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Meeting Her Late: A Guilty Tribute To Veena Sahasrabuddhe

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By Kanav Gupta:

Growing up in Bathinda, Punjab, a place virtually bereft of any collective culture of classical music, my access to Hindustani music was always limited by whatever was available in the market. In school, vocal music was scoffed at even as a humble option among five subjects of the co-curricular syllabus. Classical music was not even a topic of discussion there. Perhaps this continues to be the case in schools, colleges and homes in that part of the world. The TV had effectively replaced the radio as entertainment. On TV, it was only Gajendra Singh’s singing contest (an ancient, real reality show) “Sa Re Ga Ma” that introduced the basic sounds of Hindustani music and the names of the raags and of some artists to me for the first time. Otherwise, it was, and probably still is difficult to find Hindustani music in the markets of Bathinda. An odd trip to Chandigarh or Delhi was my only way of acquainting with Hindustani music and some musicians. This meant, as it must mean for so many of us, that this already narrow access we had to Hindustani music was confined only to the ‘celebrities’ among musicians whose cassettes and CDs were easily available in the market. The music ‘experts’ in Chandigarh music stores had never heard of a Shruti Sadolikar or a Mallikarjun Mansur. Those musicians who did not hanker after the market, the reclusive, reticent ones remained just names for me, that is if I knew their names at all. As such, I had not engaged with lots of very important and great music till embarrassingly late. Veena Sahasrabuddhe, the Gwalior gharana exponent, who passed away on June 29, 2016, was one such grave lacuna in my listening.

Veena Sahasrabuddhe
Veena Sahasrabuddhe (September 14, 1948 – June 29, 2016). Source: Eric Parker/Flickr.

I encountered Veena Ji’s music first in a cassette series called ‘Bhaktimala’ – an assorted short bhajan collection by various classical musicians – without much emphasis. Later, in the collections of other friends and seniors one copies wholesale from hard drives, Veena Ji was always there in an unassuming folder. Somehow the more famous names (both the celebrity variety and the critic’s musician variety) always got the click of the mouse before certain other artists. With faster internet technology, listening practices have changed drastically over the last seven years or so. YouTube and other online platforms like mio.to are proving to be unbelievably abundant archives with rare collections of recorded material cascading onto these platforms almost daily. It is in this – more access-based, keyword-searchable – practice of listening, while scouting for particular raags, that I would encounter Veena Ji again, and this is how I started listening to her. Like with good poetry and good art, it is the simpler pleasures that appeal first, before the mind grows to comprehend the deeper, meditative forms. Veena Sahasrabuddhe’s khayal music especially falls into the latter category. One of the few distinctive exponents of the Gwalior gharana, her music is deeply meditative without rarefying the richness of imagination and sentiment.

Veena Ji passes away when I was beginning to listen to her more carefully, seeking out her versions of not just the Yamans and Bihags, but also aprachalit raags like Jogkauns and Gavti. Does the event of her death change the way I listen to her music now? Perhaps not. It is not as if I would or could have told her how much I loved the violence of her Malkauns or how joyous I found her Gavti, or how sombre her Puriya. And yet, her passing away makes for a restlessness that cannot be tackled, but only, with time, ignored – a sadness perhaps of not having met her through her music while she was among us. The news of Bhimsen Joshi’s death in the middle of a class was like all things drastic and dramatic that death, despite its undiscriminating commonality, brings upon those who hear of it. It was felt and mourned personally. Veena Ji’s passing feels like an uneasy guilt. It is as if a new friend who one was beginning to grow fond of, around whom an innocent habit like an evening walk was beginning to take shape, has suddenly departed. While I will, like thousands of her admirers, continue to listen to her music with perhaps greater sincerity and seriousness, I find it difficult to bid her farewell just yet.

What also prompts me to write this is another kind of guilt. What happens when a national artist, let us say, someone from the film industry passes away? News channels flash the sad news on their screens, they cover the last goodbyes, they interview bereaved people from the fraternity and the admirers for their tributes. Later, they sometimes run quickly, albeit often shoddily made reports on the life and work of the deceased – all procedures as befit the passing of a national artist. The film and pop music fraternity put together a rather badly done tribute programme on the death of the ghazal legend Jagjit Singh, and while it could have been done more gracefully without making it into a mercenary affair, the gesture itself was in the proper order of tribute that great artists deserve. Barring very few channels, let alone tributes, even the news of Veena Sahasrabuddhe’s death is not to be found. That is really a shame. Perhaps, this reflects the rather fractured and impersonal times we live in. Let this in no way be construed as an apology and demand for spectacle-making of personal grief and loss. Far from it. The call is for memorialisation and tribute, an honour we seem to increasingly lack as a society. The role of the state as a kind of a patron of arts is devolving increasingly into the tokenism of the annual Padma awards. Even in the preceding decades, the effort and attention that the memorialisation through statues, busts and road/street names that for instance the political brass receives, eludes the classical musician. There is one street named after the legendary Bade Ghulam Ali Khansaheb in Hyderabad, the city where he died. In the eponymous city of the gharana he pioneered – Patiala – there is virtually nothing that preserves his memory. Ghalib’s ‘haveli’ in his Delhi was a coal depot until recent decades. The last time I visited, there was a PCO inside the haveli complex, with ugly Airtel-Idea flex-boards killing Ghalib all over again. Tellingly, a train track permanently runs over the exact spot where Mir Taqi Mir is/was buried.

Are great artists to remain obscure even in their death, and also beyond it?

Veena Sahasrabuddhe leaves the musical world both much enriched by her excellent music, and much impoverished in the void she leaves behind. DD Bharati lazily telecast an archived interview and some music of hers as a mark of tribute, all to be inferred as that by the viewer through powers of association. However, I am convinced that her music is her best memorial. There is some solace in that lasting art does not, and should not depend on the market or the state for its longevity and richness. Veena Ji’s music will continue to signify precisely such endurance.

Featured image credit: Daniel Pearl.

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