The tune of empowerment

Veereshwara Punyashram, Gadag; Photo Courtesy: Puttaraja Shatanaman

This music school in Gadag strives to work towards the upliftment of socially and economically underprivileged people. Keeping up with the tradition of guru-shishya, the Sri Veereshwara Punyashrama in Gadag is a centre for learning Hindustani Classical Music. The 74-year-old Punyashrama also addresses the issues of talented visually challenged students and help them integrate into a workplace or other settings. 

Here’s how it began

The institution was founded in 1914 by Panchakshara Gawai. He was born in 1863, Ballari, in a low-income musical family. He lost his sight at the age of six. One time, Hanagal Kumaraswamy, a wealthy patron of music came to Ballari and heard Panchakshara and his brother sing. Impressed, he asked their parents if he could train them. His brother passed away in a few months, and Panchakshara went on to learn classical music from the masters of the time — Sadigappa Gawai from Siralkoppa and Neelkantbua Mirajkar. He also learnt Carnatic music in Mysuru. 

 Later, Panchakshara went on to start the Sanchari Pathashala, a travelling music school, in 1914 for children interested in learning classical music. 

 “He had to struggle during the initial days,” says Basavaraj Hidkimath, Punyashrama’s manager. “He travelled across North Karnataka, sometimes on foot. He would gather talented children and teach them by halting at a village or small town,” he adds.

In the early 40s, the pathashala was turned into a Punyashrama. However, Panchakshara had little money for the endeavour. Basadigidada Veerappa, a philanthropist, brought him and his disciples to Gadag. He let them stay at his house for two years.

“Veerappa requested him to send back disciples to their houses, but Panchakshara said that he would prefer selling strings of his tambura than sending his disciples back,” recalls Hidkimath. And then Veerappa donated an acre of land for the construction of the ashram. “Panchakshara named the ashram after him calling it as Veereshwara Punyashrama,” he said.

Soon, a musical school was in place. Panchakshara passed away in 1944, he chose his student Puttaraja Gawai as his successor.  He established the Andhara Shikshana Samiti 1989 and launched 16 institutions in Panchakshara’ s name. He continued to be an excellent musician, raised money and brought more children to the Punyashrama. He used tulabhara rituals to raise funds for the school and was instrumental in breaking the nexus between caste and music. “Classical music was the cultural preserve of the upper castes. Puttaraja consciously broke that nexus and opened the gate for the gifted children from all religions and castes, including dalits,” says GS Patil, secretary, Punyashrama. 

Puttaraja Gawai used the power of classical music to herald economic empowerment and social transformation in the region. As a Hindustani singer, he was a class by himself and a legend of the Hindustani music tradition. Through classical music, he changed the lives of underprivileged children.

“He believed that the classical music could be an instrument of economic empowerment and social transformation. He didn’t want his disciples to be mere performers, but an important link in the culture. This philosophy drives us,” points out Kallayyajja, the present pontiff of the Punyashrama. Puttaraja Gawai had chosen Kallayyajja as his successor, he studied under him for 22 years, “Of course, the disciples are the agents of cultural transmission in the state and outside. They have nurtured, preserved and transmitted the classical music tradition through their association with schools, colleges, homes and communities,” he adds.

Music for livelihood

Today, Punyashrama has over 5,000 students, of which 400 are visually challenged, from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra. There are 300 staff members engaged in the cause of music for the underprivileged. The institute runs on donations. 

“At present, the Punyashrama runs 16 educational institutions. We have a three-year junior programme teaching 16 ragas, three-year senior programme teaching 32 ragas and a three-year Vidwath programme,” G R Hiremath, a special teacher, says.

Students settle down on the floor and briskly begin tuning tablas and harmoniums for practice twice a day. The modesty of these future performers is as striking as their remarkable talent. In music, they are trained in vocal, harmonium, table, sitar, violin and flute. Many have a fine voice and play a range of instruments with great proficiency. The Punyashrama’s alumni have become music teachers, stage-artistes, radio-artistes, veteran musicians and professionals in the field of arts. Most of them have opted for a life of service, which includes teaching music to socially and physically disadvantaged children. Its thousands of Kirtanakaras, Puranakaras and Pravachanas have earned national and international fame.

This school has been instrumental in grooming legendary musicians, besides contributing immensely to the fields of literature, religion and social service.

Nagappa Gawai Shirol was abandoned near a well outside the Punyashrama in 1975. At that time, He was a six-month-old, visually challenged infant and was raised by Puttaraja Gawai. “I wouldn’t have been alive had my parents thrown me into the well, instead of abandoning me outside. Puttaraja Gawai is my mother, guide, God and everything. He is so for many people like me,” says Nagappa. Puttaraja helped Shirol secure a music teacher’s job and he is a leading performer for Doordarshan and Akashvani music programmes. 

Muddan K, a visually challenged tabla teacher, is apt when he says. “Our Punyashrama is born in music and lives in music. Nowhere else in the world has there been this type of movement.’’

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  • classical music