travelled with him for concerts, not once did I find Walawalkarji tiring or losing interest in performing. Before we reached a concert destination, he invariably did thorough background research to find out the specialities of each city and on landing, he would astutely prepare for a shopping spree to buy goodies for his large family. From buying saris for the ladies in the family in textile-rich cities, to stocking up on pepper, spices and even shrimps from Kochi, to chasing doda barfi in Gurgaon, to picking up pearl ornaments in Hyderabad, he always managed to squeeze in some shopping even if there were only a few hours to spare. And when he took the stage, there were never any signs of weariness or fatigue.

Always fresh and smiling, Walawalkarji would start with a typical dramatic pause before he placed his hand on the harmonium and gently played the first swara. Neither would he stint on sharing an inexhaustible stock of anecdotes and some very wicked jokes with his willing listeners and admirers.

As I prepare for my next concert and pack a small silver box gifted by Walawalkarji to me in Kolkata on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2002, memories of his music, his cheerful ways and laughter flood back—he is truly unforgettable.

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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