"In our time we did not think of earning either fame or money through music," says the ageing yet ebullient and sprightly Vyas, who held a white collar job in ITC for 34 years. "Our aim was primarily to learn and master as much as we could. Earning a livelihood through music was too risky." Indeed, although musicians of Maharashtra had always known of Vyas, national recognition came only after he was 63 and that too when star instrumentalists like Shiv Kumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain projected him on the concert circuit. Even earlier, a host of younger vocalists led by Jitendra Abhisheki had been learning from Vyas and singing his compositions in concerts for a long time. But popular success had eluded this modest and sincere pupil of the khayal whose quest for traditional compositions and gayaki (singing style) spanned three major gharanas or schools of khayal singing.
Despite being firmly placed in the top league with all the awards, recordings and concert engagements, Vyas remains essentially a musician's musician. His voice is not "sweet" in the generally accepted sense of the word nor is his vocalism alluring in keeping with the current trends. So what makes Vyas worthy of such celebration? "A combination of guilt on the part of reigning celebrities for having devalued classicism and the renewed value that some of us younger musicians are placing on re-learning tradition," says sarod player Biswajit Roy Chowdhury who after mastering the sarod, sought out older vocalists like Mallikarjun Mansur and Balasaheb Poonchhvale to learn traditional bandishes (compositions). No wonder Vyas' faithful fans are musicians of this generation like Lalit Rao, Shubha Mudgal and his own sons, santoor player Satish and vocalist Suhas. For Vyas today is undoubtedly one of a fast vanishing band of old masters who are repositories of the old khayal tradition.
However, Vyas neither comes from any old gharana (traditional lineage of khayal singers) nor limits himself to narrowly following any one particular gayaki. "I wanted to learn music not gharanebazi (gharana politics)," he asserts. Born in a family of Sanskrit pandits and keertan (devotional music) singers in 1923 at Osmanabad in Maharashtra, Vyas plumbed the depths of three gharanas to arrive at his charmingly eclectic yet traditionally authentic style. His first teacher was Govindrao Bhatambrekar of the Kirana school. Vyas learnt from Bhatambrekar for nearly a decade and was already singing in concerts by the time he arrived in Mumbai as a young man of 21. "But I was not satisfied with my music and wanted to learn more when a well-wisher advised me to learn under the Gwalior teacher Rajarambua Paradkar," recalls Vyas.
For the next 20 years Vyas led the life of an urban yogi. Living in a 270 sq ft accommodation in a Matunga chawl, the day began before dawn with riyaz (practice), then came the job at ITC, then straight from work to his guru's house for tuition which often lasted through the night. Life was not easy but Vyas was oblivious of worldly comforts. His three sons and a nephew were brought up by his silently supportive wife, Indira, who never once complained about his complete absorption in music. Even today, as you sip tea in his small but comfortable Chembur flat, Vyas is all music. You can't talk of his lifestyle, clothes, cars or house or family. You have to talk about music and the musical values he so assiduously cultivated through his long and difficult life. When you try and gather trivial details about his life and times, he bursts into song. "Kaahe ho..." he sings, an 18th century composition in raga Gaur Mallar, "This is the Gwalior style that I learnt from Rajarambua," he says.
Just when he had mastered the Gwalior idiom, Vyas stumbled upon yet another muse. One day he heard another eclectic master by the name of Jagannathbua Purohit and was so smitten by him that he resolved to become his disciple. Purohit belonged nominally to the Agra gharana. Traditional repertoire aside, he was a major composer and it is to him that music owes a modern masterpiece like the raga Jogkauns. Of all his gurus it was with Purohit that Vyas had the most special relationship. And it is well known that after Purohit, if there is any one with a flair for composition in that mould it is Vyas. Even his guru was so impressed by Vyas' talent for composition that their whole relationship was based on a musical exchange of bandishes. Purohit composed, Vyas sang. Vyas composed, his guru answered through another composition. When they were apart they exchanged their thoughts through letters written in musical notation. Over the decades, Vyas has composed scores of bandishes in old ragas and new ones which have been sung by his many disciples and published in book form too.
At the dusk of his musical journey, Vyas' only fear is that the raga which has been the mainstay of Indian music for a good 2,000 years may not survive the turn of the century. "The way things are going raga sangeet as we learnt it may not see the next millennium," he laments. The real tribute to Vyas will be for musicians to espouse and emulate his love and respect for tradition, if not for his simple and uncomplicated lifestyle.