Pandit Basavraj Rajguru (Kannada: ಬಸವರಾಜ್ ರಾಜಗುರು) (24 August 1917 – 1991) was born at Yaliwal, a village in the north Karnataka district of Dharwad, a great centre of Hindustani classical music. He was a leading Hindustani vocal musician in the Kirana Gharana (tradition). Due perhaps to his aversion for publicity and his simple and scholarly lifestyle, he never achieved the level of fame of his contemporaries Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal of the same gharana. He received many awards, including the Padma Bhushan.
Born into a family of scholars, astrologers and musicians, Basavraj was initiated into classical music at an early age by his father, who was himself a renowned Carnatic musician trained in Tanjavur. Later he travelled widely in search of musical knowledge to which he dedicated his entire life. He chose to live a quiet life away from glamour and its attendant trappings. He excelled both as performer and teacher.
Besides being a great classicalist, Rajaguru was adept at composing and singing vachanas (devotional songs in the Kannada language) which made his music more accessible to the general public of Karnataka state.
Basavaraj was fond of music from a very young age. He would try to persuade drama producers and actors to let him sing in their plays, and first became known while singing for Vamanrao Master’s traveling drama company. When he was 13 years old, he lost his father. His uncle became concerned about his future in drama. By a fortuitous stroke of fate, the blind Ganayogi Panchakshari Gawai discovered Basavraj and with little convincing from the MaTh’s swamiji (head priest of the temple organisation), took the lad into his tutelage. Since then his music embraced a whole new beginning.
Panchakshari Gawai gave all his musical knowledge to Basavraj and other students who were not in a position to pay gurudakshina (fees paid to a teacher, not literally a sum of money but rather a composite of materials, favours and devotion) to their guru. He mastered several Ragas and styles. He also became adept at some other arts like wrestling, swimming and cooking. His teacher would personally make sure that each of his students practiced for at least 12 to 15 hours a day. When Basavraj graduated he asked his guru what he wanted as gurudakshina, and his guru replied that this would consist of Basavraj passing on what he had learnt from his guru to his own disciples. In 1936 at the 600th anniversary of the Vijayanagar Empire in Hampi, Basavraj gave his first concert with his guru Gawai. Fifteen thousand people listened silently to the young musician singing Bageshri and the vachana Nijaguna Shivayogi.
After the passing away of Panchakshari Gawai in 1944, Basavraj moved to Bombay and had the chance to learn from the legendary Kirana musician and teacher Sawai Gandharva. But Sawai Gandharva was suffering from paralysis and had to leave Bombay, so he told Sureshbabu Mane, another great Kirana musician and Guru of Dr. Prabha Atre, to take good care of Basavraj. After learning from him, Rajaguru's quest took him to the North West of Pakistan, where he learned from Ustad Waheed khan, Gawai’s guru. In Karachi he learnt from Ustad Latif Khan for six months. He was not afraid to accept any challenge. Once he had to sing after Ustad Nishad Khan and he went up to the stage confidently and Ustad Nishad Khan had to accept his defeat from Basavraj. On another occasion it is reported that Chhote Ghulam sang Raga Todi so well that nobody dared to defeat him, but the young Basavraj did.
During the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Ustad Latif Khan advised him to take a train carrying thousands of Hindus across the border. The train was stopped and attacked on the border but Basavraj managed to escape by clinging to the bottom of the carriage all the way from the border to Delhi.
His fame had spread far and wide and continued to spread; concert invitations came from every corner of the country. His repertoire ranged from the pure classical, Dhrupad to Vachanas, Natyageet, Thumri, and Ghazal (different styles of Indian music) spanning eight languages. He knew more than forty types of raga and he would sing them one after another right then and there. After his concert in Delhi (1995) information minister, B.V. Keskar announced, "Arre, hamare Rajguru to hukumi yekka hai!" (meaning "Our Rajguru is the Ace of trumps"). At another concert Begum Akhtar, declared, "Rajguru yane sur ka badshah." or "Rajguru signifies the king of music". The Government of India bestowed upon him the Padma Shri in 1975 and the Padma Bhushan in 1991. He also received Sangeet Natak Akademi awards from central and state governments. He was also awarded with prestigious titles by various organizations and an honorary doctorate by the Karnataka University, Dharwad.
Besides being an accomplished and talented singer, Rajaguru was patient and caring towards his students. He would never get tired of repeating taans (improvisatory phrases) for his students; he would never get angry. He would always tell his students that no matter how great they were, if they couldn't pass on what they had acquired to somebody else, the greatness would be worthless. He was a strict vegetarian and never even tasted tea in his life. He had a very strict regimen of Puja (worship), sadhna (spirituality), teaching and walking. His diet was oriented towards preserving his voice and he never ate or drank anything fried, frozen or fatty.
His dream of coming to U.S. eluded him. He had planned a concert tour in the U.S. in the fall of 1991, and he got a performer’s visa, but on his way back to Dharwad he had a minor heart attack and was admitted to a hospital in Bangalore. His disciple, Nachiketa Sharma was beside him when he breathed his last. He told Nachiketa to pick the Tambura (violin type of instrument) and sing the SA (the first letter of Indian music) for him, and declared it was time for him to leave this world.
Basavraj Rajguru died in July 1991, one of three illustrious Dharwad musicians to do so during this period (Kumar Gandharva died in January 1992 and Mallikarjun Mansur in September 1992).
After his death, his wife and Nachiketa Sharma carried his dead body on 21 July 1991 to Dharwad, where their taxi was greeted by the whole city. Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur paying his last respects to Rajaguru declared, "Even in his death he looks like a king!"
Pt Basavaraj Rajguru Memorial National Award:
The first Pt. Basavaraj Rajguru Memorial National Award was conferred on vocalist Pt. Ullas Kashalkar of Kolkata on 23 August 2011 during the 91st birth anniversary of Pandit Basavaraj Rajguru.
The national award carries a cash prize of Rs. 100,000 and a citation. On the occasion two young musicians Jayateerth Mevundi and Sangeet Katti were conferred the Pt. Basavaraj Rajguru Memorial Yuva Puraskars which carry a cash prize of Rs. 25,000 each and a citation.