Kundgol is a small, sleepy country town, 19 kms. south of Hubli. If it has a claim to fame in the musical map of India, it is because Ramchandra who grew up to be Rambhau Kundgolkar and rose to eminence as Sawai Gandharva, was born there on January 19, 1886. His father Ganesh Saunshi was a clerk in the employ of Ranganagowda Nadiger, a landlord of Kundgol. Ganesh had dreams that his son would be educated and become a big officer. He put Ramchandra to school. School didn’t hold his attention. He would rather listen to bhajans and keertans on his way to school. Ramchandra used to sing poems sweetly. His teachers would make him sing and please the inspectors whenever they visited the school. Ramchandra was promoted to next standards, thanks to his singing skill. Somehow he finished primary school. What next? Ramchandra was admitted to Lamington High School, Hubli. But to no avail. He would travel by rail everyday. More often than not, he spent his time in watching plays and listening to music. Once, he had an opportunity of listening to young Abdul Karim Khan at the Railway Club, Hubli. Ramchandra listened with rapt attention to the soulful music. It filled his heart. " How I wish Abdul Karim Khan were my guru!"A desire of the moth for the star! Ganesh found it increasingly difficult to afford his son’s education. Schooling stopped.

                        Destiny had something else in store for Ramchandra. Looking to the son’s interest in music, Ganesh put him under Balvantrao Kolhatkar who came to live in Kundgol. In about a year and a half, Balvantrao taught Ramchandra 75 dhrupads, 25 taraanaas, 100 cheezes and a few taalas. With the death of Balvantrao in 1898, music training came to a halt. No school, no music training. Ramchandra idled in the Nadiger’s palatial house. The Nadigers were a music-loving landed gentry.

                        It was a time when Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of Kiraanaa Gharaanaa,was touring Karnataka. He would often stay with the Nadigers for days on end. On such a trip, Ramchandra hovered around Abdul Karim Khan, humming jamunaa ke teer, the Ustad’s Bhairavi cheez. It caught Abdul Karim Khan’s ear who asked, "Kaun hai yeh ladkaa? Galaa achchaa hai". Rangangowda Nadiger pounced upon this opportunity: " Ustadji, he is our clerk’s son. He wants to learn music from you". "Yeh baath hai tho chalo hamaare saath". Fortune smiled on Ramchandra. This was in 1901. Abdul Karim Khan did not want his name to be spoilt by disciples learning haphazardly. He made a contract with them that they would learn from him for at least 8 years.

                        Thus began one of the most celebrated guru-shishya duos. Ramchandra was Abdul Karim Khan’s first disciple.

                        Abdul Karim Khan’s was a gurukula system. The shishya had to stay with the guru, do household chores and learn. He was a martinet and impartant very rigorous training in swaras. He would explain vaadi, samvaadi and varjya (avoidable) swaras. He would sing and demonstrate how the same swara would be employed differently in different raagas. Abdul Karim Khan never taught by the book. "There are any number of books on music. How many musicians have they produced?" He discouraged students from taking down notes. He would advise them to carry things in the head. He didn’t teach theory and practice separately. Theory was inherent in practice.

Lessons would start in the early hours of the morning and go on upto 8 A.M. Again in the afternoon and evening. He was not ambitious of teaching many raagas. He made Ramchandra practise raaga Puriyaa alone for a whole year. Ramchandra would practise wholeheartedly all the assignments. The guru taught him only three raagas in 8 years: Todi, the morning raaga; Multaani, the midday raaga and Puriyaa, the evening raaga. A proper understanding of the three would open the doors to many more, the guru firmly believed.

