Obituary: Gamaka voice HR Keshavamurthy falls silent, but he has ensured Karnataka tradition will be immortal

Hosahalli, the native place of the legend who received the Padma Shri earlier this year, is now known as 'Gamaka Grama' thanks to his contribution to the art. His has been a life of fulfilment that brought credit both to his art and his village.

ByMuralidhara Khajane

Published Dec 23, 2022 | 12:40 PM Updated Jan 09, 2023 | 11:22 AM

Gamaka exponent HR Keshavamurthy felicitated after he received the Padma Shri earlier in 2022

A significant chapter in the history of Gamaka art tradition — which is unique to Karnataka — ended on 21 December 2022 with the demise of its exponent and recipient of Padma Shri award HR Keshavamurthy.

Keshavamurthy, the 89-year-old proponent of Gamaka, passed away at his residence in Shivamogga. He was suffering from age-related ailments for some time. He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Gamaka tradition of Karnataka

HR Keshavamurthy, Gamaka exponent from Hosahalli, Karnataka

HR Keshavamurthy ( Jayaram H, his grandson)

It is believed that the art of Gamaka (a meaningful and melodious rendition of verses from classical epics) has been there in our land since the times of the Ramayana.

Keshavamurthy has been recognised globally for his style of Gamaka rendition. His style is known as ‘Keshavamurthy Gharana’, just like various Gharana styles of Hindustani classical music.

Gamaka tradition is unique to Karnataka. Gamaka, also known as Kavya Vaachana, is a form of storytelling by singing that originated in Karnataka.

One person reads a stanza of a poem with an emphasis on meaning, applying a suitable raga that matches the emotions of the poem. Another person then explains the meaning of the stanza with examples and anecdotes.

The Karnataka Gamaka Kala Parishat is an academy established in Bengaluru to support and encourage the art form. This organisation conducts certificate exams in Gamaka.

HR Keshavamurthy’s Hosahalli, the Gamaka Grama

Hosahalli, the native place of HR Keshavamurthy, is known as “Gamaka Grama” thanks to his contribution to the art. His has been a life of fulfilment that brought credit both to his art and his village.

HR Keshavamurthy felicitated after he received the Padma Shri earlier in 2022

HR Keshavamurthy felicitated after he received the Padma Shri earlier in 2022 ( Jayaram H)

He was known for his simplicity, friendly demeanour, and his sense of humour.

“He had developed a kind of detachment with everything around him. Never did he say anything bad about anyone in his life. He used to find something positive in every endeavour. That was the quintessential character of my grandfather,” Raghuram H, grandson of Keshavamurthy, told South First.

Keshavamurthy has received numerous awards and citations in his lifetime for his contribution to the art of Gamaka. Major ones among them are the prestigious Karnataka Rajyotsava award and the Kumaravyasa Prashasti — the highest award given to a Gamaka artist (in fact, he is the very first to receive this award) — Gamaka Sindhu, 2000, Attimabbe Pratishthana, Gamaka Gandharva in 1985, Gamaka Choodamani in 2012 from Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swami, and many more.

“Keshavamurthy has been a source of motivation and leadership for the construction of Gamaka Bhavana at Hosahalli — for which his donation was the initiation, honouring veteran Gamaka artists for the past three decades, gamaka saptaha (a week-long celebration), and competition for youngsters,” his Padma Shri citation reads.

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Mahabharata rendering telecast non-stop for 15 years

Born on 22 February 1934 to ‘Vedabrahma’ Ramaswamy Shastry and Lakshmidevamma, Keshavamurthy learnt from his father, who was a Pouranika (a person who gives discourses on epics).

A young HR Keshavamurthy (Jayaram H)

A young HR Keshavamurthy (Jayaram H)

His initial training in Gamaka was under the tutelage of Venkateshaiah, a senior Gamaki of yesteryears.

During the last 75 years, Keshavamurthy has given more than 5,000 programmes, singing compositions of ancient as well as contemporary composers.

His programmes with great Gamaka artists such as Vidwan Lakshmikeshava Shastry, Padma Shri awardee Mathoor Krishnamurthy, and Vidwan Markandeya Avadhani have been heard and watched by thousands of people all over Karnataka and Kannada associations all over India. The number of students he has been training at home free of cost exceeds a hundred.

The contribution of Keshavamurthy in extending and expanding the scope of the art of Gamaka that grew over the ages is immense and unique. Yet, Keshavamurthy never commercialised his art.

He has been appreciated by music doyens such as Padma Bhushan Lalgudi Jayaraman, who heard Keshavamurthy sing verses from Kumaravyasa’s Bharata, Jaimini’s Bharata, Pampa’s Bharata, Ranna’s Gadha Yuddha, Harishchandra Kavya, besides Vachanas, Mankuthimmana Kagga, devotional songs, hymns, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata, Kumarasambhava, and Raghuvamsha in Sanskrit in the Gamaka style.

HMT brought out his Mahabharata rendering in more than 100 cassettes with Padma Shri awardee Mathoor Krishnamurthy providing commentary on the singing.

The success of this prompted a television channel to broadcast his singing with Mathoor Krishnamurthy’s commentary every day in the morning for over 15 years non-stop.

Gamaka exponent HR Keshavamurthy from Hosahalli in Shivamogga district of Karnataka ( Jayaram H)

HR Keshavamurthy ( Jayaram H)

The entire Kumaravyasa Bharata was recorded by Keshavamurthy with Vidwan Lakshmikeshava Shastry in 135 cassettes for the first time during the early 70s. This has been used as an authority for higher studies by post-graduates and PhD students at various universities.

Keshavamurthy’s dream was to promote the Gamaka tradition and he strived hard throughout his life.

His reaction when he was chosen for the Padma Shri award earlier in 2022: “I am happy about the award. We need to protect the art of Gamaka. If more people get interested in learning this art and more people appreciate this art form. It will grow further. I would like to see this art form grow further.” This is the testimony to the humility of the great master.

People and dignitaries from all walks of life, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have condoled the demise of the giant of the Gamaka tradition.

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(Muralidhara Khajane is a senior journalist, writer, and film critic. He is the author of ‘Random Reflections: A Kaleidoscopic Musings on Kannada Cinema’)