Veena Sahasrabuddhe was one of those strong female singers who seemed both so rooted, as though intimate with another time, and so successful in the contemporary world.
She rarely failed to do what Hindustani music does best: create synchronies of sound and time between listener and performer, so that musical meaning seems to generate spontaneously, and boundlessly. She understood that Hindustani music is not about delivering an impressive performance, but about becoming a medium, along with the listener, for that kind of meaning.
She passed away yesterday, the night of June 29, at the age of only 67. She had performed all over India and the world, and was famous equally for her khayal and her bhajan-singing. In 2013, she won the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award.
In 2010, I saw her advertised in concert at the University of California, Los Angeles, and, as a student of Hindustani singing, made it a point to take the one and a half-hour drive from where I lived to the university. The concert took place in one of those black-box auditoriums, of course – an environment that has always struck me as so antithetical to Indian classical music – and we all sat stiffly upright on uncomfortable chairs, silent as we listened. But Sahasrabuddhe’s music swept over us all and seemed to melt away the walls and hard surfaces (including the metaphoric ones inside each of us). There was nothing I had to be conscious about except that, the music – not even her figure on stage, her clothes or the expression on her face (as seems to happen at the performances of so many younger, contemporary artists!).
Later, on my way home, I remembered her CD of Rama bhajans that I had at home. For many months afterwards, I continued to listen to those songs, rendered in her haunting, sinewy voice, first thing after waking up each morning.
Born in 1948, Sahasrabuddhe was ensconced in the Gwalior gharana through her training under her father Shankar Shripad Bodas, who was a disciple of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, and her brother Kashinath Shankar Bodas.
As she went on, she also borrowed from the Jaipur and Kirana gharanas in developing her style, and her other mentors included Balwantrai Bhatt, Vasant Thakar and Gajananrao Joshi. In 1972, she won the national All India Radio competition for artists under 25 in the vocal classical category.
After her concert that I attended in Los Angeles, Sahasrabuddhe also conducted a workshop for students of Hindustani singing, for which I signed up. Just as she had done as a performer, Sahasrabuddhe the guru got down to business – scales, exercises and the ‘basics’ of Raga Yaman – with the systematic approach of someone who has not just undergone thorough talim herself but has also thought about the question of how to open up the traditionally gharanedar world of Indian music for ‘non-gharanedar’ (a contentious term) disciples in non-traditional settings.
It’s one thing to be an excellent performer and another to be a good guru: this fact is the bane of every music student’s existence. Artists, as soon as they become established performers, seem to forget all those wonderful pedagogical techniques to which they were subjected by their fathers or uncles, unable to incorporate them into their own teaching and hand them down to their own disciples. Higher education programmes for music in India are a mishmash of performance practice and academic work that fail to produce individuals passionate about or equipped for teaching Hindustani music in modern classrooms, whether in homes or institutions. And so many musicians, especially in smaller cities and towns, fail to complete their own degrees or gain skills that would help them adapt their private worlds to changing global contexts.
Like the younger Ashwini Bhide Deshpande is today (of a different gharana but similar in this respect), Sahasrabuddhe was one example of a successful performing artist who was also well-educated and worldly-wise. Like Deshpande, her academic career ran parallel to her musical one for a significant portion of her life. She studied both Sanskrit and English literature from Kanpur University, completing a BA and an MA. She was also the head of the music department at SNDT Pune for a few years.
Sahasrabuddhe was a treasure; her premature death is a great loss to the Indian musical community, because she was a formidable singer, and also because she was a self-aware guru and a woman.