The grand old man of Punjab’s classical music firmament, Pt Yashpaul passed away, incidentally, on the morning of Guru Purnima on July 3, a day dedicated to honouring the teacher. His entire life was spent acquiring music from various gurus and passing it on to his students. He set up and headed the Department of Music at Panjab University, Chandigarh, and taught at MCMDAV College for Women. Three generations of music teachers and performers in Punjab have been nurtured by him, including Neelam Paul, the present HoD at PU. Youngsters groomed in the Namdhari tradition of Bhaini Sahib, too, benefitted from his guidance when he began teaching them on his free weekends.
Having remained a teacher in the formal structure all his life, Prof Yashpaul realised that true music training can only be imparted under the direct guru-shishya parampara. Hence, he also taught select students in the old tradition.
Born in Gujranwala (now in Pakistan), Pt Yashpaul’s family shifted to Jalandhar after Partition. Here, he started his musical journey under the tutelage of Pt Kasturilal Jassra of the Patiala-Kasur gharana. He began following the music of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, doyen of the gharana, and interacted with him whenever he got a chance to. Pt Ulhas Kashalkar notices the influence: “Yashpaulji had an authentic Agra gharana ‘taalim’, but I felt he brought in the ‘khushboo’ of Patiala ‘gayaki’. There was a Punjab ‘ang’, especially in his fast ‘taans’.”
His extraordinary talent was noticed when he performed at the prestigious Harivallabh stage at a young age. Kashish Mittal, the current torchbearer of his music, recounts how at the festival he was captivated by an unusual composition in Raga Bahar by Pt Mallikarjun Mansur of the Jaipur Attrauli gharana. He followed the master to the railway station, where Pt Mallikarjun was waiting for the train. Without hesitation, a young Yashpaul requested him to teach him the ‘antara’ (concluding part) of the composition. Pt Mallikarjun asked him to sing the ‘sthayi’ (opening section) to test him. When he found the note to be perfect, Pt Mallikarjun shared his shawl with Yashpaul to stave off the bitter December cold and taught him the full composition.
It was through Harivallabh that he connected with his guru, Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan. Hearing his rendition of Kukubh Bilawal, a teenaged Yashpaul was so entranced that he went to Delhi to learn the ‘bandish’ from the master. The Ustad was astounded to hear that he had come all the way for just one ‘bandish’. He agreed to accept him as his disciple. Thus started Pt Yashpaul’s link with the Agra gharana, which continued after the death of Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan.
He kept in touch with all practitioners of the gharana and picked up music from Ustad Sharafat Hussain Khan, Ustad Latafat Hussain Khan, Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan and others. He became a true repository of the rare compositions of the gharana. No vocalist, regardless of his gharana, went from Chandigarh without interacting with Prof Yashpaul. He knew the hidden history of Punjab’s dhrupad tradition and the long forgotten ustads.
He was also a prolific composer. Under the pen name of ‘Sagun Piya’, he composed more than 500 compositions in different languages, including Punjabi.
His integrity as a person was unparalleled; he stuck to his principles and was known to be blunt in reprimanding wrongdoing, whether on the stage or off it.
Prof Pandita Shanno Khurana, his contemporary, recalls their association of over 50 years. “He sang pure Agra ‘gayaki’. He was a very direct, straightforward person.” Pt Ulhas Kashalkar says, “I admired his music. He used to sing unusual ragas too, like Hem Kalyan, Raisa Kanhra. Galaa bhaari bhi tha, bhaagta bhi tha (His voice was deep yet fluid); this was a rare combination. Also, he was always supportive of musicians, despite his age and seniority. He appreciated musicians from all levels. He was very good natured too.”
A treasure house of music, Prof Yashpaul’s passing away is a huge loss to Indian classical music, especially Punjab.