                        Ramchandra Kundgolkar, as he came to be known now, yearned for more. He later learnt from Ramchandra Kundgolkar, as he came to be known now, yearned for more. He later learnt from Nissar Hussain Khan raagas Jeevanpuri, Bihaag, Lankaadahan Saarang, Bhairav Bahaar. From Muraad Khan Beenkaar, Maluhaa, Bhankaar, Nat Malhaar, Jaijaiwanti. And from Rahim Bux of Hyderabad, Jayant Kalyaan, Hindol Bahaar, Khat and Jaitaashri.Rambhau received guidance from Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze at Belgaum and Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale at Dharwad. And interwove the niceties from the styles of Bhoogandharva Rehmat Khan and Manji Khan into his own Kiraanaa pattern. The foundation was Kiraanaa; the structure, his own. Only a master mind like his could amalgamate these diverse influences. As a result, Rambhau’s singing was a fine blend of aalaap, meend, badhat, ghaseet, boltaan, moorchchanaa, khatkaa, murki, taanpalat, phirat and captivating taans. Rambhau had a melodious voice. But often he had to struggle to press it into service. Once it got under way, there was no stopping him.

                     Poverty, glamour of stage-life, Gopalrao Marathe’s insistence and offer of an attractive salary of Rs.100 a month lured Rambhau to the Marathi stage in 1907, much against the will of his guru. It was Rambhau who suggested to Gopalrao Marathe to switch over to musicals. This heralded the reign of plays like Saubhadra, Tara, Sant Sakhoo. Rambhau preformed male roles in the beginning but when Gopalrao retired, took over female roles and did them with finesse. He excelled in stage-songs.

                     Braving stiff competition from the famous Kirloskar Troupe and Shahu Nagarvaasi Troupe camping in the same town of Pune, Rambhau earned success and money for Gopalrao Marathe’s Naatya Kalaa Pravartak Mandali. When the troupe shifted to Mumbai, stage-lovers from Pune used to throng there every Saturday to see and listen to him on the stage.

                      Rambhau crisscrossed in and out of several troupes. Though he wanted to give up the stage, the stage wouldn’t give him up. Whenever he sang, there would be "encores" galore. For the song, paandu nrupati janaka jaya, in Soubhadra, he got a record seven "encores". Custom was that the " encore" had to be honoured and the song repeated as many times as there were ‘encore’ calls. Once, while singing, his wig slid down. Neither he nor the audience was aware of it. Such used to be the mesmeric quality of his singing.

                       An amusing incident occurred once while singing on the stage. Rambhau had difficulty with his voice to start with. It was in Bellary. The play Maanaapamaan was on. He, as Dhairyadhar, began to sing chandrikaa janoo theviyaa, the popular naatyageet. The next line opens with the word shobhaa. His voice stuck. He stood singing shobhaa, shobhaa. Someone in the audience teased, "ataa zaali evada shobhaa, pudhe chalaa"("enough of shobhaa, go forward"). Touched to the quick, Rambhau jerked his voice with all the force at his command. He got the shadja right and the song sailed smoothly. Needless to say he got ‘encores’. In 1919, Bal Gandharva’s troupe and Rambhau Kundgolkar’s troupe had both camped at Amaravati. Both were playing two different dramas based on the same theme of Draupadi vastraapaharana (disrobement of Draupadi). Bal Gandharva in Draupadi’s role in his troupe and Rambhau in the role of Aatmateja in his troupe. The rasikas watched both plays and enjoyed the stage songs of both. The audiences wondered who was the greater of the two. Dadasaheb Khaparde, the uncrowned king of Varhaad and a connoisseur par excellence, was absorbed in watching the role of Aatmateja by Rambhau. Song after song flowed forth from the throat of Rambhau. And from the throat of Dadasaheb Khaparde issued forth the exclamation " Hey tur sawai gandharva aahet!" (" This, indeed, is Sawai Gandharva"). Sawai in Marathi means ‘a notch above the rest’. The literal meaning is ‘one and a quarter’. Tantamount to saying, " if that is Bal Gandharva, this is Sawai Gandharva". Rambhau now joined the ranks of gandharvas. The title stuck. It was not a title patronizingly bestowed by maharajas, but one conferred by admiring rasikas.