Two districts — Dharwar and Palghat — are still known for their patronage to the arts. What made them so musical?

The similarities are striking. Both are border areas of their respective States and both have contributed immensely to the classical music of India. Both Dharwar and Palghat are musical bastions on the western side of South India; the former is home to a vibrant history of the Hindustani idiom as is the latter of the Carnatic. What made them so musical?

Of course, both had their own musical traditions long before classical music, as we recognise it today, came along. Dharwar was home to several folk arts, besides being a centre of learning. And there was Marathi theatre, which was intensely musical. Palghat, being in Malabar, was exposed to the Kerala styles of music and dance; percussion being an important factor.

Why the classical connect? Dharwar and Palghat stood on routes that connected a Presidency city with princely states. Dharwar was between Bombay and Mysore, while Palghat connected Madras with the princely states of Cochin and Travancore. In an era when the Maharajahs extended considerable patronage to the arts, most classical musicians included the royal courts in their concert itinerary. As for the Presidency capitals, these were an absolute must for the rising class of entrepreneurs and professionals — first the dubashes and later the businessmen, doctors, lawyers and accountants — were important patrons who not only provided performance opportunities but also paid lavishly. Presidency capitals were also vital in the early 20 century for another reason. This was where the recording companies had their studios that would make the musicians’ discs famous the world over.

Dharwar and Palghat have yet another common feature. Both came to represent styles of music that had their origins elsewhere in India. In the case of Dharwar, it was the Kirana Gharana, which takes its name from Kairana, a village in Uttar Pradesh. Abdul Karim Khan was, perhaps, its most famous product but the Kirana tradition is believed to have originated in the 13 century. Abdul Karim Khan made Bombay his base and travelled frequently to Mysore. During these visits, he would stay with his brother who lived in Dharwar. Here he taught Sawai Gandharva who in turn passed on the art to several disciples including Gangubai Hangal, Firoz Dastur and Bhimsen Joshi. This lineage was in addition to Abdul Karim’s children (born of the singer Tarabai Mane, some of whom — Sureshbabu Mane, Hirabai Barodekar and Saraswathi Rane — learnt from him) and his nephew Abdul Wahid Khan. The Jaipur-Atrauli gharana is also associated with Dharwar and it travelled south, thanks to Ustad Alladiya Khan who settled in Bombay. It was from his son Burji Khan that Mallikarjun Mansur learnt music, thereby adding to Dharwar’s cultural riches.

The Kirana Gharana is said to have imbibed many aspects of Carnatic music. One of the chief reasons for this was Abdul Karim Khan himself. A frequent traveller to Madras, he was greatly influenced by Veena Dhanam. He released 78 rpm records of his rendition of some well-known Carnatic songs and his version of ‘Ramani Samanam Evaru’ (Kharaharapriya) is on YouTube. This talented musician died just outside Madras. En route to a southern destination, he felt uneasy when the train stopped at Singaperumal Koil. He got off and passed away on the platform before medical help could come.

As for Palghat, while it did have its native talents such as Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, its musicians aspired to sing or perform in the best manner of the Thanjavur tradition. In the 19 century, the great Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer was a frequent performer here, en route to his concerts at the Travancore and Cochin courts. Legend has it that such was his magnetism that a young man ran away from his home in Palghat to Thiruvaiyaru. There, having posed as a tantric, he gained the favour of the singer’s domineering elder brother Ramaswami Sivan. This was Palghat Anantarama Bhagavatar who, after learning music from Vaidyanatha Sivan, made a name for himself as a Harikatha performer. In turn, he would encourage his disciple Palghat Rama Bhagavatar to absorb the nuances of the Thanjavur style and, when he felt that the time was appropriate, made him a disciple of Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer, who living in Kumbakonam taught among others Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

Think of the mridangam, and Palghat Mani Iyer is perhaps the first name that comes to mind. He was a true representative of the Thanjavur style, though he wove in patterns of the chenda melam from his native Palghat in his mridangam play. He became famous as an accompanist while still young but his father was of the view that he needed to learn the mridangam the Thanjavur way. He was thus placed under the tutelage of Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer. Later in life, Mani Iyer took under his wing the budding singer Palghat K.V. Narayanaswami and made him a student of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar. KVN came from a musically rich family but he still needed to train in the traditions of the Thanjavur style. The stories of Veena maestro K.S. Narayanaswami and violin maestro T.N. Krishnan are not very different either. What of M.D. Ramanathan? Well, he too underwent advanced training under Tiger Varadachariar, who through Patnam Subramania Iyer, came from the Thiruvaiyaru-Thanjavur lineage.

In keeping with their musical wealth, the two regions are still known for their patronage to the arts. Even in the cities, if you happen to drop in at concerts, chances are that the bulk of the audience is from the Dharwar region if it is a Hindustani performance. Those from Palghat are once again active champions of Carnatic music and the bhajan tradition.

And thus it goes on. There appears to be no drying up of talent from these two regions either. Young artistes are still emerging; though only time will tell whether any of them will become stars like their predecessors from these areas. If they do, there will be more material for the striking similarities between Dharwar and Palghat.

This article appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine on March 1, 2015